Friday, March 27, 2015

Jews in Jeopardy in Yemen: Today's Arena of a War

Nadene Goldfoot                                                         
Ofra Haza, (Nov. 19, 1957-Feb 23, 2000)born in Tel Aviv, Israel of Yemenite parents, famous singer

Yemen, where 46,000-50,000 Jews were taken to Israel in 1949-1950 via Operation Magic Carpet, is now in big trouble, and though only about 1,400 Jews had been left there, those today are in big trouble finding themselves in today's escalating conflict. 

 Israel thought they had just about liquidated the Jews from Yemen in this lift.  The majority of the Yemenite Jews had made their way to Aden from where they were flown to Israel, since Egypt didn't permit their passage through the Suez Canal at this time.  The project began in the fall of 1949 and lasted for a year.   Iran-backed rebels are trying to take control of Yemen and Saudi-Arabia soldiers and other Arab forces are trying to stop them.  The Yemeni Jewish community really needs another Magic Carpet to whisk them away.

Ofra had done much for the Mizrachi Jews of Israel.  " (Hebrew: עפרה חזה‎, Arabic: عوفرة حازة‎;she  was not only an Israeli singer, but an actress and international recording artist. Her voice has been described as a "tender" mezzo-soprano.     "Her major international breakthrough came in the wake of the album Shirei Teiman (Yemenite songs), which she recorded in 1984."                                           

Inspired by a love of her Yemenite and Hebrew culture, her music quickly spread to a wider Middle Eastern audience, somehow bridging the divide between Israel and the Arab countries.  To this American Jewess, her Yemenite songs were from Magic Carpet tales.  

Yemen was one of the places where people had converted to Judaism as they were not hindered by the Christian dictum in Europe's Byzantium Empire  that did not permit this though Europe insisted that Jews convert to Christianity.  Yemen, the SW part of Arabia, was a land that Jews had been living in in biblical days; even the era of the 1st Temple of King Solomon who died in 922 BCE.  In fact Jewish tribes had been living in Medina, Arabia.  At first there were about 3,000 Jews living in Yemen.  Then, conversions to Judaism started under Abu Karib Asad who ruled from 390 to 420 CE and who converted.  He propagated his new faith among his subjects.  This was before Islam which started with Mohammad (570-632 CE).  Judaism became widely spread among Bedouin tribes of Southern Arabia.  Jewish converts were also found with the Hamdan, a northern Yemenite tribe.  It was the upper strata of society who became Jewish.  
Judaism reached its zenith under Dhu Nuwas.  This Arabian king was the last ruler of the independent Himyarite kingdom and he used the name of Yusuf (Joseph) after he gained the throne in 518.    "One Syriac source appears to suggest that the mother of Dhū Nuwās may have been herself a Jew hailing from the Mesopotamian city of Nisibis.  If so, this would place her origins within the Sassanid imperial sphere, and would illuminate possible political reasons for his later actions against the Christians of Arabia, who were natural allies of the Byzantine Empire."  According to legend, he retaliated for the persecution of Jews in the Byzantine empire and put to death some Byzantine merchants who came to his kingdom.   Sadly, When he died in 525 CE and his kingdom suffered a downfall, Christianity gained ground in southern Arabia, especially among the former converts to Judaism.  What had happened was that his forces had the soldiers of the  Christian city of Najran  surrender to him in about 523.  He invited the people to embrace Judaism but when they refused, he executed many of them.  He was killed and his kingdom was destroyed in a combined attack by Abyssinia and Byzantium.  Even so, some of the Yemenite rulers were Jewish.
Islam was created and spread quickly.  the Jews of Yemen were spared the fate of their coreligionists in Hejaz (Arabia.)  All non-Muslims had to make a payment of special taxes and the people were called Dhimmis, living under special laws, but Mohammed assured the Yemeni Jews protection and freedom of religion.  At any rate, no news came out of the land about what was really going on and their position must have been precarious, especially after the establishment of Shi-ite rule in the country in the early 10th century.  
The men only were educated in Jewish traditional studies.  They knew Hebrew and Aramaic very well besides their Arabic.  The Kabbalah was popular among them.  Out of their group they produced several liturgical poets, the most famous being Shalom SHABBAZI who lived in the late 17th century in Taiz, south of Sanaa.  He was a weaver but occupied himself with kabbalistic literature and gained a saintly reputation.  His tomb is a place of pilgrimage for the Jews of Yemen.  In some of his poems, Hebrew and Arabic are used alternately.  
Yemen then had many sectarian rulers.  Up to modern times, the Jews have been strictly forbidden to ride on animals or wear the same clothes as Muslims.  they have been deprived of their property on the pretext that any semblance of wealth was incompatible with the status assigned to the Jews by G-d.  Jews have constantly suffered from insults and abuses since religious law was interpreted to the effect that unbelievers should be disgraced.  Orphans were converted by force.
Jews usually have been able to live in villages or quarters of their own, but in the late 17th century, after they had been expelled and were not allowed to re-enter their former homes inside the walls, Jewish suburbs sprang up outside the Muslim cities.  
During the 19th century, Yemenite Jewry experienced some messianic movements.  The best known was in the 12th century when a false prophet proclaimed the amalgamation of Judaism and Mohammedanism.  Maimonides, a famous Jewish doctor and philosopher where his Epistle to Yemen in 1172 in reaction to this.  He begged the Jews to listen to the faith of their fathers despite compulsion and persecutions.  Persecutions have kept occurring to these fantastic artisans of silversmithing.  .  
1914 photograph of a Yemenite Jew in traditional vestments under the tallit gadol, reading from a scroll-most likely the Torah.
' Yemeni Jews are generally described as belonging to "Mizrahi Jews", though they differ from the general trend of Mizrahi groups historically which have undergone a process of total or partial assimilation to Sephardic culture and liturgy."
The capital of Yemen is Sanaa.  Some of the war's strikes are hitting this city today.  In the early 19th century, Yemenite Jews were said to have numbered 30,000 and about 1/3 of them were living in Sanaa.  

Today Saudi Arabia launched air strikes targeting military installations in Yemen held by the Shiite rebels storming the country's south.  Iran reacted to this by calling the air strikes a dangerous step that would worsen the crisis in the country.  In the 1980s Iran had a bloody war with Iraq.  They fought till each country was using its young teens as soldiers.  In this war, Iran is supporting the Houthi insurgency.  Iran considers the Saudis as invaders.  

These remaining Jews, possibly only 90 left,  want to move to Israel but they say they have matters to finish tending to and everything is very difficult to do right now.  They are in danger every day.  They want to see their houses but can't since no one wants to buy now.  The Muslim community wants them to leave without getting any money.  That seems to be the only thing holding them back.  They're battling hatred and racism.  When a family needs something, the father goes out to buy it and returns immediately to his home.  In Rayda, one 50 year old father commented that the people next to him are fleeing and leaving.  He said that we are now wasting what we've saved all their lives in an awful situation.  This is so reminiscent of the Syrian refugees who have gone through the same thing, except they weren't hated since they weren't Jewish.  

The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia

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