Jewish groups worldwide have asked the US government not to honour a request by the Yemeni government for a Memorandum of Understanding [MOU] with the US State Department, that would grant Yemen ownership over Jewish cultural items currently in the US.
Yemen claims that the Jewish items are “national cultural artifacts” and that they were “smuggled out of Yemen illegally”.
Among the items are a centuries old Torah scroll that was smuggled to Israel by the family of Manny Dahari, whose family has owned the scroll for at least 300 years. Dahari told Fox News that if the request was granted by the US, then, “basically it would criminalize anyone who brings any of these items to the United States, or takes them out of those countries,”
“Jewish cultural property such as Torah Scrolls does not constitute the national heritage of governments who expel or who forced their Jewish communities to flee antisemitic prosecution,” Sarah Levin, the executive director of Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa [JIMENA], said.
JIMENA wrote on their website that, “MOUs demand that the governments themselves show they are taking measures to preserve and protect the heritage in their own countries and the Yemeni government is complicit in the bombing and shelling of cultural sites, including museums.”
Yemen had been locked in a civil war since 2015 between the official government of Yemen, which filed the request, and the Houthis. The conflict has massive implications to the region as it involves other players such as Iran and Saudi-Arabia.
Yemen’s Jewish community has a history dating back to approximately the 5th century BCE, and was strong in number until the creation of the State of Israel. During Operation On Eagles’ Wings [Also known as Operation Magic Carpet] in 1949-50, approximately 49,000 Yemenite Jews were airlifted to the newly created Jewish state.
In 2016, around 20 members of the now-dwindling community were secretly airlifted to Israel along with the Dahari’s Torah scroll, in an operation involving the Jewish Agency and the US State Department. One member of the Jewish community and a Muslim airport worker were reportedly arrested after the event.
The request by the Yemeni government was filed with the Cultural Property Advisory Committee, and a hearing was held on October 29-30.
A decision from the State Department is expected over the next few days.