Daily Israel Report

Rare Interview Reveals Tragic Plight of Yemenite Jewry

In a rare televised interview, the leader of Yemen's embattled Jewish community reveals the precarious plight of his dwindling flock.
By Ari Soffer
First Publish: 9/2/2013, 11:17 PM

(Illustration): Yemenite Jews in Sana'a
(Illustration): Yemenite Jews in Sana'a
Reuters

The leader of Yemen's embattled and dwindling Jewish community has spoken of his community's harrowing struggle to survive, in a rare interview with Yemen Today TV.

Rabbi Yahya Youssef Salem's interview, translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) (see below) provides a rare glimpse into the tragic existence of the few remaining Jews in the Middle East's poorest country; trapped between Muslim extremists and unsympathetic government officials, and forced to completely submit their fate to state authorities just to survive.

At the start of the 20th century there were more than 60,000 Jews in Yemen. One of the most ancient Diaspora communities, according to Jewish traditions the first Jews moved to Yemen during the reign of the Biblical King Solomon, around 900 BCE.

But by 2009, following centuries of persecution - which reached fever pitch after 1948, as Jews throughout the Muslim world were targeted in "revenge" for Arab military defeats and the establishment of the State of Israel - the community had shrunk to just 400 or so. Most Yemeni Jews emigrated to Israel during the famous "Operation Magic Carpet" operation to evacuate them between 1949-1950.

By 2012, a resurgent campaign of anti-Semitic violence caused most of the few Jews who remained to either flee the country (mainly to Israel, but also to the US and Europe), or seek sanctuary in a government compound in the capital Sana'a, under the protection of the country's then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

That violence included the murder of Jewish schoolteacher Moshe Nahari in 2008, and of community leader Aaron Zindani in 2010. Both of their families subsequently fled to Israel.

Threats by Al Qaeda-linked groups on the one hand, and Shia Islamist "Houthi" rebels on the other, have forced many of the remaining Jews to flee their homes, seeking refuge in the Sana'a government compound.

And since the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012, things have taken a turn for the worse.

Today, there are only around 90 Jews remaining in Yemen, most of whom live in the Sana'a government compound. 45 Yemeni Jews have emigrated to Israel since the beginning of this year alone.

In an indication of just how closely the community is monitored by the Yemeni authorities, the interviewer notes that she was forced to seek special clearance from the Interior Ministry just to speak to Rabbi Salem, and accused the government of discriminating against its Jewish minority.

When asked why he "accepts" the situation, despite the fact that she has never needed official clearance to interview anyone before, a nervous-looking Rabbi Salem cautiously responds that "we are Yemenis, and we represent the country, so they [the Interior Ministry] need to give their approval," and insists that his community "take[s] care to preserve the good name of our country."

Rabbi Salem also explains how he was forced to cut off his peyot (sidecurls), traditionally grown long by Yemenite Jews, as a result of regular harassment by local Muslims.

Decrying attempts to evict them from their last remaining refuge by the country's Finance Minister - who claims his ministry can no longer fund the leasing of the building they are living in - the Rabbi recounts how the Jews of Sa'ada province, in the north of the country, were forced from their homes by Houthi rebels:

"They took our homes, our land, our cars - they even took my historical library!" he lamented to the openly sympathetic interviewer.

Human rights group Amnesty International has in the past called on the Yemeni government to protect its Jewish citizens, declaring that it is “deeply concerned for the safety of members of the Jewish community in northwestern Yemen following the killing of one member of the community and anonymous serious threats to others to leave Yemen or face death.”

But statements and sympathies aside, little hope remains for the Jewish community of Yemen.

Last month, the Jewish Agency coordinated a complex, secret operation to evacuate 17 more community members, reuniting them with family members who had been staying in a third country since escaping earlier in the year.

Those Jews who remain are either elderly or, like Rabbi Salem, community leaders who do not wish to leave their flock behind. But despite his valiant efforts Yemen appears destined to join the long list of Arab countries whose Jewish communities have been driven to extinction.