Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Jews of Yemen are a vanishing breed

(Photo: Zion Ozeri)

Yemenis take pride in their Jewish past - but live Jews are the object of hostility and contempt. If Arab culture has 'negative undertones' in Israel - a controversial statement - try the undertones of being a Jew in an Arab country. Poignant article in The Economist about the last of the Jews of Yemen. (Blame the misleading expression 'Jewish Arabs' in the title on an ignorant sub-editor)(With thanks: bh).

Yemenis rarely protest publicly against their own miserable circumstances at home. But when tensions rise in Gaza, they happily hold parades in Sana’a, the country’s capital. Comedies on television often feature stupid Israeli soldiers outwitted by plucky Palestinians.
Yet Yemenis also say they appreciate the heritage of their country’s Jews. In the Great Mosque in Sana’a’s ancient city, a guard, whispering as pious men pore over Korans, points out Jewish carvings. In the village of Jibla, south of Sana’a, locals show the star of David on an ancient synagogue, now a mosque. Market traders boast that their wares are made of traditional Jewish silver. A stern police officer gives a permit to a Jewish-American to let him visit an old Jewish village.
The village may soon be no more. The last hundred or so Yemeni Jews are set to leave after more than two millennia in the country. A century ago some 50,000 of them lived more or less peacefully alongside the Muslim majority, now numbering 23m. Life became harder for them after the creation of Israel in 1948, with outbreaks of violence against Jews. Most were spirited out over the next few years in Operation Magic Carpet on American aircraft. A second, much smaller wave of around 1,200 of them were resettled in the early 1990s. A few hundred stayed on, largely in the northern province of Saada. After Houthi rebels eroded the government’s grip there in recent fighting, they were evacuated to a compound in Sana’a. As the perceived threat to them grows, Jewish-American and Israeli groups and American diplomats are trying to establish refugee status for them and then pay for their resettlement in the United States or Israel.
Their departure will be a milestone. Yemen’s Jews, who speak Arabic, hark back to a time when it was possible to have a shared Jewish and Arab identity. Elsewhere in the Arab world most Jewish communities have shrivelled. In Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad (where Jews were once the largest single community) numbers have shrunk to a handful of old folk keeping a nervously low profile. Yemen’s few hundred Jews were some of the last who preserved their synagogues and continued to conduct ceremonies in them. Zion Ozeri, a Jewish photographer of Yemeni descent who has documented the last of Yemen’s Jews, says that, for those who settle in Israel, there are “negative undertones” attached to being an Arab Jew. “In Israel or the diaspora, hardly any Jew considers himself of Arab culture.”
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