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Yemen's tiny Jewish minority shrinking fast

SANAA (Reuters) - Three more Jewish families will leave Yemen for Israel this week, according to a Yemeni rabbi who laments the dwindling of an ancient community unnerved by threats and by the murder of a Jew last year.

Yemeni Jewish boys read the Torah at a Hebrew school in the northwestern Yemeni town of Raida February 20, 2009. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah/Files

A Shi’ite revolt in the strongly tribal northern mountains and the growth of Sunni Islamist fervour in Yemen have made Jews uncomfortable in a land where they have deep roots.

Only 200 to 300 Jews still live among Yemen’s 23 million Muslims, mostly in the north.

Rabbi Yahya Yusuf Musa, 31, told Reuters the three families were from Raida, a town about 70 km (45 miles) north of the capital Sanaa, where a Jew was killed in December by a Muslim compatriot who has been sentenced to death for the crime.

Sixteen Yemeni Jews from Raidah moved to Israel in June, including relatives of the victim, Mashaa Yaeesh al-Nahari.

An official at Israel’s immigration ministry declined to comment due to the sensitivity of the subject.

Israel organised the departure of about 50,000 Jews, the bulk of a once-vibrant minority famed for its craftsmen, to the newly created Jewish state in 1949.

Last year Rabbi Musa was among 67 Jews forced to leave the village of Al Salem in the northern province of Saada after threats by Shi’ite rebels known as Houthis, whose intermittent five-year-old revolt flared again this month. [nLN196955]


“The Houthis kicked us out,” Musa said, recounting attacks on property, theft of religious books and other abuses. “They gave us 10 days to leave, or they would kidnap and kill us.”

Evacuated to Saada city and then flown by helicopter to Sanaa, the Jews of Al Salem now live in government-supplied housing with a small monthly stipend and food rations.

The government accuses rebels, led by Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, of seeking to restore Islamic rule by the Zaydi imamate which was overthrown in 1962. Zaydis, which belong to a branch of Shi’ism, are a minority in mainly Sunni Muslim Yemen.

Musa, who works as a silversmith, said the 15 families from Al Salem felt secure in Sanaa, unlike their counterparts in Raida. Their children go to school and play with young Muslims.

“We have no intention of leaving the country because our birthplace is beloved,” he said when asked if they planned to go to Israel. “We prefer to live in safety and security in Sanaa.”

Musa said President Ali Abdullah Saleh had looked after the Jews from Al Salem, but said his promise to transfer them from Amran province, where Raida is located, had not worked out.

“Their concern and fears increased day by day. This forced them to leave the country because they had no other option.”

Saleh’s government is publicly supportive of the remaining Jews, as is the main Islamist opposition party, Islah.

“The Yemeni Jews are citizens. They should have their own life as Yemenis,” said Mohammed al-Sadi, the party’s assistant secretary-general. “I prefer for them to stay in Yemen, not move to another country, because they are part of this society.”

But, the tiny Jewish remnant faces an uncertain future.

“If there is deterrent action against those who threaten the Jews, then even those who migrated would be ready to return,” said Musa, the rabbi. “As for those who are left, if there is security for themselves, for their families, for their possessions, they would have no reason to leave their homeland.”

Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem