Tag: Jews of Arabia

Jews have always lived in the Gulf, but in small numbers

With more and more Arabs interested in the history of local Jews in the wake of the historic peace deals between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, Dr Nimrod Rafaeli  at MEMRI has compiled this useful summary,  based on a book by the Kuwaiti scholar Yusuf Ali Al-Mutairi titled A-yahud fi al-khaleej. (With thanks: Lily)



The Origins Of The Jews In The Gulf:
Most of the Jews who settled in the Gulf countries, primarily in Kuwait and Bahrain, were of Iraqi origin, and many of them were seeking either to escape military conscription under the Ottoman Empire or to explore economic opportunities. Of these Jews, only a few have remained, likely only in Bahrain where the Jewish population numbers around 70. (Current estimates put the number at no more than 25 – ed)

A member of that community, Huda Nonoo, was her country’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2008 to 2013 – making her the first ambassador of the Jewish faith to represent an Arab country. 

According to Al-Mutairi, Jews held important positions in Ahsaa (currently in eastern Saudi Arabia), notably the post of treasurer of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the area through WWI. The post was held by three successive Jews – Yacoub Efendi, 1878-1879; Daoud bin Shintob (“Shintob” being an Arabicization of the Hebrew “Shemtov”), 1879-1894; and Haroun Efendi, 1895-96.[5] During their tenure, many of the entries in the financial books were in Hebrew (most likely in Arabic transliterated in Rashi script, which was commonly used by old-generation Iraqi Jews). 

Al-Mutairi suggested that keeping the financial records in Hebrew may have been aimed at preventing an audit of the accounts, possibly to protect their Ottoman superiors. But perhaps the most significant post held by a Jew was that of Director of Customs for the whole province – a highly desirable position sought after by many both inside and outside Ahsaa because of the potential it offered for illicit income. 

 The Jewish Cemetery In Ahsaa:
Not long ago, a Saudi friend of the author of this article mentioned the existence of a Jewish cemetery in Ahsaa. According to this information, the land on which the cemetery was located is largely deserted, and no one has claimed it, although locals continue to refer to it as maqbarat al-yehud – “the Jewish cemetery.” Given that only a few Jews lived and died in the area, the cemetery itself could not have been large. 

 The Jews In Kuwait:
The Jews in Kuwait numbered between 100 and 200; they had their own synagogue, called a kanisah. A British diplomat, John Gordon Lorimer, hinted at tensions with the local authorities “chiefly for the distillation of spirituous liquors which some of the Mohammadan [Muslim] population consume secretly in dread of the Sheikh.”

A Jewish Official In Muscat, Oman:

Jews had been living in Muscat since at least 1625. In 1673, according to one traveler, a synagogue was being built, implying permanence. British officer James Wellsted also noted the existence of a Jewish community when he visited in the 1830s. 

The British had a letter addressed to a Jewish agent in the Gulf translated into Hebrew – presumably so that Arabs would not be able to read it (Photo: British Library)

A fascinating discovery was made not long ago in the British Library: a letter written in 1859 by a British naval officer in the Gulf, Griffith Jenkins, to a subordinate in Muscat named Hezkel ben Yosef, to whom Jenkins refers in the letter as “Agent of British Monarchy.” In the letter, Jenkins refers obliquely to the Imam who held sway in Oman’s interior and concludes by asking Hezkel to explain the matter in private – and then, interestingly, had the letter translated into Hebrew.

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Mysterious ‘Jew’ surfaces in Najran and invites visitors

Since 1949, there have been no Jews living in Najran, an area of Saudi Arabia that was conquered in the 1930s from Yemen. According to Elder of Ziyon, a mysterious video clip has been doing the rounds of Arab media. It shows a man who claims to be a Jew from Najran, a city in southwestern Saudi Arabia near the Yemen border. He is inviting Jews to visit him, claiming that there are 1,000-year old synagogues to see in Najran. Is it possible that the man’s family was converted to Islam, or simply refused to join the exodus? Or is he a vehicle for the regime to join the Arab chorus inviting Jews to return (see here, here, hereand here) to the kingdom, in the light of warming relations with Israel?



A ‘Jew’ has surfaced in judenrein Najran. 

‘There were a number of Jews originally from Yemen who had conquered Najran in pre-Islamic times’, writes Elder. ‘In 1934, the town came under Saudi rule and the Jews were persecuted. In 1949 the Jews fled back to Yemen and from there they went to Israel.

‘This man, however, claims that he still lives in Najran as a Jew and he is inviting Jews from around the world to visit him, where he can show them ancient synagogues -one that is a thousand years old and one that is over 1500 years old.It shows a man who claims to be a Jew from Najran, a city in southwestern Saudi Arabia near the Yemen border.’

Elder can find no evidence of synagogues in Najran on the web.

 The Jewish Virtual Library describes how Jews in Najran enjoyed more freedom and equality than Jews in Yemen:

According to Yemenite Jewish tradition, the Jews of Najrān trace their origin to the Ten Tribes. They lived in the region of Najrān in Saudi Arabia and were the only group of Yemenite Jews who lived outside Yemen under the rule of another kingdom.

On the strength of the laws of the desert and tribal protection, they were not subjected to persecution as were the Jews of Yemen.

They enjoyed the same equality of rights as the Arabs of Saudi Arabia, were not taxed, and did not pay the *jizya (the poll tax imposed on non-Muslims in the Muslim countries “in exchange for the protection” granted them by the government).

The Bedouin of Saudi Arabia, who belonged to the Sunni Islam sect, practiced religious tolerance toward them and ate meat slaughtered under their laws of sheḥitah. The Jews of Najrān carried weapons in self-defense, as did the other inhabitants, and were renowned for their courage and strength.

There was no other place in the Arabian Peninsula where Jews lived in such dignity and freedom as in Najrān.

By profession they were craftsmen: they worked essentially in goldsmithing and repairing arms. They earned a good livelihood and their material conditions surpassed those of Yemenite Jews. Their settlements were scattered throughout Najrān in small units of two to forty families. They lived in clay houses or in huts. Their clothes, of both men and women, were slightly different from that of Saudi Arabians and Yemenite Jews.

 The strict barrier between men and women, which was customary in social life throughout Yemen, was nonexistent among them. At festivities and celebrations men and women sat together and women danced to the sound of the men’s singing.

 

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According to Wikipedia :

There was a small Jewish community, mostly members of Bnei Chorath, lived in one border city from 1934 until 1950. The Yemeni city of Najran was conquered by Saudi forces in 1934, absorbing its Jewish community, which dates to pre-Islamic times.[10] With increased persecution, the Jews of Najran made plans to evacuate.


A Jewish family from Najran in an Israeli ma’abara.

The local governor at the time, Amir Turki ben Mahdi, allowed the 600 Najrani Jews[11] a single day on which to either evacuate or never leave again. Saudi soldiers accompanied them to the Yemeni border. These Jews arrived in Saada,[12] and some 200 continued south to Aden between September and October 1949.

The Saudi King Abdulaziz demanded their return, but the Yemeni king, Ahmad bin Yahya refused, because these refugees were Yemenite Jews. After settling in the Hashid Camp (also called Mahane Geula) they were airlifted to Israel as part of the larger Operation Magic Carpet.[13]

Saudi leader visits Auschwitz for the first time

A senior Saudi religious leader is slated to visit the Auschwitz death camp in Poland on Thursday ahead of the 75th anniversary of its liberation by the Soviet Red Army, reports Times of Israel. This is a positive step towards combating Holocaust denial in the Arab world. But will  Arab governments recognise the antisemitism in their own back yard?



Mohammed al-Issa, the secretary-general of the Muslim World League, speaking on April 25, 2018 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. (Screenshot: American Sephardi Federation)

Mohammed al-Issa (pictured), the secretary-general of the Mecca-based Muslim World League (MWL) and a former Saudi justice minister, is scheduled to arrive at Auschwitz alongside Muslim religious leaders from more than 24 countries and a delegation of American Jewish Committee (AJC) officials.

 AJC CEO David Harris said the trip represented “the most senior delegation of Muslim religious leaders to visit Auschwitz ever.”

 Issa, the Muslim clerics and the AJC officials will tour the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw on Friday as well as visit the Nozyk Synagogue in the Polish capital and a local mosque, Kenneth Bandler, a spokesman for AJC said, adding that the group will share an interfaith Shabbat meal too.

They also plan to meet with Holocaust survivors on Friday at the synagogue, according to an individual familiar with the details of the trip who asked not to be name.

Issa’s expected visit to Auschwitz comes after he visited the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, in May 2018 and wrote an opinion article in the Washington Post in January 2019 condemning the Nazis’ “heinous crimes.”

He also declared that “Muslims around the world have a responsibility to learn” about the lessons of the Holocaust.

“I urge all Muslims to learn the history of the Holocaust, to visit memorials and museums of this horrific event and to teach its lesson to their children,” Issa, who is considered an ally of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, wrote in the article.

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The curious case of the Arabian Jews of Najran

It is widely known that Saudi Arabia permits neither Jews nor  Christians to become citizens, nor will it officially allow Jewish travellers to enter. But until 1934, the year when the kingdom was established, Jews lived at its southern tip, at Najran. However persecution forced hundreds of Najrani Jews to seek shelter in the neighbouring kingdom of Yemen and Aden. Together with the majority of Yemen’s Jews, the Najrani Jews were airlifted to Israel in 1949. (With thanks: Lily)

TheJewish Virtual Library has this entry:

According to Yemenite Jewish tradition, the Jews of Najrān trace their
origin to the Ten Tribes. They lived in the region of Najrān in Saudi
Arabia and were the only group of Yemenite Jews who lived outside Yemen
under the rule of another kingdom. On the strength of the laws of the
desert and tribal protection, they were not subjected to persecution as
were the Jews of Yemen.

They enjoyed the same equality of rights as the
Arabs of Saudi Arabia, were not taxed, and did not pay the *jizya
(the poll tax imposed on non-Muslims in the Muslim countries “in
exchange for the protection” granted them by the government). The
Bedouin of Saudi Arabia, who belonged to the Sunni Islam sect, practiced
religious tolerance toward them and ate meat slaughtered under their
laws of sheḥitah. The Jews of Najrān carried weapons in
self-defense, as did the other inhabitants, and were renowned for their
courage and strength.

There was no other place in the Arabian Peninsula
where Jews lived in such dignity and freedom as in Najrān. By profession
they were craftsmen: they worked essentially in goldsmithing and
repairing arms. They earned a good livelihood and their material
conditions surpassed those of Yemenite Jews. Their settlements were
scattered throughout Najrān in small units of two to forty families.
They lived in clay houses or in huts. Their clothes, of both men and
women, were slightly different from that of Saudi Arabians and Yemenite
Jews.

The strict barrier between men and women, which was customary in
social life throughout Yemen, was nonexistent among them. At festivities
and celebrations men and women sat together and women danced to the
sound of the men’s singing.

After 1936, their relations with Yemenite
Jews were not very close, because the two groups were under the rule of
different kingdoms which occasionally were at war with each other. The
life of the Jews of Najrān, dispersed as they were in small settlements,
did not encourage the development of Torah studies among them or the
fostering of an independent spiritual culture. In matters of religion
and halakhah they were dependent on the community of nearby Saʿdah (one day away from them), and when necessary, on the bet din of *Sanʿa.

 The Jews of Saʿdah served as their spiritual guardians in times of
need: they provided them with religious books and guided them in their
religious practices. Therefore, their prayers, customs, and system of
study were very closely related. In Israel they are concentrated in
Kiryat Ekron, which is inhabited by the Jews of Saʿdah. When the Jews of
Najrān immigrated to Israel in 1949, they numbered about 250.

According to Wikipedia :

The Yemeni city of Najran was conquered by Saudi forces in 1934, absorbing its Jewish community, which dates to pre-Islamic times.[7]
With increased persecution, the Jews of Najran made plans to evacuate.
The local governor at the time, Amir Turki ben Mahdi, allowed the 600
Najrani Jews[8]
a single day on which to either evacuate or never leave again. Saudi
soldiers accompanied them to the Yemeni border. These Jews arrived in Saada,[9] and some 200 continued south to Aden between September and October 1949. The Saudi King Abdulaziz demanded their return, but the Yemeni king, Ahmad bin Yahya
refused, because these refugees were Yemenite Jews. After settling in
the Hashid Camp (also called Mahane Geula) they were airlifted to Israel
as part of the larger Operation Magic Carpet.[10]

Saudi Jewish sites may be accessible soon

Thevisit to Israel  by a Saudi Arabian ex-general, Anwar El-Eshki and his delegation, might herald a new dawn in Saudi-Jewish relations, in which Jewish visitors to the kingdom might be able to see for themselves sites of Jewish interest. The Times of Israel reports (with thanks: Lily):

These are five top Jewish spots in Saudi Arabia, to savor online for now, and just maybe up close in the near future:

1) Khaybar is situated in a valley with
natural wells that have irrigated the area since ancient times, aiding
in the growth of dates known throughout the country. The oasis made
Khaybar a regular stop along the incense trade route from Yemen to the
Levant, which is why it was the home of the Jewish community at the
time. Visitors can also stop at the Jewish cemetery, a 1,400-year-old
graveyard without any headstones but known locally for its Jewish
history.

2) There’s also the Khaybar Fortress, perched
on a hill overlooking the oasis, which is at least 1,400 years old. The
earliest accounts of its construction date from the Battle of Khaybar,
when the Prophet Mohammed and his army invaded and conquered Khaybar. It
was Mohammed’s nephew and son-in-law, Ali, who was able to unlock the
gate of the fortress to allow the Muslim armies to finally conquer the
fortress. It was rebuilt and reused several times, but is still usually
referred to it as the Fortress of the Jews.

Khaybar fortress (Courtesy CC BY-SA 3.0)

Khaybar fortress (Wikimedia Commons)

3) The Palace of the Jewish Tribe’s Head is
also located in Khaybar, and was the home of the Jewish tribe of Marhab.
The tribe was known to be wealthy from dealing in gold and jewelry, and
the palace it lived in is above the town, about a ten-minute climb from
the center.

4) In Tayma, which was often referred to as a
fortified city belonging to the Jews, most travelers stop at the
Al-Naslaa Rock Formation, located in the Tayma oasis. It’s considered to
have one of the most photogenic petroglyphs, or rock art, depicting the
life and times of ancient communities. Al-Naslaa is also known for the
perfect, natural slit between the two standing stones. Experts say the
cause of this perfect slit could be the ground having shifted slightly
underneath one of the two supports.

5) At the center of Tayma is Bir Haddaj, a
large well considered to be about 2,500 years old, dating back at least
to the middle of the sixth century BCE. It wasn’t in use until the
1950s, when it was repaired and later restored to its previous
appearance.

The well is mentioned in the Book of Isaiah
as the place where the descendants of Ishmael’s son, Tema, lived: “Unto
him that is thirsty bring ye water! The inhabitants of the land of Tema
did meet the fugitive with his bread.”

There are also the famous Tayma stones inscribed in Aramaic that are now in the LouvreMuseum. Thousands of other Aramaic inscriptions that have been found in the area are stored in the city’s museum.

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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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