Yemen: Empty Jewish homes destroyed

In recent days, Islamist rebels' attack underscores precarious position of tiny Jewish community.

yemen riot 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
yemen riot 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
In the latest attack targeting Yemen's few remaining Jews, rebel Houthi militiamen destroyed several homes that had belonged to the now-absent Jewish community in the northwestern Saada province. "The Houthis destroyed part of my house and looted it," Rabbi Yehia Youssuf told Reuters in the capital, San'a. All 67 members of Saada's Jewish community fled following threats from the Houthis, the rabbi says. Some locals say the Jews were threatened because they had been selling wine to Muslims - an accusation the Jews deny, according to Reuters. A local said the Shi'ite rebels attacked the houses of other Jews after looting the rabbi's. Around 400 Jews remain in the majority Sunni state, the remnant of an ancient, close-knit community that, while remaining connected to Jewish intellectual and legal developments outside Yemen, managed to insulate itself culturally until the 20th century. According to Dr. Dov Levitan, a scholar of Yemenite Jewry at Bar-Ilan University and the Academic College of Ashkelon, the Houthi clan targets Jews to embarrass the government internationally. Apparently unrelated intertribal fighting in the province killed at least 15 people in recent days as the Houthi tribe continued its intermittent violence, begun in June 2004, against the central government and its allies. Since the early 1990s, the Yemeni government "has been very conscious of its international image," explains Levitan. "So important is the country's image to its government that the Jews have excellent government protection." When their situation in Saada became precarious about a year ago, "they were flown out in a government plane to San'a. They receive a small stipend and live in a compound protected by state security forces. This kind of concern would have been unimaginable just 15 years ago," he says. The government's concern for its image, together with pressure from American Jewish groups and US legislators, led Yemen in the early 1990s to permit most of the remaining 2,000 Jews to emigrate to Israel and elsewhere, continuing a centuries-long trickle of aliya from the country. At the founding of the Jewish state in 1948, around 35,000 Yemenite Jews lived in Israel. Another 50,000 came in the immediate aftermath of the War of Independence. Most of the 1,600 Jews who left Yemen during the 1990s now live in Rehovot. The question of why Jews remain in Yemen remains. "We have contact with these Jews. They're not the Jews who came 60 years ago," the large wave of poor refugees who fled pogroms in Operation Magic Carpet, Levitan says. "They're more educated, they're better dressed, they wear watches and drive cars. Some of them have traveled overseas. They have property there, and they are connected historically. They don't want to leave a place that has been their natural environment for generations." The Yemenite Jewish community claims to have existed since the time of the First Temple, 2,600 years ago. While this claim has not been verified, "we know with certainty that they were there for at least 1,500 years," says Levitan. Despite its unique customs and liturgy, Yemenite Jewry was never disconnected from the broader Jewish world. "For example, we know that the letters of the [medieval Jewish philosopher and legalist] Maimonides arrived in Yemen. We know from the 14th to the 16th centuries they were connected enough to receive the Shulchan Aruch [halachic codex]. And in the 18th and 19th centuries they received printed Jewish prayer books and Talmuds from abroad when there was no Jewish press in Yemen," he said. Other pressures also affect the decision of Jews to remain. The anti-Zionist Satmar hassidim work to persuade the community not to move to Israel. "They give the remaining Jews money and holy books, take them to New York and London - anything to keep them from going to Israel," says Levitan. Also, the government's concern and protection are seen as complete and genuine by the community, he says.