Local News

Life on the margins: Yemen’s Jews

National Yemen

Yahiya Yousif

By NY Staff

Sitting in his room, which lies opposite the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a, Yemeni Rabbi Yahiya Mousa gestures to Ali Abdullah Saleh’s photo and says that Jews can’t forget the former president or remove love for him from their hearts. He added that Saleh provided them with great assistance, especially when youth decided to loot their lands and possessions, destroy their temples and displace them. Mousa said Saleh went above and beyond his duties and responsibilities as president for Yemeni Jews, and added that Jews don’t forget such favors from others, no matter how tiny they are.

Since Yemeni Jews were first displaced from Sa’ada governorate in 2007, Yemen has witnessed many changes. Up until now, though, beyond moving to ‘Tourist City’, a residential complex across from the U.S. Embassy, very little has changed for the community of Yemeni Jews.

Fifty Jews currently reside in Tourist City – which has come to resemble something like a military camp –  a situation which reminds them of their suffering in past ages, when the Imam ruled Yemen and would force them to live in rural areas.

The Jewish neighborhood which later was called Qa’a Al-Olofi, continues to serve as a reminder of the way Jews have always been isolated. According to Mousa, it’s important to include Jews in society, and especially in the country’s education sector.

During the public eruption Yemen witnessed in the past year with demands for the removal of Saleh’s regime, Jews took on an unbiased attitude, one which they’ve long adopted in response to always finding themselves isolated. Mousa said that they never attacked people or looted others’ possessions. “We’re keen to see our country safe and more stable than others,” he said.

Jewish youths aren’t allowed to carry weapons, including the traditional ‘jambiah’ dagger, even though Jews are considered to be the most skillful at making them. Over past years, a number of Yemeni Jews emigrated to Israel after people from their community were attacked, abused and even murdered. Now, there are only 350 Yemeni Jews residing in Amran, which lies to Sana’a’s south.

In addition to the 350 in Amran, 50 Jews now live in the Tourist City. The 50 Jews represent the remnants of the Salem family, which was forced by northern rebel Houthis to leave Sa’ada.

According to Mousa, Houthis attacked their homes and looted their property. “They looted a library which included inherited manuscripts and a rare copy of the Torah, our holy book. An Israeli with American nationality offered to buy it for $100 thousand, but we refused. Yemen lost its entire Jewish heritage because of the types of continuous abuses Jews have always suffered from.

According to historical sources, around 40 Jewish temples were located in Sana’a. Today, none of them remain standing, and Yemeni Jews’ heritage continues to lack local and international recognition and attention.

Mousa confirmed the demise of many Jewish monuments and added that even the Jews don’t know the locations of their tombs.

“Former president Saleh directed authorities to specify a land to be used for our tombs, but his directions have yet to be implemented and so we have to bury any who die in Amran.”

When threats against them escalated, many Yemeni Jews began cutting off the ‘payot’, the portions of hair which traditionally dangle past the sides of their faces. “They’re not part of Jewish beliefs, but we were forced to wear them in order to be distinguished from Muslims,” said Mousa.

According to Mousa, because some Yemeni Jews were abused or even killed when seen wearing the distinctive locks of hair, “it would be okay to cut them off.”

Since the military coup against Hashimi rule in Yemen in 1962, relations between Muslims and Jews did not see any tensions, and no incidents on the level of what occurred in Sa’ada in 2007 were recorded.

Mousa is a teacher of Hebrew in a private school in Sana’a, and expressed concern over the possible extinction of Hebrew in Yemen because of the absence of official support and care.

RegardingIsrael, Mousa indicated a refusal to move there, stating that are too many cultural traditions differences, particularly when it comes to gender issues.

“Their traditions are different than ours because there, men cannot govern their families and fathers have nothing to say if their daughters decide to marry,” he said.

The issue of young Jewish ladies escaping and marrying Muslim youths created controversy among both Yemeni Jews and Muslims. Mousa said the marriages weren’t rejected because of the different faiths, but rather because the marriages were based on love, which isn’t consistent either with Muslim or Jewish custom.

Despite occasional talk of establishing a Jewish civil state, Yemeni Jews lack political representation and have little opportunity to participate in political decision-making.