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The Demise of Yemen’s Jewish Community: Deleting History

April 2, 2015

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EXCLUSIVE TO THE MEDIA LINE

By: Nadia al-Sakkaf and Ali al-Moshiki/The Media Line

[Sana’a, Yemen] Yahya Yaqoub swallows in fear every time he comes across the Houthi slogan –“Damnation to the Jews” — which has been plasteredthroughout northern Yemen since gunmen belonging to theShiite group took over the Northern areas of Yemen including the capital in last September.Yaqoub is the last Hebrew teacher in the only Jewish school in Raidah-Amran, around 33 miles northwest Sana’a, where Yemen’s final remaining Jewish community lives in isolation in the new-market area of the district.

The current political and security instability in the country following the closure of foreign embassies and diplomatic missions in Sana’a has added to the Jewish community’s concern that if the Houthis decide to strike — and with the absence of a state — there is no refuge. Many Jewish men and boys hide their “payot” or side locks, under a cap like those worn by Yemeni men in order not to be noticed and picked on. Hebrew teacher Yaqoub, who runs the only Jewish school from a room in his house where he lives with his wife and one of his four children, does this as well. He used to have tens of students, butnow seven boys and ten girls are his only pupils.

“We never really felt welcome in our own country in recent history, but to be haunted by a cursing threat wherever you go and knowing that the men behind it are serious, is too much,” he explained to The Media Line as his eyes wearily searched around the street, as if looking for answers.

The teacher was originally a blacksmith who “made lots of money,” he says, because of his skill. He used to have a shop where he worked with his son, Ismail, but claims that the Muslims stole his money, leaving him to seek charitable assistance from philanthropists and to teach Jewish children for token fees.

“I am owner of at least three houses but every time I try to sell them the buyers try to cheat me off the price since I am a minority. I managed to send three of my children to Israel and the US and I don’t want them to come back.Now I live with my youngest son, Yaqoub, who is 13 years old,” he said.

Today, there are only eight Yemeni Jewish families left in Amran, with a total of forty members mostly children, women and elderly. The youth have left the country through various opportunities seeking a better life elsewhere: mostly in Israel, the United States and the United Kingdom.

There is also a Jewish presence in Sana’a comprised of no more than ten families who used to live in Sa’ada,in the north of Yemen, before they were moved and placed in a residential compound near the US Embassy. The Sa’ada community has been threatened by the Shiite Houthis who demanded that they convert to Islam, leave or die. For their safety, upon the rise of the Shiite Houthi movement in Sa’ada, former president Saleh reallocated all the Jewish families living there into a closed protected residential compound in the capital Sana’a. Today, there are only 46 Yemeni Jews living in the compound.

Jews in Raidah were less fortunate and the community dissipated in 2008 after the murder of one of its members.

Rabbi Yousif Habib, in his late thirties, left his home in Sa’ada in 2007 to come and live with the rest of the fleeing Jews. “I had to shave off my side locks. I feel sad about it, because it is a part of my culture and religion, but I had to do it to avoid harassment,” he said sadly. Yousif said that no one comes back. If Yemeni Jews leave they will not come back until and unless Yemen becomes a better country and this seems far away.

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Isolation and poverty

Moselle Yahya Judah, 60, lives with her husband, Saeed, and her three unmarried daughtersin Raidah – Amran. Speaking to The Media Line, Moselle was very resentful about the family’s living conditions, saying she had seen better times. She explained that financial reasons prevent the few who remain from leaving the country now. “Most of us have been in Yemen all our lives. This is what we know and we can’t afford to just get on a plane and go somewhere else to live. Who will cover the expenses? And why should Yemeni leave their homes and the land which their ancestors have lived in for more than two thousand years?”

Moselle lives in a home known to be one of the relatively finest Jewish homes in the area and one that used to be a gathering spot for community issues and qat chewing [narcotic plant widely chewed by Yemeni] sessions. “Look around you now: we have been reduced to asking for money like beggars. My home used to be a guest house and was full of visitors, both Muslim and Jew; Yemenis and foreigners. Now we feel isolated, and are visited by those who want to use us for their own interests,” she said bitterly.

She had been to Israel several times to visit two of her sons and one of her daughters who are there and just returned from there in July 2014. She said Yemenis have a better economic life there, but Yemenis have started letting go of their traditions and are becoming westernized. Moselle says she prefers to spend her remaining days in her own hometown — even in poverty rather than in better conditions if it means not losing her native values. Of her ten children, three daughters live with her in Amran, two sons and one daughter are in Israel and the remaining three daughters are in the US and Britain. The family severed ties with one daughter who married a Yemeni Muslim man after converting to Islam.

Moselle’s married son, Yousif, has been living in Sana’a for the past year, trying to eke out a living, while his two children — a boy Efraim and a girl Le’yan — remain with their mother in the grandparents’ home in Amran. There, they hardly leave the house, the only place they go to is the Hebrew school from which they return home quickly because they fear the neighborhood children.

Grandfather Saeed al-Nati’ei explained to The Media Line that the Ministry of Education has exempted Jewish students from taking Islamic studies, but some teachers are fanatic and aggressive about it and subject the Jewish children to harassment. So usually, the Jewish children go only to the Jewish school and lag behind on scientific studies. Moselle said she does not allow her daughters to even go to the Jewish school after one of her daughters fell in love with a Muslim.

Thirteen-year-old Yaqoub Yahya, who like the others wears a cap to secret his distinctively Jewish “payot,” is very jealous of the Jews who have managed to leave Yemen. “I can’t go out, I can’t play outdoors, I don’t have many friends and in the fewest times that I did venture out I was harassed by other boys,” complained the teenager remembering an incident over a month ago when he went to the market and was bullied by Muslim children who stole his phone from him. “I hate being in Yemen. I wish I could leave to anywhere — just to feel that I am a normal person who goes to school and has fun with friends and not be worried that I could be beaten every time I go out just because of my religion,” he said.

There have been other incidents where Jews were beaten or intimated in public. On January 21, two Jewish men, Robin and Ishaq, were harassed and beaten in Sana’a by unknown armed men. The incident was not investigated by the authoritiesalthough bystanders reported that the two men were targeted because they were Jews. Yousif Habib, the Rabbi in Sana’a, said that the two men were asked to praise the Prophet Mohammed. “Their shopping was taken from them and they were beaten by fanatic Yemenis whom we think are Houthis. Life for Yemeni Jews in both Sana’a and Amran has become unbearable since the Houthis took over,” he said.

There are some families who arefaring better off. Yahya Yaeesh in Raidah – Amran,whose net worth is rumored by his Jewish neighbors to be more than 34 million Yemeni rials (more than $150,000), is one. He has only two daughters, one of whom is married and lives in London while the other was married at home three years ago and moved to Israel. “Her wedding was the last celebration we really had in this community,” reflected Yaeesh. “One year ago a lady in our community gave birth and there are no expecting women currently; we seem to be losing reasons to be happy.” His home is adjacent to what used to be a Jewish school for girls. Today, the school is shelter to an elderly couple in their seventies who are extremely poor.

When Yahya bin Yousif bin Yaqoubbecame blind more than 15 years ago, he decided to take a second wife since his first spouse did not bear children. He paid to a Jewish family a dowry which he raised by selling his house. According to bin Yaqoub, when the family took his money and fled to Israel he turned blind from his anger. He and his wife moved from Arhab to Raidah about five years ago, but insists that he was never subjected to harassment or intimidation by Muslims. He says that during his youth no one ever asked them to convert to Islam and that he has many friends who are Muslims. One of bin Yaqoub’s Muslim neighbors, Ali Mohammed al-Kaniti, expressed his sadness at the emigration of Yemen’s Jews. “It is unfair that a person is not allowed to feel safe in his or her own home. Why should people be forced to leave their country just because they are of a different religion? Citizenship is not your religion it is what country is your home,” he told The Media Line. The young Yemeni man admitted he has feelings for one of the Jewish girls in his area but is scared of the consequences of speaking up.

Divisions within the communities

When it comes to traditions and customs, the Yemeni Jews are very much part of the larger Yemeni society as they speak the same dialect as their neighbors and hold the same Yemeni values. Yemeni Jews dress like other Yemenis, except they don’t carry weapons — not even the Yemeni traditional dagger, the “jambiya.”They have their own slaughter house where they practice kosher food preparation and have their own places of worship.

There are, however, arguments and disputes among some Yemeni Jewish families, for instance when one accuses another of theft. There is also a visible rivalry between Rabbi Yahya Yousif of Amran and Sana’a’sRabbi Yousif Habib. The two clergymen have been fighting for the last five years over who has the right to represent the Yemeni Jews and therefore receive funding from the state or from donors abroad.

Rabbi Sulaiman Yaqoub, a senior cleric, says Yemeni Jews only celebrate two religious holidays: Passover (“when the sea opened for the Prophet Moses); and the Sabbath.

On Passover, they wear new clothes and visit the synagogue where they hold special prayers thanking God for that day. Rabbi Sulaiman Yaqoub is the one who slaughters the animals and circumcises the newborn boys. On Saturdays, the Sabbath, the Jews spend hours reading from Hebrew prayer books directing their prayers to a center piece of black cloth on which verses of Holy Scripture have been printed.

A lost national heritage

Arwa Abdu Othman, former Minister of Culture and a strong advocate for heritage and cultural identity, said that when Yemeni Jews are forced to leave the country Yemen loses an important part of its history and national heritage. “It is like we cut out a piece of our nation and throw it away; our generations to come will blame us for letting this happen,” she said. “The least we can do now is to document this part of our culture and salvage it before it is destroyed forever. So that at least history is testimony that once there used to be Yemeni Jews.”

This is why she has documented in pictures and text some of the rituals and dresses of Yemeni Jews including their special style of henna decorating Jewish girls’ hands.

Fuad al-Sharjabi,director and founder of Yemeni Music House, explains that many Yemeni Jewish songs have been lost while others have merged with the mainstream traditional music and that there is very little documentation to help trace the Jewishheritage.

“Now that the elderly Jews have left the country and the new Yemeni Jewish generations are being brought up in other countries, we risk losing this musical wealth especially since many of the older Jews were not educated well enough to document their history,” said al-Sharjabi calling on researchers to carry out a project to document Yemeni Jews music and culture.“The Yemeni Jews were quite artistic and helped preserve traditional songs especially songs performed by women as the Jewish women did not have the inhibitions other women had in singing in public.”

Yemeni Jews have strong political opinions although they don’t make it a habit of getting into political discussions or participating in events. Never in Yemen’s history was there a Jewish member of parliament or a public servant of high – or even middle — ranking.

Yemen’s Jews view former president Saleh as the only leader who protected them. “Since Saleh was thrown out by the opposition our lives have become unbearable. We were harassed and even killed which lead to many of us leaving our country and seeking refuge in Israel, the UK or the US,” said Rabbi Yahya Yousif.

Similarly, 16-year-old Yasser Ja’afar used his Facebook page to comment on the recent Houthi actions and their slogan which declares, “God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Damnation to the Jews, and Victory to Islam!” The young rabbi criticizes this with a message to the Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi saying: “You didn’t kill America, you didn’t slay Israel, you didn’t scare the Jews, you didn’t support Islam, you don’t co-exist in Dammaj, you didn’t respect the State, and you didn’t welcome equality… and this is your truth.”

Yemeni Jews used to live in several Yemeni towns such as Aden, Sana’a, Tarim, Baihan, Amran, Dhamar and other areas before Israel’s Operation Magic Carpetcarried forty-nine thousand Yemeni Jews to Israel in 1949-1959 following its establishment one year before.

A significant immigration to Israelof Yemeni Jews took place between 1992 and 2000, while the last formal wave of immigration was in 2013 when around 50 Jews immigrated to Israel.Today, the remaining Yemeni Jews are left to manage their living or sort out emigration planson their own.

The Media Line is an American news agency specializing in coverage of the Middle East. The Media Line can be reached at editor@themedialine.org.

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