Politics of memory in Yemen (Part 1): Yemen’s Jews, a brief history

Published on 27 May 2013 in Report
for the Yemen Times Ghaidaa Alabsi (author)

for the Yemen Times Ghaidaa Alabsi

A Yemeni Jew sounds the shofar, or ram’s horn in this image, taken in 1940. There were once tens of thousands of Jews in Yemen.

A Yemeni Jew sounds the shofar, or ram’s horn in this image, taken in 1940. There were once tens of thousands of Jews in Yemen.

Yemeni Jews have been living in Yemen for centuries, before the coming of Christianity or Islam. They had maintained their religion throughout the years and lived in communities within the Yemeni Society until their migration to Palestine.

There are many legends and theories about the origins of Judaism in Yemen.

One local Yemeni Jewish tradition dates the earliest settlement of Jews in the Arabian Peninsula to the time of King Solomon.

Another legend holds that Jewish craftsmen came here as per a request from Bilqis, the queen of Saba, or Sheba. Other historians trace the origins of the Jews in the country to the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem, in the Year 586 BCE.

Another theory states that King Solomon’s trading and naval networks brought Jews to Yemen from Judea around 900 BCE, and the first evidence of Jewish presence in Yemen can be traced to the 3rd century CE.

In any case, the Jewish presence in Yemen was very strong.

Many Himyarities, who ruled at the time, converted to Judaism. Sometime after the third century CE, the Himyarite ruling family converted to Judaism, making Judaism the ruling religion. Jewish rule lasted until 525 CE, when the Christians from Ethiopia took over.

This was an age of the bitter conflict between Judaism and Christianity over spiritual ascendancy in Yemen, when the Himyari kingdom decided to abandon its pagan beliefs and adopt monotheism. In the first stage, the Jews gained the advantage when the Himyari ruling family converted to Judaism and started a comprehensive series of measures intended to prohibit Christians and Christianity from the country.

The Muslim era of Yemen started in 7th century. The Muslim commander in Yemen, Jabal Ibn Muadh, was ordered by Mohammed the Prophet not to convert the Jews to Islam by force. This was one of the tenants regulating the Muslim state and its non-Muslim subjects.

Jews were classified as dhimmis, a protected minority which was obligated to pay a special tax.

Jewry, as found in Yemen, could be divided into three major sects: Shami, Baladi and Darda’i.

Shami means someone from Shams, an Arabic term for the area which contains Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon. This sect of Jews had adopted the Sephardic liturgy in prayer and many of their customs but, to a large extent, still remained Yemeni in character.

They retained many Yemeni customs and did not follow the Sephardic liturgy entirely. They tended to follow the Code of Jewish Law (Shulhan ‘Arukh), which was written by R. Yosef Karo (a Sephardic Jew), according to Yemeni interpretation.

Baladi means in Arabic, “local” or “regional.” Baladi Jews were more traditional and, though they adopted certain outside practices, remained by and large untainted. They did, however, accept the Kabbalah, the central text of mystic Judaism, likely written in Spain.

Darda’i is a compound word, combining dor and dea to mean “generation of knowledge.” This sect began in the early part of the 20th century under the leadership of Mori Yihyeh Al-Gafih. (“Mori” is the Yemeni term, roughly speaking, for “rabbi.”)

His followers more or less following the teachings of Maimonides and they were, by far, the strictest adherents to the ancient traditions.

In Israel today, the Darda’i are forced to congregate secretly and to remain an underground movement. They number only a handful. Of this handful, very few conscientiously keep the finer aspects of their tradition—including the ancient formula for tanning the leather to be used for Torah scrolls.

Yemeni Jews in the Modern Centuries

At the beginning of the 19th century, Jews in Yemen numbered 30,000, and lived principally in Aden, Sana’a Sada, Dhamar, and Hadramout.

There were two major centers of population for Jews in Southern Yemen besides the Jews of Northern Yemen, one in Aden and the other in Hadramout.

The Jews of Aden lived in and around the city, and flourished during the British protectorate. The Jews of Hadramout lived much more isolated life. In the early 20th century, their number had grown to about 50,000.

They currently number only a few hundred individuals and reside largely in Sadah and Rada’a.

In Aden, Jews were present in large numbers in the downtown areas where what was known as the “Jews’s Avenue” used to exist.

Some country people still remember their Jewish neighbors in mountainous villages. Beit Qatina, located in Mahwait province, is one of such hill stations where Jews settled down in the past. Their homes and shops still exist today, though vacant.

Reports emanating from Yemen in the 1920s indicated that local Jews were subjected to a unique statue known in Jewish sources as the “orphans’ decree.”

This law obligated the Yemeni (then-Zaydi) state to take custody of dhimmi children who had been orphaned, usually of both parents, and to raise them as Muslims.

The statue had roots in 18th century Zaydi legal interpretations and was put into practice at the end of that century. The orphan’s decree has been preserved in the collective memory of Yemeni Jews as the single most threatening and oppressing act against their community in the country.

In the 19th Century, under the rule of the Imams, the Jews of Yemen became social pariahs, being forced to follow harsh and often humiliating rules.

Jews were forbidden from wearing new or flamboyant clothes, compelled to walk long distances on foot (the riding of donkeys and mules was reserved for Muslims).

Immigration from Yemen to Palestine began in 1881 and continued almost without interruption until 1914. It was during this time that about 10 percent of the Yemeni Jews left.

The creation of Israel

Life became harder for the Yemeni Jews after the creation of Israel in 1948, with outbreaks of violence against Jews. After the partition vote of the British Mandate of Palestine, rioters engaged in a bloody program in Aden that killed 82 Jews and destroyed hundreds of Jewish homes.

Aden’s Jewish community was economically paralyzed, as most of the Jewish stores and businesses were destroyed.

Most were flown out of the country over the next few years in what was called “Operation Magic Carpet”—a joint Israeli-American effort to bring Yemeni Jews to Israel.

A second, much smaller wave of around 1,200 Jews resettled in Israel in the early 1990s. A few hundred stayed in Yemen, largely in the northern province of Sa’ada.

After Houthi rebels eroded the government’s grip there in recent fighting, the Jews were evacuated to a compound in Sana’a. As the perceived threat to them grows, Jewish-American and Israeli groups and American diplomats are trying to establish refugee status for the dwindling community and then pay for their resettlement in the United States or Israel.

The murder in 2008 of Rabbi Moshe Yaish Nahari by the hand of radical Islamist opened the door for more Jewish immigration.

In 2009, heightened tensions with Al-Qaeda led the United Jewish Communities, the U.S State Department, and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to work together to implement the evacuation of close to half of the remaining Jewish population in Yemen.

This piece was adapted from a longer research paper by Ghaidaa Alabsi, a MA Student in Political Science at Poland's Warsaw University. Read the second and final part