Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Satmar, Yemenites, & the UJC

On May 19th the Jerusalem Post printed an article entitled “UJC to pull 110 Jews out of Yemen, by Haviv Rettig Gur. The rescue attempt is laudable and necessary. But it may just put the Yemenites and their children in grave danger.

The article dealt with the Jews left in Yemen and how the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for the United Jewish Federations, in the USA, was working with the US State Department, and other organizations, to help get out this group. According to the Post 280 Yemenite Jews are still left in that country.

The Post reports that the evacuation, which will take place over the next few weeks, will cost about $800,000. This sum will cover the evacuation, and absorption of these Jews in the United States.

The Jewish Agency for Israel strongly objected to the move of these Yemenites to the USA. The Post quoted a senior JA official as saying, “The place of the Jews is in their homeland…”.

The Agency, says the Post, is particularly upset because it was the Satmar Hassidic Sect, based in Monsey, & Brooklyn, New York, that requested that the UJC help extract the Yemenites. The Satmar Hassidim oppose political Zionism. Satmar is already actively funding Jewish education in Yemen.

The Yemen government has declined to grant visas to Yemenite Jews wanting to emigrate to Israel, which has had a Jewish Yemenite population since the end of the 18th Century. UJC president Howard Rieger reportedly sent an e-mail to UJA Federation of New York head John Ruskay explaining that the UJC will help any Yemenites immigrate to Israel once they’ve arrived safely in the USA.

This rescue is laudable. Life for Jews in Yemen has become tenuous with an upswing in anti-Semitism and violence. In December 2008 Rabbi Moshe Yaish Nahara’l was shot dead in Rayda by an Islamist who said he killed Nahara’l because the Rabbi refused to convert to Islam. Nahara’l was the leader of the Jewish community in Rayda.

So far so good. But the problem isn’t the need to rescue the Jews of Yemen. That is a given. The problem is a one-hour 2003 film “Bchazeket Satmar” a Yona Films Production, produced and directed by Nitzan Giladi, that won a prize at the Documentary Film Festival in March of that year. It aired on Israel Television’s Channel 8. The film was partially funded by the New Foundation for Film and Television, a government-funded institution. In other words, this is a serious film, done by people who are reliable and know what they’re talking about.

The film is disturbing. It tells the story of how the Satmar came to a town in Yemen and convinced a few families to come to the USA and join the Satmar community in Monsey, New York. Clearly, Monsey would be preferable to the hovels of Yemen. Or would it?

The story follows one family to Monsey, and then documents how that family is stripped of its children, forced to bang on the doors of one bureaucracy after another trying in vain to get their children back. Children that were taken away from their parents by the State authorities and placed in foster homes, in the care of Satmar families.

The accusation made by one of the Yemenite mother’s Satmar neighbors was that the mother had shaken her child, causing a trauma that needed treatment. Child Welfare Services, at the behest of the Satmar, removed the children from their parents. Given Satmar’s status in the community, the parent’s had no chance of a fair fight. That’s assuming they even spoke English, which they didn’t.

The film draws us to the conclusion that Satmar mistreats the Yemenite Jews they bring to the USA, takes away their children in order to insure that the children have a good “yiddishkeit” environment, allowing the children to grow up in a strong Satmar-oriented home, far away from the parents, who might influence the children in a non-Satmar direction.

The film was frightening, and defined tragedy. There was no Hollywood ending. The family was separated permanently. The parents forbidden to see their own children.
And this was not an isolated case.

Is there collusion between the Satmar and the State authorities? Is there a hint of corruption? Is Satmar going out of their way, crossing legal boundaries in efforts to ‘save’ Jewish children from their natural parents? Or is it simply a way to get more children into the Satmar community, much as adoption agency supplies Brazilian infants to childless Israeli families.

Whatever the reason, if the allegations in the film are true than the 110 Jews bound for the USA under Satmar protection are in trouble. The UJC may well find itself, for the best of reasons, complicit in the abduction of children from their parents, albeit in a quasi-legal framework aided and abetted by State authorities.

One recalls the tales of Moroccan Jewish immigrants to Israel in the late 50’s and early 60’s when the Ashkenazi establishment considered these people second-class citizens. The Jewish Agency archives show pictures of these immigrants using toilet bowls to store vegetables, sleeping on the floors, or outside, rather than in beds, cooking on fires, rather than stoves. For both cultures were strangers one to another.

This is the same way the Satmar, and probably the New York State authorities look at the Yemenites. Primitive people who can’t take care of themselves, or their children. This paternalistic attitude changed in Israel, slowly. But the suspicion of some insidious Satmar plan to remove children from their parents cannot be ignored.

The UJC should make certain the Satmar Hassidim take good care of these Yemenites.
Satmar neither supports Israel nor the UJC. Once the Yemenites are in this Satmar community, any chance of falling prey to the vices of Western Civilization will be lost, for good or bad. Satmar, it should be remembered, spawned the Natorei Karta, the very people who not only deny Israel but also meet with enemies like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

It is questionable if the UJC is doing the Yemenites, or the Jewish people, a favor by placing them with the Satmar. But once done it is the UJC’s responsibility to make certain a fundamentalist sect doesn’t take advantage of these hapless immigrants: a sect intolerant of anyone who disagrees with them. And willing to do something about it.