“Death to America, death to Israel, cursed be the Jews, victory to Islam” is the motto of the Houthi insurgency that controls a large stretch of north-west Yemen from Saada in the north to Taiz further south. And that’s why the remaining Jews are desperately trying to leave.
“When your family is there, your mind is there all the time,” says Manny Dhahari, who used to live in Raydah, western Yemen, until 2006 when he managed to leave for the United States. With most of his family left behind in Yemen, Dhahari spent the last two years working to orchestrate their move to Israel. In March 2016, the remaining members of the Dhahari family finally arrived in Israel.
When I speak to Dhahari, who visited Israel in January this year as a participant in Yeshiva University’s Israel Winter Mission, he takes me into a world where anti-Semitism is the stuff that life is made of.
“As a Jew in Yemen, you live in your own little bubble and don’t associate with the world around you. You’re always seen as a stranger – even though you’ve been there for thousands of years,” he says. “Every morning, on our way to school, we faced an attack from the kids who were waiting for us with a pile of stones,” he recalls. When Manny was hit by a stone launched into their backyard, his father confronted the father of the attacker. “Maybe you should consider converting to Islam,” said the father. “Then nothing would have happened.”
Although there were a few friendly neighbors, you could never be too sure. “When I was about ten years old, my Arab neighbor, who was also my friend, tried to set me on fire on Shabbat morning as I was walking to shul and chatting with him. He stuffed a lit firecracker in the pocket of my jacket,” recalls Manny. Shortly afterwards, Manny was the first to run to his best friend, who had been shot. Years later, the pain of the horrific loss of a young life still resounds in Manny’s voice.
In 2006, after two years of negotiations and red tape, and thanks to a frequent traveler to Yemen who was involved in the Jewish school, Manny’s older brother, Tzemach, left Yemen for the US. “I was devastated when I realized that my father lacked the financial means to allow me to follow my brother,” says Manny. Barely thirteen years old, Manny understood that any future lay only in America. But now the door had slammed shut.
Since Arabic was their mother tongue, communication between those who could help and the Dhaharis was limited to a few words of lashon kodesh. And yet, the spunky youngster managed to arrange the necessary funding and convince his family to let him go. “The same day all the arrangements came together, I went shopping. The next day, I left,” says Manny. When I ask if he was afraid of the move, Manny replies, “Not really. I knew this was the best opportunity in my life, and I couldn’t pass it over. Besides, everyone was telling me how lucky I was and how easy it would be.”
It wasn’t quite true. At first, Manny lived with a chassidishe family in Williamsburg. “There was no way to communicate because I didn’t speak Yiddish or English. The culture was very different. I didn’t have much contact with my brother. I didn’t want to stay, but no one understood me. Even my father thought I was just being rebellious,” says Manny. Eventually, Manny left Williamsburg and headed out to face life alone. “I had to figure out everything for myself. I moved from one yeshiva to another looking for opportunities,” he says. Here, my mothering instinct kicks in and I commiserate. But Manny isn’t one to grumble. “You can either live in the past with your grievances or move on and let your past make you who you are,” he says. Then he adds, “When you don’t have family, strangers become family.” Like the family in Chicago who believed in Manny and helped him finish high school.
Asked to pinpoint the hardest part of his acclimatization, Manny replies: “There wasn’t a hardest part. It was all equally hard. I thought I’d never learn English and that I’d never belong.” Now, however, looking back, Manny sees things differently. “I learned to see myself as capable and to value myself. I may be different, but I can preserve my uniqueness and still fit in. I met different people and developed communication skills. I used to be the shy kid who nobody heard, but now I’m the one who debates and questions,” he says.
The Family Escapes
In 2008, life for the Jews in Yemen became decidedly worse. Moshe Ya’ish al-Nahari, a teacher in Raydah, was murdered by Abdul Aziz Yahya Al-Abdi, a former Yemeni Air Force fighter pilot. Al-Abdi accosted him near his home demanding that he convert to Islam. Manny, who had been particularly close to Al-Nahari, was in for more shocks – a grenade was thrown into his cousin’s backyard and his sister’s father-in-law was stabbed to death outside a supermarket. As the situation worsened, the family began moving the children out of Yemen to Israel in shifts. In 2009, Manny’s brother, Naftali, arrived. After he graduated high school, he joined the IDF and now serves in the 188th Armored Brigade.
In 2011, Manny, who is studying marketing and political science at Yeshiva University, put to work the communication skills he had picked up and began working with the Jewish Agency to help orchestrate his family’s escape. His ability to be proactive has its roots back in Yemen.
“Yemenite culture teaches you to be independent at a young age,” he says. “My grandmother married at thirteen years old. By sixteen, my father was building a home for his bride. You’re taught to get up and work for things,” says Manny. The pressure was on. “I knew that my family, in particular my siblings, were relying on me. I would wake up in the morning and hope they would survive the day,” says Manny.
The conflict between the Houthis and the Saudi Arabian coalition had worsened. Al Qaeda maintained a presence in the east of the country. The airports were shut, the ports closed. In 2015, Manny spent the summer in Israel with the aim of being on hand should the chance arrive to help with his family’s escape. Much of what took place is still under wraps and Manny is unable to talk about it.
“Our plans failed several times,” says Manny. “Once we almost sent a private jet, but there was nowhere for the plane to land. Another time, the plane just didn’t arrive. Another time, it was bombed at the airport.” Despite high hopes, the summer passed without good news. “When I went back to school in August it was with the feeling that I had failed,” says Manny. Then, in October 2015, four of Manny’s siblings managed to reach Israel and join Naftali in an apartment in an absorption center in Beersheba. His father, a shochet, delayed his departure because he was serving the dwindling community of less than 40 Jews.
Finally, in March, the remaining members of Manny’s family began their escape. Since they had to leave without their neighbors’ knowledge, when they missed the flight, they were unable to return home and remained hidden in a hotel in the middle of a war zone. This time however, in spite of everything, the family arrived in Israel. In April, Manny joined his family for Pesach. “There’s a big culture difference and sometimes I find myself wondering what to talk about. I also have to get used to having a mom and dad again and having them tell me what to do,” says Manny. “And yet, despite it all, this is a dream come true.”
Once an Activist, always an Activist
“Since I’m not serving in the IDF, I feel a need to contribute in some way to Israeli society,” says Manny, whose contributions go beyond advocacy. “Often, we skim the news and although it hurts, we don’t really understand,” says Manny. For Manny, who has lived through his own challenges, connecting with Israelis on a more personal level comes naturally. “By visiting and offering our support, we see how resilient Jews are. How we cope with grief and live with hope. How we move on to the future,” he says.
That’s why in 2016 Manny joined a group of Yeshiva University undergraduates who visited the family of Dafna Meir, a mother of six who was stabbed in the doorway of her home in Otniel. And why he returned to Israel this year with Yeshiva University’s Winter Mission program to contribute to the reconstruction effort in Neve Tzuf, a community that was ravaged by the wildfires in November. “I met a Holocaust survivor who lost her home but found the courage to say, ‘We can either cry or help each other and move on.’ Another man told us, ‘Although I don’t have a home right now, you’re welcome to bring a friend and come to visit.’”
Reflecting on his visit, Manny says, “I came to help, but left with a lot of inspiration. And I was happy to join a group of people who wanted to spend their winter break helping others.” Once an activist, always an activist.
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War in Yemen
Yemen, one of the Arab world’s poorest countries, has been devastated by a war between forces loyal to the internationally-recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and those allied to the Houthi rebel movement. When Yemen’s longtime authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, handed over power to Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, his deputy, in November 2011, many thought that stability was on its way. But it never came. Instead, Houthi rebels, representing Yemen’s Zaidi Shia Muslim minority, took control of the area around Saada and neighboring regions. The Houthis gained the support of many disillusioned citizens and, in September 2014, they succeeded in entered the capital, Sanaa. The president fled to the port of Aden in the south. The growing power of the Houthis (apparently backed by Iran, a Shia state) alarmed Saudi Arabia, which is a Sunni state. Consequently, in March 2015, Saudi Arabia, together with a multinational coalition, launched an air campaign in an effort to restore Hadi’s government. More than 6,800 people have been killed and 35,000 injured since the start of the campaign. According to the UN, 3.1 million Yemenis are internally displaced, 14 million people are suffering from food insecurity, and 370,000 children under the age of five are at risk of starving to death.
An Ancient Torah Scroll
Despite airport security, the Dhaharis managed to bring to Israel a nearly 600-year-old Torah scroll that had been handed down through the family for generations. “Somehow no one paid any attention to the scroll,” says Dhahari. But that was simply another miracle associated with the scroll. A little reluctant at first, Dhahari eventually shares some of the others. “The scroll was kept in a special room in my grandfather’s house. One night, one of my relatives and a Muslim man were to sleep in the room. But when the cupboard where the scroll was kept began to shake, the man ran out,” Manny says. “Another time, my aunt forgot to light the candles that the family kept burning near the scroll. When she saw smoke billowing out of the room, she ran to investigate. But there was nothing there. It was as if the scroll was calling for the candles.”