Yemen’s Jewish community speaks up

Published on 23 July 2012 in Interview
Sadeq Al-Wesabi (photographer), Mohammed bin Sallam (author)

Sadeq Al-Wesabi


Mohammed bin Sallam

Yahyia Marhabi, left, and Haboob Salem Mousa.

Yahyia Marhabi, left, and Haboob Salem Mousa.

The Jewish community in Yemen has reached a pinnacle of suffering in recent times, according to the statements of some Yemeni Jews who spoke to the Yemen Times this month.

It is estimated that there has been a Jewish presence in Yemen for thousands of years. There was religious tolerance, fraternity, cooperation, patriotism and the maintenance of rights and freedoms irrespective of religion or race, said Yahyia Marhabi, one of the Jewish immigrants who lived in Israel two decades ago.

Yemen Times met with Haboob Salem Mousa, a local in Sa’ada who has not yet emigrated from Yemen. He works now as the Rabbi of the Jewish in Sana’a following the overthrow of the former Rabbi, Yahiya Yousif, in the first quarter of this year. The latter was accused of corruption and procrastination toward addressing their demands to government.

Yahyia Marhabi, who left for Israel two decades ago, also spoke to the Yemen Times. Now he lives with his family in Be'er Sheva, in the south of Israel.

An interview with  Haboob Salem Mousa

What suffering do you currently experience most?

We have suffered a lot, particularly during the last two years. Intimidation, worry and havoc were commonplace. We didn’t feel secure at home or on the street. To avoid attacks, we used to hide plaits under a head cap so that we would not be recognized as Jewish.

The Rabbi, Yahya, aggravated our suffering as well. He used to be a teacher in one of the private schools in Sana'a. He did not honestly chase our issues or resolve our problems. He was the representative of the Jewish people dispelled by the Houthis who had lost their houses and their property.

He extorted YR 5 million that was granted by the president on the occasion of Easter holiday that coincided with April of the last year.

After his ouster, we have been able to receive the money this year and it was distributed on the Jewish populace residing in Tourist City in Sana'a.

The money was paid in accordance with the size of each family. Each individual in each family received YR 68,700.

How much does the government pay each person monthly?

Every two months, sometimes every month, every Jewish person receives YR 5,000 as well as some food materials given by the Yemen Economic Corporation. The food materials include sugar, cooking oil, corns, beans and flour.

What about health insurance: is this guaranteed for the Jewish residents in Tourist City?

We don’t have health insurance at all. For example, my grandmother got sick which cost me around YR 2 million for treatment at the Germany Hospital. The government did not support or care for us.

What about education?

The Jewish have never had the right to education in Yemen. That drove us to send our sons to study in Israel and America. Lately, fifteen students traveled abroad to study. Once the government knew that, the food materials were cut in punishment for them because they seek knowledge and a brighter future.

Why don’t you demand the Ministry of Education allow you to have schools in which Jewish students are not required to study the Islamic curriculum?

Nowadays, worry has increased about the curriculum, especially what the Salafi teachers have been teaching in public schools. They coerce Jewish students to study the Qur’an in addition to suffering harassments from the Muslim students. The Salafi teachers provoke that.

Some Jewish students resorted to private schools in an attempt to seek a better environment. However, they stopped due to the last year's political turbulence.

It was difficult to find a government school in the capital city or in Amran governorate which has no Salfi staff. Thus, it was impossible for us to send our students to study without being forced to study the Islamic subjects. The tuition fees in the private schools are expensive.

How many Jews are currently living in Tourist City?

There are approximately 68 in Tourist City. The Jewish residents in Raida in Amran governorate number around 170 to 200.

In the past, Jewish students used to be taught in Jewish schools in Sana'a and Raida. What happened next?

Those schools were closed because of the troubles that took place last year. The repeated attacks by some extremists on Jewish homes in Raida still continue. Jewish people cannot go out or be in the market. They fear assaults from extremists.

If a Jewish man wants to go out and buy anything such as medicine or food, he ought to disguise himself and ride a motorcycle; he must be cautious as much as he can.

What about compensation? It has been reported that Qatar will compensate the victims in Sa’ada. Have you been given a notice of such compensation?

No one has told us about compensation. We made a request in 2009; no response has been made to date. The Qatari committee that was in Sa'ada didn’t reply.

Do you know how much you have lost?

Yes, we have determined that, and we have photos with respect to this matter. We notified them that the Houthis evicted us from our houses in Bani Salem in Kitaf district. The Houthis looted our homes and planted landmines inside them, leaving them destroyed.

What hurdles do you face in Tourist City?

The biggest problem was the killing of my uncle, Haroon Al-Zindani. A qat seller murdered him with no justification. My uncle was sitting in the market when the qat seller stabbed him in the back. He confessed that he was the murderer.

An interview with Yahyia Marhabi

How do you see the situation of Yemeni Jews in Raida and Tourist City?

They live in a very difficult situation as they lack security, freedom, justice and dignity. Different problems happen there, such as explosions inside houses.

Several houses have been robbed and looted. Recently, about YR 37 million and a Jewish family house ownership documents were stolen from within their house.

Roads are blocked by tribesmen who don’t even allow the Jews to reach to their houses under the pretext that the road belongs to the tribesmen.

What is the role of Amran Governorate’s secretary?

Nowadays, the state is not as strong as it was. Before, we used to go to President Ali Abdullah Saleh for help, or to Sheikh Mojaheed Abu Shawareb or Sheikh Abdullah Bin Hussein Al-Ahmar to settle things down, but now we have no place to go to, and we have nobody to solve our problems. Everyone is afraid.

Some Jews left their houses and moved to live with other people because some influential people in Raida forced them to leave their houses in order to sell them and take the profits.

What about receiving education here?

Children study Hebrew and the Torah because there is no one to teach them anything else since Masha Al-Nahari, who used to teach them additional subjects, was killed. When they grow older, they will be sent to study abroad.

Do those who travel to Israel find houses and salaries to live on?

At the beginning they are given houses for a year, and after that they receive financial aid from the Israeli government to help them buy houses and start their life in Israel.

Elderly people there receive about 2,500 Shekel ($700) pensions from the government, including housing and health care. Children and young men receive education for free.

There are different schools, and the top students are sent to universities with low fees. Those who aren’t able to pay university fees receive help from different human rights and humanitarian organizations.

When Yemeni Jews arrive there, they have to study Modern Hebrew Language for seven months at the expense of the state. About a million Yemeni Jews live there currently.

How are the Yemeni Jews treated in Israel?

They are treated as well as the original citizens. Those men aged 65 and women between the ages 55 and 60 have to retire and are given enough pension, an apartment and health care by the government.

How many Yemenis are members of the Israeli Knesset?

There is currently only one Yemeni in the Knesset because we aren’t unified and continue to believe in tribal loyalities. We treat people according to their areas, whether they are from Taiz, Sana’a, Aden or Sa’da. This results in weak presence of the Yemeni Jewish either in the Israeli Knesset or in the government.

In general, how is the situation of Yemenis in Israel?

The situation is comfortable but some of them want to visit their relatives in Yemen. Moreover, some who left Yemen in 1948 and they wish to return even for a week but they can’t because they don’t have passports or identity cards. Those who left Yemen twenty years ago are able to visit Yemen, but because of the current situation they don’t.

Are there more people want to travel to Israel nowadays?

Yes, there are. They want to travel because they are fed up of the current situation here and they want to start their own life there. Young men don’t study these days and, therefore, wish to go there.

However, some people don’t want to travel because they are afraid that their daughters will follow the same habits of girls there. Many Jewish girls in Yemen embraced Islam to get married to Muslims.

Do Yemeni Jews in Israel follow what is happening in Yemen?

Yes, they do. They follow everything via channels and they were very sad to see destruction everywhere in Yemen for nothing.

There are people in Yemen who say death to America, death to Israel, and that isn’t a problem, but why do they destroy their own country? Why do they kill each other? It’s extremely bizarre.

The Houthis say that they are Muslims while they are killing children and destroying Yemen. We are Jews but we don’t kill anyone. So what is wrong with them?

What do you want to say at the end?

I wanted to meet President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi. I knew him in person so I want to congratulate him and talk with him about the situation of Yemeni Jews in Sana’a and Raida.