Sana’a - Five members of the tiny Jewish community in Yemen have been appointed to the country’s upcoming National Dialogue Conference (NDC), according to Jewish community leader Rabbi Yahya Yousef Mosa. He told The Media Line that he is thrilled with the decision, and thanked President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
There are only about 300 Jews in Yemen today, and they are not full citizens. They are not allowed to serve in the army or be elected to political office. Analysts in Yemen say including Jewish in the NDC could be a first step to making them equal to all Yemenis.
The NDC is a part of the Gulf Cooperation Council-organized, West-backed power transfer deal. That arrangement saw former President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down in February and peacefully relinquish power to his longtime deputy, current President Hadi.
Amal Al-Bashra, spokesperson for the NDC, said she had no idea the Jews were given five seats, although she added "they might have been informed by the president's office."
While the final number of Jewish delegates remains uncertain, Jews and other Yemeni minorities, like the black people known locally as Akdam, are slated to participate in the conference, according to Nadia Al-Sakkaf, spokeswoman for the National Dialogue Liaison Committee tasked with organizing the conference, which will have a total of 565 delegates. She added that the number of seats assigned to each group is as yet undetermined.
Yemeni Jews trace their origin to the time of King Solomon. Almost 50,000 immigrated to Israel soon after the creation of the state in 1948, and experts believe that the Yemeni Jewish community will become extinct in a few years.
Of the tens of thousands of Yemeni Jews, only 300 still live in the country, according to Mosa. Fifty-six Jews live in a protected residential area close to the US embassy in Sana'a, while the rest live in Raida in the Amman province. Those who live in Sana'a were forced to leave their homes in the northern province of Sa'adah by the Teheran-backed Houthi group in 2007.
The NDC is considered important due to great hopes pinned on it to heal the current divisions in the poorest Arab state and to give the various political groups a chance to find ways to resolve the country's major challenges such as calls for southern Yemen to secede, and a lack of security in the country.
But Al-Sakkaf says what's important is the mere fact that Jews and other minorities will be represented at all, regardless of how many seats they receive. "What matters is that they will be there to convey their grievances and raise issues in the conference. Therefore even one representative will be enough," she said.
Al-Sakkaf added that the she believes involving Jews in the NDC is a positive step towards granting them full citizenship, an opinion shared by Mohammed Naji Alaw, chairman of Yemen's most prominent human rights group, the National Organization for Defendiing Rights and Freedoms (HOOD),
"It's not surprising that the Jews will be represented in the NDC," he told The Media Line. "They have every right to take part in it because they are a component of Yemen's society.
"There are no laws or provisions in the Yemeni constitution that prohibit Jews from participating in the political process, but the problem with Yemeni Jews is that they are very few and chose not to integrate. They don't study in public schools and they isolate themselves from Yemeni society," he said. "I know there are reasons and social factors that prompt them to do so, but I hope they integrate into society and take part in the political process, regardless of how few of them there are."
While Chairman of the Sawa Organization for Anti-Discrimination Fuad Al-Alawy agreed with Alaw that involving the Jewish citizens in the NDC is a major step forward for them, he disagreed with him that the Jews' number poses any problem to their involvement in the political process.
"The problem is not in the number of the Jews, but rather with the government which imposes unfair measures on minorities," he said. "It makes no difference whether they are one or a million. They are Yemeni nationals and should be given their full rights."
Al-Alawy also outlined government discrimination against Yemeni Jews. "The Jews living in the Sawan residential area in downtown Sana'a are not allowed to even speak and meet with human rights activists or journalists," he noted. "Is that fair when some citizens are allowed to speak with the media and some are not?" He described their harsh lives in Sawan as akin to being under house arrest.
The government provides Jews with free housing in Sawan as well as monthly stipends. But it's dangerous for them to go out and they risk death if they do, especially after a Jew was killed in Sana'a in May 2011 by a member of al-Qaida.
When shopping or going out, almost all of Sana'a Jews hide their traditional earlocks under popular Yemeni shawls for fear of being singled out and attacked by fundamentalists, human rights activists say.
But while the human rights activists speak about the discrimination against the Jewish minority, Rabbi Mosa downplayed the Jews' suffering."We don't suffer from anything," he told The Media Line. "The Jewish community has no grievances. This is our country and we have to stand up against those who are trying to portray Yemeni Jews as persecuted. They only want to distort our homeland's image."
All agree, however, that participation in the NDC is a great opportunity for Yemeni Jews. Sadi Al-Sakkaf: "If Yemeni Jews organize themselves politically, I can predict that they will play a stronger role in the new Yemen than they did before. The main point is that they need to get organized and advocate a political platform."
For more stories from The Media Line go to www.themedialine.org