Yemen?s Jews go it alone

Aug 10, 2001
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The atricle isn't short, but I know at least some people on here will enjoy reading it.


By Bob Arnot
MSNBC

Feb. 15 ? Salaam Alaikum ? ?peace be with you? ? is the usual Muslim greeting used in much of the Arab world. In the small town of Ghareer, Yemen, things are no different, with one exception: Here, even Jews greet friends and neighbors with the phrase. Despite animosity between the Arab world and Israel, the four Jewish families who live in Ghareer appear to be doing just fine. According to one family, the Yemeni government even goes out of its way to protect them.

GHAREER is located amid the region?s most picturesque scenery, about a five-hour drive from the Yemeni capital of Sana?a. After shaking off a government minder and police escorts, the village seemed like the end of the earth.

Here in this fertile valley dotted with traditional mud-and-brick structures Yusef Musa and his family live and work. The Musa family proudly displays their heritage, with young and old members alike wearing their hair in traditional Jewish side locks.

This, in a country that is virtually entirely Muslim: Yemen borders on Saudia Arabia and is less than 600 miles from the holiest cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina.

Most recently, it has attracted the attention of the United States because of its suspected links to suspected terror mastermind Osama bin Laden?s al-Qaida network. The government admits there may be al-Qaida suspects in the country but says the network has no military training camps or any other organized presence.

Yemen, the poorest country of the Arabian Peninsula, has committed itself to joining the U.S. war on terrorism, but Yemeni officials say this cannot be done without U.S. training, military assistance and aid.

NO INTEREST IN ISRAEL

Inside their three-story home, Musa and his son have a silversmith?s shop, where they craft elegant items to sell in the capital. Life here is simple, by Western standards at least.

A grinding stone for milling grain sits in one room, and a cow lives just outside the kitchen. A primitive generator is one of the only modern amenities.

Musa, the small clan?s leader, agreed to an interview with MSNBC.com in the family?s sitting room, where the men gather for afternoon tea and ?ghat,? a drug similar to chewing tobacco.

Musa says his family was given the chance to immigrate to Israel, Britain, or even the United States, but that he has chosen to stay. He says he?s never been to Israel, and that he has no interest in going.

?We live in peace and harmony here,? he said. ?We feel safe here ... and if we have trouble with another tribe, we just go to the government and they take care of it.?

?WINGS OF EAGLES?

Conditions for Jews in Yemen weren?t always so peaceful. Their troubles date to the advent of Islam in the eighth century, when all Jews in Yemen were relegated to the lowest rung on the social ladder ? and to a life of poverty.

In the 1920s, Yemen introduced an ancient Islamic law requiring that Jewish orphans under age 12 be forcibly converted to Islam.

By the 1940s, more than a thousand Jews had been killed in Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Syria and Yemen. One of the worst incidents came in 1947, when Muslim rioters, joined by local police, engaged in a bloody pogrom in the port city of Aden that killed 82 Jews and destroyed hundreds of Jewish homes. As a result, the Jewish community was economically paralyzed.

Given the worsening conditions, 16,000 of Yemen?s Jews ? about a third of the Jewish population ? left for Israel between World War I and 1948. Then, in June 1949, the Israeli government airlifted nearly all the remaining 50,000 Yemenite Jews to Israel.

The airlift was called Operation Magic Carpet but became known as ?on wings of eagles? because so many Yemenite Jews had never seen an airplane and believed that this was what God had promised in the book of Isaiah when He said that His children would return to Zion ?with wings, as eagles.?

In 1962, under Communist rule in Yemen, the remaining Jews were cut off from the outside world. Today, there are an estimated 200 Jews in Yemen.

Jewish critics say Yemenite Jews are still treated as second-class citizens and cannot serve in the army or be elected to political positions. Marriage is absolutely forbidden outside of the religion.

STAYING PUT

But the sentiment of the very few Jews who stayed behind appears to have changed. First of all, official expressions of anti-Semitism have declined sharply under the present government.

And the largest population of Jews is ironically protected by the head of the Al Islam Islamic party, Sheik Abdullah Hussein Hammer, who has actually been strident in his criticism of Israel.

But no longer looking to escape ?on the wings of eagles,? Musa said he has no problems with President Ali Abdullah Sale?s current anti-Israeli stance.

?We live in peace under his policies. We don?t know Israel and Israel doesn?t know us. We don?t have any criticism against him,? Musa said of Sale. ?We are Yemeni, as were our fathers and grandfathers. We don?t want to get involved in any foreign or internal policy.?

When asked if he?s ever been pressured to convert to Islam, Musa said, ?Never.? ?No one has talked to us about the Quran; no one has put pressure on us. We stay with our Torah.?