The Yemenites

Part 1 of Israel’s Diverse “Oriental Jewish Communities”

by Norman Berdichevsky (December 2011)

A central tenet of Zionism is that Jews share a common heritage and destiny. Nevertheless, the reality of Jewish society in the state of Israel is marked by four prominent social and geo-cultural divisions: Orthodox observant vs. secular, veteran settlers vs. new immigrants, the haves vs. the have-nots and Geo-cultural origin (European vs. Middle Eastern or Oriental). The last dimension has often been the source of ethnic humor – gefilte fish vs. shish kebab, but is in fact, a serious ”kulturkampf” over the image of the country (see Edot Hamizrach” Israel’s Oriental Jewish Communities, New English Review, August, 2009). Left wing critics of Israel have tended to use the experience and vocabulary of the American civil rights struggle in order to paint Israel as a racist country. Their central thesis is that the Oriental Jews frequently, but mistakenly labeled as “Sephardim,” have been discriminated against and that this has been a conscious act to perpetuate “white” European Ashkenazi domination. “Ashkenaz” is the term in Hebrew used to describe Jews of Central and East European origin who created a vibrant culture in the Yiddish language during more than thousand years of residence in Northern, Central and Eastern Europe.

While it is true that there has been and still is discrimination, and social snobbery on many levels, the conclusion is simply wrong, misleading and increasingly less true of the younger generation. It is a classic case that the sum of the parts, i.e. many cases of discrimination and cultural arrogance do not add up to the whole – an Ashkenazi racist and exclusivist minority on a par with white South Africa or America sixty years ago. Although a gross simplification, it has become acceptable parlance to divide all Jews into two major geo-cultural groups; “Ashkenazim,” and “Sephardim”, from the Hebrew term Spharad, denoting Spain and the Diaspora that followed the 1492 expulsion of Jews from the Iberian peninsula (1492-1497). Technically speaking, calling all Jews who were and are indigenous to Asia and Africa as Sephardim is wrong historically and just as misleading as European settlers calling the native peoples of the Western hemisphere “Indians.”

Part One dealing with the Jews from Yemen will be the first of an eight part series to appear in future issues of New English Review that will explore Israel’s diverse communities of “Mizrachim” (Orientals) i.e. Jews of non-Ashkenazi origin (from Yemen, Iraq, Morocco, Iran, Turkey and Greece, Kurdistan, Central Asia and Ethiopia).

The Jewish community of Yemen, of ancient origin (neither Ashkenazi or Sephardi), was under the control of Shi’ite rulers who, until the direct imposition of Ottoman rule in 1872, regarded non-Muslims as without any rights in the law and subject to humiliating and onerous duties during the latter half of the seventeenth century. This even included direct prohibition of Jewish traditions such as the use of a male head covering.  They were plundered and persecuted for refusing to convert to Islam during periods of particularly harsh rule and those who refused conversion were ordered expelled in 1678, their synagogues destroyed and public prayer forbidden (contradicting all the apologetic defense of supposed “traditional Muslim tolerance”). Those who survived the expulsion sought refuge in peripheral areas outside the control of the imams in Sa’ana. Not until 1781 were they permitted to return to Sa’ana and the main towns. Extreme poverty, drought and periods of starvation were the lot of most of the population. Under Ottoman rule, in addition to the special “jizya” tax per adult male, the Jews had to pay, Jewish women were further obligated to mill grain for the Turkish soldiers stationed in the country, an increasingly difficult burden.   

Between 1882 and World War I, Jewish immigrants from Yemen, aware of renewed Jewish life in the Holy land, established distinct residential communities in Jerusalem, Jaffa and the newly established Zionist agricultural colonies of Rishon Le-Zion, Petah Tikvah, Nes-Ziona, Hadera, Rehovot and Zichron-Yaakov as well as the Kerem HaTemanim (Vineyard of the Yemenites) section of the new city of Tel Aviv (founded 1909), the site of the city’s colorful outdoor market and restaurant area. In each case, the original nucleus of Yemeni settlement preserved its ethnic character in spite of urban growth and the transformation of the agricultural colonies into towns.

The original motivation for the migration of Yemenite Jews to Palestine was wholly religious. Beginning in 1908, many were recruited by representatives of the agricultural colonies with the backing of the Zionist movement to settle in the colonies and work in agriculture. Their appearance, dress, speech, devout observance of Jewish religious law and customs including occasional polygamy were regarded with initial amazement and condescension by the Ashkenazi Zionist settlers who were largely ignorant of this remote community that seemed transported from another world.  By 1908, the Yemeni born Jewish population of Palestine was estimated at 2,700. The overwhelming majority of them lived in abject poverty but received no philanthropic help from abroad like many other orthodox European Jews who had settled in the Holy Land.

The Yemenites were welcomed by the farmers in the colonies who had been troubled by the vexing problem of being forced to employ cheap Arab labor. The success of finding a dependable source of Jewish labor led to further recruitment and the commissioning of a special envoy, Shmuel Yavnieli, who was sent to Yemen in 1911 in order to stimulate further immigration. The farmers’ wives employed the Yemenite women as domestics in their homes while the men toiled in the field. At first, some Ashkenazim farmers were impatient with the strange arrivals. It was their first encounter with a traditional Mizrachi community and they openly ridiculed them.

In Yemen, most of the Jews had been engaged in weaving, goldsmithing, pottery, agriculture and itinerant trade and were reduced to a barely tolerated “dhimmi” community regarded with contempt by the Muslim majority who forced them to suffer many humiliating ordinances such as handling corpses, cleaning latrines and streets. The European Jewish workers who were strongly committed to socialism saw in the Yemenites a potential ally in their class struggle against the farmers. Although both workers and farmers were Jews and Zionists, the workers had a strong commitment to the class struggle but had been unable to communicate a common vision to the Arabs who worked alongside of them. The socialist ideologues of the workers’ movement saw in the Yemenites prospective allies but their militant anticlericalism and talk of a future egalitarian society proved unintelligible to most Yemenites who had abandoned their homes and property in order to rebuild the Land of Israel and usher in the messianic era.

Socially and spatially, the Zionist agricultural colonies all acquired a distinctive Yemenite neighborhood on the periphery of the colony. After working hours, there was initially little social intercourse although slowly the two groups were able to communicate by means of the Hebrew language even if the Yemenites had to learn many new words for the objects and implements of the new society they found themselves in that differed profoundly from the traditional society they had left in Yemen. The Yemenites were not eager to participate in the affairs of the colonies and asked to be exempt from taxation but slowly the extension of suffrage and the growth of a modern Hebrew school system in which the Yemenite children participated (even though all of the teachers were veteran Ashkenazi settlers) aided their understanding of the wider community. Most of all the growing conflict with the Arabs forged closer ties between the Ashkenazim and “Teymanim” (Yemeni Jews) as both sides realized that they had to cooperate and cultivate the ties that bound them.

The Yemeni quarters in the colonies were allowed a large measure of autonomy in matters of political, social and cultural organization. The segregation of the Yemenites during the period of the British Mandate (1920-1948) did not stem from conscious imitation of the prevailing millet system of the Ottoman Empire in which most religious communities lived in distinct quarters. It was based on the provision of land by the Zionist agencies for new immigrants and the desire for social and spatial solidarity among the new immigrants. Even separate cemeteries and synagogues were in existence for the period of the Mandate and continued until this form of social segregation began to break down after the establishment of the State of Israel.

In the 1930s the arrival of many new immigrants from Germany and Poland prompted many of the landowners including some Yemenites to offer rooms for rent making possible the emergence of a new land owning class of Yemenites who were able to capitalize on the one major source of capital they possessed – land. The Yemenites also found that they often shared more of a common political outlook with the new immigrants who were not doctrinaire socialists but supporters of the more militant and dynamic nationalist organization that formed the backbone of the underground resistance groups – the Irgun and the Stern gang.

The Yemenites saw in the “official” Zionist line of self-defense that became the policy of the Haganah and the modern Israel Labor Party a mistaken policy that only encouraged Arab intransigence. At times, the Yemenites saw no problem in collaborating with local Arabs on bread and butter issues including partnerships, trade and opening jointly owned ventures such as a bus company in defiance of the official line of the Labor movement that ran cooperatives but only employed labor on the basis of union membership. The greater familiarity with the attitudes of the Arab majority caused the Yemenites to view Ashkenazi attempts at some kind of compromise solution over statehood as illusionary. They were inclined to accept the vision of the rightwing underground groups and the moral-religious claim to a Jewish state in all of Palestine. They were, for the most part, among the most enthusiastic supporters of the Herut movement and its leader, Menachem Begin.

In his autobiographical account, The Revolt, (1950, page 119), Begin recalls the attempts made by the Labor Party to blacken the image of the Irgun by exploitation of ethnic issues and prejudicial notions of the “primitive Yemenites”

“In the Red section (the shock units of the Irgun) there were many excellent fighters and all or almost all looked like Arabs. But it was not only people from the Arab countries who are dark skinned. There are many Ashkenazi Jews from Europe who are no less dark and sometimes darker than the purest Sephardi. It is true however that many of the fighters in the Shock Units sprung from the Eastern Communities. Hence the story disseminated particularly by the British press correspondents of the “Black Squad” of the Irgun, allegedly composed only of Yemenites. Ben Gurion, in an attempt to prove to Foreign minister Bevin that the Irgun was both qualitatively and quantitatively a “negligible factor” repeated this lie….In fact nothing of the sort was true. We were a melting pot of the Jewish nation in miniature. Our comrades from the Eastern communities felt happy and at home in the Irgun. Nobody ever displayed any stupid airs of superiority towards them.”

Among the veteran Ashkenazi population, the stereotype of “hot blooded knife wielding” Yemenite (similar to old American prejudices against Italian immigrants) was however soundly appreciated by the Ashkenazi majority when, a melee broke out Rehovot in 1942 involving antisemitic Polish troops stationed in the colony. Dozens of local Yemenites from the Sha’arayim neighborhood came to the aid of their fellow Jews and handed the Poles a thrashing causing them to request a transfer.

Today, the Yemenite residential quarters are still visible but they are no longer separated or segregated by socio-economic status or ethnic origin. The great housing booms and prosperity that have characterized much of the last forty years have altered all the former Yemenite “quarters”. Cheaper housing attracted many Ashkenazim, especially among new immigrants to buy homes in these same areas. On the other hand, upwardly mobile Yemenites moved to the town centers and intermarried. The old perceptions of Yemenite exclusivity have diminished considerably and the younger generation is divided by education, occupation, economic status, property ownership and political affiliation.

Paradoxically, it was the very “clannishness” of the Yemenites that undoubtedly allowed them to make the most significant contribution among non-Ashkenazim to the contemporary Hebrew culture of Israel, especially in song, dance, music, design of embroidery, jewelry, and religious ornaments. 

Popular music with an Oriental flavor, especially Yemenite was already part of the new Hebrew culture in the late 1940s with such Mizrachi stars as Shoshana Damari, Geula Gill and Yaffa Yarkoni and has reached an even wider and younger audience today. Chaim Moshe, “Rita,” Zehava Ben, Sarit Hadad, Avinoam Nini, the late Zohar Argov, Boaz Shar’abi, Ninet Tayeb, Yitzhak Kala and Avihu Medina and Ofra Haza are in the forefront of Israeli singers. Two very successful groups are Habreira Hativ'it (“The Natural Alternative”) group and Bustan Avraham (“Abraham's Orchard”) are both are fusion groups incorporating Greek, Turkish, Yemenite Moroccan, Persian and Indian elements in an eclectic style.

Author’s note: I did my Ph.d. research in the town of Rehovot and Yemenite quarter of Sha’arayim (1972-73), examining the changes in residential differentiation and internal social structure as a result of urban growth;  see The Social Geography of Rehovot, An Israeli Case Study of Residential Differentiation,1890-1973 in cooperation with the Department of Geography – Hebrew University. Jerusalem, Israel. An abridged version of this dissertation entitled “The Persistence of the Yemeni Quarter in an Israeli Town” was published in vol. 1 Studies of Israeli Society edited by Ernest Krausz, Bar Ilan University. Israel Sociological Society; Transaction Books,1980. pp.73-96.  

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Norman Berdichevsky contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all his contributions, on which comments are welcome.


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