As I was hanging photos for JIMENA’s “The Last Jews of Yemen” exhibit on a recent Friday at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, I once again marveled at the choice of this 2,000-year-old Jewish community to stay put in a violent and lawless country.
Rachael Strecher’s photographs, accompanied by Josh Berer’s educational journal entries, were collected in 2009 during the couple’s three-month stay in Sanaa, Yemen. Each day, Rachael and Josh visited a government-protected building that housed and guarded 75 Yemeni Jews. In 2007, this small Jewish community was forced to flee their provincial community in Saadah after being threatened by Houti rebels. The following year, the murder of Raida’s Jewish communal leader, Moshe Yaish al-Nahari signaled yet another turning point for Yemen’s Jews.“The Last Jews of Yemen” exhibit, on display until June 28, beautifully highlights intimate moments Rachael spent with this ancient Jewish community paralyzed on the brink of exodus.
Since the turbulent Yemeni uprisings in 2011, which ultimately ousted Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the descriptions of the status of the 130 remaining Jews have been mixed. Some reportedly fled through Egypt, some are said to be clinging to their Yemeni nationality and determined to stay put, and others are living in constant fear, uncertain what the future holds for them.
This uncertainty may have been crystallized into absolute knowing on May 22, as Aharon Zindani, a member of the Jewish community in Yemen, was ruthlessly murdered, allegedly by a member of Al Qaida who accused him of practicing “Jewish witchcraft.” Zindani was stabbed 12 times in the neck as he was shopping with his children in the Sanaa market.
Immediately following the murder, the Arab media reported that the head rabbi of Yemen’s remaining Jewish community appealed to Yemeni authorities to protect the country’s weak religious minority. A Jewish Agency official was quoted as saying that since the Arab Spring uprisings, “Yemen is in chaos and the Jews are not safe. Tribes that are affiliated with al Qaida are posing a threat to the Jewish community, and Israel is monitoring the situation in an effort to bring them to Israel.”
As I sifted through various international newspapers, I was saddened by how underreported this story is. If a Jewish communal leader in the West was murdered in an anti-Semitic attack by a member of al Qaida, the media would have an absolute heyday. Why, then, does this story, and the story of hundreds of other Jewish and Christian victims of religious persecution in the Middle East and North Africa, go underreported in mainstream media? Where is the outcry for the Copts of Egypt, the Chaldeans of Iraq, the Maronites of Syria, the Bahai and Jews of Iran and the Jews of Yemen?
There is no point that could better typify this than the public call, or fatwa, made on March 15 by the Wahabi Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz ibn Abdullah, to destroy all churches in the Arabian Peninsula. The sheikh holds Saudi Arabia’s most authoritative and prestigious religious post in the theocratic kingdom of Saudi Arabia — a position of great power in the Sunni Muslim world. Despite his authoritative role, his hateful words barely registered in leading news outlets.
As a progressive Jewish community, we pride ourselves on a commitment to social justice and tikkun olam. We have a moral obligation to support communities threatened by religious persecution, especially in a region that most of us care so deeply about. It’s time for us to learn from the persecution of Jews in Arab countries and pay more attention to the challenges and suffering of other religious minorities in the region.
Today, Rachael Strecher’s images speak volumes. As I look at her photograph of Aharon Zindani’s sons and grandchild in “The Last Jews of Yemen” exhibit, I’m reminded how incredibly relevant the work of JIMENA is. As one of the few organizations in the world committed to raising awareness of the plight of Jews from Arab countries, JIMENA is dedicated to exposing the contemporary realities and problems of Jews and other religious minorities in the Arab world.
If you visit “The Last Jews of Yemen” exhibit, please take a minute to honor the memory of Aharon Zindani, along with the 850,000 Jews from Arab countries who were either expelled or forced to flee simply because of their Jewish faith.
Sarah Levin is executive director of JIMENA, a San Francisco–based nonprofit that advocates for Jewish refugees from Arab countries. For more information, visit www.jimenaexperience.org/yemen.