What? There were Jews in Somalia?!

It’s not easy being a Jew in this predominantly Muslim country.

A destroyed building in Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu (photo credit: REUTERS)
A destroyed building in Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Friday, July 6, 2007, Gregory Levey at The Jerusalem Post wrote an article: “Reaching out – Picture – Scene from Somalia."
"It’s not easy being a Jew in this predominantly Muslim country. The only Jewish blogger in Mogadishu longs for a community.”
Little did Levey know that he had brought to light what only a few knew – that there had been a Jewish presence in Somalia. I had stumbled upon the article by chance. I was living in St. Paul-Minneapolis at the time, which has the largest Somali diaspora in the world. After 9/11 the police took note of the burgeoning Somali community.
The majority are law-abiding citizens, yet Minnesota has achieved the distinction of being the recruitment center for Islamic State (ISIS) in the US.
I asked to be put in touch with Av, who also called himself Rami.
We corresponded from 2007 to 2010 – over 300 emails. I came to know this wonderful young Jewish man and his inspiring mother, Ashira Haybi. They were alone without family, with roots extending back well over one hundred years. Rami’s dad, killed during the civil war, traced his roots to Aden, Yemen, while his mom traced hers to Ta’iz, also in Yemen. Ashira was an accomplished businesswoman trading in textiles. She kept a kosher home, was Shabbat observant and raised Rami to continue the tradition. They fought vigorously to preserve their Judaism under extreme duress.
Rami spoke candidly about the fierce antisemitism and hatred of the yahud, the Jew. Oddly, it was a Somali Muslim physicist living in London in the Anglo-Somali diaspora who pondered the Jewish diaspora experience and wondered why his people were struggling to adapt. How had the Jews done it? In many ways, Rami and Ashira’s plight calls to mind how the Jews in Nazi-occupied countries were hunted down and exterminated as signs of the Holocaust became manifest. Ordinary people had to ask themselves: when does one leave the land in which you were born and raised and where your grandparents and great-grandparents have lived for generations? And if you must leave, how can you make the arrangements, find the courage and plunge into the unknown? The emails are a gateway into the terrifying world in which Rami and his mother lived and persevered against seemingly impossible odds.
It is often difficult for the lay public to understand the toll that chronic stress and trauma take upon an individual’s psyche. To live in such a toxic environment, under the constant threat of death just because you are a Jew, may seem irrelevant to non-Jews and especially those who profess Islamic antisemitism.
It has been said by some Somalis that they do not know Jews. Perhaps one of the biggest opportunities to counter antisemitism among the Muslim communities is the potential for Somali Muslim diaspora communities to begin to know Jews.
This could dissolve their irrational learned hatred of the Jew.
The emails broke off suddenly in 2008 and then again suddenly I received one email several days after Passover in 2010. Rami promised that he would write more and said it was a sign from “Hashem” that he had remembered his complicated question and password. Tragically I never heard from him again. Over the years I have continued my search for Rami and his mother. Seven years have passed. My thoughts often turn to all the millions of families who were caught up in the Holocaust, the dead, the survivors, their relatives and friends who even now continue to search for each other.
A year and a half ago it dawned on me that there was virtually nothing written about Somali Jewry. I realized that Rami’s emails were essentially the only extant documents of the last remnant of contemporary Jews in Somalia. As I began to draft the book, my colleague Dr. Norman Simms read the correspondence and referred to Rami and his mother as “crypto-Jews.” Simms is an expert on Sephardi culture.
What struck me was that it was so obvious and yet I had never thought of that phrase. Was it because I was so terrified to think of the consequences of living a Jewish life in Somalia? I contacted Mohammed Diriye Abdullahi, author of Culture and Customs of Somalia. He verified that he had heard about a crypto- Jewish community in Mogadishu.
Rami’s emails bear witness to Jewish survival in a hostile Somali environment under constant threat of attack by Al Shabaab and the clan warlords. Acknowledgment of the existence of the Jews should be part of the effort to enhance Somalia’s pluralism. A future healthy and less violent Somalia may very well depend upon the country’s ability to recuperate and embrace its diversity, especially that of its persecuted minorities.
As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reaches out to Africa, made manifest by Somalia’s President Hassan Sheik Mohammed unofficially visiting Israel in 2016, might not it be important to recall Somalia’s Jewish history? While the door may have temporarily closed on the Jewish community in Somalia, Rami believed that there was only door that really mattered – that of heaven.
He believed, too, that it would always remain open for him and his mom: “Im nin’alu daltei n’divim daltei marom lo nin’alu,” “Even if there is no mercy left in the world, the doors of heaven will not be closed” – Rabbi Shalom ben Yosef Shabazi.
The author holds a doctorate in Islamic literature and is a psychoanalyst counter-terrorist expert specializing in early childhood development and the mind and body language of the jihadi.