6/6/04

Yemenites out of Monsey: smuggling, rescue, or both?

I don't begin to understand the recent news story about the cloak-and-dagger doings of the Jewish Agency for Israel (aka the Sokhnut), which, according to the Agency, smuggled out of Monsey part of a family of Yemenite Jews, supposedly taken there by Satmar Chassidim against their will. (Not by force, but rather, claims the Sokhnut, by false promises and deception.)

I don't doubt that such kidnappings occur, but I also wonder how many Yemen families, or parts thereof, find satisfactory lives among the Satmar. Which of these outcomes is more common? What happened in this case?

You won't find even an attempt at an answer in the articles I read. Haaretz, as well as some other newspapers, basically reprint the press release of the Jewish Agency. (Whoops - that last link is to an article in the Jerusalem Post, but it reads like a press release from the Sokhnut, and it's reprinted on the Jewish Agency's Web site.)

The article in the [Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam] Journal News is quite a bit better in some respects. For example, at least the headline ("Agency claims it rescued family") acknowledges that some facts might need to be clarified, and the newspaper goes to the trouble to interview some Satmar sources. There's also the following interesting tidbit: "A Israeli Consulate official in New York would neither confirm nor deny the report, but said smuggling is definitely not something Israel is not involved in under any circumstances."

The most important point, and maybe the most accurate take on the situation, is buried in the middle of the article:

Asrim Issak, president of the Yemenite Jewish Federation of New York, said yesterday that the Satmars respect the Yemenite Jews' devout Judaism and ancient traditions. But, he said, the Satmars don't want the Yemenites immigrating to Israel. He said Satmar schools that accept Yemenite children force them to speak Yiddish and take up Satmar religious customs.

"I am critical of the Satmars and anyone else that bring Jews out of Yemen without a plan to help them," Issak said. "They take them out of Yemen and throw them into the streets without housing, education and jobs."


The question is this: what is meant by that phrase "the Satmars [sic] don't want the Yemenites immigrating to Israel"? Were the children's passports taken from them - i.e., were they kidnapped? No one seems to bring any facts to answer the question. As was asked on the Volokh Conspiracy a couple of days ago, why weren't the police called in by the Sokhnut?

Before I start making fun of the obvious errors, I should again emphasize that this is the best article that I've read on the story. It emphasizes the important fact that the Yemenites are being exploited in a mini-Kulturkampf. What really happened, and what the Yemenites agreed to, is still unclear - but we're closer to knowing now.

Here are the idiotic parts of the article. We hear from Michael Landsberg, who runs the Jewish Agency's Aliyah Delegation in North America. "Landsberg's family died in the Holocaust," says the reporter. A fascinating and relevant fact, to be sure! Certainly there are no Holocaust victims among the Satmar ancestors. Neither were the Yemenite families persecuted in the not-so-distant past . . .

Here's another wall-pounder:

"The Satmar promised to take them to a 'golden land,' but when they got here they found themselves in more of a Yiddish-speaking shtetl," Landsberg said, using the Yiddish word for small, insular town. "I am serving my people."

"Shtetl" means "small, insular town"? I guess "suburb" must mean "confining, lawn-lined site of Cheever short stories." I suppose also that the speaking of Yiddish (mirabile dictu!) is prima-facie evidence that the Yemenites were being exploited.

Yet another one:

Many of the Yemenite Jews have maintained their ultra-Orthodox traditions going back 2,500 years.

I wouldn't have used the word "ultra-Orthodox", especially in an article featuring both the Yemenites and the Satmar Chasidim.

Update: The Forward has an article this week. Things are still murky, with each side accusing the other of kidnapping. Given, however, that the Yemenite family was moved to an immigrant-absorption center, it seems unlikely that they merely wanted to visit an ailing mother. The real question is now getting clearer: if the Yemenites were in fact kidnapped, why didn't they or the Jewish Agency say anything to the police? Perhaps the Sokhnut kept things under wraps, for fear that the murkiness of the story might create difficulties for their mission.

The JTA has a good article, in which Samuel Heilman expounds on the obvious mini-Kulturkampf that's behind the story.

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