Elderly Yemeni Jew (photo: Mohamed al-Sayaghi / Reuters)
Twenty families in a guarded compound in Sana’a – 90 people – are all that remain of Yemen’s 2, 500-year-old Jewish communities. Very soon the young will be gone too. Time magazine reports:
“Jews who lived their entire lives there and resisted the notion of
leaving for a long time are going now. It’s time,” says Misha Galperin,
the head of international development for the Jewish Agency, adding that
the recent airlift was a “clandestine operation” because Yemen and
Israel have no diplomatic ties.
Most of the 20 or so families that remain, including Habib’s,
live behind the walls of a government compound for expats near the U.S.
embassy in Sana‘a called Tourist City, cut off from the rest of society.
The elders never leave. Now and again the younger men venture out to
sell jewelry at a nearby market.
Reels of razor wire, soldiers and German shepherds make the entrance
look like a prison. Inside it is quiet and leafy. With a playground, two
ATMs, a restaurant, pharmacy and a bus to shuttle them around the
compound, it has the sleepy feel of a retirement community in Florida.
The Jews, who raise goats and chickens on plots of land next to the
homes of Russian oil barons and aid workers, rarely leave the compound.
Instead they rely on a monthly stipend for food and rent provided by the
In a modest apartment filled with smoke, a vacant Habib and several other Jewish elders rest on cushions, smoking shisha
pipes and chewing khat. A portrait of Saleh dominates one wall. A wily
tank commander turned politician, Saleh was well known for courting the
Jewish community. He appeared frequently on state TV with the
community’s rabbi, and once delivered legs of lamb at Passover to the
families in Tourist City. His critics dismissed such gestures as window
dressing for his dictatorial rule.
It was Saleh who, in 2009, enabled Habib and his family to flee to
the capital after their house was bombed in Saadah — a northern province
controlled by a Shi‘ite group called the Houthis, who count “Death to
Israel, damn the Jews” among their slogans.
Life in the compound, while often mundane, allows Habib and the other
Jews who fled other parts of Yemen a large degree of religious freedom.
The women, who had worn veils in public in deference to their Muslim
neighbors, walk between the houses in bright green dresses, carrying
pots of lamb stew, or choula, and chatting loudly, their faces uncovered. The men, many in long white galabiya with their side curls and kippah
in full view, sit in the compound’s synagogue reciting verses from the
Torah, a practice that was previously confined to their homes.
But rising lawlessness in the aftermath of Saleh’s departure, and the
failure to include Jews in an ongoing national dialogue, fuels a belief
among the Jews that they are being abandoned by the transitional
government. Last year the official in charge of Tourist City cut
off food rations for eight months, and one of the residents, Aaron
Zindani, was stabbed to death by a street vendor while at a nearby
market with his children.
At the same time, anti-Jewish sentiment in Yemen is anything but
universal. Yemenis, when asked, often refer to the Jews as their
“brothers.” Many mourn the departure of their country’s oldest religious
minority as a loss to Yemen and its once multiracial identity.
“They are Yemenis,” says Ashwaq Aljobi, who works at the Sawaa
Organization for Anti-Discrimination, a nongovernmental organization
that advocates for Yemen’s Jews and other marginalized peoples. “If they
want to travel, it’s O.K. But if they stay here, it is still their
Habib is torn. Yemen is his homeland, he says, and he plans to die
here. But his family members are leaving one by one. His eldest son
Ibrahim, who tucks his side curls under a Yankees cap when he leaves the
compound to avoid attracting attention, says he plans to join his
cousins in Tel Aviv later this year.
“Living in a state of exile in your own country … that’s no life.”
says Ibrahim, gloomily. “It’s a sad thing [because] Yemen will always be
part of me, but I can no longer be part of it.”