Amid persecution, Yemeni Jews face extinction

In town of Raida, where hundreds of Jewish families once resided, only four families remain.

Yemeni Jewish children study torah 150 (photo credit: REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi)
Yemeni Jewish children study torah 150
(photo credit: REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi)
A dwindling, tiny Jewish community in the northwestern Yemeni province of Ammran is threatened with extinction amid continued immigration of its members due to increasing harassment and persecution against them and a lack of security.
Of the hundreds of families who used to live in the town of Raida in Ammran province, some 37 miles northwest of the Yemeni capital Sana'a, only four families remain. While some members of these families are already living outside the country, mainly in the United States or Israel, many of those who remain are considering immigration.
The total number of Jews in Raida, Yemen’s largest Jewish community, is not more than 100 people, according to Jewish community leader Rabbi Suleiman Yahya, 45, who spoke with The Media Line as he was chewing leaves of qat, a narcotic plant constantly in the mouths of more than half of the Yemenis. Nevertheless, President Hadi is reportedly designating a number of seats for the Jewish community on the National Dialogue Conference that is tasked with drafting a new constitution.
The only other Jewish group in the poverty-stricken country is housed in a protected residential area in Sana'a since they were forced in 2007 to leave their homes by the Tehran-backed Houthi Movement. Its members don't exceed 56 people, according to the group's leader, Rabbi Yahya Yusif Mosa. The two Jewish groups are not strongly connected except for some visits during special occasions such as weddings.
Yemeni Jews trace their origin to the time of King Solomon. The majority of what was Yemen's 50,000-strong Jewish community immigrated to Israel upon the declaration of the Jewish state in 1948.
Yahya, wearing traditional Yemeni clothes including a thawb (long white robe), coat and a shawl around his head, can only be identified as a Jew by his curly earlocks. Yahya’s two-floor house, where his 80-years-old father-- who was a blacksmith--also lives, is surrounded by his brothers' houses.
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Initially, he appeared to be reluctant to speak with The Media Line reporter, but as a Yemeni citizen who shares the tribal traditions and ethics, he would not dismiss guests at his door, but rather received them into his house hospitably. After chatting for a while, he opened up and spoke seemingly candidly.
Yahya sat alone in his simply-furnished guest room that contained a mini-laptop, an old, frayed Arabic-English dictionary and two bags of qat leaves placed on a small table right before him. A poster of an Israeli singer of Yemeni origin was plastered on the wall.
His laptop is Yahya’s main means of keeping in touch with five of his nine children and other family members living outside of Yemen. It seemed incongruous that in such a remote area of the country, someone has a laptop connected to the Internet.
"I have three sons studying outside Yemen. One is studying in New York, the second in Michigan," he told The Media Line. "The third is studying in… in…in New York," he said, stopping short of saying Israel, likely due to fears it could lead to trouble with his neighbors who see it as an occupying state. "Also, two of my daughters immigrated to the U.S. after they got married," he said.
Although he stressed that none of his children lives in Israel, he admitted that many Yemeni Jews, including family members, moved there, where, he said, living conditions are far better. There are virtually no Jews between the ages of sixteen and thirty because young people left Yemen to study abroad.
Yahya works as a teacher in a small school established for the Jewish community, but says almost none of the Jewish community members work anymore. According to him, they depend on government stipends and money transferred to them from relatives.
Abdul-Atif Al-Madhabi, a human rights activist based in Ammran and an expert on the Jewish community's affairs, told The Media Line, "The main reason behind the fact that almost all of Yemen's Jews don't work anymore is that other people started working in the professions they used to work in (silversmiths, carpenters, livestock traders) leading customers to start dealing with their Muslim competitors as they consider them more reliable."
"Another reason is that Jews receive money remittances from their relatives living outside Yemen, making them in no need to work. Lack of security is another factor," according to Al-Madhabi.
Recently, most of Yemen's Jews have been living in isolation due to increasing harassment and aggression from the tribal society around them.
"After my house was robbed earlier this year, I stopped socializing with people. I stopped going to their houses for khat sessions and I don't receive them at mine," Rabbi Yahya said. "While I was not in Raida, someone broke into my house late at night and stole 32 million Yemeni riyals (almost $150,000). According to him, the stolen money is composed of gold and cash, half of which was for the families which have already left Yemen.
However, Al-Madhabi says he believes the reasons for the Jews' isolation go far beyond robberies.
"The killing of a Jew in Ammran by a pilot in 2008 led dozens of families to immigrate and leave Yemen for good and prompted many others to isolate themselves as they felt they were no longer safe," Al-Madhabi said.
"Also, the Jewish girl who ran away with a Muslim guy before converting to Islam and marrying him played a major part in their isolation," he added.
"Yemeni Jews share the tribal traditions and customs according to which it's very scandalous and shameful when a girl escapes from her parents' house with a guy," he explained. "Like any other tribe or family in their shoes, they felt that she brought shame on all Jews."
At the Jewish school in Raida where Rabbi Yahya teaches, the pupils are only taught Hebrew, religious studies and mathematics. There are no English language courses or any other subjects included in their curriculum, according to Yahya, who pointed out that Yemeni Jews can speak the standard Hebrew but they don't understand modern Hebrew words, such as names for devices.
"The Jewish pupils study without any grades. For example, there is no first grade, second grade…etc. Almost all students go abroad after the age of 14 and 15 to finish their education," he said.
The children start learning Hebrew and religious studies at an early stage, sometimes as young as four, depending on the child’s acumen. Some children for whom learning is more difficult begin studying the language only when they are seven or eight, Yahya explained.
When asked how the Yemeni Jews could be accepted in American or Israeli schools given the traditional education they receive, Yahya replied: "They are only accepted in Jewish schools."
Until recently, Jewish girls were not studying at all. But Yahya says they have recently started going to school.
"I set myself as an example for Jews when I taught my daughter. She was the first girl in the Jewish community to study. After she became good at Hebrew and religious studies she became a teacher for Jewish girls," he said.
There is a single synagogue in Raida in which Jews only meet to pray on the Sabbath and holidays. As for daily prayers, morning and evening, everyone prays alone because due to immigration there are no longer enough men around to make up a minyan -- a quorum of 10 men needed for public prayers, Yahya explained.
"But, unlike the synagogues in Israel and other countries, our places of worship don't have a segregated part for women. That's why Jewish women don't join men in prayers," he said. "In Judaism, the men and women can't mingle at worship services."
As the rabbi for the tiny Jewish community, Yahya says he is responsible for judging between Jews, marrying them off, explaining their religion to them and slaughtering livestock in line with the kosher laws. "Yemeni Jews stick to their religious teachings including the kosher laws," Yahya said, adding that, “it’s up to the person to commit or not commit to the religious teachings because it's something between God [and his servants.]”
Yemeni Jews share the same tribal traditions and customs as their Muslim neighbors. For instance, Yemeni women – Jewish and Muslim – do not appear before male strangers. Jewish girls as young as ten-years of age are covered in black from head to toe, including a veil on their faces. Underscoring the point, girls ran from The Media Line camera.
Even at school, only female teachers can teach the girls in segregated classrooms, according to Yahya.
"According to Judaism, it's forbidden for women and men to mingle. Not only are they not allowed to shake each others’ hands, but it's also forbidden for them to deal with each other," he pointed out.
Yemeni Jews complain of widespread discrimination and increasing harassment and aggression from the tribal society surrounding them.
"Whenever you go, they call you ‘Jew,’ or ‘Zionist.’ Sometimes children throw stones at our houses and adults harass our women," he said, attributing some of the harassment to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"In the past, they would harass Jews when there was a war, and when the war ended the harassment ended with it. But recently, even when there is no war, we are still subjected to different kinds of harassment," Yahya explained. "We have nothing to do with Israeli Zionism. And we even hear of Muslims living in harmony with Jews in Israel."
To avert problems, the Jews only allow their children to play with the children of neighbors they know would not cause trouble if a fight erupts between the children, he said.
According to Yahya, sometimes Jews go to tribal chiefs to complain or seek arbitration.
"We are living in a tribal area where the tribe is stronger than the government. That’s why we sometimes resort to seeking justice from the tribal sheikhs," he said. "Mujahid Abu Shawarb, a late tribal chief, was very kind to us. He always stood by our side and made sure that nobody wronged us. But now neither the current tribal chiefs nor the government can do anything to stop the injustice against us."
Last week, a thief carrying a machine gun attempted to rob the house of Dawd Yahya, a 52-year-old Jew, but Dawd, who himself has a machine gun, foiled the robbery attempt.
Yahya suggested The Media Line reporter talk to him about what happened, but when the reporter visited Dawd, a policeman in civilian clothes was there to speak for him.
The policeman took pains to stress that the police carried out its duty to protect the Jews. Dawd could not say anything as the policeman kept stressing that police took all measures to protect him, asking Dawd to approve what he said.
Dawd kept silent, nodding his head every time the officer asked for his approval, but despite his silence, his face told a different story.
"Living here has become unbearable," Yahya said, adding that, "most of the remaining Jews are only waiting to sell their properties before leaving Yemen for good."
"Despite my love for my country, the only thing that makes me stay here is my house -- which is already offered for sale," he said. "Once it's sold I will leave Yemen along with my family."
Rabbi Yahya said he expects that in a few years, there will be no Jews remaining in Yemen. "Five families left Yemen in the past 20 months," Yahya concluded. Reflecting the fear under which they live, he then asked The Media Line reporters to stick to what he said and not add anything, saying that doing so might increase the harassment against Jews.
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