Jews who lived in Arab lands were NOT just fine! Jews in Yemen

YJ tefillin

Photo from Shalom Seri & Naftali Ben-David (Eds.) A Journey to Yemen and its Jews.  1991.  Tel Aviv.

It tends to be asserted – and has been for decades – generally by those who oppose Israel, that Jews who lived in Arab lands were just fine – that there were no problems between Arabs and Jews before the State of Israel was established. This assertion is made with absolutely no knowledge of the facts! The message intended to be conveyed is that it is the fact of Israel’s establishment and existence that is the source of all problems between Arabs or Muslims and Jews in the Middle East.

Having researched on the situation of Jews in Yemen during the period preceding their main exodus to Israel in the 1950s “on the wings of eagles”, I am in a position to respond to such assertions with particular reference to Yemen. So I’ll provide a brief account of the situation of Jews in Yemen, mainly from the time of the second Ottoman occupation of that country in 1872 which lasted until 1918, after which time it came under the rule of Zaydi imams.

The Arab population of Yemen was divided between a number of Muslim sects. The ruling sect was the Zaydi (Shi’ite) sect. Judaism was the only other religion to have survived in Yemen apart from Islam.

Rank
Jews came at the bottom of the hierarchical system in Yemen. This system was caste-like in respect of there being a traditional connection between rank and occupation, and prohibitions of various degrees existing against intermarriage and the sharing of meals between members of different ranks. In order of descent, the ranking system was as follows:

I Royal lineage and some other Zaydi lineages.
II Sayyids – holy men, who claimed descent from Husayn and Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed.
III Mashayikh – large landowners and religious scholars. (Bujra 1971)

The above three ranks were accorded prestige and authority. Further down along the scale were:
IV Gabili – small landowners and free farmers.
V Merchants
VI Pedlars, vagrants, slaves and other pariah groups
VII Ahl-Al-Dhimmi – protected peoples who, in Yemen, were the Jews.

It seems that in rural areas, category VI (above) was actually considered, and treated as ranking, lower than the Jews – at least among the tribespeople.

Although the Jews had no choice but to tolerate the place allocated to them in Yemenite society, I find no evidence that they accepted that they were inferior to anyone because of their rank. It is interesting to note that they referred to the class of Muslim holy men as “impures” (teme’im), (or “Jew baiters”,) expressing contempt.

Anti-Jewish legislation
During the first century of the spread of Islam, Muslims were a minority in the countries they conquered, and had to depend on the conquered peoples for their military security, administration, food, and finance. However, during the second and third centuries of the Islamic era, Muslims became the majority in all the conquered countries. At this time, they developed an elaborate religious law, and began to pass anti-Jewish and anti-Christian legislation, some of which was taken directly from Byzantine anti-Jewish legislation, and which continued to apply in Yemen up to the time when the majority of the Yemenite Jews were flown to Israel in “Operation Magic Carpet” in 1949 and 1950.

The status of the Jews in Yemen was governed by two sets of laws: those deriving from the Covenant of Omar, and those specific to Zaydi legislation in Yemen. The Covenant of Omar, originally attributed to the second caliph, Umar ibn Khattab (d. 644), is a collection of discriminatory regulations and restrictions applied to the Ahl al Dhimma (people of the covenant) – protected peoples – this status being open to Ahl Ketab (people of the Scriptures) – Christians and Jews. These regulations were issued by various Caliphs and sultans from the early years of the eighth century to the mid 14th century when the Covenant received its finishing touches, whenever religious fanaticism or envy directed towards the protected peoples spilt over. They were intended as interpretations of the following prescription of Mohammed:

Fight those who do not practice the religion of truth from among those to whom the Book has been brought, until they pay the tribute by their hands, and they be reduced low.

Because Jews and Christians are believers in the essential truth: that there is one God, they have a right to be protected together with their property. However, they only have this right so long as they pay jizzyah (poll tax) and comply with a number of other laws. The (unrealisable) idea behind the payment of jizzyah was that while Muslims should be responsible for defence and administration, the infidels should bear the entire fiscal burden of the country and the task of keeping up its economy.

According to the Covenant of Omar:
I Jews could not bear witness against a Muslim, or give testimony in a Muslim court. This in theory deprived Jews of any legal rights, but in Yemen, this severe disadvantage was counterbalanced by the institution of “protected comradeship”, as described below.
II Ahl al Dhimma could not carry arms or ride on horseback, as this would give them an advantage over some Muslims in terms of power or height.
III They had to display a respectful attitude towards Muslims. On passing a Muslim, a Jew had to walk on his left side. They were not permitted to engage in any conduct considered offensive to Muslims, such as blowing the shofar loudly, praying loudly, or displaying the cross in public. (A shofar is a ram’s horn blown on the Jewish New Year and other solemn religious occasions.)
VI They could not build their houses higher than those of Muslims.
V They had to dress differently from Muslims.
VI They could not attain to government posts, since prestige and authority attached to such posts could accrue only to Muslims.
VII Non-Muslim doctors or pharmacists were forbidden to treat Muslims on the grounds that they might poison them, or that through control of a patient’s body, they might also gain control over his soul. (In practice, Jews were appointed doctors, and even viziers, to sultans and imams in many Islamic countries, including Yemen.)
VIII Some law books of Islam state that a non-Muslim may not engage in the same commerce as Muslims. This was reiterated in a public proclamation by the Imam of Yemen in 1905, but its application was limited. The most ancient law books of Islam discriminate against non-Muslims in the economic field by imposing customs duties at 5% on the value of their merchandise, whereas Muslim merchants paid two and a half per cent, and the minimum value of consignment on which duties were paid was 40 dinars for a Muslim, and 20 dinars for a non-Muslim.
IX Non-Muslims were not permitted to use saddles.
X They could not look upon the genitals of a Muslim in the bath house, while separate bath houses were to be built for Jewish women so that they did not bathe together with Muslim women.
XI Non-Muslims, as well as Muslims, were forbidden to lend money for interest.
XII Finally, Jews were not permitted to study the Torah outside the synagogue.

In Yemen, Jews were subjected to the above legislation in varying degrees of intensity, up to the time when they left.

In addition to the Covenant of Omar, regulations specific to Yemen were imposed upon Jews, who were often called upon to carry out tasks thought to contaminate Muslims. Tobi (1999) relates that the introduction of discriminatory laws began in Yemen in the 15th century with a significant change in attitude of the Zaydi government towards Jews. When the Ottomans governed a large part of Central Yemen 1872 to 1919, they tried to raise the status of Jews to a level equivalent to that held by Jews elsewhere in their empire. But their efforts ceased in the face of opposition on the part of sectors of the Yemenite population and religious scholars. However, tribal sheikhs did not strictly enforce these laws. For example, while in San’a (Yemen’s capital) Jewish houses were lower in structure than Muslim houses, there was mostly no difference between their heights in rural districts. In the North and North East of Yemen, Jews, similarly to the local tribesmen, carried arms, and in Northern Yemen, Jews were even taught to use guns by tribesmen.

According to Tobi, the Yemenite governments were among the most extreme of the Islamic countries with regard to their treatment of Jews as anjâs (unclean). In San’a, the decree of the “scrapers” or “dung gatherers” was revived from 1846 until 1950, having previously been imposed on them from 1806 to 1808. This decree stipulated that Jews be forced to clean the sewers in the city. Jews were also obliged to remove camel and horse carcasses as part of the decree, and clear accumulated filth from Muslim streets, and the dead body of a Christian had to be buried by Jews. In practice, a small proportion of Jews were willing to carry out these tasks for a higher than normal remuneration on behalf of the Jewish community, and Nini (1991) relates how this resulted in a type of “caste” of “untouchables” among the Yemenite Jews, this status being passed down within the families, and with other families refraining from marrying from among them. These Jews were not called up in the synagogue to read the Torah, nor invited to festive occasions. Their children were excluded from studying with other children. Under Arab rule, the “dung gatherers” were unpaid for this work, but under the Ottomans, they were paid gold pounds and silver coins, and their economic situation improved. This decree was a strong motivating factor in the migration of San’ian Jews to Palestine from 1881, and the dispersal of Jews throughout Yemen and into Egypt. In 1949, Muslims in San’a prevented the migration of “dung gatherers” to Israel.

Upon the capture of San’a by the Ottoman Ahmad Mukhtar who was well disposed towards the Jews, the “decree of the dung gatherers” and the “orphans’ decree (see below) imposed on Jews were temporarily abrogated. However, this met with strong pressure applied by the Muslim religious dignitaries of San’a to reinstate these decrees. Similarly under pressure exerted by these Muslim religious dignitaries, the jizzyah (poll tax) previously imposed on the Jews of San’a was revived and raised from 27 to 77 riyals per month. Despite the positive intentions of Ahmad Mukhtar and the initial Ottoman administration towards their Jews, according to Nini, illegal taxes and bribes and their arbitrary and forceful extortion, became more prevalent under the Ottomans.

According to Nini, between 1882 and 1900, payment of jizzyah was one of the greatest burdens endured by the San’a community. During the Festival of Succoth 1990, Ottoman troops broke into the Jewish quarter of San’a and arrested ten of the most prominent community leaders, who were the overseers of the jizzyah payment. They were incarcerated and tortured for three months, while the Ottoman administration appealed to the Jewish religious court to make payment. This situation motivated a number of Jews to migrate to Palestine.

Jews under the protection of the Zaydi tribes in North and North East Yemen, where the Ottomans were not in control, were obliged to pay jizzyah to the central authority in San’a and also to pay the tribes under whose protection they were living. A compromise was reached where a symbolic payment was made to the tribal Sheikh.

Another calamitous regulation imposed on the Yemenite Jews by the Ottoman authorities was the “decree of the stretcher-bearers” in 1875.  This decree imposed on the San’ian Jewish community the task of carrying wounded soldiers from San’a through Manakha to Hudayda. This was a treacherous journey along narrow winding paths at the edge of precipices, which was dangerous even for an unladen traveller. On the eve of the festival of Succoth, they were ordered to send 80 Jews to carry wounded Ottoman solders. This entailed desecrating the holy festival. Therefore the Jewish community leaders refused to comply with this command unless those commandeered were specifically requested by name.

“On the following day a manhunt was held in the Jewish quarter, and those apprehended were cruelly beaten. Some of them succeeded in bribing the local Muslim soldiers and evading arrest. Those caught were thrown into jail when four were allocated a wounded soldier and the terrible journey to Manākha commenced. The accompanying troops urged the Jews on with whip lashes.” (Nini, 1991, 74)

A number of stretcher-bearers died by the wayside on the treacherous route. They had been forced to desecrate both the Sabbath and a holy festival, which was something unheard of under the Zaydi regime before the Ottoman occupation. Zaydi Imams and local rulers were most careful not to incur such desecration. Any Jews summoned to the Zaydi authorities on the eve of the Sabbath could evoke the Prophet’s protection of the Jewish Sabbath, and delay presenting himself until after the Sabbath.

Another hardship specifically suffered in the 19th century by those Jews who were in charge of minting coins, were accusations of counterfeiting coins. According to Nini, these accusations were almost all groundless.

From the time of their conquest in 1892, the Ottoman Turks forced the Jewish community of San’a to mill grain for their soldiers, failing which Jews and Yemenite Muslims would be beaten by Ottoman soldiers. Jewish women were therefore forced to mill flour for the Ottoman troops, and when this was too strenuous for them, they would be helped by their menfolk. At the turn of the 20th century, after years of drought and famine, many Jews had moved to the villages of Yemen, or to Palestine or Egypt. Thus the Jewish population of San’a diminished considerably, and yet the milling quota imposed on them remained the same. The imposition of this “flour-milling decree” entailed the violation of their holy festival of Passover, as the Jews were unable to keep their milling stones kosher in accordance with the rules of Passover, and led to the migration of many Sa’nian Jews to Palestine.

Another great hardship and violation suffered by the Jews of San’a in the 20th century was perpetrated by Imam Yahya al-Muta Walkil after ascending to power, when he had all the synagogues built in San’a during Turkish rule destroyed.

In accordance with Orthodox Islam, conversion to Islam should not be achieved by force, and according to Nini, there is no mention in Muslim law of a religious injunction to convert to Islam the “People of the Book”. However, in Yemen, in their eagerness to gain proselytes, an edict issued in 1921 and enacted upon with vigour from 1925 dictated the forced conversion of orphans. This decree was in force in the 19th century up until the Ottoman conquests in 1840 – 1872, and 1872-1905, and was then revived in the 1920s under pressure from “fanatical religious dignitaries”. Tobi describes Zaydi-ruled Yemen as unique among the Muslim states in its promulgation of the Orphans’ Law and Dung Collectors Law. (Besides religious zeal, another factor which gave rise to this edict may have been the Imam’s need, from time to time, to fill vacancies in his “orphanages”, which were in fact military academies.) An orphan was defined as one whose father had died before he or she had attained puberty, and was to be converted even if in the meantime he or she had grown up and married. According to Goitein, the legal basis for this is found in a statement attributed to Mohammed, that everyone is born into a natural state of religion – that is, Islam – and that other religions are merely customs taught to a child by his parents. As the mortality rate was very high in Yemen, mothers were often separated in this way from their children, and brothers and sisters separated from each other. Attempts were made to save orphans from such a fate. They would be sent to other villages where they could be passed off as the children of relatives, or anyone who would look after them. Such attempts were not always successful, and it was not uncommon that they were betrayed by their own people. This is the law which Yemenite Jews found most intolerable, and felt most bitter about. In Zaydi tribal areas, however, Nini informs us that conversion was not enforced, and orphans would therefore be sent there for refuge.

There were also other circumstances in which proselytes were made. Jews converted to Islam to escape the consequences of false accusations, and other desperate situations. In times of famine, many Jews (apparently, mostly women) accepted Islam as the only means of obtaining food from the Imam for themselves and their children. An example of this was in 1905 when Imām Yahyā Ibn Muhammad Hamīd al-Din planned a rebellion against the Ottoman rulers. He ordered his followers to lay siege to Ottoman-ruled cities, including San’a, where an estimated 6000 Jews starved to death: 80% of the Jewish population of San’a. Mass conversions to Islam occurred at this time among the Jewish population, as the Muslim clergy cared for converts.

The right to leave Yemen was denied to Jews, for once they left the territory, they forfeited their right to security of their persons and property. The reason for this restriction was perhaps the desire to keep their craft skills in Yemen, or else to inhibit their trading. In particular, the territories of the enemy: Turkey, and those under the British protectorate, were considered out of bounds. In practice, however, there were many Jews who managed to leave Yemen. This was facilitated by the British conquest of Aden in 1839. Many of Aden’s 800 original inhabitants were Jewish, and as a British protectorate, the city became a flourishing port, attracting Jews from other parts of Yemen. From here, they were able to migrate to other countries. Nini states that Jews migrated to Aden, Egypt, Ethiopia, India and Palestine, while Muslims also migrated to neighbouring countries.

The Jews of Yemen lived separately from Muslims, in separate villages, or different quarters in the towns. In San’a, this prohibition originated in the time when its Jews were expelled to the uninhabitable region of Mawza (1679-1680) where their population was decimated. When it was subsequently realised that there were no craftsmen left in San’a, those Jews surviving were allowed to return, but were forced to take up residence outside the city walls, rather than return to their homes. However, in the case of smaller villages where there were only a few Jewish families, Jewish communities did not live separately from the Muslim population.

The interpretation and enforcement of the restrictions and prohibitions imposed on the Jews in Yemen varied from district to district, and from one period to another. For the two centuries preceding the Jews’ departure from Yemen, their majority were mostly located in Zaydi regions. The Northern tribes were independent of the government in San’a, and in their regions, the status of the Jews was in effect determined by the tribal code of honour rather than any restrictive regulations derived indigenously, or from the Covenant of Omar. Eraqi-Klorman (2009) states that tribal law would override Shariah in these regions. Y. Saphir (1886) reported in the second half of the 19th century that in almost all the Jewish communities in central Yemenite plateau, Jews were found who had fled from San’a because of oppression encountered there.

The extent to which the laws were imposed upon Jews depended a great deal on the good-will of their Muslim neighbours. Habshush, the San’ian Jew who narrates Travels in Yemen (Goitein,1941), informs us, for example, that the Jews in al-Madid were relatively well-off since the Nihm tribesmen were “good-natured”, and it did not matter to them if a Jew raised his voice or built his house too high. In this part of Arabia, he continues, the tribal code of honour alone counted, even to the exclusion of the law of Mohammed. According to the former, “the overlord is judged according to his protégés”. Therefore, the welfare of the Jews of Nihm was an indication of the quality of the tribe of Nihm itself.

This point on Jews’ welfare depending on the goodwill of their neighbours is also borne out by Tobi. For example, despite the restrictions stipulated in the Covenant of Omar against Jews’ bearing arms, and this not being “customary” in Yemen – (although it was Jews who manufactured weapons) – he states that Jews in northern Yemen were not bound by this restriction and went about armed and unfearful. In fact, they identified with the tribes among whom they lived, and supported and co-operated with the Imams in their revolts against the Ottoman occupiers, sometimes joining the forces against them. (In this way, they contrasted with the Jews of central and Southern Yemen, where it appears they favoured the Ottoman and the British rulers, according to Tobi, in the case of the Ottomans, presumably before their rule became oppressive. When the Ottomans conquered Yemen in 1872, “The Jews greeted the event as a miracle”.  [Nini, 1991] This joy was particularly held by the Jews of San’a who lacked tribal protection, and were vulnerable to tribal attacks. They thought that the Ottoman presence would protect them from the sieges and starvation these onslaughts incurred.)

According to Tobi, there is a great deal of evidence that in central and Southern Yemen, the prohibition against riding on horseback was enforced. Only a sick Jew was allowed to ride a donkey, and then was required to yell: “’ala ra’yah” (“By your leave!”) in order to placate any passing Muslim. In San’a, in 1936, Muslims were allowed to haul Jews off their donkeys. In N.E Yemen, by contrast, riding was permitted to Jews even on horseback.

In Central Yemen, Jews wore black only in obedience to a government decree against fine clothing, and for fear of arousing envy among Muslims. In 1667, the Decree of the Headgear was implemented, forbidding Jews to wear elaborate turbans . However, in North Yemen, Jews are depicted in colourful and resplendent clothes and turbans.

Following “messianic activity” in 1667, Jews were ordered to grow sidelocks – which was not in force in Northern Yemen.

In accordance with the Covenant of Omar, Jews were forbidden to build houses higher than those of Muslims. While this was the case in San’a, and perhaps in other cities and large towns, again, in Northern Yemen, this stipulation was not enforced, and Eraqi-Klorman states that there was mostly no difference in height between Muslim and Jewish dwellings in rural areas. Tobi relates that in Sa’dah and Haydan, there were some grand Jewish houses 5 or 6 storeys high, with some 15-20 rooms. In the district of Barat, Jews and Muslims did not live in separate quarters.

Other stipulations specific to Yemen or deriving from the Covenant of Omar – relating to the “uncleanness” of Jews in the eyes of Zaydis, a Jew’s obligation to pass a Muslim on his left side, and the disqualification of a Jew’s testimony, were not in force in Northern Yemen.

The majority of Jews depended for their wellbeing on an institution called “protected comradeship”, whereby a Jew, or a whole village of Jews, submitted themselves by a solemn ritual of sacrifice to the protection of a powerful tribe (or even several) – in particular its Sheikh – for whom it was a matter of the highest honour to administer justice. (Subordinate Muslim groups such as the Qarawi, also acquired tribal protection in the same way.) A tribal chief was obliged to accept a request for tribal protection, otherwise his reputation would be at stake. Eraqi-Klorman states that the obligation of a tribe to protect a jar (protected subject), and the shame of any failure to do so, was related to viewing the Jews as a weak group within the tribe, and to “perceiving their men as having a blurred gender identity, as not being real men”.

The following account (Goiten, 1947) indicates the efficacy of the institution of “protected comradeship”. Joseph Shukr, a Jewish protected comrade of Bait Luhum – the most powerful tribe in the district – was repairing a leather bucket at a farmer’s house, when a “half-witted” Muslim approached him and, before Joseph realised his intention, struck him on the head with a piece of wood so violently that he died immediately. Afterwards, the murderer asserted that the Jew had bewitched him into murdering him. The news of the murder spread quickly throughout the whole village and to nearby hamlets, until, that evening, 2,000 farmers of the Bait Luhum tribe had armed themselves while a similar number had made their way to Ibn Mesar, the advocate for the murderer, also prepared for battle. Eventually, the noblest sheikhs of the four greatest tribes of Yemen were called upon to judge the matter, and decided that since the murderer was not in full possession of his faculties, he was not really responsible for his crime, which could not therefore be avenged with blood. Instead, his advocate was ordered to pay quadruple blood money: twice for the family of the murdered Jewish man, and twice for the protector, and in addition, he had to meet the very high legal costs. This judgement was accepted and fulfilled by Ibn Mesar, and the murder was thus considered avenged. This was essential to the Muslims, for if the crime had remained unavenged, the murdered Jew would “ride on the murderer” at the last judgement.

Muslims can forgive one another, but Allah himself takes care of the unprotected Jew’s revenge. (Goitein, 1947)

Therefore, while Jews may have been considered as “weak”, we can see that fear was a factor in their protection: that they were feared – particularly in the hereafter.

The Jews’ observance of their religion was a matter of concern to tribesmen in Yemen.  Muslims were dependent for their well-being on Jews’ observance of their religious laws, and therefore felt threatened by Jews who flouted any of these laws that they were aware of – the main one being the commandment which is the most important for Jews:  observance of the Sabbath.  For example, Klorman recounts an incident in which a Jewish man, Shar’abi, returned late after business dealings, and arrived home only barely in time for the Sabbath.  The village sheikh, ‘Ali Qa’id, shouted at him angrily for being late, and for having insufficient time to prepare for the Sabbath, which he was therefore in danger of desecrating.  It seems that the concern of the tribesmen was that any irreligiosity would adversely affect the whole community, including Muslims.  Therefore they saw the Jews’ compliance with their own laws as a responsibility they bore on behalf of everyone.

Jews would be called upon to hold prayers for rain at times of drought, being believed to have control over the climate.  But its corollary also applied:  Jews were believed to have the power to disrupt the climate and halt rainfall.

Some Jews were renowned for specialized magic skills, such as the power to control demons and exorcise them from people who had become possessed by them.  However, with this dependency and belief in Jews’ power came fear that Jews could use such power for harmful purposes.  Klorman mentions sources relating to Jews intentionally performing sorcery, and to Jews whose actions were incorrectly interpreted as sorcery, and who were therefore “punished”.  Klorman describes the case of Ba’al Hefetz (literally:  “Owner of the book” – a title attributed to a mori with kabbalistic knowledge of the Book of Zohar) Busi Shalom from the village of Hamd Sulayman in the Shar’ Ab district, at the beginning of the 20th century.  The area’s tribesmen:

“…sensed that something was wrong about this Jew.  They suspected that he was causing trouble with their women, and that he instigated wives to dislike their husbands and created hatred between them.  Therefore they ambushed him on the road, caught him, and tied him in a sack and threw him into a reservoir.”  (Klorman 2009:129)

Therefore beliefs were held by Muslim tribesmen in a Ba’al Hefetz’s ability to control other people’s minds.

The respect and dependency of Muslims on the religious observance of Jews, and on mystical powers attributed to them, which placed upon Muslim tribesmen the imperative to protect Jews and their religious observance, could and sometimes did, it seems, turn to fear of their relationship with mystical sources, which could become dangerous and fatal for Jews who found themselves as the target of such fear.

Yemenite woman

Woman in rustic dress.  Photo from Daughter of Yemen, edited by Shalom Seri

Economic Situation
The Jews of Yemen were scattered throughout the whole of Yemen in more than 1,000 localities: villages, towns, and some cities. 85% of Yemenite Jews lived in rural or tribal areas in order to be near their clients who were generally farmers.

By law, Jews could not engage in the same occupations as Muslims who, in Yemen, were predominantly agricultural. Nevertheless, Barer (1952) was told by Yemenite Jews that about half of their numbers were farmers: that Jewish villagers frequently had their own fields, wells, fruit trees and olive groves. However, they were not permitted to be freeholders, but had to lease their land from Muslims. In San’a and the seaports, some Jews were merchants, dealing especially in coffee. Primarily, the Jews filled an occupational niche in Yemen as craftsmen, whose skills were passed down from father to son. As the country’s craftspeople, the Muslim population was dependent on their skills.

Nevertheless, the Jews were far more dependent economically on the Muslims than vice versa, for in the considerable times of famine and drought, the Muslims could temporarily dispense with the products of the Jews, whereas the Jews could not do without the agricultural produce of the Muslims. The Jews, therefore, felt such calamities most severely. In particular, Nini refers to the drought and famine of the 1890s, and subsequently of 1903 which “decimated the population” of San’a.

For most of the period dealt with here, it seems Jews were safer and better off with the tribespeople particularly in the North and North Eastern regions of Yemen, than they were in San’a and the major cities. Yet they were nevertheless subject peoples: clients, and there was therefore a significant power imbalance. Moreover, while fear was a factor motivating their protection, it was also something which could place their lives in great danger even in these very regions where they were otherwise relatively safe, dignified, and well-protected.

Therefore, it cannot be said that relations between Jews and Arabs in Yemen were fine until the establishment of Israel as a modern state. Throughout their long history in Yemen, they went through periods of enormous hardship and suffering. Even in the tribal areas where Jews may have been relatively well-off, their position was precarious and in times of drought and famine, they were at a great disadvantage. Since their position was tied to the need for protection and the goodwill of their neighbours rather than any fundamental human and civil rights, this placed them in a very dependent position, which could change with the ecological or political situation.

YJ 3 generations

Photo from Shalom Seri & Naftali Ben-David (Eds.) A Journey to Yemen and its Jews.  1991.  Tel Aviv.

References:

Barer, S. 1952. The Magic Carpet. London, Secker and Warburg. 101.
Bujra, A.S. 1971. Politics of Stratification: A Study of Political Change in a South Arabian Town. Oxford University Press.
“Economic History” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, VI. Keter Publishing House, Jerusalem Ltd. 1972.
Esposito, J.L. 2004. The Oxford Dictionary of Islam. Oxford University Press. New York.
Eraqi Klorman, Bat-Zion. 2009. “Yemen: Religion, magic, and Jews”, in Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 39. 2009. 125-134.
Goitein, S.D. 1964. Jews and Arabs: their contacts through the ages. Schocken Books, New York.

Goitein, S.D.  1947.  Tales from the land of Sheba.  Schocken Books, New York.

Goitein, S.D. (Ed.) 1941. Travels in Yemen. (English synopsis.) Jerusalem, Hebrew University Press.
Nini, Yehuda. 1991. The Jews of Yemen 1800 – 1914. Harwood Academic Publishers, Oxford, Zurich.

Rodinson, M. 1977. Mohammed. (Translated: A. Carter.) Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.

Saphir, Y. 1866. Even Sapir. Jerusalem.
Tobi, Yosef. 1999. The Jews of Yemen. Studies in Their History and Culture. Brill. Leiden, Boston, Köln.

Ah! But is it racism?

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

The recent poll claiming to reveal “what Muslims in Britain really think”:  claiming to have identified “a community within a community”, and a proliferation of attitudes unpalatable to what we assume to be predominantly liberal Britain.  On the one hand, I am sceptical that a poll conducted on 1081 adults can really tell us what 2.71 million Muslims in England, and 80,800 in Scotland and Northern Ireland (2011 census), all think.  Among these adults, we have different ethnicities, different generations, different countries of origin, different degrees of religiosity/secularity.  If we break up the 1081 “polled” adults equally into different generations alone, we have approximately 360.33 young adults, 360.33 middle aged adults, and 360.33 elderly adults.  Is it valid to treat these “polled” Muslims as representative of their generations of co-religionists in Britain, let alone their entirety?

On the other hand, this news item drew me back to a certain memory.  We may assume that some more unpalatable, unliberal and violent views may be held by those who dress differently from liberal Brits, segregate the sexes more; attend their place of worship more regularly; etc.  In other words, those who look less acculturated.  So, my memory….

At some point while I was completing my thesis in Oxford, a photo competition was organized in my college, and winning photos were blown up, mounted and displayed in the college common room. I shortlisted a few photos from my doctoral fieldwork in Israel, and from a subsequent visit to Ethiopia, to submit, and asked my neighbour to help me choose from among them.

Above, is one of the photos I chose (which also appears in my book, Gondar’s Child). The period of my fieldwork in Israel included the first Gulf War, and these children are in a shopping mall with their gas masks. Saddam Hussein was threatening to use mustard and nerve gas in attacks on Israel – a prospect which terrified me, as there was a precedent: he had already murdered whole villages of Iraqi Kurds using these chemicals. Everyone was issued with a gas mask, which we had to take with us everywhere at all times, and children had all decorated the boxes containing their gas masks at school.

Israeli Passport_20160502_0001

Family Defence Manual_20160502_0001

Back in Oxford, I was living in postgrad student accommodation, and my neighbour, in the next room, was a science doctoral student of Iranian descent (“Y”). We were in and out of each other’s rooms most days, and I considered her to be a warm and supportive friend. When she saw this photo, she thought I shouldn’t submit it for the competition because she considered it to be “controversial”, because “there are people who think that Israel shouldn’t exist!” Why is it controversial that Saddam Hussein wanted to gas these children? – I asked her. But she just repeated her assertion as if it were self-evident. This caused a lot of tension between us. A few days later, I brought up the subject and gave her the chance to take back what she had said, but she just repeated it again, and I let her know in no uncertain terms that it was an anti-Semitic view. After this, I did not feel that we could continue being friends, but of course, how could she ever have been a friend if she considered it “controversial” that Saddam Hussein had wanted to gas me?!  Having an enemy, once considered a “friend” who is still a neighbour, living in the next room in the same house is not something to be recommended!

Perhaps if I had told her these children were not Jewish, she might not have thought it controversial? After all, these lovely children who let me take their photo might have been Muslim or Christian. Would she then have minded that they too were threatened by Saddam’s chemical weapons, which he had incidentally used against Iran?!

It was such a mindless assertion by a British-born entirely secular Muslim of Iranian descent! So we can’t necessarily judge people’s views and values – for example, the extent to which they may justify extreme violence and evil against a certain religious, ethnic or national group – according to whether or not they are wearing the religious gear!  Other Iranians who have come into my life – Iranian-born secular Muslims – do not appear to hold such views! One only has to look at the Israel Loves Iran and Iran Loves Israel Facebook pages to see that there are plenty of people living in Iran who do not hold such views! I have read that there are a number of Iranians who are supportive of Israel especially in defiance of their own government.

To return to Oxford, two former housemates, one a Jewish doctoral student from Germany (whom I characterised as having a mouth like a sledge hammer, before Y showed me a true sledge-hammer mouth!), another a Norwegian PhD (“K”), (yes – we were a diverse lot! – probably unlike most of the undergrads!)  both commented that Y “isn’t political”, but, K wrote to me from Norway, she should know what she’s saying and who she’s talking to!  Surely she should have known what she was saying whoever she was talking to!  So:  “not political”, highly educated (in science), but expressing the view that the threat or use of chemical weapons on a group of human beings is “controversial” – i.e. “open to debate”, and having obviously come down on the side of the “controversy” that would state that this might be valid in the case of Jews in Israel, since there are people who don’t recognize Israel’s right to exist!  (So if we apply such a conclusion to the aforementioned poll, could it be that there are some “non-political” Muslims who  nevertheless find the threats and actions of Islamic extremists to be “controversial”, possibly justifiable?!)

Shortly after this incident, another housemate and friend, a British doctoral student of Nigerian descent, “L”, came into the kitchen one day, agitated and perturbed.  A stranger had stopped and asked directions, addressing her query to L’s “white” friend. L helpfully gave directions, but the stranger refused to acknowledge her, and asked further questions, continuing to address them to L’s friend, and to ignore L and her further attempts to be helpful. (It could not have been that she could not see or hear L, blessed with a resonant voice and a tall stature.)  This was offensive enough, but what troubled L perhaps even more was that her own friend had unconsciously cooperated with this, and then questioned and doubted whether the stranger’s behaviour had in fact been racist.

L was in a grumbling mood for which she apologised. I said it was OK – she was angry, and she was right to be, and this acceptance of the validity of her anger, and acknowledgement that she had in fact been subjected to racism, seemed to lift some of the burden away from her.

I then told her that Y and I were not speaking because she had said something anti-Semitic, and related the incident to her. “Ah!  But is that anti-Semitism?” L asked.  My expression must have been full of indignation and outrage.  As I opened my mouth to respond, she quickly answered her own question: “Of course it is, because it can never be right to use chemical weapons against anyone!”

I submitted the photo of the children with gas masks to the competition, and it was not selected to be displayed in my college common room!  These two photos were, however, displayed:

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Ethiopian Jewish boy who had just arrived in Israel in Operation Solomon in 1991, posing for me when he saw me with my camera!

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Shoeshine boy, Addis Abeba, 1992.  The colours in this photo are not right – when I had jpeg files created from the 21 year old negatives, I was told this is because the negatives had become “magenta” with age, but I don’t think that’s true!  I have the original photo somewhere…

 

Where the virulent anti-Semites lurk

My mother was born in Palestine in 1938. As a Jew born in Palestine, her birth certificate states that she was Palestinian, like all the Jews living in Palestine.  When she was a child, the medical establishment was “treating” ringworm (gazezet in Hebrew) with very strong doses of radiation to the head, and my mother was subjected to this “treatment”. It seems they were doing this as a preventative measure, as well as a “treatment”, and that this same method of dealing with ringworm was being used in some other countries, including the United States.

A documentary: The Ringworm Children, was made on this subject in which it is imputed that in the 1950s, this method of treating/preventing ringworm was routinely administered to Sephardi Jewish children who were migrating with their families mainly from North Africa – especially from Morocco. In adulthood, those subjected to this treatment developed brain tumours and many died before their time. It is presented in the video as something that only Sephardi children were subjected to, and as belonging to some sinister eugenics programme on the part of the Ashkenazi leaders against the Sephardi population.

And here on the internet, under the Youtube video, in the comments section, congregate some of the most virulent anti-Semites, spitting out and unleashing their toxic hatred, their venomous vitriol, towards Israel and Ashkenazi Jews.  Referring to a “Zionist”-perpetrated “holocaust” against the Sephardi population.  (Of course, the North African Jews who came to Israel were also Zionist.)   Google the term “radiation for ringworm” and a plethora of horribly extreme anti-Semitic posts appear for pages and pages.  I cannot believe for a second that these virulent racists, with their “reverse-speak” and projection – their predilection for labeling Jews as “Nazis” – have even the tiniest particle of concern about the Sephardi Jews in the video, any more than they have concern for Palestinian Arabs who are their main excuse for being overtly anti-Semitic in the guise of anti-Zionism.

I added a comment explaining that my mother had been subjected to this “treatment” by the Israeli medical establishment as a young child, and that she was Ashkenazi. That she developed recurring brain tumours in adulthood (the first one was diagnosed when she was about 34), and died at the age of 44.

It is very unlikely that she could have been mistaken for a Moroccan Jew, or for a newcomer – Sephardi or otherwise. Her parents migrated to Palestine some time in the second decade of the 1900s from Russia and Poland. While many Ashkenzi Jews can be  dark with black hair, my mother was so fair that her skin went pink in the sun. Her eyes were lightish blue. Her parents were well entrenched in Palestinian – then Israeli – society, and her mother drove trucks for the British during WWII. They would not have allowed her to receive any treatment they considered to be discriminatory or harmful. I have not yet found out the numbers of Ashkenazi children treated in this way for ringworm in Palestine/Israel in the 1940s/1950s, but I don’t see how it is possible that my mother should have been the only Ashkenazi child to have been subjected to this “treatment”.  However, I have come across numbers of Ashkenazi children who were irradiated for ringworm in the USA by an American Jewish insurance company, OSE, who:

“…radiated the heads of 27,000 Ashkenazi Jewish children who arrived in New York from Eastern Europe during the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1940s, about 4,500 Ashkenazi children who arrived were found to have ringworm, and about 2,500 were treated with radiation by OSE.”

http://www.jpost.com/Health-and-Sci-Tech/Health/BGU-medical-historian-seeks-1940s-irradiation-victims-in-US

My words in the comments section under the YouTube video explaining that my Ashkenazi mother had been subjected to the same treatment as a child, seemed to cause some consternation amongst the virulently anti-Semitic internet community who had attached themselves to this video, and who upheld it as “evidence” of Israeli “apartheid”.  On the internet, words such as “genocide” and “Nazi” are attached to “Ashkenazi” in relation to the gazezet affair.  But the information about my mother had put a spanner in the works, it seems, and my comment seemed to stem the flow of vitriol somewhat.  I received a couple of responses. One seemed quite innocent. He wanted some clarification on the circumstances surrounding my mother’s subjection to this “treatment”, and I responded.  But something did not feel right.  You could almost feel the hatred pulsating from that internet page.  I performed an internet search on “Gunther” – one of the people who had responded to my comment. He was a member of a group which looked shockingly anti-Semitic – hard-core Nazi in fact. I deleted my response to his comment and reported it to the CST, which deals with anti-Semitism in the UK.  After a while, I decided to delete my comment altogether. Why would I place myself right in the cauldron where virulent anti-Semites congregate? Anti-Semitism is something I would travel far to get away from!

Yet, it seems that wherever you have Jews criticising Jews, Jewish Israelis or diaspora Jews criticising Israel, Jews or Israeli Jews expounding theories which can be taken as challenging Zionism, Jews who are inverted anti-Semites (for wherever there is racism, there is also inverted racism), there you will find the virulent anti-Semites, or even the non-virulent anti-Semites, congregating!  Anti-Semites love a self-hating Jew; they love a Jew who will criticise other Jews, or Israel.  (Did they love Otto Weininger, the Austrian philosopher (1880-1903) who, being Jewish, as a consequence of his own anti-Semitic philosophy, committed suicide?)  Israelis who criticize Israel feel entitled to express as much anger, outrage, discontent, opposition to their government’s policies and actions as any citizen of any country may feel entitled to do about her/his country. They don’t necessarily realise they are providing fodder to fatten the collective hatred of these virulent anti-Semites. Or that their words are being used to substantiate a claim that their country is illegitimate and not entitled to even exist!  A claim which I do not believe is made about any other country in the world, no matter what the circumstances under which it was founded.

I’m not aware of any other kind of racism working in this way. Do racist bigots love people of colour who will speak against other people of colour? Do they congregate around people of colour who are inverted racists? I don’t think so. Anti-Semitic hatred shares much with other racisms, but also takes on forms which seem not to apply to other racisms, such as the desecration of Jewish cemeteries.

I think this wish of anti-Semites to “align” themselves with Jews who criticise Jews/Israel, along with expressing Jew-hatred in the guise of anti-Zionism, is a post-holocaust phenomenon.  In the aftermath of the holocaust, it is not PC to openly express anti-Semitism.  Therefore anti-Semites – who exist even in places where there are no Jews! – have some very crude tactics for unblocking the path to their urge to express their powerful and irrational hatred. For example:
(i) Holocaust denial. If the memory of the Holocaust is blocking the path to openly anti-Semitic expression, then by denying it, minimising it, or trying to erase it from history, one can then hope to open up the path to, and validate such expression.
(ii) Alignment with a Jew who, as above, criticises other Jews or Israel, again in the hope to validate their hatred.

It appears, then, that what anti-Semites feel the need to do, which they don’t apparently feel the need of in respect to other racisms, is to validate their racism, to avoid being labeled as the anti-Semites that they are; to avoid being labeled as the Nazis some of them are – a label they wish to project on Jews – perhaps in some cases in a wish to cancel out the Nazi guilt.

That is not to say that everyone who adopts a position of anti-Zionism is therefore necessarily anti-Semitic. But that is a subject for another blog.

What the Israeli medical establishment did to my mother and other children subjected to these massive doses of radiation to the head, and the consequences to these people and their families, were terrible. It was not known what the consequences would ultimately be. Radiation was not understood at that time as it is today.  Nevertheless, it was terrible.  As was its negligent and criminal use without the understanding of the long-term consequences; without deep research into what had already been discovered, but not disseminated into a wider awareness, about radiation’s destructive potential – therefore the experimental nature of its use on children.  The ruined lives…. dreams turned into nightmares.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ringworm_affair_%28Israel%29

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Someone commented on this post, utterly flabbergasted that I was “defending” Israel and thus manifesting “unconditional love” for Israel, after what “it had done” to my mother.  I was quite taken aback by such a response, which missed the entire point of my article.   For this reason, and and also because I did not want to attract virulent anti-Semites eager to find out where their ilk were congregating, I made this post private until I felt inclined to address this point, and long after.

So there are 3 main issues here:  firstly:  who exactly “did this” to my mother?  I do not think it was Israel that “did this” to my mother.  It was not the land of Israel.  It was not the general population of Israel – she, after all, was part of Israel – a “sabra” – the term in use for an Israeli-born Jew.  And my mother certainly loved Israel, belonged there, and always longed to return.  She was quintessentially Israeli.  It was part of the medical establishment, and certain government ministers at the time that irradiated and damaged her previously perfectly healthy brain when she was a young child.  Was the USA implicated as is strongly implied in the film?  I am not sure of the extent to which my mother may have made an association between the “treatment” she was subjected to and her brain tumours, and it was something she experienced solitarily – unaware that others who had undergone the same “treatment” were suffering similar fates.

The second issue relating to the reaction to my post is:  would the same question be asked of other countries whose children received the same treatment?  The 30,000 children treated in the early 1950s in Portugal?  The 50,000 children treated in Serbia?  The 27,000 children treated in Eastern Europe?  Would someone be amazed that a Portuguese person, or a Serbian could love their countries?  That it was these countries that “irradiated” their children?

Would the same reaction be evoked in relation to other toxic “medical” experimental treatments?  In Britain, for example, I have enormous gratitude towards my mother that while she was pregnant with me, she refused to take any medication whatsoever for any pain or discomfort – not even an aspirin.  This was the time when the Thalidomide drug was being routinely administered to pregnant women for morning sickness, with subsequent devastating consequences.  In the States and in Britain, pharmaceutical companies cooperate with the psychiatric profession, motivated entirely by the maximization of profits, in creating an artificial ever-increasing market for powerful mind-altering, mind-disabling drugs which are zealously administered to millions of adults and children which can and often do have fatal consequences.

Would it be said that Britain “did this” to children born with Thalidomide-induced deformities?  Would it be said that the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, or any other country, “did this” to those children and adults whose lives are ruined or ended from psychiatric drugs?

The third issue relates to Buddhist ethics;  practising Buddhists try to cultivate equal loving kindness for all of humanity, whether towards our immediate family, whether it is towards someone we have very little to do with, or whether the person is our worst enemy.  Someone who is enlightened will be understood to have achieved this, while others will ideally aspire to achieve this (or perhaps aspire to this aspiration!)  According to this ideal – it is irrelevant whether or not the person who has suffered such damaging treatment is one’s mother or not;  one’s concern would be just as great whoever the sufferer may be.

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My final word is directed towards any virulent anti-Semites, who found their way to this post in a quest to discover where others of your kind lurk.  What I have to say to you is:  “Shove orf!  Or else I’ll butt you with my horns!”