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My Meeting with the Israel Immigrant, Part IV: The Yemeni Immigrant

I find Zahry in Beit Shemesh, where he is living with relatives after a three-month stay in the Immigration Absorption Center in Beer Sheva.   At first he is hesitant to talk about his experiences as a recent immigrant from Yemen.  Suspicion comes naturally to many of Yemen’s recent émigrés, who in recent years have dealt with a rise in Al-Qaeda activities in their native country, and terror attacks from other groups as well.  And the transition to Israel has not been an easy one for many Yemenis who, like Zarhy, feel like they are straddling the identities of two countries and often feel pulled by their fierce loyalty to both their faith and their Arab heritage.

Zahry’s Story

After a few minutes of small talk and a cup of tea, Zahry begins to visibly relax.  He talks about the struggle involved in leaving Yemen.  “People forget that we Jews in Yemen are Arabs,” he says in heavily accented Hebrew.  His native language is Arabic, and his food habits, clothes, and other traditions in Yemen have been almost identical to those of his Muslim neighbors.  Now Zahry worries about his children losing touch with their traditional Yemeni Jewish way of life.  He feared that Israeli society would be less “pious” than Yemen, but he is living in an Orthodox community now and feeling more optimistic that his family will make the transition successfully.

Zahry shares that recent violence in Raida, the Jewish community where he’d lived, prompted his decision to leave.  Growing harassment by Muslim extremists had culminated in the launching of a grade into the home of a local Jewish leader, and a Hebrew teacher was shot dead near his home. Like many other Jews in the Raida area, Zahry temporarily relocated to the capital of Sana’a under protection of the government.  But that solution was not satisfactory — while the government provided temporary homes and food allowances, families could not re-establish their daily lives.  Many of the transplanted Jews had worked in trades that required expensive equipment; e.g., silversmithing, mechanics, and carpentry.  Unable to afford start-up costs for new businesses, they could not resume their work.  Zahry, a carpenter, found himself sitting around with his neighbors, chewing khat, a Yemeni stimulant, and daydreaming of ways to earn money to support his four children.  When the opportunity to move to Israel came, it was economic concerns as much as political ones that helped him make the decision.

The Yemeni Jewish Community

Estimates are that only around 280 Jews still live in Yemen today, most in Raida and Sana’a. Until the middle of the last century, Yemen was home to more than 50,000 Jews, but the majority left for Israel as part of the Magic Carpet operation.  Those who remain try to cling to the preservation of the Arab Jews in this remote land.  Yemen has a history of Judaism that dates back centuries, when Jewish traders for King Solomon arrived in the Arabian Peninsula. The land was once even ruled by the Jewish king Yusuf Dhu Nuwas.  At that time, many Arab tribes converted to Judaism, and numerous Yemeni Muslims today recognize that they are descended from Arab Jews.

The remaining Jews of Yemen try to protect their traditions and pass down the Torah and Talmud to future generations, but it’s difficult. Lacking social organizations, Jewish educational institutions, and worship places, they worry about a future where their children will not be able to find a Jewish spouse, and when someone dies, they will not have enough people to bury a member of their community. They are caught in a cultural and religious vise, with their cultural identity strongly Arab but feeling an equally strong Jewish religious identity.  Today, they are a very isolated community in Yemeni society.  Conditions are often primitive.  Before the round-up to Sana’a, many villagers lived in primitive houses without running water or electricity.

Yemeni Jews have generally had less contact with the Jewish world outside their country than have their émigré peers from other countries, and many of the Jews remaining in Yemen today have more suspicion of the state of Israel than they do toward the Yemeni government.  At the same time, they feel threatened by both Al Qaeda and the militant Shi’ite Muslim group al-Houthi.

A Yemeni in Israel

Acculturation is slow for recent Yemeni émigrés.  To illustrate this point, one immigration official tells the story of a woman who showed up at the airport in Sana’a carrying a live chicken with which she planned to board her flight.  Adjusting to a more cosmopolitan cultural atmosphere is a challenge.  Some Yemeni Jews have even claimed discrimination at the hands of Ashkenazi, Separadi, and other Mizrahi groups in Israel.  Their Arab identity can be a badge of both pride and defensiveness.

As for Zahry, he says that he doesn’t miss the Yemen he left so much as the Yemen that remains in his heart.  Since his arrival a few months ago, the Jewish Agency has offered him s a variety of transitional support services.  The State has contributed a total of 15 thousand dollars toward the price of a home for his family, and loans are available as well.  He is beginning to work in carpentry again, with help from his cousin, with whom he lives temporarily.

“I watch my children play, running around in the yard and all over,” Zahry says, “ and I remember how trapped they were before.  They couldn’t even go outside and play!  Now I see joy again in my children’s faces.  That is what I hold onto.”

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