For Yemen’s Few Remaining Jews, Time Has Run Out

Though their community has 2,500 years of history in Yemen, less than 90 Jews remain, forming a beleaguered group that must live behind high walls and razor wire

  • Share
  • Read Later
Mohamed al-Sayaghi / Reuters

Chief rabbi of the Jews in Yemen Yosef Mosa sits in his home in Sana‘a on Feb. 7, 2012

Celebratory gunshots rang out. Young men sprinted down the narrow streets of the capital, whooping with excitement. It was Feb. 25, 2012, and Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled Yemen for 33 years, had resigned — another autocrat toppled by the Arab Spring.

As other Yemenis excited by the prospect of a new future filled Change Square, Suleiman Habib sat on the steps of his sparse home on the outskirts of the capital. Watching fireworks burst over the city, he contemplated whether his people’s more-than-two-millennia-long history in the country was about to end forever.

A gaunt silversmith in his mid-60s and one of the last members of an ancient community of Jews living in Yemen, Habib was fearful of a future without the autocrat he saw as a guardian. Almost two years after the nation’s rebellion against Saleh, he feels no enthusiasm for his country’s democratic awakening.

“Saleh was a despot. He ran Yemen like a fiefdom, he neglected people and stole natural resources, but as a Jew my family and I were protected by him. Who will do that now that he is gone?” says Habib.

(MORE: Panic in Yemen: Terrorist Threat Shutters U.S. and U.K. Embassies)

It’s a sentiment that resonates across the Middle East, where massive unrest has shaken governments from Damascus to Tunis but has also unleashed a wave of sectarianism. With Coptic Christians under attack in Egypt and religious and ethnic rifts hardening in Syria’s civil war, the region has become a more dangerous place for minorities. Looming large is the question of how these groups will fit into new social orders, if at all.

Yemeni Jews say they reached south Arabia more than 2,500 years ago, as merchants sent by the legendary King Solomon to trade for gold and silver to adorn his temple in Jerusalem. For centuries they flourished, living in towns and villages alongside Muslims and working as carpenters, masons and silversmiths because they were largely excluded from other professions.

Under the Shia imams who ruled Yemen for most of the past millennium, Jews were classified as dhimmi — non-Muslim citizens who had the right to reside and practice their faith in exchange for paying a tax. But there were pogroms, and Jews were set apart by law. In 1792, senior Muslim clerics ordered synagogues destroyed. By religious decree, Jews were forbidden to wear new or good clothes, were not allowed to bear arms or ride mules, and were forbidden from wearing jewelry or a jambiya, the traditional curved daggers worn by Yemeni men.

During the 1948 war that led to the creation of Israel, anti-Jewish sentiment rose in Yemen and across the Middle East. Rioters killed some 80 Jews in the port city of Aden and plundered most of the Jewish shops in the city. Consequently, 49,000 Yemeni Jews, about two-thirds of the community, were airlifted to Israel between 1948 and 1951 in a secret British and American mission dubbed Operation Magic Carpet.

(MORE: Rock Hashana: 10 Stars of the New Jewish Music)

Today, as Yemen tries to navigate a path toward democracy and a more inclusive political system, the last wave of emigration looks to be under way. In August, the Jewish Agency for Israel, a semigovernmental Israeli organization, helped smuggle 17 Yemeni Jews to Israel. Less than 90 remain.

“Jews who lived their entire lives there and resisted the notion of leaving for a long time are going now. It’s time,” says Misha Galperin, the head of international development for the Jewish Agency, adding that the recent airlift was a “clandestine operation” because Yemen and Israel have no diplomatic ties.

Most of the 20 or so families that remain, including Habib’s, live behind the walls of a government compound for expats near the U.S. embassy in Sana‘a called Tourist City, cut off from the rest of society. The elders never leave. Now and again the younger men venture out to sell jewelry at a nearby market.

Reels of razor wire, soldiers and German shepherds make the entrance look like a prison. Inside it is quiet and leafy. With a playground, two ATMs, a restaurant, pharmacy and a bus to shuttle them around the compound, it has the sleepy feel of a retirement community in Florida.

The Jews, who raise goats and chickens on plots of land next to the homes of Russian oil barons and aid workers, rarely leave the compound. Instead they rely on a monthly stipend for food and rent provided by the government.

In a modest apartment filled with smoke, a vacant Habib and several other Jewish elders rest on cushions, smoking shisha pipes and chewing khat. A portrait of Saleh dominates one wall. A wily tank commander turned politician, Saleh was well known for courting the Jewish community. He appeared frequently on state TV with the community’s rabbi, and once delivered legs of lamb at Passover to the families in Tourist City. His critics dismissed such gestures as window dressing for his dictatorial rule.

It was Saleh who, in 2009, enabled Habib and his family to flee to the capital after their house was bombed in Saadah — a northern province controlled by a Shi‘ite group called the Houthis, who count “Death to Israel, damn the Jews” among their slogans.

Life in the compound, while often mundane, allows Habib and the other Jews who fled other parts of Yemen a large degree of religious freedom. The women, who had worn veils in public in deference to their Muslim neighbors, walk between the houses in bright green dresses, carrying pots of lamb stew, or choula, and chatting loudly, their faces uncovered. The men, many in long white galabiya with their side curls and kippah in full view, sit in the compound’s synagogue reciting verses from the Torah, a practice that was previously confined to their homes.

But rising lawlessness in the aftermath of Saleh’s departure, and the failure to include Jews in an ongoing national dialogue, fuels a belief among the Jews that they are being abandoned by the transitional government. Last year the official in charge of Tourist City cut off food rations for eight months, and one of the residents, Aaron Zindani, was stabbed to death by a street vendor while at a nearby market with his children.

At the same time, anti-Jewish sentiment in Yemen is anything but universal. Yemenis, when asked, often refer to the Jews as their “brothers.” Many mourn the departure of their country’s oldest religious minority as a loss to Yemen and its once multiracial identity.

“They are Yemenis,” says Ashwaq Aljobi, who works at the Sawaa Organization for Anti-Discrimination, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for Yemen’s Jews and other marginalized peoples. “If they want to travel, it’s O.K. But if they stay here, it is still their country.”

Habib is torn. Yemen is his homeland, he says, and he plans to die here. But his family members are leaving one by one. His eldest son Ibrahim, who tucks his side curls under a Yankees cap when he leaves the compound to avoid attracting attention, says he plans to join his cousins in Tel Aviv later this year.

“Living in a state of exile in your own country … that’s no life.” says Ibrahim, gloomily. “It’s a sad thing [because] Yemen will always be part of me, but I can no longer be part of it.”

PHOTOS: The End of al-Qaeda? On Patrol in Yemen

26 comments
gornisht
gornisht

I have not heard of all the Human rights groups protesting at the UN. How come?

To the certified losers who have previously commented, there really is no hope for you. You are obviously mental hybrids whose thinking capabilities have been seriously compromised.

zsandon
zsandon

This is a pattern that recurs in most if not all muslim-majority countries, and affects most if not all minorities in each one. Wonder how that conforms to the "international law" so near to the heart of those that find ready reasons to hate Jews anywhere.  I propose that the international community - and the UN - provide for the establishment of a new, separate but independent state to be populated by these minorities in each of these countries, á la "Palestine".  Yemen, Morocco, Tunisia, Iran, Pakistan, the whole lot of them. And if no action is forthcoming I also propose that the European Community take the lead in condemning this series of apartheid tragedies and provide support to all who have and are suffering as a result of this clearcut eviction process. Maybe negotiations for land can be instituted based on pre-emigration status in each of these places.

In the interim someone should stop the Jews from firing thousands of Qnish rockets into the schools and homes of their peaceful, law-abiding muslim brethren everywhere and stop the senseless carnage - as much as Jews may insist upon their rights of resistance to illegal dispossession. 

arvay
arvay

How do articles like this get posted in a major news outlet? After all, considered against a backdrop of much larger, largely unreported persecutions -- this is a drop in the ocean. 

Some perspective:

Often, stories  appear because they are being "pushed" by someone with an agenda, or a product to sell. They will do most of the investigative work for the publication, and often harried and under-financed news organizations will be happy to accept the information. Many publications, driven by bottom-line corporate owners, have drastically cut back their investigative efforts.

This is why one often sees signs about some company in the background of a news story -- the pr firm or company itself has supplied "B-Roll" that stations are happy to use for free, delivering a free commercial as payment. Bingo, that "establishing shot" for the murder report has a big Coca-Cola truck parked on the street.

It's possible that this publication was helped to find this story, which is real, but on balance, not that vital to an understanding of the region or even Yemen itself. So someone with an agenda has made it easy to cover. This is not a conspiracy, this is clever pr. But it doesn't help publications furnish the public with a comprehensive, balanced view of major developments. 

Realizing these facts can help put reportage into perspective, and prompt readers to ask themselves -- "who wants us to think about this?"Who gains? 

Worth thinking about, I think.

arvay
arvay

Who cares?

There are massacre all over the world an persecutions never reported, done on a much larger scale than this.

纳什万
纳什万

Inaccurate story! 

1- Yemeni jews never came from Israel as this kingdom never existed! Judaism started in Yemen.

2- by the creation of the state of Israel by the European colonists Yemen was an Isolated country they didn't even hear about WWI and WWII lets stand would they care about Israel.

3- Jews were part of Yemen forever and most Muslims now days are Jewish descendent so Jews are not a race. 

but the true  story is that they left Yemen and this is sad.

Openminded1
Openminded1

The dumb jew in this story should have left years ago for Israel with his family where the would not only be accepted the would be safer. dummy. Yemen nothing but F-ing violent Muslims once again. 

Ocsicnarf
Ocsicnarf

So sad. It's so sad and frustating when ultranationalism or religious extremism force people to flee from their own country.

samir.samirhalabi.samir
samir.samirhalabi.samir

@zsandon Another Jew-hating piece of Kharrah.

When the Palestinians understand that the Jews are there to stay in their homeland and will not budge, when they recognize that they will not be able to destroy the land of Israel, when they recognize it as a Jewish land, then and only then can all hostilities cease.

zsandon
zsandon

@arvay Really so, Mr. Murrow? Name some of the larger, unreported persecutions you describe.  

Can't be the anti-christian bombings in Pakistan or Iraq, that's been reported on. Or the Copt situation in Egypt, that's being reported as well.  Or the disappearance of Jews from Egypt, Iran, Ethiopia - most if not all muslim countries where they had historically been established. You may be right insinuating this one huge plot planned by Jews on an unsuspecting media universe - they may even have planned and executed all the pogroms in order to be able to point them out to Time and gain further sympathy from a Jew-loving planet. 

repharim
repharim

@纳什万 I've some people with some bad history but you sir, you have reached the pinnacle of stupidity and lack of any knowledge in history whatsoever.

arvay
arvay

@zsandon @arvay

LOL. 

Well, the persecution of Christians is, in fact, underreported -- especially when it comes to Israeli discrimination against Christians. I wonder ow many people know that israel forbids Christians to proselytize there?

Now they do, I hope. Thanks for helping.

http://mondoweiss.net/2012/03/the-myth-of-israels-favorable-treatment-of-palestinian-christians.html

60 Minutes had a recent broadcast about Israel's Christians, here's  a report of how the Israeli ambassador tried to strong-arm  the news organization

http://www.mediaite.com/tv/60-minutes-confronts-israeli-ambassador-after-he-pressured-cbs-to-drop-story-on-palestinian-christians/

The Israel Lobby is indeed, a well-financed and powerful influence group. They bribe Congress handsomely.

http://maplight.org/us-congress/interest/J5100

But they are far from alone -- American businesses routinely write our laws and via corporate ownership of major media outlets influence how news is presented. This is, in fact, and even more massive shading of the news than what the Israel Lobby does.

But, since you brought the matter up,  I wanted to salute your Judeo-centrism by informing people of Israel's long reach into America. 

Thanks.



skai
skai

@PoojaGupta @Ocsicnarf  ''That's right...'' Are you out of your mind? is there any wonder you Hindus are still slaves to muslims in India

ddm
ddm

@ursanegro Yea, let's totally conflate two different, historically complex situations. Sounds about right.

arvay
arvay

@zsandon @arvay

" I know little about Israel, never been there nor was it ever front and center on my radar."

OK, that's a start.

First of all, I wrote "Israel Lobby" -- it's not a " Jewish" lobby. Not all Jews are Zionists, not all Zionists are Jews. Let's not stereotype people. I don't "fault" the lobby for being effective, I criticize its efforts for pushing the US into a mistaken Mideast policy. And i like to inform people about how much money they pour into their efforts, and who take the money.

Israel is, basically, a mistake.

It's a western outpost  inserted by force into an area that angrily rejects it. Inserted by the US and former colonial powers. Yes, the neighbors attacked. Their opinions were disregarded, and hey reacted predictably.

A major rationale for Israel is that a "safe" place is needed for the world's Jews, given the Holocaust. I'd argue that Israel is the least safe place for Jews to be, anywhere in the world. They are safer in Tehran. Israel will not survive as a "Jewish state." There are two ways out: one, a  state that includes Jews and returned Palestinians, the other -- a disastrous war. 

There are very welcoming places where Israeli Jews can go if they don't want either alternative -- including the US -- and I would be among many that would welcome them here. America is where these people should have been re-located after WWII, and only bigotry and cowardice prevented that.  Europe is another place. The Arabs have no alternative, they are not going anywhere, and they will continue to resist occupation.


zsandon
zsandon

@arvay @zsandon 

I hope this to be the last of the series, so here it goes: I know little about Israel, never been there nor was it ever front and center on my radar. There are things about Israel that are difficult for me to understand or tolerate, such as the religious nature of the state. Israel does discriminate against secular Jews far more than it may on any religious group. I have no claim Israel is the perfect state with uniformly ideal policies. The influence of the minority Jewish religious fanatics, for example, is horrifying and beyond reason. Yet, overall, this is a society whose constituents are in general law-abiding, civil, gainfully employed, studious, hard-working and demonstrably humanitarian. They seem to be working to rectify some of their problems as best they can. Leaving aside the contrast that evokes with the surrounding muslim countries, why should these people and their aspirations for peace and safety not deserve a place at any table or on any editorial board? Are you faulting the "Jewish Lobby" for being well-organized and effective in its work of promoting what it sees as Israeli or Jewish interests? Why is that wrong in your view?

I have read the articles whose links you provided and they do not support your point of view. One that rankles in particular is that of the christian author whose well-versed "resistance rhetoric" is relatively hard to swallow. Her life seems to consist of little more than one long bitching session with what seems to me to be very one-sided points of view. The fog of history seems crystal-clear to her - in particular the year 1948, when the evil Jewish state mercilessly attacked all its peace-loving arab neighbors. Oh, gimme  a break, lady! 

arvay
arvay

@italian @arvay @zsandon

I realize (Do you believe to be smart?) that English is not your first language, so I'll try to avoid fancy phrases.

Since my comment was aimed at unreported things, I wasn't focused in my reply on persecution of Christians in some Muslim countries -- which is adequately reported, in my view. Most people are aware that Saudi intolerance toward Christians is worse than Israeli intolerance.

I'm amused that my original posting -- which only coincidentally happened to be about how a story about Yemeni Jews is an example of how influence groups "place" articles -- has drawn such "spontaneous" lightning. 

It's circumstantial evidence of the kind of efforts typically made by arm-twisting influence groups. This was outside of the scope of what I originally wrote, but your comment provides a reason to mention that these groups often -- in addition to "placing" favorable stories -- employ attacks to try to discredit unfavorable opinions. 

One of the hallmarks of the pro-Israel groups is that they answer criticism with the argument that the actions of others are far worse. This is the argument of the burglar who says "well, at least I'm not a rapist."

Nice try, no cigar.

italian
italian

@arvay @zsandon  Ah really? Do you believe to be smart? Do you know that israeli christians are volunteering on IDF? And that christian community in Israel is the only which is growing in Middle East? Do you know that are arab parties the ones who refuse the integration?  And that there is a christian party who supports the state? Did your hatred for Israel make you liar? http://elderofziyon.blogspot.it/2013/07/christian-girl-tells-arab-newspaper-she.html#.UkvmyYZyCdk   http://www.timesofisrael.com/new-christian-arab-party-calls-for-idf-enlistment/  

ddm
ddm

@ivhn98 @jdumhuvud  "but I never heard story about the Palestinian, can you explain that to me?"


Then you must not read the news.

ivhn98
ivhn98

@jdumhuvud what about the Palestinian? they get killed and terrorized in their homeland too? and there are more Palestinian people in Israel than Jews in Yemen, but I never heard story about the Palestinian, can you explain that to me?