SANA’A, Yemen – The religious leader of Yemeni Jews relocated by the government to the capital city from the northern province of Sa’ada to protect them from a radical Shia group says that promises to take care of them have been broken.
In a three-hour meeting on the day before Purim, Rabbi Yahya Yousef Mousa said pledges of providing money, food and land to build new homes in Sana’a have not been fulfilled.
Although he said the government is once again paying a monthly stipend of 5,000 rials ($25) per month per person to the 12 families, and 65 Jews, now living near the American Embassy here since being forced to leave Ghareer more than two years ago, the town where they lived for at least 1,000 years, he said conditions are now getting desperate.
Not allowed to work because of security concerns, Mousa said families are resorting to selling jewelry and other possessions they were able to take with them when they were forced to flee under threat of the al-Houthi, a radical Shia group that has a strong foothold in northern Yemen.
Once 50,000 Jews lived in Yemen, who first settled there after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 586 B.C. Today only 400 remain, Mousa said, in Raidah, a village 70 kilometers north of Sana’a, as well as in the capital city.
“We are being forced to sell our jewelry and deplete our savings,” Mousa said. “We can’t work, all of our tools for making silver were left behind, and we haven’t received our food rations in nearly two years. My family of 11 receives 55,000 rials a month ($275), and my father’s medicine costs 20,000 rials ($100) a month.”
Mousa said his family lives in a small government-supplied apartment with one bathroom and that before he was forced to move he had two nice homes in his village, which were destroyed by the al-Houthi. He said his family and other Jews fled with their clothes and anything else they could carry a little more than two years ago He added that priceless religious artifacts and texts, some hundreds of years old, were also burned, destroyed or stolen by the al-Houthi.
“An American came to our village a few years ago and offered my father $100,000 for a religious book that was hundreds of years old, but he did not sell it,” Mousa said. “Now it is gone forever.”
Mousa said that his father, the former head rabbi in Sa’ada, is now partially paralyzed after a stroke and cannot get the medical attention he needs in Yemen.
After an article appeared in a Yemen newspaper earlier this month, Mousa said the government resumed paying the stipend. He said he has “strong faith in our President,” Ali Abdullah Saleh, but that he believes others in the government are “working against us.”
“The president decreed that for every family they get 300 square meters of land free to build a house on it and the prime minister signed it,” Mousa said. “It went to the minister of planning and it’s been stalled there.”
A recent article in an opposition newspaper speculated that the government official in charge of Tourist City, where the Yemeni Jews are now living, has stopped their rations and stipend in order to “force them to leave the country.” Tourist City is the area where the American Embassy, which was attacked by terrorists a few months ago, is located. Mousa said that when the embassy was bombed debris landed on his doorstep.
The recent verdict in the trial of a retired Yemeni Air Force pilot, who admitted gunning down a Jewish teacher in the town of Omran in December after he was told to convert to Islam or be killed, is also causing concern. After a judge declared Abdel Aziz Yehia Hamoud al-Abdi “mentally unstable” for shooting Moshe Yaish Nahari with a machine gun, he was spared prison and ordered to pay the victim’s family 50.5 million rial ($250,000), five times the typical “blood money.” His family rejected the judgment and is appealing and asking for the death sentence under Islamic law. Nahari’s lawyer, Khaled al-Anisi, a prominent Muslim, said the verdict showed "prejudice" and would leave other Yemeni Jews vulnerable to attacks.
Mousa said that Nahari taught his children Hebrew and that they studied together at a Yeshiva in Brooklyn for two years.
“Of course, it scares us and makes us nervous,” he said. “If there is justice, he will be executed. If he knows influential people or can bribe people he can get out of it. The educated people sympathize with us, but the undedicated say, ‘He’s a Jew so take the blood money’."
Mousa said that the educated Yemeni’s treat the Jews with “full respect,” but that the uneducated “bother us.”
“When they see us in the market they slander us,” Mousa said. “That is a constant, but it isn’t a big deal. But when something happens in Gaza or Israel, it gets more aggressive.”
When the conflict in Gaza broke out in December, Mousa said he “rejected the killing of innocent human beings as being against all religion, all faith, all humanity.” He told the Yemeni media that what Israel was doing was “completely wrong and we don’t support it.”
Mousa said that many Yemeni’s “were very surprised” to hear his condemnation of Israel, and that his statement “relieved some pressure.” He added that some others said, “We honor your statement and we expect you to fight with your friends even if they are wrong. We expect you to support Israel, and you didn’t and that was exceptional.”
How would he respond to diehard supporters of Israeli policy?
“You have to be just in your view,” Mousa said. “You have to be straightforward, and you have to be right without any fear of how people condemn you or judge you.”
Mousa said he never expects to return to his village where Jews and Sunni Muslims lived as neighbors for hundreds of years.
“We will never go back to our village,” he said. “Never. They (al-Houthi) destroyed all houses. They gave us a warning that if anyone goes back they will be shot. They came and changed the whole environment and terrorized the Jews.
“We believe in God’s will. Whatever happens in God’s will will happen. We also have great hope in the president. God will never leave us. People who worship God appropriately and follow their religion, God will never leave them. If they are following His teaching, they will not be alone.
“When you are born and live in a country, it is very difficult to leave. We will die and live in this country. We will stay here even if it means marching to the sea.”