Last September I had the privilege of attending an international conference in Jerusalem titled “Justice for Jews from Arab Countries,” which was organized by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the World Jewish Congress. During my last day in Jerusalem, I walked to the Old City to put a note in the Kotel. As I was leaving, a short woman with a black hijab (head covering) brushed my shoulder. I instantly recognized her from Rachel Stretcher’s photographs, which were featured in the exhibit “The Last Jews of Yemen,” sponsored by JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa).
I approached the woman, whose name is Simcha, and in broken Hebrew she told me that her family had left Yemen’s northern town of Raida in 2009 after her husband, Said, a leader of the Jewish community, received death threats and a grenade was thrown into their courtyard. Said and Simcha had the choice of moving their family to “Tourist City,” a government-protected compound in Yemen’s capital Sana’a, or leaving Yemen altogether. Rather than live as refugees in their own country, Said and Simcha decided to immigrate to Israel.
Simcha told me about the horrible struggles of the Jews remaining in Yemen and how she thought they were all preparing to leave. She knew she made the right choice in moving to Israel, despite the difficult assimilation challenges she was facing.
In late January, news began circulating that the Yemeni government had stopped providing the necessary subsidies and protection for displaced Jews from Raida living in “Tourist City.” The Yemeni NGO Sawa’a: Organization for Anti-Discrimination, complained on its Facebook page that the displaced Jewish people are unable to return to their homes in Raida, because of the threat of religiously motivated violence against them by Shi’ite Houthis.
Following this news, Israeli and Arab news outlets were flooded with reports that an international effort is under way to bring the remnants of Yemen’s Jewish community to Israel. With fewer than 100 Jews remaining in Yemen, and their status now in danger, it’s fair to assume these reports are correct and that Yemen may soon be added to the list of Arab countries that once had vibrant Jewish communities that were forced out, or have fled.
Revisionist history of the Middle East and North Africa conveniently excludes the experiences of indigenous Jews, who have had a continuous presence in the Middle East and North Africa for over 3,000 years. The fate of Yemen’s remaining Jews reminds us once again of the important role the State of Israel has played, and continues to play, in providing Jews around the world with a place of refuge when life at home becomes impossible. We are better able to effectively advocate for Israel by telling the almost forgotten story of Jewish communities from Arab countries and Iran who often had nowhere to go but Israel.
Although the issue of Jews from Arab countries has gained international visibility in recent months, justice will never be served until their story is adopted into all mainstream Middle Eastern and Jewish narratives. It must become a regular component of Jewish education and Middle Eastern Studies departments. We cannot fully understand or advocate for Israel unless the story of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, who comprise over 50 percent of Israel’s Jewish population, is as familiar to us as the history of Jews from Eastern Europe.
Like the 650,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries who came to Israel before them, Simcha and other Jewish immigrants from Yemen will now be able to provide their children with opportunities they never would have had in the country of their birth. While one door in Israel may be opening, another door in Yemen is closing completely — transforming one of Judaism’s most ancient and pure communities and changing the course of Jewish and Middle Eastern history forever.
Sarah Levin is the director of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, a San Francisco-based advocacy group for the 1 million displaced Jews of this region.