Jews Airlifted From Yemen Get the Lay of the Holy Land

The 17 members of the Karny family covertly brought to Israel last week from Yemen and Argentina acclimate to life in a Be'er Sheva absorption center - and to finally being together.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Among the few prized possessions the last remaining Jews of Yemen lugged along on their secret flight to Israel last week was a snazzy-looking tabun for baking flatbreads. This particular oven is made of metal, rather than the traditional clay, and has instructions printed in Arabic on its exterior.

Another kitchen essential they refused to part with is the special stone used by generations to mash pepper into skhug, the signature Yemeni hot sauce, already being put to good use in their new living space.

Barely a week after touching down at Ben-Gurion International Airport, the two Karny brothers, their wives and children seem quite at home here at the Ye’elim absorption center in Be'er Sheva, the capital of the Negev. On the small stove top in their kitchen, a dish of crushed tomatoes and spices is simmering away, its pungent aroma discernible from the other side of the building’s long corridor. For lack of counter space, a huge bag of mixed sweet and hot peppers, waiting to be chopped into their upcoming meals, lies smack in the center of the kitchen.

The 17 members of the Karny family, airlifted to Israel last week in a trans-continental Jewish Agency rescue operation, have just returned from an early morning trip to the Interior Ministry where they received their Israeli identification cards. Still a bit overwhelmed by events of recent days, they respond joyfully to news from a staffer that fans for their rooms have finally arrived.

“It’s even hotter here than in Yemen,” Haim Karny, 57, the elder of the two brothers, complains good-naturedly.

The past few days have been spent not only trying to familiarize themselves with this desert environment that’s new to them, but also with one another. It was exactly two years ago, in August 2011, that a group of Satmar Hasidim arrived in Yemen and persuaded the two brothers and their wives (who also happen to be sisters) to allow them to take their children to safer shores. After the children were denied entry into England, their original destination, they were flown to Argentina, where the local Satmar community took them in.

The Satmar, one of the largest Hasidic sects, oppose Zionism, and by extension, immigration to Israel. Over the past 20 years, they have whisked dozens of Jews out of Yemen and absorbed them into their own communities, most notably in Kiryas Joel, New York. The Jewish Agency, with its declared mission of promoting aliyah, does not view these activities favorably, to say the least.

Last week’s operation reunited the two branches of the Karny family: The older generation arrived on one flight to Israel from the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, and their children on another flight from Buenos Aires that touched down exactly 30 minutes later. In the two years that passed since their separation, Yehya, 45, the younger of the two Karny brothers, and his wife, Luluwa, had another child (“We got lonely,” he says), while their oldest daughter, Bracha, and her husband Shimon, had their first.

Karny family

The younger generation of the family had reached out to the Jewish Agency more than a year ago, not long after they had relocated to Argentina, complaining of adjustment problems and requesting assistance to move to Israel. But according to Arielle Di Porto, the head of the agency department responsible for endangered Jewish communities around the world, it was not legally possible to bring them to Israel until their parents had arrived. “That’s why it was critical for us that the flight from Yemen land here first,” she explains.

The real impetus for the operation, however, was concern for the safety of the barely 100-strong community of Jews still left in Yemen amid growing threats from radical Islamist groups including Al-Qaida. These threats have intensified since the ousting of the former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Since 2009, about 150 Yemenite Jews have been brought to Israel, including the group last Wednesday. This particular airlift was organized as soon as the Karny brothers notified the Jewish Agency that they had sold all their property and were ready to get out.

Two years spent among the Satmar in Argentina have turned the Karny children into quite an oddity: Yemeni Jews fluent in Yiddish, not to mention Spanish. The girls wear the long skirts, button-down blouses and heavy stockings favored by Hasidic women -- a striking contrast to the long black robes and hijabs donned by their mothers.

The young boys wear the dark pants and white button-down shirts classic in the yeshiva world.

Shimon, the husband of Bracha, is the only member of the Argentine group who seems to have made a clean break. Dressed in jeans, sneakers and a plaid shirt, he jokes around freely, but when asked to explain why the group decided to leave Argentina, he measures his words carefully. “The Satmar have different rules than us,” he says in fluent Hebrew. “We just weren’t cut out for life there or for the way they do things.”

On a lighter note, he points out that the Eastern European dishes they were served by the Satmar weren’t exactly to their taste. “And besides that, there’s no khat in Argentina, ” he says jokingly, referring to the plant Yemenis traditionally chew that is known for its stimulating effects.

In recent years, the Jews of Yemen have been subject to growing anti-Semitism, culminating in the December 2008 murder of the teacher Moshe Nahari and the May 2012 stabbing death of community leader Aaron Zindani.

“During the last Gaza War, we got text messages from some of the locals saying that if we didn’t get Israel to stop bombing Gaza, they would bomb us,” recounts Yahya Karny, a carpenter by training, who says that in recent months grenades were hurled at the family home, and he was almost kidnapped by local Islamists.

Things got so bad in recent years, adds his brother Haim, “that we were afraid to leave the house.”

The Karny clan joins almost 100 other Yemenis living today at the Ye’elim absorption center, the gateway to Israel for 420 immigrants from 35 different countries. Working closely with the Yemeni group is Yahya Marhabi, who immigrated to Israel from Sana’a in 2000.

Marhabi was among the first group of 30 Yemenis brought to Kiryas Joel by the Satmar in 1994. He fled on his own three years later, returning to Yemen, where he married and had two children before immigrating to Israel. “I didn’t like all the restrictions they put on us,” he says, explaining his decision to escape. “They wouldn’t even let us study English because they said it was the language of the Christians. Instead, we were forced to speak Yiddish.”

Most of his family is still in Yemen, living in a special guarded structure in Sana’a, and he looks forward to the day they will join him in Israel.

Meanwhile, he has his work cut out for him teaching the latest arrivals some of the basic rules of life in their new homeland. Rule No. 1: Do NOT light a taboun indoors.

From right: Haim Karny and his wife, Yehya Karny and his wife, Luluwa, and some of their children who agreed to be photographed.Credit: Eliyahu Herkovitz

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