Yemens dwindling Jewish community faces extinction

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ammran, yemen  |  A tiny Jewish community in the Yemeni province of Ammran is threatened with extinction as its members step up immigration in the face of increasing harassment.

Only four families remain out of hundreds of Jews who used to live in the town of Raida, 37 miles northwest of the Yemeni capital Sanaa. These four extended families comprise the country’s largest Jewish community, no more than 100 people, according to leader Rabbi Suleiman Yahya, 45.

President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi reportedly is designating Jewish seats at the national dialogue conference tasked with drafting a new constitution.

Rabbi Suleiman Yahya (right) and some members of Yemen’s Jewish community photos/the media line-abdulrahman shamlan

The only other Jews in the poverty-stricken country are housed in a protected residential area in Sanaa, forced in 2007 to leave their homes by the Tehran-backed Houthi Movement. The group numbers around 56, according to its leader, Rabbi Yahya Yusif Mosa.

Yemeni Jews trace their origin to the time of King Solomon. The majority of what was once a 50,000-strong Jewish community immigrated to Israel upon the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948.

Suleiman Yahya, wearing traditional Yemeni clothes including a thawb (long white robe), coat and a shawl around his head, is identifiable as a Jew only by his curly earlocks. Yahya’s two-floor house, where his 80-year-old father also lives, is surrounded by his brothers’ houses.

Yahya sat alone in his simply furnished guest room that contained a small laptop, an old, frayed Arabic-English dictionary and two bags of khat leaves placed on a small table near him. A poster of an Israeli singer of Yemeni origin was plastered on the wall.

The laptop is Yahya’s main means of keeping in touch with five of his nine children and other family members living outside of Yemen.

A Jewish boy in Yemen

Although he stressed that none of his children live in Israel (such an admission would be dangerous), he did say that many Yemeni Jews, including some family members, moved to the Jewish state. Virtually no Jews between ages 16 and 30 are left in Yemen because young people leave to study abroad and don’t return.

Yahya is one of the few Jews who still work, teaching in a small school established for the Jewish community. He says almost all of the other Jews depend on government stipends and money transferred from relatives.

Abdul-Atif Al Madhabi, a human rights activist based in Ammran and an expert on the Jewish community’s affairs, explained, “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.”

Dozens of families emigrated after a pilot killed a prominent member of the Jewish community in Ammran in 2008, feeling they were no longer safe. Nearly 60 came to the U.S., with an equal number immigrating to Israel, assisted by the Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Agency and other organizations.

Last May, a member of the Jewish community shopping in a Sanaa market was murdered for practicing “Jewish witchcraft.” Since the Arab Spring uprisings, according to a Jewish Agency official, Yemen is “in chaos and the Jews are not safe.” Most of the few remaining Jews live in isolation due to increasing 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,” Yahya said. “While I was not in Raida, someone broke into my house late at night and stole 32 million Yemeni riyals,” worth almost $150,000. According to him, the stolen money was composed of gold and cash, half of which was for the families that have left Yemen.

Yemeni Jewish women cover their faces according to local tribal custom

At the Jewish school in Raida where Yahya teaches, the pupils are only taught Hebrew, religious studies and mathematics. There are no English language courses or any other subjects included in the curriculum, according to Yahya. Most students go abroad to continue their studies at 13 or 14, he said.

When asked how they could be accepted in American or Israeli schools given their limited educational background, Yahya said, “They are only accepted in Jewish schools.”

Until recently, Jewish girls did not go to school at all. But Yahya says that has recently changed. He became the example for his community, he said, when he taught his own daughter, the first Jewish girl allowed to study. Now she is a teacher for other Jewish girls, he said.

There is a single synagogue in Raida in which Jews pray on the Sabbath and holidays. As for daily prayers, everyone prays alone because there are no longer enough men to make up a minyan.

Yemeni Jews share many of the same tribal customs as their Muslim neighbors. For instance, Yemeni women — Jewish and Muslim — do not appear before male strangers. Jewish girls as young as 10 are covered in black from head to toe, and their faces are veiled.

Rabbi Suleiman Yahya lives in this house with his family and 80-year-old father.

Even at school, only female teachers can teach the girls in segregated classrooms, according to Yahya.

Yemeni Jews complain of widespread harassment and discrimination. “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 that behavior 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 said, adding, “We have nothing to do with Israeli Zionism.”

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.

“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.”

Five families have left in the past 20 months, he said. He expects that in a few years, there will be no Jews remaining in Yemen.