But there is another much more important question and it hinges on the notion that the expulsion of the Arab Jews was such a huge tragedy after all. Because almost 10
It’s another matter for the Palestinians. The Palestinians were also thrown off their lands and got all their stuff taken. But many if not most Palestinians, at least many of those in Gaza and the West Bank anyway, have a desire to go back to the homes they were thrown out of. “I threw you off your land, you went away angry, you’re miserable where you are now, and you’re desperate to get your land back” is a tragedy of a much greater magnitude than the one of the Arab Jews above.
Of course, bring this up to Jews and you get the usual (((barrage of lawyerly diversion, bluster, threats, and accusations of anti-Semitism))). As far as the latter goes, natch.
“They threaten to beat us to death,” said Yahya Ya’ish and repeated the sentence while he leaned forward to look deep into my eyes. I do not know whether he did so to see if I believed him or to see whether I was credible. I recoiled imperceptibly. I did it to escape his forceful, inquisitive stare as well as his smell – a smell of fear.
We sat in the office of the director of the Yemen Observatory for Human Rights, a leading human rights organization. Yahya Ya’ish brought a joint letter from the few remaining Jews in Rayda, the last Yemeni town with an indigenous Jewish population. The Jews of Rayda requested the human rights center to assist them in obtaining protection against the repeated assaults, harassment, and threats that they have been suffering under for almost a year.
I must admit, now with shame, that I did not quite believe Ya’ish’s story, credible as it sounds. He aroused all my Arab anti-Jewish stereotypes. He looked exactly as a Jew looks in Arabic caricature. He had unkempt black hair with long curly sideburns, dark skin with black unruly beard, a prominent nose, and black, skewed, penetrating eyes.
I do not know if my suspicion was due to deep-seated prejudices derived from a childhood in which Israelis and Jews were one and same in my father’s Palestinian family or whether it was due to some experiences in my school where wild young classmates celebrated the days when the news reported that Israelis were killed.
I know not whether it was also due to deep-seated hatred for all those times when I and my family lived through the Israeli bombings, which often struck indiscriminately at my birth country, Lebanon. My distrust of Yai’sh’s credible report could also have been because I had lost my credulity having heard through the years my share of exaggerated stories of persecution; first from refugees and asylum seekers when I worked as interpreter and later as a human rights activist from Arab dissidents.
Yahya Ya’ish is a descendant of Yemen’s legendary chief rabbi, Ya’ish Bin Yihya, who died two years ago at the age of 81 years and left one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities without spiritual guidance. Along with a few families, he is among the last Jews in Yemen, once a home to one of the Arab world’s oldest and most populous Jewish communities. Now there are only 300 to 400 Jews left in the country.
In 1948 there were 60,000 Jews among the approximately 2.5 million Yemenis. Nearly 48,000 Jews ‘went away’ to Israel in the years just after the establishment of Israel. Today there are approximately 400 Jews out of a population of approximately 22 million Yemenis. Ya’ish told me that he and his family, but especially a cousin, has been subjected to systematic persecution by their fellow citizens in Rayda.
He reported that Rayda’s Jews were being harassed on the streets and threatened with death if they did not convert to Islam or leave the city. Many of the Jews’ neighbors refuse to do commerce with them. Ya’ish’s voice became especially anxious when in his sad tale of the daily humiliation, he recounted his greatest fear -“‘They threaten us to intrude upon our women (yet’aradu li-sharafina).”
During an earlier trip to Rayda in 2007, I noted that Jewish women wore the black abaya covering their bodies from head to toe and were secluded, while the men who sat and chewed qat, an addictive narcotic plant, claimed that according to Jewish law they were allowed, like their Muslim neighbors, to several women at once.
In this traditional culture to molest somebody’s woman is the worst calamity a man can be exposed to. Ya’ish feared,
If they molest our women, we will not be able to control the reactions of the young among us. They know it is not helpful to turn to the authorities. We have tried for years. Instead of providing us protection, they defended their own clansmen. If our young men hit back, it will be the end with us. This will give the Muslims an excuse to beat us all to death.
What Ya’ish feared happened the 11th of December 2008, just a few days after I met him. Moshe Ya’ish bin Yahya, brother of the Rabbi Ya’ish Yahya bin Yahya and a relative of Ya’ish, was murdered in cold blood in bright daylight in the middle of the street (Amnesty International, 19.12.2008).
The perpetrator of the heinous crime was a pilot in the army. In the court, which was filled with members of his tribe, he admitted without repentance to his action and added,
I had written and warned the Jews in Rayda several times before. I have warned them that they must either convert to Islam, leave the country, or I kill them. (Daily Star, 23.12.2008).
He refused to accept the claim made by his advocates appointed the state that he is insane. He cried in court, “You are helping the Jews against me’.
The Rayda attack in itself does constitute something unique. Racist violence occurs everywhere. What makes the incident special is the Yemeni government’s response. In the wake of the attacks, President Ali Abdallah Saleh, the ruler of the country since 1978, declared in a magnanimous gesture designed to impress Yemen’s Western donors that he will take Rayda’s Jews under his personal protection but in the capital Sanaa, not in their city.
President Saleh’s apparent rescue of the Jews is anything but an expression of the Arab leader’s generosity. When Rayda’s Jews endured systematic harassment which occurred with the authorities’ knowledge and participation and refused to travel to Sanaa or out of the country to the United States and Israel like most other Jews have felt compelled to do in the last 50 years, it was not because they were patriotic heroes more connected than others to their Yemeni homeland.
Rayda’s Jews held out because they wanted to keep their houses, land, and other possessions. Apart from their own possessions, many of the remaining Jews purchased, acquired, or inherited the property of those Jews who had left. The Jews, who ‘went away’, nourished a hope that the remaining family members might be able to sell their possessions without a huge loss of their value, as usually happens when a population is driven away. This means that the remaining Jews, as Ya’ish informed me, are making a stand for the land and houses belonging to the rest of the Jewish community.
The persecution of the Jews of Rayda is also motivated to some extent, according Ya’ish’s report, by their neighbors’ hope to ‘inherit’ their property once they flee the country. It is a known phenomenon from similar cleansings of Jews in both Europe and the Arab world and for that matter from Israel’s expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948. Ya’ish reported clearly, “If the state or anyone else buys our lands and houses at a reasonable price, we will not stay a single day longer in Yemen.”
By ordering the Jews moved under his own direct protection to Sana’a, President Saleh made himself guilty of the Jews’ persecution and not their rescue. President Saleh was aware of it. He made the same grandiose gesture when in 2005 another Jewish community was driven away from their home town in Sa’ada, located in the northern part of Yemen’s mountains.
Sa’ada had been ravaged by a civil war between a Shiite splinter group inspired by Iran and Hezbollah, called the Houthi, who let their rebellious anger transfer to Saada’s unarmed Jews. The Houthi rebels claimed that the Jews committed fornication and alcoholic orgies in Sa’ada, the most backward and traditionalist region of the country! Sa’ada’s Jews were moved into a ‘tourist town’ in the capital. Of the several hundred Jews who were moved from Sa’ada to Sana’a to become the President’s special guests, there are now fewer than 250 Jews left.
When President Saleh allowed the Sa’ada Jews to be driven away from their home town which they inhabited in 3000 years, he caused them to be driven from their houses, land, and trades without a guarantee of return and when his only gesture was to house them in of a fenced residential camp two miles from Sana’a Airport, it was an indirect way of throwing them out of the country.
Rayda’s Jews will face in the same dilemma as the tourist town’s Jews. Should they choose to continue to live in a fenced housing for soldiers, which requires a special permit from the Interior Department for foreign visitors to enter at the only entrance, without a glimmer of hope of returning to their homes or receiving compensation from the state for their lost property, or should they instead join their compatriots in the U.S. and Israel and emigrate forever from Yemen?
The result either way will be to exorcise the Yemeni Jews in all practical respects. The few Jewish families left soon found will soon find their way to the airport. With only a few Jews left as in Lebanon, Iraq, or Egypt, there will no longer be any real Jewish life left in Yemen. It will be a sad, unnoticed, and unrecognized end of a thousand-year-old residence that created a wealth of culture such that Yemen became one of the major lands in Jewish history in terms of importance.
With the exorcism of Yemen’s Jews will come the sad end of one of the Arab World’s most shameful chapters: the tacit, planned, and decades-long ethnic cleansing of the Arab Jews. This particular end of the chapter is particularly shameful because it did not happen under the exceptional conditions of war and sectarian conflict that characterized the previous expulsions. These conditions were used by Arab governments to show how they could not prevent the expulsions for fear of stoking the wrath of the enraged population.
The exorcism of the Arab Jews was not caused only by the wars between Israel and the Arab states. Ask around the Arab World about what happened to the Jews of that country. “The Jews went away,” they will say vaguely. True enough, many Arab Jews left due to Zionist propaganda and many were driven out by terrorism committed by Israel such as the grenade attacks on Jews in Iraq and the bombing of Jewish targets by Israel in Egypt in 1949-1950.
In part, Jews left because for centuries they were treated as dhimmis, second class people under Sharia, or Islamic law, for centuries, although this ended for the most par a century ago with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Most left as a direct result of the wars, when mass hysteria and suspicion of the Jews as an Israeli fifth column swept the Arab lands. Sadly, this view of Jews as traitors to the homeland was stirred up by Arab rulers to distract the population from their humiliating defeat by the Jews in the newborn Jewish state of Israel that arose from the ruins of Arab Palestine.
Palestinians were driven away by the Jews too. 700,000 Christian and Muslim Palestinians were driven away by the Israeli forces in 1947-48. The Israeli exorcism of the Palestinians was matched by a concurrent exorcism of almost as many Jews from the Arab lands, with the proviso that the Jewish exodus occurred more gradually over a period of 50 years.
The Jewish communities of the Arab World, which for had developed complex and fascinating cultures in the lands of their birth in Morocco, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, were were for the most part dissolved. By driving away the Jews, the Arabs not only hurt their own communities, but they also played into the propaganda of Zionism that said that Jews could only be safe in Israel. Israel needed mass Arab Jewish immigration to achieve universal legitimacy, in part to rid the land of its reputation as a homeland for European Ashkenazim only.
But what about the exorcism that continued after the 1948 war? What about the Arab governments’ passive or active involvement in this exodus to drive the Jews from their lands? And perhaps worst of all, what of the silence of Arab historians and intellectuals about the tragic loss of a millennia-old Jewish residence in their lands, where a huge population of 900,000 Arab Jews lost over 9
How can I as a Palestinian reconcile the expulsion of my parents during Israel’s ethnic cleansing when one million Palestinians remain peacefully in Israel with the expulsion of 900,000 Arab Jews, where only 6,500 Jews are left to live among 300 million Arabs?
In Israel, there arose a school history that obfuscated if not outright denied the Zionists’ exorcism of Palestinians in 1948, and there have always been brave Israeli intellectuals who have spoken in favor of the Palestinian cause and condemned the Israeli government’s crimes against human rights. But how is it that Arab intellectuals can pour so much condemnation on Palestinian exorcism in poetry, prose, and film, while allowing the concomitant tragedy of the exorcism of the Arab World’s Jews – a wound to the the heart of the Arab psyche and the world’s consciousness – to pass with nary a mention?
What do they expressions of solidarity that Arab intellectuals and masses have been trained practitioners of when it they are only practiced in solidarity with themselves? Is there only one possible solidarity for the Arabs, that of the aggression by the Satans, the U.S. and Israel? Strange how mention of the two unites so many Arabs and gets them shouting spiritually superior cries against the residue left and sets off so much flag burning by angry gangs of Arabs in the streets of the Middle East.
Why should massive protests against U.S. and Israeli aggression close London and Tehran, Paris and Cairo, Rome and and Istanbul, while not a word is heard about genocide in Darfur or starvation in Zimbabwe?
When were there were more than a few pre-cooled saved souls protesting in European cities against Burma’s inhuman regime, systematic persecution of gays in Iran, and the systematic oppression of women in Saudi Arabia? Or Arab compassion selective, as in: “My pain is the greatest, my enemy the worst, and my crime the least”
Ancient Arabs believed that poets should celebrate their own particular culture, whether their people were “ashamed or proud, peaceful or aggressive, radical or conformist,” and they should also celebrate the surrounding cultures, even if they were neither noble nor courageous. Arab spokesmen of old performed their role well and produced some of the world’s most beautiful poems.
But modern Arab spokesmen have a different responsibility than celebrating their own strains and opponents. They should in their books, articles, and movies hold up a mirror which reflects both the good and bad in Arab life and history. With few exceptions, such as Hazem Saghieh, Wadah Sherara, George Tarabishi and Sadek al-Azem, most Arab intellectuals fail at this brave task.
But even these courageous intellectuals never commented on the tragedy of the exorcism of the Arab Jews. Until the Arabs get their Orhan Pamuk or their Avi Shlaim, one who tells the hard truths, convenient or not, they will continue to reside in the dishonest half of the universe.
A showdown with the Arabs’ most shameful aspects of their history will help to reconcile them with themselves and possibly with their neighbors, and may help to preserve what is left of religious and ethnic diversity in their countries. Only by coming to terms with their own expulsion of the Jews from the Arab lands will the Arabs avoid reliving the failure, oppression and and resulting revenge on the innocent to correct their own errors. Until then they must live with the shame of silence.