Sunday, November 01, 2009

The End of 2500 Years of Jewish Life in Yemen

As noted in an editorial today in the Jerusalem Post, the month of Tishrei 5770, or October 2009 on the secular calendar, marked the end of 2500 years of Jewish life in Yemen. Last month the United States State Department completed a clandestine operation to transfer the last 60 Yemenite Jews to the U.S. So ended a process that began with "Operation Flying Carpet" in 1949-1950, in which most of the Jewish population of Yemen, some 49,000 of my holy brothers and sisters, were flown to the newborn State of Israel.

This is the end of Jewish life in Yemen, but not the end of Yemenite Jewry. The "Teimani" as they are called in Hebrew, have made a huge cultural contribution to Israel, especially in the areas of religion, music, dance, art, crafts and cuisine.

Yemenite Jews even persist as a distinct group in the Diaspora. For example, my own kehillah (community) of North Hollywood boasts a Yemenite synagogue, which follows the prayer customs of Yemenite Jewry. This synagogue is the only one I have ever encountered that retains the 2000-year old custom of having a "meturgeman," or Aramaic translator, translate the weekly Torah portion into Aramaic as it is read in Hebrew. Jews instituted this custom when Aramaic supplanted Hebrew as the common tongue of the Jewish people during the period of the Second Temple. Indeed, the Talmud is written mostly in Aramaic. Ironically, since most Yemenite Jews today are fluent in Hebrew but use Aramaic only in their Talmudic study, the targum--Aramaic translation--has the opposite effect of its original purpose. It began as a way of making the weekly Torah portion in Hebrew--when Hebrew was the language of religious scholarship, but not commonly spoken or understood--comprehensible to an Aramaic speaking populace. Now it translates the Torah from Hebrew, once again a living language that its listeners largely understand, into Aramaic, a language that survives only in religious scholarship and a notorious Mel Gibson movie.

So Yemenite Jewry lives, but Yemen itself is "judenrein," Jew-free, as the Nazis use to so delicately put it. Yemenite Jews always lived as a tolerated minority, sometimes more tolerated, sometimes less. One of the most famous letters of Rabbi Moses Maimonedes, the great 12th century Torah scholar, philosopher and physician (he even became the personal physician to Saladin), the Letter to the Jews of Yemen, was a response to a request for counsel from a Yemenite rabbi, regarding the persecution the community was undergoing from the Shia Muslims who then ruled Yemen. Among the questions of Jewish law that Maimonedes addressed in this letter was whether members of their community who had been forcibly compelled to convert to Islam could be welcomed back into the Jewish community once the conditions of persecution eased.

Of course the Jewish community of Yemen is only one of the many Arabic Jewish communities--in Morocco, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria--that were forced into exile. The number of Arab-speaking Jews who were forced out of their millennia-old communities to Israel, the United States and France in the period 1948-1960 exceeded 750,000--coincidentally about the number of Arab refugees that resulted from the creation of Israel. Many of the Jewish exiles had been wealthy businessmen in their Arab homelands, and almost all of them had to live their wealth behind and flea with a few shipping trunks and suitcases. Israel is often accused of genocide or ethnic cleansing against Palestinian Arabs, but there are undeniably millions of Arabs who live in Israel as citizens with full legal and civil rights, and the Arab populations of Gaza, Judea and Samaria--the so-called occupied territories--have dramatically increased under Israeli occupation. In contrast, only a few thousand Jews remain in Morrocco and Tunesia, and less than one hundred Jews still live in Egypt, Iraq and Syria. Now no Jews are left in Yemen.

Arab apologists will counter that the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands came about only because of Zionism. Historically, that is an accurage statement, but it begs the question of why the Arab world could not tolerate Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel. Jews were tolerated in the Arab world only so long as they maintained their sharia status as Dhimmi, subservient second-class citizens, who could not bear arms, paid a special tax, were banned from many trades and professions, could not ride a horse but only a donkey, and whose places of worship had to be lower in elevation than the local mosques. In many cases they could and would be attacked and killed by Muslims with impunity and no legal recourse. The unforgivable sin of Zionism was the establishment of a Jewish nation in the middle of the dar al-Islam, the territory of Islam, a nation in which Jews would have equal status with Moslems. Once that occurred, Arab regimes no longer trusted that their domestic Jewish populations would be content with dhimmi status. The Jews had to leave, and they did. Their departure from Arab nations may have impoverished the Jewish refugees in the short term, but in the longer term (as has repeatedly occurred throughout the history of Jewish exile) it has impoverished the nations that expelled them, depriving them of their intellectual elites, their leading merchants and financiers, and their hope of modernization in the post-colonial era.


Anonymous HebrewScholar said...

Thanks for your amazing article. The Yemenite Jews are the most incredible examples of faith on the Jewish world. They have consistently maintained a total dedication to the Hebrew Bible even as the world around them changes, and have preserved their faith and traditions against all odds. They are an amazing witness to the Hebrew tradition.

Saturday, November 21, 2009 8:42:00 AM  

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