About 850,000 Jews lived throughout the Arab world before the state of Israel was created in 1948. That number has dwindled to fewer than 4,500. Jewish communities have virtually disappeared across North Africa and the Middle East, including Libya, Algeria, Egypt and Yemen. [Source: Kristen McTighe, USA TODAY, May 27, 2016]
Most Jews now living in the Arab world belong to communities dating back to Old Testament times or originating as colonies of refugees fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. Arab-Israeli wars and hostility towards Jews has reduced the numbers of Jews in the Arab world from around 1 million to around 6,000 today. There were 850,000 Jews in the Middle East after World War II. After the creation of Israel in 1948, many Jews in Muslim countries emigrated there.
Jews in the Middle East and North Africa
Country or Territory — Core Jewish Population — Population per Jewish Person — Enlarged Jewish Population [Source: Wikipedia +]
Israel — 6,399,000 — 1.32 — 6,451,000
Turkey — 17,200 — 4,801 — 21,000
Iran — 8,756 — 9,186 — 12,000
Morocco — 6,000 — 13,745 — 6,500
Tunisia — 900 — 12,153 — 1,100
Lebanon — 200 — 29,415 — 200
United Arab Emirates — 100 — 91,570 — 500
Yemen — 40 - 50 — 289,467 — 300
Egypt — 18 — 5,259,277 — 40 - 50
Bahrain — 36 36,500 — 36
The Jewish communities that lived in the Middle East have traditionally been Arabic-speaking. Their numbers were largest in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and southeastern Turkey. Their names were often associated with where they lived. In Syria, the Halabiye, for example, were from Allepo and the Shawan were from Damascus. Among Arabs, Arabic-speaking Jews were often called “Yashud awlad al-‘arab” (literally “Jews who are children of the Arabs”).
The number of Arabic-speaking Jews in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt was estimated to be 180,000 in 1917, 261,000 in 1947 and 5,200 in 1972 of whom 5,000 were in Syria and Lebanon. The figures are even lower today as almost all the Jews in these countries have emigrated. Many of the Arabic-speaking Jews emigrated to Israel. They and their descendants now largely speak Hebrew
Pre-Israel, Arabic-speaking Jews tended to mix Jewish customs with those of their Arab-Muslim neighbors. In the old days many were traders or artisans. Those that lived in the countryside often worked as traveling peddlers. In modern times they were associated with precious metals and were often goldsmiths or silversmiths.
Sephardic (Middle Eastern) Jews
Sephardic Jews observing Hoshanah Rabah Sephardic Jews are primarily the descendants of Jews that settled in Spain in the Middle Ages, were expelled from there in 1492 and settled in North Africa. The word “Sephardic” is derived from the medieval name used by Jews to describe the Iberian peninsula.
Of the world’s Jews, 11 percent are Sephardic Jews from North Africa and 7 percent are Oriental Jews. The term Oriental Jews can be used in place of Sephardic Jew. It can also refer to Jews from Central Asia and India.
Sephardic Jews are from mostly North Africa and the Middle East. Most are from Morocco, Yemen, Syria, Iran, Iraq and other Middle Eastern Islamic countries. Like Ashkenazi they make up about half of Israel’s Jewish citizens.. They traditionally have had dark skin and wore Middle-Eastern-style clothes. Their most devout members are identified by the black skullcaps. Some Sephardic women wear headscarves and long gowns in a manner similar to Muslim women.
Sephardic Jews are known as Sephardic Jews even though they are from the Middle East not Spain because Sephardic traditions from Spain took root in the Middle East because of the dissemination of Sephardic publications among Jews in the Middle East. Particularly influential was Sephardic interpretation of laws found in Joseph Karo’s Shulchan Aruch
Despite the fact that most Jews in Israel are of Middle Eastern descent the country was founded by Europeans. The first Jews who arrived from Arab nations often dressed like Arabs, ate Middle Eastern food, and lived in tents like Bedouins when they arrived. Most were illiterate, unskilled and poor. Although there are still disparities between European and Middle Eastern Jews, as time goes by they grow closer together, helped in part by the fact that over one forth of all Israeli marriages are between the two groups.♦
Difference Between Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazi Jews
Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazi Jews sometimes have different interpretation of Jewish laws and different takes on liturgical matters. They often speak different languages and have different pronunciations of Hebrew. The order of prayers in their prayer books vary slightly; Sephardic Jews but not Ashkenazi Jews allow polygamy and levirate marriage; and the passover diet is more restricted for Ashkenazi Jews than for Sephardic Jews.
Many Sephardic Jews arrived in Israel after World War II. They have traditionally been less prosperous and less educated than Ashkenazic Jews. They also have traditionally been less well represnted in government, business, professions, the arts and the media. They have a higher birth rate and their numbers are increasing faster than those of Ashkenazic Jews.
Many Sephardic complain they are victims of ethnic and class discrimination. Many were taught in secular schools that the traditions of their parents were primitive. In the early 1970s Middle Eastern Jews made up 60 percent of all beginning classes in elementary schools but only 14 percent of those graduating from high school. The high school figure is much higher now but still lower than European Jews. Ori Orr, a Labor Party politician and former general, caused a stir when commented he said of Sephardic Jews: “I can’t speak with these people like I speak with others who are more Israeli in character.”
Many Sephardic Jews resent how they have been treated by the Ashkenazic Jewish establishment. One spokesman for the Shas party told the Washington Post, “In every city, Sephardim are always the bottom 10 percent. The Ashkenazi always threw us out; they made boys cut off their sidelocks; they wouldn’t allow religious teaching. They stole our culture.”
These days many Ultra-Orthodox Jews are Sephardic Jews.
Arabs and Jews
Arabs see Jews as murderers and colonizers. Newspapers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries have run stories that have alleged that Jews have used human blood to make pastries for the Jewish holiday Purim. For Passover treats “the blood of Christian and Muslim children under the age of 10 must be used.” Many say the blood is extracted with a “needle studded barrel.” Televison “documentaries” have been based on “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,”which explains how Jews with the help American plan to take over the world.
The Somalia-born Islamic reformer Ayaan Ali Hirsi wrote in the New York Times, “Western leaders who say they are shocked by the conference of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran denying the Holocaust need to wake up to that reality. For the majority of Muslims in the world. The Holocaust is not a major historical event they deny; they simply do not know because they were never informed. Worse, most of us are groomed to wish for a Holocaust of Jews.”
Anti-Semitism has never been an element of Islam. Although Mohammed led a massacre of Jewish tribes that betrayed him, who never instigated violence against Jews and in fact regarded them as brothers of Muslims. Through history, Jews lived better under Muslim leaders than they did under Christian ones. It was only after the Jewish state of Israel was created in 1948 and Arabs were driven from their land that anti-Semitism took root in the Arab and Muslim world.
One Jew in Isfahan, Iran told National Geographic, "From the time of the Arab conquest, Jews have lived in relative peace with their overlords. Theoretically we have only had to pay a special tax, but in fact we have been made to feel in many ways like second-class citizens. Often we have been restricted to certain quarters of he a city, or limited to certain trades or kinds of dress. Here in Isfahan, for instance, we are still not allowed in public baths."
There used to be large Jewish communities in Cairo, Alexandria and south of Asyut on the Nile. As of 1998, there are about 130 Jews in Egypt (100 of them in Cairo), down from 75,000 in the 1940s. Tensions between Israel and Egypt and other Arab country's is blamed for the exodus. Hundreds of Jews were imprisoned in the Nasser era and when hostilities with Israel were at their height. Now only about 40 Jews remain in Egypt. They are mostly elderly. Their heavily-guarded synagogues are open only to Jews.
Sarah El Deeb of Associated Press wrote: “Egypt's once thriving Jewish community largely left Egypt more than 60 years ago amid the hostilities between Egypt and Israel. Estimates say about 65,000 Jews left Egypt since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, most of them to Europe and the West, with a small portion settling in Israel. Their departure was fueled by rising nationalist sentiment during the Arab-Israeli wars, harassment and some direct expulsions by then-President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, and attacks on Jewish properties, some of them blamed on the Brotherhood, which renounced violence in the 1970s.” [Source: Sarah El Deeb, Associated Press, November 2013]
Egypt’s relatively-close, on-and-off relationship with Israel has been condemned by other Arab nations. In the mid-1990s about 250,000 Israelis visited Egypt each year. Most them were tourists visiting Sinai beach resorts along the Red Sea. Only 30,000 Egyptians visited Israel. Many of them were workers Israelis hoped would replace Palestinian workers they relied on. Fo a while security was provided for Jewish pilgrims who came from Israel to Egypti to visit the tomb of a 19th century rabbi. Later an Egyptian judge banned the annual Jewish pilgrimage to the shrine of a holy man, Abu Hasira, near Alexandria on the grounds that it endangered public morality.
After the 1979 peace accord between Egypt and Israel the Israeli Center was established in Cairo. The Israeli who ran in the early 2000s was described as the "Loneliest Man in Cairo" and was accused of being a spy and causing earthquakes. Newspapers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries have run stories that have alleged that Jews have used human blood to make pastries for the Jewish holiday Purim. For Passover treats “the blood of Christian and Muslim children under the age of 10 must be used.” Many say the blood is extracted with a “needle studded barrel.” Televison “documentaries” have been based on “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,”which explains how Jews with the help American plan to take over the world.
History of Egyptian Jews
The Romans allowed the Jews but not the Christians in Alexandria to rule themselves. Egypt was most the populace province of the Roman Empire. Under Rome, Egyptians worshipped a combination of Egyptian, Greek and Roman deities. In Alexandria and other places pagans, Jews and Christians all lived together and the dead hedged their bets by filling their tombs with Roman, Egyptian and Greek gods.
The conquest of Egypt by the armies of Islam under the command of the Muslim hero, Amr ibn al As, transformed Egypt from a predominantly Christian country to a Muslim country in which the Arabic language and culture were adopted even by those who clung to their Christian or Jewish faiths. By 647, after the surrender of Alexandria, the whole country was under Muslim rule. Amr, Egypt's first Muslim ruler, was influenced by the Prophet's advice that Muslims should be kind to the Egyptians because of their kinship ties to Arabs. According to Islamic tradition, Ismail's mother, Hagar, was of Egyptian origin.*
Amr allowed the Copts to choose between converting to Islam or retaining their beliefs as a protected people. Amr gave them this choice because the Prophet had recognized the special status of the "People of the Book" (Jews and Christians), whose scriptures he considered perversions of God's true word but nevertheless contributory to Islam. Amr believed that Jews and Christians were people who had approached but not yet achieved the perfection of Islam, so he did not treat them like pagans who would be forced into choosing between Islam and death. Jews and Christians in Muslim territories could live according to their own religious laws and in their own communities if they accepted the position of dhimmis, or tolerated subject peoples. Dhimmis were required to recognize Muslim authority, pay additional taxes, avoid proselytism among Muslims, and give up certain political rights. By the ninth century A.D., most Egyptians had converted to Islam. *
Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein, the second President of Egypt, serving from 1956 until his death in 1970, Nasser fought poverty, revived agriculture and industry, built the Aswan High Dam and expelled Jews, Britons and French. The last large group of jews, numbering several thousand, who did not have Egyptian citizenship, were expelled during the Suez crisis. An estimated 1,000 Jews lived in Egypt as of 1990. These Jews were a fragment of a community of 80,000 who lived in the country before 1948. Egypt's Constitution of 1971 guarantees freedom of religion. *
Muslim Brotherhood Says Jews Please Come Back
In 2013, after the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt, a a leading Muslim Brotherhood member and adviser to Islamist President Mohammed Morsi raised eyebrows Egypt when he called on Egyptian Jews in Israel to return home because Egypt was then a democracy and because Israel wouldn't survive. Sarah El Deeb of Associated Press wrote: “ Essam el-Erian's remarks in a TV appearance put the Brotherhood, which holds power in Egypt, on the spot as opponents - and some allies - jumped on the comments to denounce the group. Morsi's office disassociated the president from the comments, saying they were el-Erian's personal opinion. [Source: Sarah El Deeb, Associated Press, November 2013]
“The criticism ran an unusual gamut of Egyptians' attitudes toward Jews, Israel and the Brotherhood itself. Some denounced the Brotherhood for trying to put up a veneer of tolerance by inviting Jews to return while Egypt's other religious minorities, particularly Christians, are increasingly worried about persecution under the new Islamist rulers and an Islamist-slanted constitution.
Others saw the comments as a sort of outreach to Zionists, considered the enemy, and as a new example of how the Brotherhood has had a hard time melding its longtime anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish rhetoric with its new responsibilities since coming to power. Under Morsi - who hails from the Brotherhood - the government has continued cooperation with Israel, upheld the two countries' peace deal and Morsi last month helped mediate a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel.
The number of Jews in Iraq shrunk from 140,000 in 1948 to fewer than 100 today. Most left in the 1950s in the wake of Arab resentment towards Jews after the state of Israel was created in 1948. There is only one functioning synagogue in Baghdad. It is watched over by Muslim guards and locked most of the time. Services are held on Saturdays.
Jews from Iraq speak an Iraqi dialects of Judeo-Arabic In northern Iraq there used to be a small Jewish community scattered in a number of villages dominated by Kurdish tribal chiefs. These so-called “Kurdish Jews” spoke a dialect of Hebrew known as targum. See Kurdish Jews
The Iraqi Jews that fled Iraq in many cases were forced to leave everything behind after being fixtures of their communities for centuries. According to the Washington Post, “The Jewish community organizations they had founded, and their books and documents, became the focus of the secret police. Among the institutions targeted were Baghdad’s Frank Iny and Shamash Jewish schools.” [Source: Michael E. Ruane, Washington Post, August 13, 2013]
History of Iraqi Jews
Some Iraqi Jews have claimed they are descendants of Israelite brought to Babylon by the Biblical Neo-Babylonians king Nebuchadnezzarin the 6th century B.C. Later Babylon fell to the Persians under Cyrus the Great (550-530 B.C.). In addition to incorporating Babylon into the Iranian empire, Cyrus the Great released the Jews who had been held in captivity there. In the Ottoman era, Baghdad was regarded as a Jewish city.
There used to be large Jewish communities in Baghdad. In the early 1900s, Jews still made up about a quarter of Baghdad’s population of 200,000. As late as the mid-1930s, Baghdad was one of the world capitals of Jewish life, culture and scholarship, with Jews perhaps making up a third of its population.
Most of Iraq’s Jews either fled to Israel or were expelled in the 1940s and early 1950s. In the early 1940s, a pro-Nazi regime was in power in Iraq. After the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, tensions and violence flared again. There was a mass emigration of Iraqi Jews after a series of riots, pogroms and arrests. Many of the Jews that remained were harassed or killed. About 120,000 Iraqi Jews emigrated to Israel between 1948 and 1952. [Source: Michael E. Ruane, Washington Post, August 13, 2013]
In January 1969, in one of the Baath Party’s first displays of public brutality, 13 Iraqi Jews and 4 other men were hanged in a public ceremony in Baghdad before a crowd of about a half million people. Iraqis were bussed in from around the country to witness the event. The Iraqi Jews had been arrested and convicted on charges of spying a few months after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. They were hanged from lampposts in a Baghdad square. For the few Jews that remained it was the last straw. Most left.
Iraqi Jews and Saddam Hussein
As a boy Saddam Hussein moved in with his uncle Khairallah Talfah, who, in 1941 participated in the coup attempt against the monarchy by pro-Nazi army officers and was sent to prison. Khairallah helped shaped Saddam’s political and nationalistic views as well as his opinions about Jews (Khairallah wrote a book called Three Whom God Should Not Have Created: Persians, Jews and Flies). Saddam married Khairallah’s daughter. Under Saddam, Khairallah was made the mayor of Baghdad but lost his job because he was so corrupt. Later in life Saddam spared the life of an Iraqi Jews because he gave Saddam a big tip when he was a boy.
Saddam was behind the hanging of the Jews in 1969. Saddam announced that a Zionist plot had been discovered in Iraq before the 14 people, include nine Iraqi Jews, were publically hanged in Baghdad’s Liberation Square. Saddam inspected the gallows himself and drove around the square in a car. The bodies were left on display in the square for more than a day. In December 2003, at the age of 98, two years before he died, an Iraqi Jew named Shao’ul Sasson described his arrest and torture at the hands of the Baath Party police.
On the eve of the American invasion Saddam wrote a 186-page novel called Get Out, You Cursed One. It was about an Arab tribesmen named Salem who unites local tribes to defeat American and Jewish infidels. Under Saddam, and after him, newspapers have run front page features with pictures of bearded Orthodox Jews and conspiracy theoires about Zionist plots to buy Baghdad’s best real estate.
Iraqi Jew Escapes from Iraq
Maurice Shohet who now lives in Washington D.C. fled Iraq when he was a student at a Baghdad Jewish school. Michael E. Ruane wrote in the Washington Post, “He and 12 members of his family escaped from Iraq in 1970, amid the increasing repression of Jews. Shohet said that his family’s roots went back at least 250 years in Iraq. “The community is one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world,” he said. [Source: Michael E. Ruane, Washington Post, August 13, 2013 <*>]
“Before their escape, Jews were not permitted to leave Baghdad. Shohet’s father lost his textile- importing permit and was forced to carry a yellow identity card proving that the family had been long-term residents of Iraq. Jews — including Shohet — were watched by Iraqi intelligence. They were not accepted to university. And some of Shohet’s friends were arrested and executed. As a result, he said, he and his two brothers began to pressure their parents to leave. It was clear that there was no future in Iraq. “We had nothing,” he said. His parents, who were in their late 50s, were hesitant. <*>
“But about 4 a.m. on Sept. 2, 1970, he and a dozen family members squeezed into a large rented car and headed north for the Iranian border. They left almost everything behind in their rented home, he said, but there were no regrets. They crossed into Iran after a harrowing journey on foot, terrified by guard dogs and searchlights. <*>
“Shohet made his way to the United States in 1981....Shohet, now employed by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he went back to Baghdad in 2004 on an exploratory business trip. While he was there, he went to see his old house — 34 years after he had left it. “I didn’t even try to think who was living there,” Shohet said. He was asked by those accompanying him whether he wanted to stop in: “I said, ‘No, no. Who am I to come to show off? I just wanted to [see] how it looks from the outside.’ How did it look? “The same,” he said.
Syria is home to one the world’s oldest Jewish communities. Assyria is mentioned Genesis in the Bible and ruled over Judea and Jerusalem in the 8th and 7th century B.C. In 1948 there were about 30,000 Jews in Syria, with large Jewish communities in Aleppo and Damascus In 1974 there were only about 3,500, of which 2,500 lived in Damascus. "Our people, all Sephardic Jews," a rabbi told National Geographic reporter Robert Azzi, "have been here for hundreds of years. Saladin, who saved Jerusalem from the Crusaders, had a Damascus Jew for a personal physician." Syria saw a mass exodus at the end of the 20th century. By the early 2010s, in the midst of the Syrian Civil War, Syria, less than 20 remained.
Most Syrian Jews belonged to communities dating back to Old Testament times or originating as colonies of refugees fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. A Syrian Jew is Arabic-speaking and is barely distinguishable from the Arabs around him. In Syria, as elsewhere, the degree to which Jews submit to the disciplines of their religion varies. Many of the Jews in Damascus are descendants of families that fled there after being kicked out Spain in the 1490s. Damascene Jews are famous skill as copper and brass engravers, and gold and silver inlaying. Under the Assad regimes, Jews were exempted from military service. Even when Syria invaded Israel in 1973, Sephardic Jews in Damascus were able to celebrate Yom Kipper undisturbed.
The government of Syria has traditionally treated the Jews as a religious community and not as a racial group. Official documents refer to them as musawiyin (followers of Moses) and not yahudin (Jews). The government's translation into English of musawiyin is "Judists." Although for many years the Jewish community exercised a certain authority over the personal status of its members, as a whole it was under considerable restriction, more because of political factors than religious ones. The economic freedom of Jews has been limited, and they have been under continual surveillance by the police. Their situation, although not good before the June 1967 War, reportedly deteriorated considerably after that. [Source: Thomas Collelo, ed. Syria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1987 *]
In matters of personal status, such as birth, marriage, and inheritance, the Christian, Jewish, and Druze minorities follow their own legal systems. All other groups, in such matters, come under the jurisdiction of the Muslim code. Although the faiths theoretically enjoy equal legal status, to some extent Islam is favored. Despite guarantees of religious freedom, some observers maintain that the conditions of the nonMuslim minorities have been steadily deteriorating, especially since the June 1967 War. *
History of Syrian Jews
The Aramaeans had settled in Greater Syria at approximately the end of the thirteenth century B.C., the same time at which the Jews, or Israelites, migrated to the area. The Aramaeans settled in the Mesopotamian-Syrian corridor to the north and established the kingdom of Aram, biblical Syria. [Source: Thomas Collelo, ed. Syria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1987 *]
Ottoman administration often followed patterns set by previous rulers. Each religious minority--Shia Muslim, Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Armenian, and Jewish--constituted a millet. The religious heads of each community administered all personal status law and performed certain civil functions as well.*
Support for Greater Syria, opposition to Jewish settlement in Palestine, and the 1917 Balfour Declaration in which Britain promised Jews a "national home" in Palestine (as part of the World War I promises to the Arabs and Jews), contributed to the growth of pan-Arabism as well as to the opposition to recognizing Israel as a legitimate Middle Eastern nation. The November 1947 United Nations (UN) declaration calling for partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states provoked a general strike in Damascus and major rioting throughout Syria. In addition, armed bands of irregulars from Syria's fledgling armed forces began to raid Jewish settlements near the Syrian border.*
For many years Damascascene Jews were not allowed to leave the city without a special permit nor were they allowed to leave Syria. They had to carry an identity cards saying "followers of Moses." The idea seemed to be that one less Jew going to Israel was one less Jew that could fight against the Syrians. Since 1948, Israel has been Syria's most hated enemy and the two nations clashed many times. The Jewish state is regarded as an aggressor and an occupier of Arab land, most notably Syria's Golan Heights. For many years simply discussing the idea of negotiations between the two nations was considered unthinkable.
Finally in the early 1990s, Syrian Jews were allowed to leave and many of them did. Of Damascus's 22 synagogues only two remained in use by 2000. "Some have come back," one Jewish man told National Geographic. "They did not realize the extent of crime, of social alienation. Here in the Old City, we are a family, Jews and non-Jews. We enjoy our neighbors and trust everyone."
There are only about 200 Jews left in Lebanon. Lebanese Jews historically have been an integral part of the Lebanese fabric of confessional communities. In 1947, they were estimated to number 5,950. After the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, Lebanese Jews did not feel compelled to emigrate because they enjoyed a prosperous status in Lebanese society and had been granted equal rights by law with other citizens. Moreover, they suffered no harm during the anti-Zionist demonstrations of 1947 and 1948. However, the intensification of the Arab-Israeli conflict politicized attitudes toward local Jews, who were often associated with the policies of Israel. In the early 1950s their synagogue in Beirut was bombed, and the Lebanese Chamber of Deputies witnessed heated debates on the status of Lebanese Jewish army officers. The discussions culminated in a unanimous resolution to expel and exclude them from the Lebanese Army. [Source: Thomas Collelo, ed. Lebanon: A Country Study, U.S. Library of Congress, 1987 *]
During the June 1967 War, Lebanese authorities stationed guards in Jewish districts, when hostility toward Lebanese Jews became overt. Several hundred chose to leave the country; until 1972 Jews were free to leave the country with their money and possessions. During the 1975 Civil War, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Lebanese leftist-Muslim forces posted militia in the Jewish neighborhood of Wadi Abu Jamil, that housed what remained of the dwindling Jewish community, estimated to number less than 3,000. Nevertheless, the rise of Muslim fundamentalists, especially in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of 1982, constituted a real threat to Lebanese Jews. Organizations such as the Khaybar Brigades and the Organization of the Oppressed of the Earth claimed responsibility for kidnapping and killing several Lebanese Jews between 1984 and 1987. As of 1987 it was estimated that only a dozen Jews remained in West Beirut, and some seventy others in the eastern sector of the city.*
There used to be tens of thousands of Jews in Yemen. They lived in a thousand communities scattered throughout Yemen. There were large Jewish communities in Ghuraz, near Sadah, and Hajjah, west of San’a. Many were employed as artisans and some sold goods to Arab farmers. They often worked as silversmiths and produced crafts, jewelry and traditional clothes and headdresses for which Yemen as a whole is known. Few Jews are left in Yemen. Most Yemeni Jews moved to Israel.
Yemeni (Yemenite) Jews also worked in blacksmithing, tailoring, pottery, charcoal making, soap making, stonecutting, masonry, carpentry, building, milling, baking and candy making. Some also worked as traders, peddlers, shopkeepers, donkey drivers, porters and laborers. Others were employed doing jobs that Muslims didn’t want to do such cleaning latrines and sewers, burying travelers that died in Yemen and cleaning carrion from the roads. Many Jews worked as silversmiths in Habaan in South Yemen and worked in weavers villages in northern Yemen.
About 80 percent of Yemeni Jews lived in villages – each characterized by its own specific dialect, laws, customs, clothing, etc. The remaining part lived in towns such as Sana’a and Aden. Their Jewish identity was expressed through different aspects of their rich culture, especially their distinctive dress and jewelry. It is said that Yemenite Jews have kept alive ancient traditions from the days of the Second Temple. Some Yemenite Jews have ended up Samtar Hasidic Jews in Monroe, New York. [Source: ruthfilms.com]
Yemeni Jews have three identities in Israel: as Yemenis, as Israelis and as Jews in Yemen. They are well integrated into Israeli society but still tend live in their own neighborhoods and communities, practice their faith as they did in Yemen, maintain the own synagogues and use a distinctive liturgical Hebrew in their religious rituals. Because there are strict rules about not driving or taking public transportation on the Sabbath most live within walking distance of the synagogue and because a certain number of people is necessary to keep a synagogue going it easy to see how a Yemeni community is logistically created.
Around 650 Yemenite Jewish children disappeared in Israel around the time that Israel was created in 1948. Some believe that the children were “kidnaped” by European Jews. Investigations were conducted in the 1960s, 80s and 90s. They concluded that many of the children died of disease. No evidence of foul play was presented. Between 80 and 100 cases have raised serious questions. With these children there is firm evidence that they were alive in Israel around 1948 with no evidence that they died.
Early History of Jews in Yemen
Yemenite Jew Jews have lived in Yemen for at least 1,500 years. It is not clear whether Jews from somewhere else settled in Yemen or a group living in Yemen converted to Judaism. Many are believed to be to have originally been from Iraq and Egypt and were part of the larger Jewish diaspora that was kicked out Palestine by the Romans. Yemen was a Jewish kingdom for much of the A.D. 5th and 6th centuries.
Despite there relatively remote location, Yemeni Jews remained in contact with other Jews throughout the centuries, particularly those in North Africa and the Middle East, and their religious practices remained nearly identical to those of Jews living elsewhere. Conversely, although they lived closely with Muslim Arabs and shared many aspects of daily life and economic life with them they remained a separate group and their religious, social, cultural and artistic life was often quite different from that of their Muslim neighbors.
Under Muslim rule the Jews were designated by Muslim law as dhimmi , and were tolerated and permitted to practice their own religion but liable to pay special taxes, denied political and legal rights granted to Muslims and control by Muslim “patrons,” who subjected the Jews to special laws that kept them in a position inferior to Muslims. The fate of the Jews in Yemen depended largely how they were treated by their Shiite and Ottoman overlords.
Yemeni Jewish Life and Customs
Yemeni Jews in Yemen spoke Arabic. Men knew how to read and write Hebrew but used the language primarily for religious purposes. In Israel, Yemeni Jews speak Hebrew. In Yemen, women were bared from synagogues and were not taught Hebrew and thus could not read and write.
Although Jews in Yemen had no political rights they had a degree of autonomy and lived as much under the jurisdiction of local religious leaders as their Muslim overlords. One of the main duties of the religious leaders was making sure that their followers followed Jewish law in matters such as abiding by the Sabbath, eating kosher foods and following Jewish customs in regard to circumcision, marriage, funerals and other life-cycle rites.
Religion has traditionally been very important to Yemeni Jews. Men have traditionally been very knowledgeable about religious practices and many elements of Yemeni Jewish culture are tied to their religion. Many synagogues have had not had rabbis. Activities instead have been lead by members of the congregation who took turns on a rotating basis.
Social life often revolves around religious activities In addition to weekly services and religious holidays Yemeni Jews are often busy attending marriages, birth and death rituals not only of close relatives but also of distant relatives and relative of members of their community. Food, poetry, music. dance and clothes often have religious meaning and often accompany religious rituals. Yemeni Jews in Israel maintain the distinctive music, dance, poetry, art and costumes that they brought with them from their homeland.
Weddings have traditionally been big events, with events that are strung out over weeks. One of the main events is the women’s party before the wedding in which the bride is dressed in an elaborate costume with a spectacular headdress and jewelry. While she is is being dressed women at the party beat drums and sing special songs and do special dances. These days many men participate in these parties as well. On their wedding day many Israeli brides wear a traditional Yemeni wedding costume that dates back hundreds of years. The costumes looks like a necklace display hanging in a jewelry store with a head peering out of it. These costumes cost several thousand dollars and most brides rent them.
Yemeni Jews Emigrate to Israel
At the end of the 19th century there were around 60,000 Jews living in Yemen. beginning in 1881 they began emigrating to Palestine. Most of those that remained after World War II, around 49,000 of them, arrived in Israeli in an airlift code-named "Operation Magic Carpet” or “On Wings of Eagles,” after prophecies in the Bible, shortly after the founding Israel in 1948.
While in Yemen, Yemeni Jews had always kept alive the idea that they were living in exile and that one day they would return to the Land of Israel (or Zion). They were among the most eager to get to Israel. Many walked or rode on camels and donkeys to reach the port city of Aden, then under British control, where they met with Israelis who helped them get airlifted to Israel.
Many of the Yemeni Jews arrived without money or belongings and didn’t speak Hebrew or Yiddish. They lacked education and skills for the modern world and many European Jews regarded them as “primitive.” The Yemeni Jews had a strong work ethic however and were willing to many jobs that others found demeaning. Among the first generation of Yemeni Jews in Israel about a quarter became farmers and other two thirds worked in building or industry. As younger ones became educated they took up a number of trades. Many became teachers bureaucrats, engineers or other professionals.
In the late 1980s there were about 1,000 left in Yemen while 165,000 Jews in Israel traced their ancestry to Yemen. Now there are only about 250 Jews left in Yemen. They live in northern towns such as Raida. The Yemeni government has traditionally had a liberal policy towards Jews. Jews in Israel were encouraged to come back with their skills; American Jews were allowed to send Jewish texts to Yemen. Muslim clerics by contrast have called for the remaining Yemeni Jews to be stripped of their citizenship.
Examples of Arab Anti-Semitism
The Somalia-born Islamic reformer Ayaan Ali Hirsi wrote in the New York Times, “Growing up as a child in Saudi Arabia, I remember my teachers, my mom and our neighbors, telling us practically on a daily basis that Jews were evil, the sworn enemies of Muslims who’s only goal was to destroy Islam. We were never informed about the Holocaust.”
In Kenya, Hirsi wrote in the New York Times, “When Saudi and other Gulf philanthropy reached us...I remember that the building of mosques and donations to hospitals and the poor went hand in hand with the cursing of Jews. Jews were said to responsible for the deaths of babies, epidemics like AIDS, and the cause of war. They were greedy and would do absolutely anything to kill us Muslims. And if we wanted to know peace and stability we would have to destroy them before they would wipe us out. For those of us who were not in a position to take up arms against Jews it was enough to raise our eyes heavenward and pray to Allah to destroy them.”
In 2002, a respected imam gave a speech at the Grand Mosque in Mecca in which he prayed to Allah to “terminate” Jews, which he described as “the scum of humanity, the rats of the world, prophet killers, pigs and monkeys. Many Arabs say that the blue strips at the top and bottom of the Israeli flag represent that Nile and Euphrates Rivers and their desire to claim all the land between them. The blues lines in fact represent the markings found on Jewish prayer shawls.
Bookstores sell copies of the Arabic verison of Mein Kampf and the Matzo of Zion, a book that asserts one of the main ingredients of matzo is gentile blood. An Arab man told the New Yorker, “I believe Hitler must have done good things for Germany, but who can say this today? No one can, because the Zionist control the media.”
Arabs, Jews and Conspiracies
Arab newspapers run stories that deny the Holocaust and support the anti-Semitic “Franklin Prophecy” falsely attributed to Ben Franklin that states that Jews will take over America. Ayaan Ali Hirsi wrote in the New York Times that when she told her half sister about Auschwitz and showed her pictures from a history book: “With great conviction my half-sister cried: “It’s a lie! Jews have a way of blinding people. They were not killed, gassed nor massacred, But I pray to Allah that one day all the Jews in the world will be destroyed.”
The mufti of Jerusalem said Israel “used the Holocaust to win sympathy.” He also said the 6 million death figure of the Holocaust was “exaggerated” and Israel “considers it pain more important than anyone else.” “There has been many massacres in the world. Why is this Holocaust so important,” he said.
Many Arabs believe that September 11th was a Jewish plot carried out by the Mossad to justify attacks on Arabs and Muslims. As evidence they offer the “fact” that 4000 Jews were tipped off and didn’t show up at the trade centers they day of the attack and that Jewish cameramen were informed in advance so they could film the crashes. Some say that Zionists kidnaped Mohammed Atta to steal his identity and make a mask and use his passport.
Supporters of this theory claim that the Mossad’s aim was to make trouble between Arabs and American so that the Americans would not support the Palestinians. They refused to believe that Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaida could pull off such a sophisticated operation ; only the Mossad could. In a CNN poll in six Middle Eastern countries, only 18 percent of the Arabs asked believed that Arabs carried out the attacks.
Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons
Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, ccel.org , Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2018