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A Requiem for Arabia’s Jews

By Hanna Ziadeh *

Can a landmark historical event take place in the over-mediatized Middle East without it being noticed? Can the ethnic cleansing of an indigenous population; the eradication of an ancient culture be conducted in 2009 without even one conscientious vote - in a world full of self-declared heroes looking for causes to make them famous - condemning it? Yes, it can be done. After a racist murder of one of them Yemen s last Jews are now ordered out of their last city in Yemen. A country which the Jews had as their home for over 2,000 years will soon become Jew free.

‘They threaten to beat us to death,’ said Yahya Ya'ish and repeated the sentence while he leaned forward to look deep into my eyes. I do not know whether he did so to see if I believed him, or to see whether I myself was credible. I recoiled imperceptibly. I did it to escape his forceful, inquisitive stare as well as his smell, a smell of fear. We sat in the office of the director of the Yemen Observatory for Human Rights, a leading human rights organization. Yahia Ya'ish brought with him a joint letter from the few remaining Jewish families in Rayda, the last Yemeni town with an indigenous Jewish population. The Jews of Rayda requested the human rights centre to assist them in obtaining ‘international protection’ against the repeated assaults, harassment and threats that they have been suffering under for almost a year.

I must admit, now with shame, that I did not quite believe Ya'ishs story, credible as it sounds. He aroused all my Arab anti-Jewish stereotypes. He looked exactly as a Jew looks in Arabic caricatures. He had unkempt black hair with long curly ear-locks, black unruly beard, a prominent nose and dark skewed, penetrating eyes. I do not know if my suspicion was due to deep-seated prejudices, derived from a childhood in which Israelis and Jews were one and same in my father s Palestinian family. Or whether it was due to some experiences in my school where wild young classmates celebrated the days when the Media reported the killing of Israelis. I do not know whether it was also due to deep-seated hatred for all the times when I and my family lived through Israeli bombings, which often struck indiscriminately at my birth country
Lebanon. Distrust of Yai'shs credible report could also be that I have lost my credulity having heard through the years my share of exaggerated stories of persecution; first from refugees and asylum seekers when I worked as interpreter and later as a human rights activist from Arab dissidents.

Yahia Ya'ish is a descendent of Yemen s legendary chief rabbi, Ya'ish Bin Yihya, who died two years ago at the age of 81 years and left one of the world s oldest Jewish communities without spiritual guidance. Along with a few families, he is among the last Jews in Yemen, once a home to one of the Arab world’s oldest and most populous Jewish community. Now there are only 300 to 400 Jews left in the country.

In 1948 there were 60,000 Jews among the approximately 2.5 million Yemenis. Nearly 48,000 Jews ‘went away’ to Israel in the years just after the establishment of Israel. Today there are approximately 400 Jews out of a population of approximately 22 million. Ya'ish told me that he himself and his family have been subjected to systematic persecution by their fellow citizens in Rayda. He reported that Rayda Jews are being harassed on the streets, threatened with death if they do not convert to Islam or leave the city. Many of the Jews’ neighbors refuse to buy or sell everyday products from or to them. Ya'ish’s voice became especially anxious when in his sad tale of the daily humiliation recounted the greatest fear ‘they threaten to interfere with our women, ‘yet aradu li-sharafina’.

During an earlier trip to Rayda in 2007 I witnessed that Jewish women wore the black Islamic 'abaya, covering their bodies from head to toe. Like their Muslim neighbors Jewish women did not mix socially with men outside their family. Jewish men who sat and chewed qat, an addictive narcotic plant, together with some ‘Muslims’ as they call their Yemeni countrymen claimed that Jewish laws allow them to marry several women at the same time. In this traditional culture to molest a man’s female relatives is the worst calamity to befall a man. Ya'ish feared that if ‘they molest our women, we will not be able to control the reactions of the young men among us. They know it is not helpful to turn to the authorities. We have tried for years. Instead of providing us protection they defend their own clansmen. If our young men hit back, it will be the end with us. This will give the Muslims an excuse to beat us all to death.’

What Ya'ish feared happened the 11th of December 2008, just few days after I met him. Moshe Ya’ish bin Yahya, brother of the Rabbi Ya’ish Yahya bin Yahya and a relative of Yahya Ya'ish was murdered in cold blood in bright daylight in the middle of the street (Amnesty International, 19.12.2008). The perpetrator of the crime is a pilot in the Yemeni air force. In the court, which was filled with members of his tribe, he admitted without repentance to his action and added, ‘I had written and warned the Jews in Rayda several times before. I have warned them that they must either convert to Islam, leave the country, or I kill them.’ (Daily Star, 23.12.2008) He refused to accept the claim presented to the court by his advocates, whom the state have appointed, that he is insane. He ranted against them in court, ‘you are helping the Jews against me’.

The Rayda attack in itself does not constitute something unique. Racist violence occurs everywhere. What makes the incident special is the response of the Yemeni government. In the wake of the attack, President Ali Abdallah Saleh, the ruler of the country since 1978, declared in a magnanimous gesture designed to impress Yemen’s Western donors that he will take Rayda Jews under his personal protection but in the capital Sanaa.

President Saleh’s apparent rescue of the Jews is anything but an expression of the Arab leader s magnanimity. When Rayda Jews have endured the systematic harassment, which were occurring with the authorities’ knowledge and even participation, and refused to flee to Sanaa or out of the country to the United States and Israel - like most other Jews who have felt compelled to do in the last 50 years - it is not because they were patriotic heroes more attached than others to their Yemeni homeland. Rayda Jews held out the persecution not only because they hoped for a better day but because they wanted to keep their houses, land and other possessions. Apart from their own possessions, many of the remaining Jews purchased, acquired or inherited the property of those Jews who had left. The Jews, who went away , nourished a hope that the remaining family members might be able to sell their possessions without a huge loss of their value, as it usually happens when a population is driven away. This means that the remaining Jews, as Ya'ish have informed me, are caretakers for land and houses belonging to the rest of the Jewish community. The persecution of the Jews of Rayda is also motivated to some extent, according Ya'ish report, with their neighbors’ hope to ‘inherit’ them once they flee the country. It is a well-known phenomenon from similar cleansings of Jews in both Europe and the Arab world and for that matter from
Israel’s expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948. Ya'ish reported clearly, ‘If the state or anyone else buys our lands and houses at a reasonable price, we will not stay a single day longer in Yemen.’

By ordering the Jews moved under his ‘own direct protection’ in Sanaa President Saleh makes himself guilty of the Jews’ persecution and not in their rescue. President Saleh is aware of it. He made the same grandiose gesture in 2005 when another Jewish community were driven away from their hometown Saada, located in the northern part of
Yemen s mountains. Saada had been ravaged by a civil war between a Shiite splinter group inspired by Iran and Hezbollah, called the Hawthis, and the Yemeni army. The Hawthis vented their rebellious anger on Saada’s unarmed Jews. They claimed that the Jews committed fornication and alcoholic orgies in Saada, the most backward and traditionalist region of the country! Saada Jews were moved into a ‘tourist town’ in the capital. Of the several hundred Jews who were moved from Saada to Sanaa to enjoy the President’s special hospitality, there are now fewer than 250 Jews left in the ‘tourist town’.

When President Saleh acquiesce that the Saada Jews be driven away from their hometown which they inhabited for over 2000 years; when he allows that they be forced to leave their houses, land and trades without guarantee to return; when his only gesture is to house them in a fenced residential camp few kilometres away from Sanaa Airport, it is but an indirect way to get them out of the country.

The Jews of Rayda will stand in the same dilemma as the ‘tourist town’ Jews. Should they continue to live in a fenced residential camp - with a sentry at the only entrance requiring a special permit from the Interior Ministry to allow foreign visitors to enter – and nourish a hope to return to their homes or receive compensation from the state for their lost property? Or should they join their compatriots in the U.S. and Israel and emigrate for ever from Yemen?

The cleansing of the Yemeni Jews is in all practical respects completed. The few remaining Jewish families will soon find the way to the airport. Even if some of the Jews against all odds remain in
Yemen; as the very few have done in Lebanon, Iraq or Egypt; there staying cannot be considered as a sign of the survival of a Jewish life. It is a sad and unnoticed end to a thousand-year old culture with extraordinary wealth, which made Yemen into a pole in the history of Judaism.

The banishment of the Jews from Yemen closes one of the Arab history s most shameful chapters: the tacit and lengthy cleansing of the Arab Jews. A particularly shameful chapter it has been because the cleansing did not occur during a state of exception, where war and sectarian conflict can be used to excuse the governments from the guilt of not preventing it. The banishment of the Arab Jews did not only take place after the 1948 war between Israel and the Arab states, where most Arab Jews ‘went away’, as I so often heard being described in Yemen. True enough, some Arab Jews were tempted to go away, driven by the Zionist propaganda and even terrorized to do so by anti-Jewish attacks ordered by Israel; like the bombings in Egypt in 1948. Most importantly the majority of Jews ‘went away’, either because for centuries they were treated as dhimmi, second class people under a legal system legitimized with reference to Islamic Sharia' or as a direct result of a mass hysteria and suspicion of them as an Israeli fifth column. A hysteria and suspicion which the Arab regimes whipped up against the Jews after the Arab defeat at the hands of the newborn Jewish state, built on the ruins of Arab Palestine.

During the tragic Nakba of 1948 700,000 Christian and Muslim Palestinians were driven away by the Israeli forces. The Israeli expulsion of the Palestinians was matched with the expulsion of almost as many Jews. Jewish communities, which for centuries nurtured strong attachments to their birth-countries - Morocco, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen - were abruptly and cruelly uprooted. What the Arabs did was not only to culturally impoverish and morally weaken their own societies, but they also politically strengthened the Zionist project. The HebrewState needed the Arab Jewish immigration to achieve a universal legitimacy, by disculpating itself from the accusation of being a hidden European colonizing project.

But what about the expulsion of Arab Jews, which continued after the 1948 war and lasted more than 50 years? What about the Arab governments’ passive or active involvement ensuring that their Jewish citizens ‘went away’? And the worst - what of the Arab historians and intellectuals silence towards the tragic banishment of an entire population? In 1948 there were around 900,000 Arab Jews. There are now fewer than 6,500 still living in Arab countries?

Can I as a descendent of a Palestinian father call the expulsion of my father and his family an Israeli ethnic cleansing when there are one million Palestinians still living among four million Israelis and remain silent over the fact that of nearly one million Arab Jews there remain now only 6,500 Jews among 300 million Arabs?

In Israel a school of history-writing arose to revise and criticize the official Zionist story of how the Palestinians ’went away’ in 1948. There have always been brave, both Jewish and Israeli, intellectuals who have spoken for the cause of the expelled Palestinians and who unequivocally condemned the Israeli government’s crimes against human rights. How can the Arab intellectual life in 50 years shed so many terrible condemnations against the expulsion of Palestinians in poetry, prose and film, and claim that this tragedy must remain at the heart of the Arab psyche and the world s consciousness - while they maintain silence towards the expulsion of the Arab Jews?

What is the meaning of the iconographic and ritualistic expressions of solidarity; in which Arab intellectuals and masses have become trained practitioners of; when it is only practiced in solidarity with oneself? Is solidarity only an acquired reflex against aggressions by the two ‘shaytans’, the devilish U.S. and Israel? Strange how these two ‘Satans’ succeed always in uniting the condemnatory masses of West and East. Only the wrath against them can drive both the spiritually superior and the demonstration-addict masses of the Lefts’ leftovers in the West and the divinely guided and flag-burning mobs in the Middle East into the streets. Why is it that only massive demonstration against U.S. and Israeli aggressions in Iraq and Palestine can paralyze all activities in London and Tehran, Paris and Cairo, Rome and Istanbul? Why these same multitudes never come out to protest the inhuman extermination of the civilians in Darfur or the politically caused starvation of the people of Zimbabwe? When were there more than a few shivering saved souls who protested in European cities against Burma s inhuman regime, the systematic persecution of gays in Iran and as systematic oppression of women in Saudi Arabia? Or is compassion only that which the Arabs call out: ‘My pain is the greatest! My enemy is the worst! My crime is the slightest!’

Ancient Arabs believed that poets should sing the praise of their tribes, whether their deeds were shameful or noble, and their acts peaceful or aggressive. The Arab poets were called upon to belittle the other tribes, regardless of whether they were ‘noble and courageous’. As the spokesmen of their times they performed their role exemplarily and produced some of the world s most beautiful poems in panegyrics and satire. But modern Arab spokesmen, our present-day intellectuals, have a different task than to celebrate their own ‘tribes’ and attack those of their opponents. They should in their books, articles and films hold a mirror which reflects both the good and bad in Arab life and history. With few notable exceptions; such as Hazem Saghieh, Wadah Sherara, George Tarabishi and Sadek al-Azem; most Arab intellectuals failed their task and threw themselves instead into the futile exercise of mediocre self-pity.

But even the courageous intellectuals did not take the Arab Jewish history up to a serious reassessment. Until the Arabs get their Orhan Pamouk, their Avi Shlaim, someone who tells the harsh truths, convenient or not, they will continue to live in the universe of half-lies. By confronting the most shameful aspect of their history Arabs will reconcile themselves with themselves, with their neighbours and preserve what is left of religious and ethnic diversity in their countries. By breaking down the wall of silence surrounding the banishment of Jews, Arabs can avoid revisiting on themselves the same haunted history of failure, oppression and misguided revenge. Until then they must live with the shame of silence.


* Hanna Ziadeh (حنا زيادة), born in Beirut; he  is PhD fellow at the Danish Institute for Human Rights and specialized in the modern history of the Arab world. His research is concentrated on state formation and nation-building from a human rights perspective in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. During a whole year he stayed in Yemen where he met the few Jews who remained in this country, and comprise a tiny fraction of the large Jewish community that had lived there for centuries. In 2006 he published the book Sectarianism and Intercommunal Nation-Building in Lebanon. He conducts also research on constitutionalism and the Arab debate on the role of human rights in building democratic and cohesive societies - hzi@humanrights.dk. Source: www.ahewar.orgالحوار المتمدن.