Persecution Defines Life for Yemen’s Remaining Jews

Rod Nordland writes in the NYTimes:

RAIDA, Yemen — About all that remain of Yemen’s ancient and once vibrant Jewish community are untended cemeteries, dramatic hillside ghetto villages of thousand-year-old stone houses and a few people like Abraham Jacob and his extended family.

Most of them live near this northern Yemeni town in Amran Province, deep in territory controlled by Houthi militants, whose leaders have made anti-Semitism a central plank in their political platform.

It shows. When Mr. Jacob, 36, came to the souk here Thursday to meet journalists and take them on a rare visit to his community, he rode a battered motorcycle, his long, curly earlocks flapping and making him readily identifiable as Jewish. When traffic stalled for a minute, a khat dealer accosted the visitors’ Yemeni interpreter, Shuaib Almosawa, a journalist.

“What are you doing with that dirty Jew?” the dealer said. “Why are you friendly with him?”

“He’s a human being, after all,” Mr. Almosawa replied.

“No, he’s not,” the dealer said. “God has damned him.”

The last of Yemen’s once numerous Jews, who predated Muslims by many centuries, have seldom been so threatened and had so few protectors. The Houthis, who now dominate the country, are particularly strong in the two places with confirmed remaining Yemeni Jews: here in Raida, where there are 55 Jews, and in Sana, the capital, where a small number live under what amounts to house arrest by the Houthi leadership.

The two countries that have long facilitated Jewish emigration from Yemen — the United States and Britain — both closed their embassies last week, as did most other Western countries. And the Yemeni strongman who for three decades was the Jews’ protector, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, is not only out of power, but also, more recently, out of favor with the Houthis.

“We have no friends,” Mr. Jacob said, “so we just try to stay away from everyone as much as we can.”

They have more to fear than bad words. The encounter in the souk took place a short distance from where a Yemeni Air Force pilot in 2008 accosted Moshe Yaish Nahari, the brother of a prominent rabbi and the father of eight children, as he stepped out of his home. The assailant coldly said, “Jew, here’s a message from Islam,” and then fatally shot Mr. Nahari, who was unarmed, five times with an assault rifle, according to Yemeni news accounts.

The pilot was convicted and sentenced to death for murder, but Mr. Nahari’s family, pressured into accepting blood money from the killer’s tribe to spare his life, left Yemen as soon as possible.

In the next few years, nearly all of Raida’s Jews followed. Among the exceptions were Abraham Jacob and eight other interrelated households, 55 people in all, most of them children, according to Suleiman Jacob, 45, Abraham’s eldest brother and the community’s unofficial rabbi and kosher butcher.

Like the men, most of the boys in the Jacob family wear earlocks, a proud sign of who they are in an otherwise Muslim society.

Now Suleiman keeps his earlocks thin and long enough so that when he goes out he can tuck them out of sight under an Arabic-style head scarf, which also covers the skullcaps (or kipas) that the men and boys all wear. “It’s a shame that we have to do that sometimes, but we do,” he said.

Abraham says he refuses to hide his earlocks: “I fear none but God.”

Yemeni Jews, like those in other Arab countries, have suffered wave after wave of persecution. Originally many of them lived in Saada Province in the north, which was predominantly Zaydi, members of an offshoot of Shiite Islam that historically were anti-Semitic. The Houthis, whose base is in Saada, embedded that attitude in their slogan, “Death to America, death to Israel, damnation to the Jews.”

The Houthis fought a succession of wars with the central government beginning in 2004, and in 2007, a Houthi representative in Saada gave Jews there an ultimatum: Leave in 10 days or face attack. Yemen’s president then, Mr. Saleh, though a Zaydi himself, became a champion of the Jews from Saada. At government expense, Mr. Saleh relocated them to a gated community in Sana next to the American Embassy.

That place is known as Tourist City, and as recently as 2009, there were 400 Jews reportedly living there under the former president’s protection. Now there are said to be only 20 to 40. Many of them have reportedly cut off their earlocks after one of their number was killed in 2002 just outside Tourist City’s gates by a Muslim who accused the victim of ruining his life through witchcraft.

One of the Jews still there, Yahya Yousef, who described himself as the Sana rabbi, expressed eagerness to be interviewed when contacted by telephone but said he could not do so unless the Houthi-dominated security office in the Interior Ministry gave formal permission. Repeated requests over a week for such permission were unsuccessful. Army guards at the community’s gate refused entry to journalists.

In Raida, Abraham Jacob shrugged off his neighbors’ anti-Semitism, saying, “There are good people, and there are bad people.” But it is harder to overlook the Houthis’ slogan, which is chanted at all Houthi rallies, broadcast on television and painted on what seems like every blank wall space in areas they control.

“We know there are Houthi people who are understanding and tolerant, and we have not been harmed by any of them,” Mr. Jacob said. “But this cursing us to damnation is distressing and hurtful to us.”

“Honestly,” his brother Suleiman said, “we are a little afraid of the Houthi takeover and don’t know what to do about it.”

Their family’s choice would be to emigrate to the United States, rather than Israel, Suleiman said, “because America is quieter, and we’ve had enough problems already.”

Despite the embassy closings, he said he remained hopeful that his son Jacob, who will turn 13 late this year, can celebrate his bar mitzvah outside Yemen. The boy has already been memorizing the Hebrew verses that he will have to chant for the occasion. “He is my best Hebrew student,” Suleiman said.

The neighborhood still has young children and their parents, as well as elderly people, but there are few single adults of marriageable age. Most have emigrated. The last wedding took place two years ago, Abraham said. The newlyweds left Yemen and never came back.

“There isn’t a single one of us here who doesn’t want to leave,” Suleiman said. “Soon there will be no Jews in Yemen, inshallah,” he said, using the Arabic expression for “God willing.”


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