From Yemen to Israel: Yemenite Jews under threat

23 03 2009

Photo Credit: AFP, BBC Middle East

Photo Credit: AFP, BBC Middle East


There have been several articles recently about Yemeni Jews being threatened by militants allegedly linked to Al Qaeda. Last month, the Jewish Agency for Israel has helped several of them fly over to their now new home, Israel. The U.S. has engaged in talks with Yemeni authorities to secure safe conditions for some 300 Jewish Yemenis from the town of Rada (or Rayda). Their fate has yet to be determined.

Reports are mixed. Some said militants have harassed them, at times physically. Others said their Muslim neighbors did the harassment. Perhaps the truth lies in between.

This is not new to Yemen. A couple of years ago, Jews from the northern towns of Saada and Al Salem received threats to leave their homes. According to Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, taking from the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan, the residents of Saada were given 10 days evacuate their homes. These threats were carried out by Muslim youth organizations and instigated by a cleric called Hussein Badr el-Dein al-Houthi. The residents were given some financial aid to rent accommodation in other safer places. 

Reading these reports is like reading about the state of the Arab Jews shortly after 1948; outright expulsion as Israel declared itself a country. Yemenite Jews have strong roots in the country, dating all the way back to the time of King Solomon, according to some historical studies. They maintained their place and tradition despite later prosecution. I’ve been told that they have a distinguished Hebrew accent that makes it more similar to Arabic than the common Hebrew. Despite earlier exodus to Israel after 1881 and 1948, there remain some 400 of them in Yemen today, mainly in the towns of Beit Harash and Raydah. The women in the photo above seem to take after Muslim traditions of the hijab (headscarf) and the black abayas (dresses). In some way, they have assimilated Arab traditions as part of their own culture.

These Jews could have chosen to live in Israel years ago. Over the past 60 years, they had the opportunity, nay encouragement, to become Israeli citizens. Instead, they chose to live in their Arab Yemen. They chose to live in a Muslim state over a Jewish one. They probably felt more at home in their Arab town than any other place. And the fact that they are being harassed now because of their religion is outrageous. None of the reports link them to pro-Israel and anti-Arab sentiment. This is anti-Semitism in its crudest form.

Perhaps they will find a more comfortable home in Israel. Like the Palestinians who were forced out of their homes, however, these Yemenite Jews must have the right to return to their Yemen.

*You can read more about Yeminite Jews here.



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