Sunday, April 26, 2009

After 3,000 years, still strangers in a strange land

Jews have lived on the Arabian Peninsula since well before the birth of Mohammed and the rise of Islam. A remnant still do in a few places -- but perhaps one of those places, Yemen, will be Judenrein soon.
KHARIF, Yemen – In this village in northern Yemen, where a kosher butcher slaughters chickens and the school bus carries young boys in side curls along a dirt track to their Hebrew studies, one of the oldest Jewish communities in the Arab world is fighting for its survival.

Yemen's Jews, here and elsewhere in the country, are thought to have roots dating back nearly 3,000 years to King Solomon. The community used to number 60,000 but shrank dramatically when most left for the newborn state of Israel.

Those remaining, variously estimated to number 250 to 400, are feeling new and sometimes violent pressure from Yemeni Muslims, lately inflamed by Israel's fierce offensive against Hamas militants in Gaza that cost over 1,000 Palestinian lives.

They face a Yemeni government that is ambivalent — publicly supportive but also lax in keeping its promises — in an Arab world where Islamic extremism and hostility to minorities are generally on the rise.

"There is hardly a mosque sermon that's free of bigotry. The government's own political rhetoric marginalizes the Jews, and civil society is too weak to protect them," says Mansour Hayel, a Muslim Yemeni and human rights activist who is an expert on Yemen's Jewry.

One can clearly see whether the Arab and Muslim world has become a better or worse place -- even in terms of the welfare of its Muslim citizens -- since it expelled the bulk of its Jewish population.

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