Despite volatility in Arab lands, Jews there stay put

Jews in Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt have turned down repeated offers of help to leave by concerned Jewish organizations and Israel

By GIL STERN STERN SHEFLER
March 30, 2011 04:43
4 minute read.
Members of Yemen's Jewish community

Yemenite Jews 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Over the past several months a series of uprisings has shaken the Arab world, felling dictators and ushering in a period of great hope and fear for the future. But despite the growing political instability in the region, Jewish communities in Arab lands have so far chosen to stay.

The remaining Jews in Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt – tiny remnants of once-much-larger communities decimated by decades of voluntary and involuntary emigration – have turned down repeated offers to leave by Jewish organizations and Israel concerned with their safety.

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In Yemen, where a deadly confrontation has been going on for months between the government and protesters, the country’s 250 Jews were recently asked by a Jewish group if they needed help in emigrating, a source involved in talks told The Jerusalem Post on Monday, on condition of anonymity.

“The response was, basically, no,” the source said in an email.

“Jews in Yemen say they feel safe and that the political mayhem does not touch them.

Those in Sanaa continue to receive assistance from the Yemen Government and are less motivated to leave.

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“If they were to leave, they would be looking for a destination likely to provide assistance on a continuing basis. The preferred destination is UK at the present time, the second choice being Israel.”

Smaller communities in the Yemeni cities of Amran and Raidah that receive stipends from the Satmar Hassidic movement – a vehemently anti-Zionist religious community based in the US – have also turned down offers to leave.

“Bottom Line: No one is leaving at this time, but a number of them are making contingency plans to leave,” the source said.

“The border, however, is open and they are free to leave should they change their mind.”

Similarly, the vast majority of Tunisia’s estimated 1,500 Jews – of whom about 1,100 live on the island of Djerba in the south, and the rest in the capital Tunis – have chosen to stay despite extensive efforts by the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel to bring them to the Jewish state.

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 Over the past few months Israel has spoken in increasingly alarming tones about the prospects facing the community in the North African country.

“The regime change in Tunisia as a result of the Jasmine revolution...

has brought about the Islamization of the government and rise in anti-Semitism,” a document written by the Absorption Ministry stated.

“There has been an increasingly worsening attitude by the authorities and society toward the Jewish community.”

Last week the cabinet approved a generous package for olim from Tunisia – on top of that regularly given to Jewish immigrants to Israel.

“Every family will receive a grant of NIS 33,000 ($9,300) – NIS 15,000 ($4,200) of which will be given to the family in their first year in the country, with the remaining NIS 18,000 ($5,100) distributed in their second year,” a press release stated.

Yet since the start of the year, only a few dozen Jews have immigrated to Israel, some of whom had made plans to move long before the uprising began.

Over the past weeks Tunisian Jews have told the Post that the “revolution was against the government, not against the Jews.”

“For the last 65 years we have always had some leave,” Roger Bismuth, the president of the Jewish community, said last week. “Lately, I haven’t even heard of people leaving. I’m here with my business, family and children.”

In Egypt, about 70 Jews, mostly elderly in their 70s and 80s, remain despite endemic anti- Semitism in Egyptian society.

Leaders of the community have repeatedly declined to speak to media directly in order to maintain a low profile, but sources in close contact with them said that they, too, have no plans to go anywhere.

All that may change, however, if an attack against a Jewish target were to be carried out, as they have in the not-too-distant past.

In 2002 a bomb exploded outside a synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba killing 21 people, mostly tourists; and in 2008, a Jew was murdered in Yemen by an Islamic extremist, prompting the departure of about 100 members of the community.

Since the start of the uprisings, however, no such incidents have been recorded, neither against the Jewish communities or their institutions in Egypt or in Yemen.

The only anti-Semitic incidents to date were the burning of a makeshift synagogue near Djerba, and a group of protesters hurling insults at Jewish worshippers in Tunis. But Bismuth insisted that up until now there have been “no problems” for the Jewish community in Tunisia.

“Nothing prevents you of leaving the country if you want, we are completely free,” he said.

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