For Jews, roiling Yemen no longer place to call home
Few remain as Islamists intensify persecution

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

SANAA, YEMEN -- The last remaining Jews in Yemen are vanishing, driven out by politics, war and hatred. Once numbering 60,000, one of the oldest Jewish populations in the Arab world now has fewer than 350 members.

In recent months, persecution by Islamist extremists has intensified, accelerating Jews' flight from Yemen. Many are heading to the United States. With the help of the U.S. government and U.S.-based Jewish organizations, 57 Yemeni Jews have been resettled in New York since July. At least 38 are expected to arrive soon and many more are eligible, American officials said. Others are seeking refuge in Israel and Europe.

In the capital, Sanaa, 65 Jews who fled their northern villages are living in a government compound under heavy security. Last week, police arrested two men suspected of planning to assassinate the community's rabbi, according to Yemeni news reports.

The exodus of Yemen's Jews -- who survived the rise of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula and for centuries coexisted, if tenuously, with Muslims -- is the latest sign of this nation's social fragmentation. Yemen's weak central government is struggling with a civil war in the north, a secessionist movement in the south and a growing al-Qaeda presence. Large swaths of the nation, the Middle East's poorest, are controlled by tribes, which resent any interference from the government.

Rabbi Yahya Yehuda, like so many in his shrinking congregation, is faced with a dilemma as he waits for a visa to the United States or Israel. His mind, filled with memories of killings, beatings and harassment, tells him to flee his homeland. But his heart tells him otherwise.

"We have lived here for thousands of years," he said. "I want to go. And yet I want to stay."

A difficult history

The first Jews who came to Yemen were merchants, sent by King Solomon, it is believed, to prospect for silver and gold. They survived persecution for nearly a millennium under the rule of Zaydi imams, who follow a branch of Shiite Islam.

With the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, Arabs rioted in the port city of Aden, killing scores of Jews and destroying their homes and shops. Over the next two years, about 50,000 Jews were airlifted to Israel in what was dubbed Operation Magic Carpet. More trickled out of Yemen until 1962, when the Zaydi imamate was overthrown in a coup and civil war broke out. After the first Persian Gulf War, with the help of the United States, about 1,200 Jews departed, mostly for Israel.

The few hundred who stayed behind were concentrated in two areas -- in al-Salem, near the northern provincial capital of Saada, and in Raydah, about 45 miles north of Sanaa. There, they lived quietly under the radar of zealots, practicing Orthodox Jewish traditions. They attended synagogue, studied the Torah in religious schools and spoke Hebrew.

Many of the men were silversmiths, who made djanbias, the curved traditional daggers carried by Muslims. Others were blacksmiths, cabinetmakers or cobblers. Their curly locks of hair and their skullcaps differentiated them from Muslims.

In 2004, a Shiite rebellion broke out in Saada. The rebels, known as Hawthis, were an offshoot of the Zaydis. That December, they targeted al-Salem. They threw rocks at Jewish homes and damaged cars.

"They came at night, chanting slogans -- 'Death to America,' 'Death to Israel' and 'Curse the Jews,' " recalled Rabbi Yahya Yousef Mousa, 30, the target of the alleged assassination attempt.

For the next three years, Jews faced harassment. They never traveled alone. Many stopped going to work, leaving their homes only for food and emergencies. "It was too dangerous to leave," said Salim Mousa, 65.

'No choice but to leave'

In January 2007, the rebels sent the community a written threat: "You should leave the area, or we will kidnap you and slaughter you," Rabbi Mousa said. So, many Jews fled to the capital. They later heard that their homes were destroyed, as were their Torahs.

A spokesman for the Hawthis could not be reached for comment, but many Yemenis fleeing rebel areas described them as anti-Israel.

Last December, Abdul Aziz al-Abdi, a retired military pilot, fatally shot Moshe al-Nahari, a well-known rabbi in Raydah, after he allegedly refused to convert to Islam, according to wire services. Abdi was found guilty, but he was ruled mentally unfit and spared the death penalty. Less than two weeks later, conflict between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip triggered a new wave of attacks and harassment against Jews in Yemen. Tribal leaders, who once protected the community, no longer did. The government, stretched thin by the civil war and other emergencies, did little to fill that vacuum.

"This is the result of the chaos in the country," said Mahmoud Taha, a Yemeni journalist who covers the community.

Community leaders sought help from Jewish organizations in the United States and in Israel. The U.S. Embassy persuaded Yemen's government to issue travel documents.

"In spite of efforts by the Yemeni government to protect the Jews in Raydah, harassment and threats continued from Muslim extremists, to the point where many of the Jews in Raydah concluded they had no choice but to leave Yemen," said a senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"We needed to do something about this," said Ephraim Isaacs, president emeritus of the Yemeni Jewish Federation of North America. "There was fear there might be more attacks."

A town on the edge

Tensions remain high in Raydah, according to Taha and Jewish community leaders. The synagogue and Jewish schools are closed. Men hide their curls under their skullcaps or wear turbans to disguise themselves. Women are sent to the markets because they cover themselves from head to toe, like Muslim women do.

Jews here say they still endure insults and are frequently pelted with stones. Some mosque speakers incite violence and order followers not to buy from Jewish-owned stores.

"They threw grenades into the yards of our houses," Yehuda said.

But Lowza Suleiman, Nahari's widow, has no plans to leave.

The killer's family has offered her blood money, as is customary here among tribes, to drop her case. But Suleiman has refused.

"I want my husband's murderer to be executed," she said. "Then I will decide whether to leave Yemen."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company