The Jewish history of Yemen is said to date back to King Solomon, who sent merchants out to find gold to build the Temple. But there are other versions as well, and Yemenite tradition suggests that Jews arrived in 629 BCE, after Jeremiah predicted the Temple’s destruction four decades in advance. Regardless of the exact timing, Jewish arrival and existence in Yemen has an incredible history. Yemeni Jews are much different culturally from other Jewish communities in the Muslim world, as Yemen’s rulers attempted to isolate the country from the rest of the world. The development of local Jewish culture reflected this detachment, with their fashion and culture sharing many commonalities with Sunni Muslims.
By the 7th century, Yemen came under Muslim rule, and Jews went from being equals to dhimmis, or second-class citizens. They were required to pay a tax levied against all non-Muslims, despite promises of freedom, and they could not build their homes taller than Muslim ones. But the political climate in the region was unstable, and Yemenite Jews experienced some relief when the Turks took over in 1547, connecting the Yemenite community with other Jews in the Ottoman Empire. In 1679, Zeydis took over Yemen and expelled part of the Jewish community to a city by the Red Sea, and many died as a result of starvation and disease. However, the economic effects led to a reversal a year later.
Jews made jewelry and designed beautiful daggers and rings for Muslims. Jews could be put to death for having these items, yet they were the ones producing them. Most jewelry was made by Jews. Jewish skills as craftsmen and artisans were imperative to the economy.
Under Turkish rule once again in the late 19th century, Jews could practice their religion and maintain contact with fellow Jews in the empire. Jewish immigration from Yemen to Palestine was also allowed.
In 1947, a pogrom devastated the city of Aden. 82 Jews were killed and many homes and businesses were destroyed, paralyzing the Jewish community economically. Following the creation of the state of Israel, the vast majority of Jews in Yemen were airlifted as part of Operation Magic Carpet and taken to the Jewish state. The population continued to leave as the political situation for Jews in Yemen never improved, and in 2021, some moved to the United Arab Emirates.
The report, which was published by the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, described the treatment of religious minorities around the world. “In recent years, the rise in situations of conflict and insecurity has impacted communities of every religion or belief system, subverting their enjoyment of fundamental human rights, including freedom of religion or belief,” the report noted.
Although the report did not name the one Jewish individual remaining in Yemen, “that Jew is undoubtedly Levi Salem Musa Marhabi, who has been illegally imprisoned and tortured by Ansar Allah since 2016,” said Jason Guberman, executive director of the American Sephardi Federation, referring to the Houthi rebel forces by their official name, Ansar Allah.
Yemen’s Houthis have imprisoned Marhabi since 2016, despite court orders demanding his release. American officials have also issued calls for Marhabi’s release. “We understand the Houthis continue to detain Mr. Marhabi despite our calls, and those by the international community, for his release,” a State Department spokesperson told Jewish Insider last month.
According to the U.N. report, the Houthis “coerced Jewish and Baha’i communities into leaving — blackmailing them by arbitrarily detaining religious leaders, influencers and community members.” The goal of such actions, Ahmed Shaheed, the special rapporteur, wrote, is “to weaken the community’s morale, resilience, or cohesion.”
As a result of the Houthis’ treatment of religious minorities, “only one Jew reportedly remain[s] in the country, from a population of approximately between 1,500-2,000 Jews in 2016.”
In its discussion of Yemen, the report also called out the Houthis’ treatment of the country’s Baha’i population. “A Houthi leader in Yemen has described Baha’is as Israeli spies, effectively making the community targets for harm,” the report stated.
The U.N. report described instances of human rights violations against religious minorities in conflict zones around the world, including Myanmar’s perpetration of genocide against the Rohingya and the targeting of Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses by armed separatist groups in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine.
“We commend his efforts and support[the special rapporteur’s] references to Houthi violations against religious minorities,” said Abdullah Ali Fadhel Al-Saadi, Yemen’s permanent representative to the United Nations, at a Thursday meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council. “Like all other extremist terrorist organizations, the Houthis have undertaken violations of the rights of Jewish and Bahai societies. The Houthis have expelled many minorities, blackmailed them, and have arbitrarily detained their leaders and seized their work and properties.”