Yemenite Jews

State Department: Yemen Faces Obstacles to Religious Freedom

The State Department released its 2016 International Religious Freedom report which details the status of religious freedom in every country. In its section on Yemen, the report describes the laws that place Islam as the state religion and basis of legislation, the harassment and difficulties that religious minorities face, and the violence perpetrated by both Sunni and Zaydi Shi’a militants against those considered apostates.

Last Jewish family in Raydah: We wish we could stay, but…

December 19, Raydah - The houses’ gates inscribed with the word “Welcome,” in Hebrew, are the last signs of the Yemeni Jewish community in the town of Raydah, 30 miles north of Yemen’s capital. Near the western edge of Raydah town sits a pair of houses, ordinary in most respects. “The green gate is of Masha, the brown is Banin’s,” said a teen from the neighborhood, identifying the Jewish families to whom the homes once belonged. Now, they’re owned and inhabited by Muslims. As the brown gate squeaked ajar, a little kid peep out, mumbling. Last year nearly a dozen Jewish families from this community left Yemen for Israel in covert airlift described by The Jewish Agency, which arranged the operation, as the last of its kind. Only one Jewish family opted to remain in Raydah. Saʻid al-Naʻati, 55, father of six children and caretaker of his 90-year-old mother, hasn’t yet made up his mind. “It’s my call [whether to emigrate],” said al-Naʻati. “Maybe I’ll travel, maybe I’ll stay.”

Al-Naʻati had his own reasons for opting to stay when he could have left with his neighbors a year ago. But the current situation in Yemen, devastated by two years of war, could soon force his hand. “It has to do with eking out a living. There’s no more living because of the crises and because I no longer have a job,” said al-Naʻati, who used to make jackets out of fur and sell them in the local market. “Now, we have sold half of our belongings [to survive],” he said. The war has rendered millions of Yemenis jobless, and caused rampant inflation. Over one million government employees—upon whose salaries an estimated nine million people depend—have not been paid for four months now. “Everything is expensive and there’s no longer income,” al-Naʻati complains.

Saʻid al-Naʻati outside al- home in Raydah. Photographed by the author.

Saʻid al-Naʻati outside al- home in Raydah. Photographed by the author.

The emigration of al-Naʻati’s fellow Jews has also made his life harder. “Our hope has been to stay,” al-Naʻati said. “With the extinction of Yemenite Jewry, however, one can’t live alone as a Jew [among Muslim people] because our religion doesn’t allow it. We need someone to prepare our meat. We also want [our sons] to get married to [Jewish women] and we want to marry off our women..” Al-Naʻati lives with three of his daughters now. Of his three sons, one now lives in the US, and one in the United Kingdom. The third is in Sanʻa, Yemen’s capital, where some 40 Jews live in Tourist City, a guarded complex, for safety reasons.

Intermittent attacks against Jewish communities have been among the factors contributing to increased emigration in recent years. In 2007, the Jewish family of Al Salim, who lived in Saʻdah Governorate, was expelled from their village. The Houthi movement, known for its anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment, was then at war with the central government; they issued a fifteen-day ultimatum for the Jews to leave. The Houthis gave no reason, but they apparently suspected the local Jewish community of aiding the government in some way. No proof to that effect was ever provided. Then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh relocated the Jews of Saʻdah to Tourist City in Sanʻa and began paying them a monthly stipend. Even after the Houthi movement—with Saleh’s support—seized power and took control of Sanʻa in late 2014, the government’s nominal protection of the Jewish community has remained in place.

Yemen’s Jews are indigenous to the region. Archeological records show that Judaism has been practiced in southwestern Arabia since at least the second century BCE, and many sources say it dates back much further than that. Jewish dynasties rose and fell in Yemen long before the advent of Islam. Since the rise of Islam in Yemen, local Jewish communities have endured periodic persecution. During the last fifty years, the Yemenite Jews have been treated as a second class. In 1949 and 1950, the Israeli government and The Jewish Agency brought tens of thousands of Yemeni Jews to Israel. Many smaller groups have made Aliyah since then. Those who remained in Yemen have kept a low profile since. In the past fifteen years, two Jewish people have been murdered, both by men said to be Wahhabis. The most recent victim was killed in Sanʻa by someone who reportedly claimed to have been sent by God. The victim’s son accused al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch of inciting the killing.

A child peeks through the gate of one of the historically-Jewish homes in Raydah. Photographed by the author.

A child peeks through the gate of one of the historically-Jewish homes in Raydah. Photographed by the author.

Culturally, Yemeni Jews have much in common with Yemeni Muslims, but they also maintain their own unique traditions and religious beliefs. Jewish men wear long payot, or sidelocks—often hidden while in public—but they also wear the long white robes and scarves common among northern Yemenis, and Jewish women are covered completely while in public. They also have their own rich culture of literature, music, crafts, and traditions that set them apart from both Yemeni Muslims and non-Yemeni Jewry.

For Saʻid al-Naʻati, the current volatile situation will decide whether he can remain in Raydah or follow his former neighbors, who have fled both war and extremists’ hate. “So far, [I have experienced] no harassment of the sort, thank God,” said al-Naʻati. “But no one knows what might happen to them.”

Shuaib Almosawa is a freelance journalist based in San'a. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Policy, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, The Independent, BuzzFeed, and Inter Press Service. Shuaib has also appeared on the BBC World Service and YLE radio and television.

March 21-27: Parties agree to ceasefire and talks; US strikes kill AQAP suspects

Monday, March 21Talks in San’a on Sunday between Houthi rebels and UN Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed resulted in an agreement on a ceasefire prior to upcoming talks in Kuwait. Later on in the week it was revealed that the ceasefire is set to begin on April 10 while negotiations will commence on April 18.

Nineteen Yemeni Jews were airlifted to Israel from Raydah and San’a over the weekend in an operation organized by the Jewish Agency, which has brought approximately 200 Yemeni Jews to Israel in recent years. Approximately 50 Jews remain in Yemen, many of whom live in a compound close to the US embassy in San’a. The new arrivals in Israel brought with them a Torah scroll believed to be between 500 and 600 years old.

Human Rights Watch released a statement on Monday urging all countries, especially the US, the UK, and France, to suspend all weapons sales to Saudi Arabia until it ceases carrying out unlawful airstrikes in Yemen, which have led to the deaths of hundreds of civilians. HRW also demands that Saudi Arabia conduct credible investigations into these repeated violations of international humanitarian law.

Tuesday, March 22 At least 50 alleged al-Qaeda militants were killed in a US drone strike on their training camp west of al-Mukalla. The mass-casualty strike was announced by the Pentagon, and later confirmed by local medics and a Yemeni official who reported that those killed were members of al-Qaeda.

Wednesday, March 23 The UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, confirmed on Wednesday that all parties to the Yemen conflict have agreed to a cessation of hostilities set to begin on midnight on April 10, preceding peace talks in Kuwait on April 18.

Ould Cheikh Ahmed said that the talks will be carried out “under the umbrella of three pillars: the GCC initiative, the National Dialogue, and UN resolution 2216” and will work towards ”reaching a comprehensive agreement, which will end the conflict and allow the resumption of inclusive political dialogue in accordance with resolution 2216 and other relevant UN resolutions.”

Friday, March 25 Three suicide bombings killed 26 people in Aden on Friday. IS claimed responsibility for the attacks, which targeted military checkpoints, two of which were near a coalition base.

Saturday, March 26 Saturday marked the one-year anniversary of the Saudi-led coalition’s military intervention in Yemen. Mass demonstrations, which former president Saleh called for in a speech on March 23, were held in San’a to protest the coalition’s ongoing war in Yemen. Mareb Press, however, reported that celebrations in Aden and Ma’rib celebrated the one year anniversary.

Sunday, March 27 The Independent reported on Sunday that the UAE fighter jet which crashed into a mountainside near Aden on March 14 was in fact shot down by al-Qaeda using a Russian-made surface-to-air missile. This contradicts earlier reports that claim the jet experienced a technical malfunction, leading to the crash which killed both pilots aboard.

US airstrikes killed 14 suspected al-Qaeda militants on Sunday in Abyan province, according to local medics and residents. The aircraft reportedly bombed buildings used by al-Qaeda and destroyed a government intelligence headquarters in the provincial capital Zinjibar that the militants had captured and were using as a base.