US demands Iran-backed rebels in Yemen release Jewish prisoner

U.S. State Department reiterates call for immediate release of Jewish man held captive by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

By Ben Cohen, The Algemeiner

The United States has reiterated its demand that Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen immediately release a Jewish prisoner incarcerated since 2018.

In an interview on Monday with the strongly pro-Saudi Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat, an unnamed spokesperson for the State Department confirmed that President Joe Biden’s administration is calling for the freedom of Levi Marhabi, a Yemeni Jew who was first imprisoned four years ago.

Marhabi was convicted of assisting a group of fellow Jews who made aliyah to Israel in 2016 to leave the country with a rare deerskin Sefer Torah in their possession, which the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels deemed to be a stolen “national treasure.”

The State Department representative additionally told the Saudi paper that the U.S. had repeatedly raised Marhabi’s plight at the United Nations Security Council. The representative also endorsed the statement issued by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Nov. 2020 which called on the Houthis to “respect religious freedom, stop oppressing Yemen’s Jewish population, and immediately release Levi Salem Musa Marhabi.”

Jason Guberman — executive director of the American Sephardi Federation (ASF), a group actively campaigning on behalf of Marhabi — told The Algemeiner that the U.S. needed to be more aggressive in raising his case.

“The State Department has called for Marhabi’s release, but that’s not enough,” Guberman said.

He pointed out that when former Jewish Agency chairperson Natan Sharansky was imprisoned by the authorities in the Soviet Union in the 1970s, “the U.S. government made it a policy at every meeting, regardless of the subject, to press for his release.”

Guberman said that Marhabi’s case should similarly be mentioned “at the beginning of every meeting with the Houthis, as well as at the negotiations with the Iranian regime.” In that regard, Guberman cited the assessment in April of the U.S. Special Envoy to Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, that the Tehran regime is providing the Houthis with “quite significant and lethal support.”

At the end of March, Yemen’s remaining Jewish population was reportedly reduced to just four elderly men, when the Houthis expelled 12 men and one woman from a total of three families. About 48,000 Jews — the vast majority of the community — made aliyah to Israel in an ambitious airlift organized by the Israeli authorities in 1949 and 1950 known as “Operation Magic Carpet.”