History will record that 2,500 years of Jewish life in Yemen is now over. As The Wall Street Journal reported October 31, the US State Department has completed a clandestine operation which brought 60 of the country's remaining Jews to America. The newspaper quoted Yeshiva University's Hayim Tawil, a Yemeni Jewry expert, as issuing the certificate of death: "This is the end of the Jewish Diaspora of Yemen. That's it."
As Israelis and Jews we earnestly appreciate the efforts of the Obama administration on behalf of our Yemeni brethren.
THE RESCUE illuminates an often overlooked aspect of the 60-year-plus Arab-Israel conflict. Whereas the Arab world has purposefully maintained the 700,000 or so Palestinian Arabs made homeless in the course of the 1948 war and their descendants as permanent refugees and political pawns, the State of Israel and world Jewry have worked hard to resettle a roughly equal number of Jewish refugees forced to flee Arab lands.
The behavior of Arab leaders toward their Jewish subjects after the creation of Israel was (with notable exceptions) characterized by scapegoating and marginalization culminating in mass exodus. In 1947, Arab rioters in Aden killed dozens of Jews to protest a two-state solution in Palestine. In 1949 and 1950 the bulk of Yemen's Jews, some 49,000 souls, were airlifted here in "Operation Magic Carpet." The broad Arab refusal to accept the legitimacy of Israel as a sovereign Jewish state is partly attributable to Arab attitudes toward their Jewish minorities.
Coexistence was possible - so long as Jews knew their place.
JEWISH life under Muslim rule was historically neither the utopia Arab propagandists claim nor the purgatory Jewish polemicists assert. As the doyen of Middle East studies Bernard Lewis wrote in The Jews of Islam, the actual state of affairs varied depending on the era, locale, political and economic conditions, the stability of the ruling Islamic regime, and on developments within the Jewish community.
Jews were granted Dhimmi or tolerated status. They paid a special jizya tax to underscore their subordinate position in society. If they missed the point, Islamic tradition allowed for the local Muslim authority to deliver a ceremonial slap on the neck to the Jew upon payment of the levy. Jews were required to wear distinguishing clothes; they were expected to deport themselves deferentially in the presence of Muslims. And unlike everyone else, Jews were not permitted to carry weapons.
On the other hand, Lewis wrote, Jews were not required to convert to Islam, and could enjoy a high degree of acculturation. (They were certainly better off than their coreligionists living under medieval Christendom.)
At any rate, this social contract crumbled in part because the Zionist movement was a direct assault on the Dhimmi principle.
The Yemen experience also reminds us that the Arab world's antagonism to modern values has led it to extended periods of internal instability as well a visceral rejection of Israel for embodying the Western liberal idea.
POLITICAL instability is always "bad for the Jews," and Yemen has long been a volatile mess. The ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden is burdened by internal strife, poverty and a dysfunctional regime. The north and south (where the oil is) are at odds.
The secular-oriented government of Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Shi'ite, is corrupt and undemocratic. He is battling an insurrection by Shi'ite religious extremists who were once his allies against fanatical Sunnis. Extremist Sunnis, supportive of al-Qaida, are also battling the regime and attacking Western targets.
Yemen has a Sunni majority with a large Shi'ite minority. On top of all this, there are also tribal tensions; the president's tribe dominates the security services.
But the Yemeni masses were able to put some of these differences aside during Operation Cast Lead... and attack the Jews. With few friends, Yemen's president sought to stay in Washington's good graces by trying to protect the besieged remnants of Yemeni Jewry.
AS THE saga of Yemen's Jews now comes to a close, our thoughts are also drawn to Israel's treatment of its Arab minority. Any one of 10 Arab Knesset members could persuasively argue, Jewish Israelis have nothing to be smug about.
Yet if they were fair minded, they might grant that the Jewish state has done a comparatively decent job in bringing its minority citizens into the mainstream.