In May 2016, a group of dazed but ecstatic Yemenite Jews arrived in Israel after a long trip that was the culmination of over two years of planning. Among their possessions was a very rare deerskin Sefer Torah, claimed by some to be 800 years old. The successful aliyah of this family angered the Yemeni authorities and their Iranian backers, and a young Jewish Yemenite named Levi Marhabi was arrested on suspicion of aiding the Jews’ departure with the scroll, which they consider a “national Yemeni treasure.”
Marhabi was recently sentenced to two years in prison, and Moti Kahana believes that returning the Torah to Yemen could bring about his release. With his many international ties throughout the United States and the Middle East, Kahana is working on a way to free Marhabi.
What follows is the background to this complex story.
A number of years ago, I visited Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, and after a series of inquiries and searches I found the area where the Jews of the city were living. They no longer resided in the Harat al-Yahud, the old Jewish neighborhood in the western part of the city, but in a modern, upscale district of the capital, ensconced in a resort hotel complex, called Tourist City, frequented by Western diplomats and affluent tourists. Across from the compound is the American Embassy, which looks more like a formidable fortress surrounded by a high, impenetrable wall. The hotel complex is also adjacent to a large military base, protected by armed soldiers and guard posts.
When I tried to enter the hotel grounds, soldiers stopped and asked me, “Are you staying here? Because if not, you have to get entry permits from the Ministry of Tourism and the police.” As I doubted I would ever get such permits, I tried to bluff my way in, introducing myself as a tourist from the UK who was looking to rent a room in the resort. It worked. The gates opened and I found myself inside. I was able to rent a small one-room apartment for two days.
As soon as I had arranged my things, I went to look for the Jews who were being housed in Tourist City, and I soon found them. There were dozens of families concentrated in a number of apartments on the western side of the sprawling compound. In a hot, dusty yard, I saw a number of Yemenite children playing—boys with peyos and girls wearing the karkush, a traditional Yemeni hood.
Inside one of the houses facing the yard, the father of the family, Suleiman Salem, was sitting on a mattress chewing qat, a popular, mildly narcotic leaf chewed by Yemeni men. Beside him was Aharon Zindani, one of the younger leaders of the community. There was a palpable weariness in the room, a feeling of interminable waiting. “Soon,” they said, “we’re going home.”
But by “home” they did not mean Eretz Yisrael. They were referring to the northern Yemeni province of Saada. Aharon told me that he had immigrated to Israel in the 1990s, but he could not acclimate and had returned to Yemen. “I went to Israel and lived in Rechovot, but it was very difficult for me to find a job, and I was not treated well,” he said. “Whenever I applied for any assistance from government offices, they kept telling me, ‘Come back tomorrow, come back tomorrow.’ So I decided to come back to Yemen.”
That was a few years ago; today there is chaos in Yemen. Sana’a International Airport is closed; no planes go in or out. Armed gangs roam the streets as a long and bitter civil war continues to play out in the alleys of the larger cities. The capital, Sana’a, is constantly bombarded. And in the midst of all this destruction are the last remaining Jews of Yemen, hiding fearfully in their homes.
One group of Jews still lives in the village of Raida, north of Sana’a, which I visited during my trip. They had an active shul and a small cheder; another small group lives in the Tourist City compound in Sana’a, five or six clans, all members of the extended Marhabi family. Rabbi Yosef Marhabi, the last rabbi in Sana’a, is keeping the community together with great difficulty.
As for Aharon, the man I met when I was there, he later met a terrible fate. And another young Jew, Levi Marhabi, who had also gone to Israel and returned to Yemen—bringing back a negative report about his time in Israel as well—is now sitting in a Yemeni prison under terrible conditions, for reasons that came as a surprise to everyone who knows him.
Moti Kahana is a colorful character, an Israeli who now lives in the United States. Although he is Israeli, he is the founder of a humanitarian organization called Amalia, which focuses on helping Syrian refugees. He is deeply involved in assisting refugees to escape the civil war raging there, and he is trying especially to do all that he can to help the remaining Jews caught in the Syrian crossfire. His last act was about three years ago, when he worked with a rabbi from the Syrian community in New Jersey to rescue a Jewish woman—perhaps the last Jew—from the ruins of Aleppo.
A few days after that rescue, Moti received a phone call from the rabbi, but this time he had a request regarding Jews in great distress trapped in another Muslim locale—Yemen.
In a conversation with Ami, Kahana recalled the following: “The rabbi requested I attend an urgent meeting with him. There I met a young Yemenite named Tzemach Dahari. He has another brother in the US named Manny, and a brother named Naftali who made aliyah, attended yeshivah and was in a chareidi unit in the Israeli Army. Tzemach told me, ‘You know there are Jews in Yemen; they want to immigrate to Israel. The situation there is very dangerous, and they are in urgent need of help to get out of there, someone to organize their aliyah. Can you help us?’
“He told us about his father, his grandfather, and his family from Raida, who wanted to immigrate to Eretz Yisrael. I was interested in his appeal. He gave me a list of phone numbers and other information I would need to find out where they were, how to contact them and how to free them. It was clear to me that we must help them. I served in the IDF, risking my life for the protection of the Jewish homeland, just for the sake of creating a safe haven for every Jew in danger.
“I have never visited Yemen, but I work with a humanitarian organization operating in Yemen and through them I have sent aid to Yemenite Jews.”
He immediately contacted a representative of the Jewish Agency and told him about these trapped Jews. “They told me ‘Forget them. These are Jews who do not want to immigrate to Israel. Don’t waste your time with them.’ I stammered, ‘What are you talking about? Of course they want to make aliyah. I have spoken with them! If you have any doubt, I can put you in touch with one of their family members. He is serving in the IDF. Talk to him and you will see that they really want to immigrate to Israel.’
“But he insisted and repeated, ‘There is nothing to be done—they do not want to immigrate to Israel.’ I couldn’t understand why they were being so obstinate and were not willing to get involved. It was only later that I discovered the reason.”
Moti Kahana did not give up. Three years ago, before Pesach, he flew to Israel to meet Tzemach’s brother Naftali, the soldier. Naftali confirmed that for a long time his parents had wanted to immigrate to Israel with the rest of the family. But his father was having trouble selling his property in Raida to his Yemeni neighbors. They were waiting for him to leave Yemen so that they could just take his assets at no cost. But now he was ready to make aliyah, and his family would follow.
“I went to talk with the head of their community in Israel, who knew the family and was in contact with the Jews in Yemen,” said Moti. “We talked about ways to bring the family to Israel. It was very symbolic that this was taking place before Pesach, discussing the exodus of the last Jews from Yemen thousands of years after Yetzias Mitzrayim.
“We contacted the father of the Dahari family via Skype. He told us that he wanted his young children to come to Israel first, and then, after he was assured that the children were being taken care of and enrolled in suitable schools, he would follow them to Israel.”
Kahana once again spoke with a Jewish Agency representative about the immigration of these Jews from Yemen, but to his surprise, she refused. “She told me that she was sorry, but the Jewish Agency does not transport young children to Israel without their parents. I tried to explain and convince them again and again, but I got nowhere.”
What Moti Kahana did not know at the time was that the Jewish Agency’s unwillingness to help him stemmed from the interference of one of the Yemenite Jews who had actually made aliyah. “Levi Marhabi was one of those who immigrated to Israel and returned to Yemen,” Kahana said. “He had a bad experience in Israel and supposedly convinced the rest of the community that it was not a worthwhile endeavor. The Jewish Agency claimed that he told them that the Yemenites had no interest in aliyah.”
Although some of the Jews were definitely interested in aliyah, they were influenced by Marhabi’s report, and their enthusiasm flagged. Meanwhile, the situation in Yemen worsened, and the prospects for the remaining Jews grew ever more dire.
War in Yemen
The Jewish community of Yemen is among the oldest Jewish communities, reaching back to the days of the First Beis Hamikdash. In 1949-50, after the establishment of the State of Israel, the vast majority of Yemen’s Jews immigrated to Eretz Yisrael in Operation Magic Carpet. Those who chose to stay behind were subjected to pogroms and persecution by the local Muslims, and were soon convinced to follow suit. But a small contingent of Jews remained in the Saada region in the north of the country.
These Jews had minimal connections with the rest of Yemen’s Jewish communities. Many lived in Raida, a large market town serving the region and nearby villages. For many years, the Jews lived more or less in peace with their neighbors, until the situation deteriorated.
Yemen is not so much a country as a group of tribes that fight each other, sign alliances, violate them, and go back to fighting. A particularly bloody battle is now raging between the Sunnis of the south and the Shiites of the north.
From the 1960s until 1990, there were two Yemens: the Yemen Arab Republic in the north, and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south, which had a slightly more Western orientation, having been under British rule from the 1830s until 1967. North Yemen was ruled by a Shiite religious regime, as opposed to the Sunni-majority south. In 1978, a young lieutenant named Ali Abdallah Saleh, a Shiite, was elected president of the Yemen Arab Republic and consolidated power for himself and his family, executing suspected enemies.
Slowly, an extremist Shiite organization headed by Houthis, a sect within Shi’a, began to grow in the Saada region, in opposition to President Saleh. They set up an extremist terrorist organization whose official flag, painted red and green, states, “Death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews and victory to Islam.” As the Houthis grew stronger, they took control of the Saada district; the local Jews who had long depended on the government for protection found themselves on shaky ground.
“We had good relations with our neighbors,” Musa, one of the Jews in Sana’a, told me during my visit. “The sheikhs in the area protected us from danger, but then one morning everything changed. I found a paper inside my door. It said that if we did not leave immediately, we’d be slaughtered. They claimed that we were Zionist spies, heretics, and were selling alcohol, which is forbidden by Islam. The Houthis declared that if we did not leave our village of Salam, they would kill us.”
“Our neighbors in Salam were upset and protested this outrage, but the Houthis were uninterested. They hate the Jews. And in the middle of the night, masked men banged on our door and said that if we stayed for another day, everyone would die. They shot their rifles into the ceiling and left.”
The Jews sent an official complaint to President Saleh, demanding that they be protected from Houthi threats. The government transferred them from Salam to the city of Saada, the capital of the Saada Governate, housing them in a government hotel. But even there, the situation was not very secure, and the hapless government decided that it was safer to relocate the Jews to Sana’a until the storm passed.
Thus, overnight, all the Jews from the village found themselves in the fortified tourist area in the heart of Sana’a. Another group chose to move on their own to Raida, thinking the threats to their safety were just a temporary matter.
President Saleh, to his credit, did everything in his power to help the Jews and was considered to be a righteous man by the Yemenite kehillah. He protected them with his army, financed their children’s education in cheder and even provided a stipend from his own money to the group sequestered in Sana’a. With his personal support, most of them did not think that they had any urgent need to go to Eretz Yisrael. They believed the door was open and that they could leave whenever they wanted to, but then everything exploded.”
The explosion began with the Arab Spring in 2011, and as with many of the mishaps and tragedies that have taken place in the Middle East, there are those who blame former President Barack Obama. Back then, large demonstrations—tens of thousands of people—turned out in Sana’a demanding that President Saleh resign from office. Saleh responded with firm resistance; he sent tanks into the streets and ordered the demonstrations to be dispersed by force. His soldiers shot and killed demonstrators.
At that point, President Obama ignored the decades of Saleh’s loyalty to the West and supported his removal from power. Saleh lost his legitimacy and was forced to resign. He was replaced by his deputy, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The breakdown of the Saleh regime led to an eruption of bloody conflicts between the Sunnis and the Shiites in Sana’a. Al-Qaeda fought with the Sunnis, and the Shiite Houthis joined the fray as well. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed, and bodies filled the streets. Neighboring Saudi Arabia supported the Sunnis, and Iran supported the Shiites. And this disastrous civil war continues to this day.
Caught in the middle were the Yemenite Jews. Aharon Zindani, the teacher who spoke to me in the compound and who extolled the Yemeni government’s protection of the kehillah, left the fortified compound one day to buy groceries in the nearby market. An extremist Muslim identified him as a Jew, accused him of being a witch, and attacked him with a knife, stabbing him several times. The murderer surrendered, and a Yemeni judge ruled that his family had to pay a fine and nothing more. It was only with great difficulty that Zindani’s family in Israel succeeded in bringing his body to Jerusalem for burial. After that tragedy, President Hadi continued to protect the Jews inside the compound, warning them not to leave its confines.
But in January 2015, a strange reversal took place that can only happen in Yemen. The deposed president, Ali Saleh—a Shiite, and ultimately an ally of the Houthis—managed to overthrow the forces of his former deputy, Hadi, with Iranian backing and the aid of his loyal troops and the Houthis. They conquered the entire north, captured Sana’a and occupied large parts of the country, until they were stopped by Saudi-led intervention in the southern city of Aden. Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia.
With Iranian victories mounting, the Saudis did not remain silent and bombed Sana’a. The Houthis responded by firing rockets at Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
The Houthis now controlled Sana’a, where the Jews were staying in the hotel complex. At the same time, the situation was getting worse elsewhere. Jews were murdered in Raida, Jewish girls were abducted by their Muslim neighbors and converted by force, but their old ally Saleh tried to persuade the Houthis to leave the Jews alone. And once again, the Yemenite Jews had some hope for a better outcome.
The Iranian-backed Houthis, seeking power, abandoned Saleh and installed the Houthi leader as president of Yemen. Saleh contemplated switching sides and tried to negotiate with the Saudis. Outraged, the Houthis attacked Saleh’s forces, killing hundreds. Saleh begged the Saudis to forgive him for his cooperation with the enemy, Iran, and planned to escape Yemen with a secure convoy to Saudi Arabia. But on December 4, 2017, Houthis attacked his convoy with grenade launchers. After the convoy was stopped, the Houthis removed Saleh from his vehicle and killed him. The Jews were left without any protection.
This is the geopolitical background that Moti Kahana and other activists now have to contend with in their attempts to rescue Jews from Yemen.
The Dahari Family
In addition to Tzemach and Naftali (the soldier), the Dahari family has another grown son named Manny, who left Yemen at 13 and moved to the United States. He contacted Kahana and told him that he was ready to help. The situation in Yemen was getting worse and worse, and it was time to get his family out.
In order to get to Israel, it was necessary to travel via a third country in the Middle East, such as Jordan, from which there are flights to Israel. Manny told Kahana he was ready to travel to an airport in a third country and await the arrival of his siblings. From there he would escort them to Israel.
“I called the rabbi in New Jersey,” says Kahana, “and we decided that if Israel was not willing to help the family leave Yemen, we would take the children to Monsey and take care of them; they could not be left in their precarious situation. A Satmar rabbi in Monsey was willing to assist.
“I was in Israel, together with Naftali and a rabbi who agreed to donate the funds for the children’s flights. The children were already planning their trip to Jordan. I set up a conference call with Absorption Minister Ze’ev Elkin and Malcolm Hoenlein, president of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. I said, ‘Minister Elkin, you do not know me, but Malcolm does and the head of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky, also knows me. There are Yemenite children about to begin their journey to Israel; they must be allowed to enter the country. If you do not allow them entry, I will alert the general media about this and publicize that the State of Israel will not accept these Jews in peril.’ He told me not to go to the media and that he would talk to Sharansky. ‘We will deal with it.’”
Kahana didn’t hear from either Elkin or the Jewish Agency, but in March of 2016, he opened a news site and was shocked to see a headline from Israel—17 members of the Dahari family had immigrated to Israel along with an ancient Sefer Torah.
At the airport, they were met by their son Naftali, and the media covered the joyful reunion of the traditionally garbed family and their soldier son. From Ben Gurion Airport they were taken to an absorption center in Be’er Sheva.
Yihye Dahari, the 80-year-old patriarch of the family, said: “It used to be good there, but since the war began, it’s not so easy. We wanted to leave for a long time, but we couldn’t. Vandals broke into our house. They stole our money. I am so happy to be here.”
His son Suleiman, who served as the rabbi in Raida, was also grateful: “A few years ago I wanted to make aliyah, but I could not. We had houses, property. Today I managed to immigrate to Israel. I thank Hashem and the State of Israel for helping us. I see here how everything is in the hands of the Jews, not the Arabs. The land of our forefathers is the most blessed country.
“It is difficult in Yemen in all respects; there are many terrorist organizations, and no government in control. There was no one to secure our safety as they did years ago. They kept us from our homes. They kidnapped several Jewish girls and murdered several Jews.”
The Jewish Agency and the Ministry of Absorption subtly battled for the credit in this operation, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself invited the family to be his guests. The family brought with them an ancient Sefer Torah that they claim was written on deerskin 800 years ago. Netanyahu was photographed with the family when they read from the Torah together, and the picture was disseminated all over the world.
According to reports, the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption and the Jewish Agency were furious about the publication of the photo. Moti Kahana also claimed that reporting the rescue so broadly damaged future immigration efforts in dangerous places around the world: “The publication endangers the Jews who remained in Yemen and those involved in the matter,” he said.
Minister of Communications Ayoob Kara, who was deputy minister of regional cooperation at the time and was also involved in Jewish immigration, was also furious at the publication and blamed the Jewish Agency for publishing the news: “There was no excuse for publishing it. Someone was trying to get credit.” Ironically, the reporting on the “credit war” just increased the spread of the original story.
“The Iranians and the Houthis,” said Kahana, “saw reports of the rescue and were infuriated. It was as if Bibi was bragging about how Israel managed to smuggle the Jews and the precious Torah scroll out of Yemen right under their noses. The Yemenis were particularly incensed as they considered that Torah to be a national Yemeni treasure.”
A Dahari family member living in Israel confirmed that Yemeni authorities think this particular Sefer Torah is “a national treasure and the property of the Yemeni people,” but he said that it is actually not ancient—no more than 150 years old.
In any case, in retribution, the furious authorities immediately arrested a Jewish man and two Jewish women who were suspected of helping the Daharis escape with the scroll. They also arrested four Muslim Yemenis, including the director of the Sana’a airport, who allegedly helped the Jews leave in return for money.
What surprised many of the people involved was that the Jewish man who was arrested for helping the family, according to the Yemenite authorities, was Levi Marhabi, the very same man who had previously made aliyah but returned to Yemen disgruntled and disillusioned. He was the man who supposedly railed against aliyah and allegedly convinced the Jews that they would be better off remaining in Yemen. Now he was accused by Yemeni authorities of being the driving force behind the departure of the family, and he found himself in prison.
Rabbi Yehya Ben Yosef was also arrested in the aftermath, but it was determined that he was not involved, and he was immediately released. The two Jewish women were also released fairly quickly, but the lone Jew remained in prison. In April, he was tried, convicted and sentenced to two years in prison.
“Since he was detained for a year and a half,” says Kahana, “it means that he has six months left in prison. But who knows? His father died while he was incarcerated, and he does not even know. He could not say Kaddish for him. He has a brother in Yemen, whom I spoke to. ‘My brother languishes in a prison not far from Raida. It is not a prison like in Israel; it is a very difficult place without any human comforts. He is locked in there with all kinds of Muslim criminals who hate Jews. Food is rationed. It is a dangerous place and I worry about him constantly,’ he said.”
Kahana follows that by saying, “Every day that he is in prison is one unnecessary day too many, with his life at risk. Unfortunately, I do not see anything being done for him by Israeli officials.”
According to Kahana, it is still possible to save the remaining Jews in Yemen if the Torah scroll that came with the Daharis is returned to Yemen. But the family that owns it refuses to give it up for less than $50,000, and even then only to Moti Kahana, but not to the Yemenis.
Moti Kahana suggests a compromise: “I am in contact today with a source in the Gulf state of Qatar. They have a good relationship with the Iranians and the Houthis,” he says. “I propose we buy the Torah scroll and take it to the United States for safekeeping until the situation in Yemen is settled. This would be considered an honorable compromise for all parties. Meanwhile, I am trying to raise tens of thousands of dollars in order to save a Jew who is in prison.”
Is it possible that someone would not exchange a Sefer Torah for pidyon shevuyim, redeeming a Jewish captive? In a conversation with a family member, Kahana was told, “Chalilah—if we could be sure of the outcome, we would return the Torah so that our brothers and sisters would not sit in jail or be trapped in Yemen. But the fact is that it won’t help. Can we believe the Yemenis? The Iranians? The Houthis? The Yemenis are embarrassed. They want Jews to be afraid to try to emigrate. If we return the Torah, he still won’t be released. It’s more likely they would release him for ransom. I would suggest that raising money to release him would be much more effective.” Other family members refused to comment.
A Jewish Agency official who is also a relative of the Marhabi family rejects the claims against the Jewish Agency. “The publication of the story was not the reason for the arrest,” he says. “The issue is aliyah to Israel. There is a complex relationship between the Houthis and the Jews. I wish it were possible to take a Torah to Yemen and have everything put back in order. It is really not that simple. I can’t divulge what we plan to do, but we certainly will do everything we can to help. But the government situation there only makes it worse.”
As the military situation on the ground in Yemen worsens, Saudi air strikes continue, the Shiite alliance shows signs of disintegration and the Iranians are redoubling their efforts to strengthen their grip on the country. Israel and the United States remain wary and tense.
In the meantime, the situation of the Yemenite Jews worsens. There is no Jew who does not want to escape the current inferno, but the remaining Jews say they will not leave one of their own behind in prison. It is also doubtful that they would be allowed to leave at this time—not without the return of the Torah.
Another problem is the lack of a functioning airport. When the Daharis escaped, there were intermittent flights out of Sana’a, and they had no difficulty arranging tickets and departing once they had their passports. Jews were even able to visit Yemen. Now the only theoretical way to get there is through Saudi Arabia, which requires jumping over enormous hurdles and is basically no option at all.
For now the only contact with Jews in Yemen is via the Internet. Rescuing them will require a major international operation. The question is how to help the Jews without causing harmful publicity. Both the Jewish Agency and the Israeli Ministry of Immigrant Absorption say that there are things being done quietly that cannot be discussed or publicized.
In the meantime, a worried Moti Kahana sends Yemeni Jews financial aid through the auspices of an international humanitarian organization.
“I’m trying to raise funds to bring the Sefer Torah to New York,” he says. “Even if that is our only chance, if it gets a Jew out of jail one day earlier, it’s worth everything.”