Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Last of the Mohicansteins

For nearly 2000 years, Jews lived along side their Arab and Muslim neighbors (peacefully and not-so-peacefully) in Yemen - a small, significant and volatile country in the Southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen was the only country on the Peninsula with a sizable Jewish population. Sadly another country will join the ranks of cultural pure, as the last hundred or so Jews living in Sana'a (the capital) will pull up their stakes and move to Israel in the next few months.

This of course will go mostly unnoticed in the US, as almost all Middle Eastern countries are viewed as impoverished, radical-filled societies, unworthy of our attention. Besides we have our own cultural cleansing to witness.

A one time Yemen had a thriving Jewish community, mostly of Sephardic descent. Jews were prominent leaders and merchants in the country during the 4th and 5th centuries. As late as the early 1900's, nearly 100,000 Jews lived among the dominant Muslim society. The Jews of Yemen spoke Arabic - and many considered themselves Arabic Jews. Yemenis claimed they were proud of the Jewish culture in their country - but were against Zionism (a familiar excuse throughout the Middle East). After the creation of Israel in 1948, life changed dramatically. Tens of thousands were flown out of the country by the US to Israel, Europe and America. The wave of emigration came just after the 1967 war, and finally around 1,200 Jews fled in 1990. With Yemen increasingly becoming hostile to Americans and non-Muslims, refugee groups raised the needed funds to resettle the remaining in Israel.

Their departure closes another window on tolerance, understanding and peace.

The countries of the Middle East - from Morocco to Iran - used to be the home to hundreds of thousands of Jews. This is what is left of those communities:

Saudi Arabia

At one time there used to be a considerable Jewish community in the land that is now known as Saudi Arabia. Before the ascension of Islam, most of the Jews of Arabia lived near Medina in the 6th and 7th centuries. Today there are no known Jewish Saudi citizens. Saudi Arabia is a strict theocracy and does not permit public worship of any religion other than Islam. As guardians of the holy Muslim shrines, the Saudis do not permit any non-Muslims to enter Mecca, but Jews from other countries have lived and worked in the kingdom. It is not a simple process for Jews to enter Saudi Arabia, but there is no out-and-out ban.

United Arab Emirates

As a virulent anti-Zionist, anti-Israel country, the UAE does not have an organized or even visible Jewish community. Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE probably has no Jewish citizens, but does have guest workers and long-term businessmen (in Dubai) that are Jewish. There is some record history of Jewish settlers and traders in the current borders of the UAE. The UAE has made some outreach to Israel and Jewish organizations.


Jews lived in Oman for many centuries. As late as the 1800's, the city of Muscat had a Jewish presence. While Oman did not outwardly discriminate - the few Jews living there migrated to other countries before 1900. Today there are no known Omani Jews.


There is no known Jewish community in Qatar. While the country is a theocracy that bans public display of any religion other than Islam, personal bibles and home prayer is tolerated. Qatar was the home of the US military during the invasion of Iraq. Jewish soldiers were permitted to pray, have services and receive kosher food.


Before 1914, there were around 200 Jews, mostly from Iraq, living in what is present-day Kuwait. They were traders and also known to make alcohol for the native Muslims. To blend in with the locals, many would cover their head with a traditional Fez. During the 1920's, all the Jews living in Kuwait went back to Iraq. Today there are none.


Bahrain an island nation the size of New York City, has a Jewish community that numbers around 50. During the 1930s and 40s, there were approximately 1,500 Jews living in Bahrain, mainly from Iraq. Many of the retail shops in the downtown business district were run by Jews, who would close for Shabbas. After Israel was created, riots broke out on the island. Many Bahraini Arabs hid their Jewish neighbors. Most of the Jews in Bahrain fled to England in the early 50's. Bahrain is the only country on the Arabian peninsula with a synagogue.


Much of present-day Jordan was part of the land of Israel in Biblical times. Three of the 12 tribes of Israel lived in Jordan. The lands around the Jordan River fell under various Empires, always with some sort of Jewish presence. The Ottoman Empire ruled over Palestine (which incorporated modern day Israel and Jordan) for 400 hundred years until 1917. At the close of WWI, the British were awarded the Mandate of Palestine (which is split into Palestine and Transjordan in 1921). The Balfour Declaration in 1917 endorsed the idea of a Jewish homeland in the Mandate. When the Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan were created in 1947, there was a sizable Jewish community on the West Bank. Jordan seized that territory in the 1948 war and expelled the Jews. Jews living in Jordan were excluded as citizens. While Jordan and Israel have signed a peace treaty, tensions are high. There is no Jewish community in Jordan


Jews have lived in Syria for centuries. Damascus was a center of Jewish culture during Roman times. When the Jews in Spain were expelled in 1492, many settled in Syria. In 1948 there were 30-40,000 Jews living in Syria. Conditions became harsh after the formation of Israel, with severe restrictions on emigration. Many escaped. In 1992, the Syrian government began to grant exit visas to the Jews - as long as they didn't go to Israel. Thousands left for Europe and the US. Today, there are over 40,000 Syrians Jews in New York, there are less than 200 in Syria. The Ben Zeruyah Synagogue in Aleppo was in operation for over 1,600 years - today it is deserted.


Lebanon was home to one of the oldest Jewish communities. In 1948 there were 25,000 Jews in the country. After the 1948 war, Jews from Iraq and Syria fled to Lebanon. However, after the 1958 Civil war, many began to flee to Canada, France and Israel. By 1967, the Lebanese Jewish community had dwindled to 1,000. Today there are less than 700 Jews, many living among the Christians and Druze.


The plight of the Jews in Iraq is one of the most tragic in all of the Middle East. The Jews of Iraq were one of the world's oldest and most historic communities. Baghdad was the center of Jewish culture and learning for thousands of years. During the Babylonia period, the Jewish community thrived and was economically strong. The rise of Islam and the Mongol Invasions led to a decline. Fortunes changed during the Ottoman Empire, but over time the tight grip of the Turks led to a deteriorating situation for the Jews. In 1900, 25% of Baghdad's population was Jewish.

Jews played a critical role in the formation of the Iraqi nation. They helped develop the postal system and judicial process. Things changed as Nazi propaganda began to filter in after 1933. In 1934, many Jews were dismissed from their jobs in the public sector and quotas were set in colleges. A pogrom broke out in 1941, killing 200 Jews.

In 1948, there were nearly 150,000 Jews in Iraq. After the war with Israel, businesses were boycotted and oppression became the norm. Emigration to Israel was forbidden. The underground began to smuggle out Iraqi Jews. From 1950 to 1951, over 120,000 Jews fled to Israel via Cyprus. In 1969, 9 Jews were hanged after being accused of spying for Israel. Most of the remaining fled by 1971. In 2003, just as the US invaded Iraq, there were 100 Jews in the country. The new constitution in 2004 does not include Jews as a minority group. Some people estimate there are less than 25 Jews in Iraq today.

Other Arab countries:

Algeria: In 1948, there were 140,000, today there are none
Egypt: In 1948, there were 80,000, today there are less than 100
Libya: In 1948 there were 40,000 Jews, today there are none.
Morocco: In 1948 there were 275,000 Jews, today there are less than 7,000
Tunisia: In 1948 there were 100,000, today there are around 1,000

All told there were well over 750,000 Jews living in Arab countries before the creation of Israel. Today there are just under 10,000 - with 90% of that tally living in Morocco. Turkey and Iran still have sizable communities.

The lack of diversity in many of these nations........

Labels: , ,

Bookmark and Share


Post a Comment

<< Home