Yemen Report: Jews and minorities ‘exiled at home’

 The NGO  Minority Rights Group has just released this report : “Even war discriminates, minorities in exile at home”into the plight of minorities in war-stricken Yemen.  The report, by Rania El-Rajji, slams the ‘lack of real engagement on the part of regional and international bodies, such as the UN Security Council, (it) has only exacerbated the dire,  humanitarian and human rights situation.” Point of No Return was fortunate to have had an input into the section on the last Jews of Yemen. Here it is in full:

Some of the last Jews in Yemen: threatened and harassed

Following the creation of the state of Israel in
1948, the Middle East’s Jewish communities withered as people eventually left their respective countries, mainly
to go to Israel, but also to North and South America,
Australia and Europe. While declared personae non grata in a number of Arab countries, in some they remained and tried to
fight for their existence. This nevertheless became an
increasing struggle. Within ten years, the Jewish population
of the Arab world had halved. Those who remained were
subject to travel bans in places, and faced the rise of fundamentalism and anti-Jewish sentiment,
especially with the repercussions of the various wars between
Israel and Arab countries, including the 1967 war.

 The Yemeni Jews have had a history of legal and
social persecution in Yemen, causing a steady trickle of
Jews out of Yemen, often on foot, to Palestine over the
centuries.

Though treated as social pariahs for much of the
nineteenth century, their situation temporarily improved after
the Turks recaptured Yemen and abrogated humiliating decrees such as the ‘crown decree’ (30) in 1872.

In 1921 Imam Yahya reinstated the ‘orphans decree’, which
remained in place until the 1950s. The decree ordered that
every dhimmi– including Jewish – orphaned child, would be taken into custody by the authorities and converted
to Islam. (31)

The decree is often described as one of the most traumatizing collective experiences of Yemeni Jews.(32) In addition to the impact it had on individuals and
families, the decree also posed a threat to the very existence of the Jewish community in Yemen.

In 1947, strikes organized in Aden against the UN’s decision to partition Palestine turned into bloody riots that led to the deaths of 82 Jewish people. (33) Shops were looted,homes and schools burnt. This is thought to have been the
main trigger behind the airlift of Yemeni Jews to Israel, beginning in
1949, though many of those who left were also
motivated by socio-economic reasons and the desire for a better
life.

Between 1949 and 1950, an estimated 49,000 (34) Yemeni Jews were
airlifted to Israel in a secret operation that was named
Operation Magic Carpet, or Wings of Eagles.

 Only 3,500
remained. Large waves of migration came to a halt with the
1962 war in the north of Yemen. A travel ban remained in
place until 1992. While estimates varied, in 2005, the
remaining Jews of Yemen were thought to number
between 200 and 500. (35) However,
according to some research, between 1,500 and 2,000 Yemeni Jews may have stayed
in the country but concealed their religious identity for
fear of persecution. (36)

 The situation for those who stayed continued to deteriorate
in the years that followed. The remaining Jews in Yemen
were mostly centred in Saada and in Raida. They lived with
limited opportunities and under the predefined social
status of dhimmis. This also
meant they were considered ‘tribal protégés’, as the tribal system imposed on tribesmen,
as a matter of honour, the protection of the‘weak’,
which included Yemeni Jews. (37)

Incidents of
violence against Yemeni Jews nevertheless continued to
occur.

In 2008, Moshe Ya’ich Al-Nahare, a Jewish
resident of Raida, a city north of Sana’a that retained one
of the largest concentrations of Yemeni Jews, was killed
by another resident who reportedly shouted ‘Convert or
die!’ The court first considered the murderer to be ‘mentally
imbalanced’; (38) he was
eventually sentenced to death but
escaped from prison. During and after the trial, Al-Nahare’s
family came under constant pressure from the killer’s
tribe to accept blood money in return for sparing his life.
Al-Nahare’s family reportedly left the country as a result. (39)

 In May 2012, Aharon Zindani, another Yemeni Jew, was
reportedly accused of witchcraft and stabbed to death in a
market in Sana’a. (40)

Saada’s
remaining Jews were among thousands of internally displaced
persons who left the region from 2006 onwards
following the outbreak of conflict in the area.

MRG could
not obtain any direct testimonies as to the nature of
the threats that made them leave Saada; reports widely
allege they were targeted with violence or threat of violence,
harassment and were at risk of forced conversion by members
of the Houthis during the years of the conflict. (41)

 A number of
Jews from Raida and Saada were offered
shelter by former President Saleh in a compound that used to
be under government protection, called the ‘touristic
city’, in Sana’a. Some have left the country since.

While
reports differ as to the exact number of Jews remaining in
Yemen, our interviewees reported there were presently 83
members of the community, mainly divided between
Sana’a and Raida. They keep a low profile, with men tucking away
their payots or
sidelocks, and practise their religious
rituals in the privacy of their homes.

They have
been sporadic accounts over the last year of continued threats
and violence against members of the Jewish community.

Houthi leaders say that their sentiments are against ‘Zionism
and the occupation of Palestine’ but that Yemeni Jews should
not be afraid.

 Information obtained in the course of our
research suggests that the stipends that were previously given
to Yemeni Jews by the government after their move to Sana
have now stopped, leaving them destitute.

For the Jews of Yemen, the future is what they are
living right now. The few who remain are facing the
burden of war, as all Yemenis are, but also the burden of
having no freedoms, no means of subsistence, and living in
constant fear of becoming the next scapegoat in many people’s eyes.

Like those who left the country in 1949, the
Yemeni Jews forced to flee Saada almost 60 years later had
to abandon everything they knew or owned. Today, those
who have not gone into exile are living in confinement:

I have stopped wanting to speak. People come and go
… people speak in our name … we remain with the
consequences of their words…. We hold a memory,
years of memory, but if words are of silver, silence is of
gold today…. Forgive my harsh words, they come from
a place of hurt …’

Excerpts from interviews with a Yemeni Jew living in
Sana’a, between September and December 2015.

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This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

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Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

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