Yemen's Few Jewish Citizens Remain Marginalized

Article Summary
Yemen's once-thriving Jewish community is smaller than ever, but the few who remain are struggling to get the government's attention, writes Ali Salem. 

In his apartment facing the American embassy just one street away, the rabbi of the Jewish community in Yemen, Yahya Moussa, sits chewing on qat and smoking a water pipe, with a photo of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh hanging beside him. Pointing at the photo, Moussa says, “We love him and we can’t erase his love from our hearts.” With these words, he expressed his gratitude for the help Saleh offered the Jews when “the Houthis (the military arm of the Yemeni Shiite parties) gathered to steal our money, destroy our properties and sanctuaries, and kick us out of our houses.” Moussa does not accept any justification claiming that Saleh did this only as part of his role as president of the country at the time and he beats around the bush, saying, “The Jews never forget a good deed, no matter how simple it was.”

Ever since the expulsion of the Jews from the Saada province in 2008, Yemen has witnessed massive transformations. Yet the situation for the Jews did not change. The tourist city in Sanaa, where around 50 of the remaining Jews of  Saada live, became like a refugee camp that recalled the Jewish dispersion from centuries ago, when imams ruling north Yemen for over a thousand years used to take the Jews from cities to deserted regions, or seclude them in special housing complexes.

The Jewish al-Qaa quarter in Sanaa — officially called “Alafi Qaa” after 1962 — still stands witness to the isolation of Judaism. This is something the Jews are opposed to, as they consider themselves original citizens of Yemen, according to Moussa. He also emphasized the importance of integrating the Jews into society, especially in the education sector.

During the popular uprising that Yemen witnessed last year demanding the toppling of the regime, the country’s Jews remained neutral, which is a line of behavior they had adopted in the past due to “marginalization.” Moussa notes, “We are a peaceful people. We do not abuse others nor do we block roads or steal.”

Hinting at the channel of armed Islamic groups implementing violence, he adds, “We look after our country’s security and stability more than some people.”

The Jews are forbidden from carrying weapons, including the Yemeni dagger known as the jambia, although they are among the most skillful of dagger makers. This is a profession they have been famous for in the past, in addition to the making of jewelry and silver ornaments, as well as trade.

During the past few years, dozens of Yemeni Jews immigrated to Israel following attacks, harassments and murders targeting some of them. In Yemen, only 350 Jews are left in the Amran district, north of Sanaa, in addition to 50 people living in the tourist city. Most of the latter are from the al-Salem region in Saada, which they were kicked out of by the Houthis.

Moussa says, “Houthis destroyed our houses and sanctuaries, bombed our cars and took our money and property.” He also indicated that they took over a library holding historical manuscripts, including a rare copy of the Torah that Americans of Israeli origin tried to buy for $100,000, yet their offer was rejected. With the continuous harassments, Yemen became almost devoid of any forms of Jewish culture, which had existed there for centuries.

According to historical sources, until the 1930s, there were no less than 40 synagogues in Sanaa alone. Today, not one is left. Jewish heritage does not make the list of local and international interests and does not appear in the media. Often, the issues of the Yemeni Jews are approached from a security perspective.  

Moussa points to the disappearance of many Jewish landmarks, noting that the Jews do not even know where their cemeteries are. Moussa also recalls that the former president issued orders to dedicate a piece of land as a cemetery to the Jews of Sanaa. However, the authorities still have not told them where it is located. So, they are obliged to move their dead to the town of Rida in the Amran district, north of Sanaa.

With the increase of threats, many Jews resorted to cutting the two strands of hair dangling over both sides of the face (the Zennar). Moussa clarifies that “the Zennar is not part of Jewish doctrine, but was imposed on the Jews to distinguish them from Muslims. However, since it became a source of harassment — sometimes elevating to murder — it was fine to cut it.”

Ever since the military coup toppled Hashemite rule in north Yemen in 1962, the relationship between the Muslims and the Jews has not witnessed any tensions. No incidents have occurred that can be compared to the gravity of what happened recently in Saada, the historic capital of the Hashemites, who introduced Zaidism to Yemen. Imam Ahmad Hamid al-Din was the last of the rulers of the Hashemite family who allowed the exodus of over 40,000 Jewish Yemenis from north Yemen as part of Operation Magic Carpet in the 1940s.

Moussa, who teaches Hebrew in a local school, which legalized the inclusion of the language in the official curriculum a few years ago, reiterated his opposition to the seclusion of Jews and called for integration and equality in rights.  He also expressed his concerns regarding the extinction of Hebrew and the Jewish culture amid the lack of interest and support from officials. Moussa complained of the government’s failure to provide the special machines necessary to practice the crafts that the Jews have always excelled at.

It can be deduced from the rabbi’s words that his objection to the “Zionist state” stems from the nature of the secular system applied in Israel, allowing individual independence and freedom for women. Moussa clarifies, “We are unlike Zionist Israel where the traditions and habits are different. Your son, daughter and wife are not yours. I am opposed to a secular Zionist state that allows women freedom and independence, and where the father is not even consulted when his daughter decides to get married.”

The escape and marriage of Jewish women to Muslim men had stirred controversy in both Jewish and Muslim milieus. Moussa explains that “Jews are opposed to such marriages not on the basis of a difference in religion, but because these marriages are based on love. It happens without the consent of the woman’s parents, which contradicts Yemeni traditions and the habits of Jews and Muslims.”

Despite widespread talk about a secular state, which some Yemeni political forces claimed they were seeking to establish after forcing the former president to step down, the Jews are still unrepresented in the decision-making process and even in the preparatory committees of the national dialogue conference. They are dismissed from all legislative and factional organizations, except for the youngest son of the Jewish rabbi who has become a member of the children’s parliament.

Some say that the slogans of enmity adopted by the Houthis against the Jews aim at pulling the rug from under the feet of extreme organizations, which have always exploited the Palestinian cause and at opposed Israel. Thus, Houthi slogans stating “Death to Israel, Death to America” represent a repeated copy of Osama Bin Laden’s call for killing the Jews.

Found in: security, orthodox, judaism, jews, houthis

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