by Steve Israel
The Yemenite Diaspora is one of the oldest in the Jewish world. There are records dating back to the early centuries C.E., but it seems likely that the community developed out of the arrival of merchants and traders before the destruction of the Second Temple.
The community that developed there with its own traditions and way of life was one of the most insular in the Jewish world, having relatively little contact with other Diaspora communities: it went its own way.
The community remained a model of a traditional Diaspora community, with a traditional messianic conception based on Eretz Yisrael, right up to the late 19th century. Moreover, their economic and social conditions were extremely hard throughout almost all their history: as the only non-Moslems in a Moslem land for over a thousand years, they suffered greatly on that account. This may indeed explain the frequency of Messianic movements that shook up the community several times during the long years of exile.
In the early years of the first wave of the Zionist return to the land of Israel, (the first Aliyah, which began in 1881), the Jews of Yemen were stirred by the news that Jews were returning in large numbers to the Holy Land, information which they tended to interpret in messianic terms. As a result, several thousand members of the community, (which was only a few tens of thousands strong) decided to make their way to the Land of Israel where they settled among tremendous hardship in and around Jerusalem.
The pattern repeated itself in a slightly different manner in the second decade of the twentieth century, when a representative of the pioneer settlers (chalutzim) came to Yemen to try and attract the Yemenites to go on Aliyah. Using traditional language and dressed in traditional Yemenite dress, he made an enormous impact on the community with his stories of the revival of the Jewish community in Zion. Thousands more Yemenites did leave for Eretz Yisrael in the years preceeding World War I. In fact, by 1948, over 20,000 Yemenites are considered to have made Aliyah, the highest proportion by far of any Diaspora community before the founding of the State of Israel.
Around the time of Israel's independence, their situation worsened, and riots and massacres errupted against the small community. When the new ruler authorised emigration for the community following Israel's independence, virtually the entire community therefore took advantage of the offer and were airlifted via Aden to Eretz Yisrael. In the course of one year, from June 1949, some 43,000 of the approximately 45,000 Yemenite Jews made Aliyah, while about 1,500 more folllowed in the next few years. The community shrank to a mere few hundred, of which a number came out at the time of the Six Day War in 1967.
In the last few years a few hundred more Jews have emigrated to Israel from Yemen, despite an official ban on emigration. Now all that remain are a few hundred Jews still living a completely traditional way of life in the isolated northern part of the country.