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Jews flee 3000 year homeland as Houthi Islamists threaten: “Convert or Die”

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A Yemeni Jewish family gathered in the capital Sanaa before it was overrun by Iran-backed Houthi militias in 2014. Now, the remaining Jews have fled. (Photo:Asharq Al-Awsat)

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Yemen’s millenia old Jewish community has dwindled to only four members (all elderly men) after the last Jewish families were expelled last month by the Iranian backed militia, Houthis – UK based Asharq Al-Awsat reported. 

The expelled group comprises of 13 men and women who agreed to leave on the condition that Houthis free a Jew, Levy Salam Marhabi who has been imprisoned for six years. His charge – aiding in moving a rare deerskin Torah scroll, claimed to be 800 years old, out of the war-torn country into Israel in 2016.

Despite crumbling economy and war, the Jewish families had for decades resisted pressure to emigrate. For them, Yemen was home. However, when they visited Marhabi in prison recently, Houthi intelligence services offered them a choice – they’d free him on condition that the group left the country.

One Jew who recently fled told Asharq Al-Awsat “Our choice was between remaining a target for harassment and them not letting Levy out of prison, or leaving, and him being set free.” 

Echoing, community sentiment, Yemenite Rabbi Yahya Youssef Musa Marhabi in 2010, said  “There is no place like Yemen. Not in America, not in Israel. It’s just not the same. When the people of Yemen say, ‘We don’t want a single Jew here,’ I will go, but until that day, Yemen is my home and that is where I will stay.”

Jews in Yemen are supposed to be among the oldest diaspora communities. One fact of note is how they were the only one able to identify one of the four locust species that is kosher – since they haven’t moved from the Middle East, that knowledge had been lost to most other communities. They also have other cultural practices different from other Sephardic and Mizrahi communities and some linguists believe that when Yemenites speak Hebrew, it sounds closest to how Biblical figures like King Solomon sounded. 

Yemeni Jews say that they face systemic discrimination, go to separate Jewish schools and are usually not able to get admission in public schools, colleges and government jobs. Instead, they work mostly as merchants, artisans, or farmers. They are also banned from holding Jewish ceremonies in public. The community also includes descendants of a group that was expelled from the former nation known as The Principality of Najran in 1934 when it was annexed by Saudi Arabia. There was no Israel or Jewish start then, so they moved to Yemen.                                                       

As Iraq’s Jewish family also dwindled to four this Passover with the death of a senior member, these are two nations which had significant Jewish populations 75 years ago and have lost their communities in the blink of an eye. Now imagine if Black Americans, a group of comparable significance as a minority so vividly portrayed in the media etc. just vanished because they had to leave overnight? 

The Iraqi member who just died was a doctor. A Yemeni member who left almost a decade ago, says that in Yemen, since they were barred from entry in colleges, Jewish doctors are virtually unheard of. 

Between 1949 and 1950, Israel brought in nearly 47,000 Yemenite Jews to the state in ‘Operation Magic Carpet.’ 

The exodus was motivated by growing anti-Semitism following the establishment of the State of Israel, increasing anarchy and instability in the Middle-Eastern nation. 

Looking for a new home to migrate to, the group of 13 reportedly refused to go to Israel and are awaiting the UN refugee agency to transport them to other countries that grant asylum. Some others have settled elsewhere, including 40 in the UAE. It is rumoured that Rabbi Yahya Youssef Is reluctant to move to Israel as he fears that Yemenite Jews will not be able to cling to their traditional, pious way of life in Israel which has a lot of ‘socially liberal’ culture.

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Educated in Iran, al-Houthi started agitating against Yemeni Jewish communities long before the breakout of hostilities in 2015. Hussein al-Houthi was killed in 2004. Since then, the group has been led by his brother, Abdul-Malik. Nevertheless, Hussein’s teachings are still a big part of Houthis ideology.

“They kicked the Jews out of Sa’dah, one of the famous cities in Yemen Jews had lived in,” Al Samawi said. Sa’dah was the hometown of the al-Houthi family. “This was before 2015, so we are speaking about a country that actually had a government, a country that actually had an army, and still they could not protect the Jews.”

The United States under the Trumo administration condemned Marhabi’s detention; in fact, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo in a 2020 statement, expressed concern.

“Mr. Marhabi is one member of an ever-shrinking community of Yemeni Jews, who have been an important part of Yemen’s diverse social fabric for thousands of years. We call on the Houthis to respect religious freedom, stop oppressing Yemen’s Jewish population, and immediately release Levi Salem Musa Marhabi,” Pompeo stated.

Iran supports the Houthis in several ways, including training, providing weapons, fine tuning their drone program and propaganda.

Houthis belongs to the Zaidi sect of Shia Islam, Iran belongs to the Twelver Shia sect. Both have theological and cultural differences but work together in the overlapping Iran-Saudi and Iran-Israel proxy conflicts, which span the whole Middle East.

The Jewish quarter in Sa'dah, Yemen, January 1990 (Photo: Donna Wosk, USA)

It is estimated that around three million Yemeni children live in areas under Houthis’ jurisdiction and in this proto-state are indoctrinated with anti-Semitic material in their early education curriculum. One analyst told Daily Telegraph that this is the ‘closest thing’ he’s seen to ISIS propaganda. 

A recent report released by the U.S. Embassy of the ‘Republic of Yemen’ stated that ‘hatred of Jews is an essential facet of the Houthis’ ideology’. Many nations still recognize the ‘Republic of Yemen’ as the legitimate government of Yemen and not Houthis.  

US special envoy on Yemen Tim Lenderking said Iran’s support for Yemen’s Houthi rebels is “quite significant and it’s lethal.” He also described a recent battle for the gas-rich region of Marib as the “single biggest threat” to peace efforts.

Also of concern is the fact that the Biden administration is believed to have a more sympathetic stance towards the Iran nuclear deal, which might strengthen Houthis in the long run financially.

A member lamented, “History will remember us as the last of Yemeni Jews who were still clinging to their homeland until the last moment. We rejected many temptations time and time again, and refused to leave our homeland, but today we are forced.”

As the Jewish population in the Arab world stands at only 4000 today, compared to close to a million in 1948, this moment is an incredibly significant tragedy in diaspora history.

Avi Kumar is a historian of Sri Lankan descent who lives in New York.

He has a unique spin on current affairs.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

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