A Murder in Yemen Stirs a Tiny Remnant

By Anthony Weiss

Published December 31, 2008, issue of January 09, 2009.
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Unlike many of his more isolated countrymen, Moshe Yaish Nahari, a Yemeni Jew, spent years studying abroad, then returned to act as a leader of Yemen’s ancient but tiny Jewish community. Now, however, the recent murder of Nahari has thrown the fate of Yemen’s Jewish population into doubt.

Nahari, a 35-year-old teacher and religious leader in the Jewish community of Raida, was shot and killed on December 11, 2008, in the northwestern desert town, 50 miles north of the nation’s capital. A Muslim man, Abdel Aziz Yehia Hamoud al-Abdi, has been arrested and brought to trial, but the murder, combined with more recent protests in Yemen over Israeli bombing raids in Gaza, has stirred up old fears in Yemen and abroad that the community may be vulnerable to further attacks — something that outsiders have warned about for years.

“Their life is in danger,” said Hayim Tawil, a professor of Semitic languages who worked from 1989 to 1993 helping Yemenite Jews to move to Israel. “But that’s their own fault.”

The vast majority of Yemen’s Jews — who once numbered some 60,000 — were evacuated to Israel in 1949 and 1950. In the late 1980s, a remaining population of roughly 1,500 Jews was discovered, and more than 1,000 of those left during the following decade for Israel and the United States. An estimated 250 to 400 Jews, however, have chosen to stay in Yemen despite inducements from the Israeli yemen government to leave.

Their decision to stay is one entangled in Jewish politics. The remaining population has been supported, in part, by the Satmar Hasidim, a group known for both its insularity and its anti-Zionism. Others who have been involved with the Yemeni community have accused the Satmars of using their influence with the Yemeni Jews to convince them not to move to Israel.

“They’re under the control of Satmar, who don’t want the Jews to move out of Yemen,” Tawil said. “The Satmar like to keep alive this fermented 200 Jews there in order for them to have a place under the sun.”

Satmar leaders, in turn, say they are simply concerned for the Yemeni community’s safety, and that they have no objections if the local Jews want to leave.

“Satmar has no problem if they want to go to Israel,” said Rabbi David Niederman, who heads the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, a Satmar advocacy organization in Brooklyn. But, Niederman added, so long as the Jews remain in Yemen, it is the Yemeni government’s responsibility to protect them.

Some members of the community in Yemen have complained that they do not feel safe.

“Over the past months, we have been suffering from repeated assaults and threats, and we have been reporting to the official bodies and tribal chiefs, but without success,” Nahari’s brother, Yahya Bin Yaish, told the Gulf News

Nahari had left Yemen to study in the United States, in Satmar schools, and then returned. But acquaintances say that he had considered leaving Yemen permanently. Yossi Shraga, a former Jewish Agency official who has worked with the Jews of Yemen, said that Nahari told him a year ago that he was considering a move to Israel. But instead, Nahari remained in Raida, where he was a central figure in the Jewish community.

“He wanted to stay there to help the community,” said Zerab Dehari, a Yemeni friend of Nahari’s who now lives in New Jersey. “He did a lot with the community. He tried to help out with money. He tried asking people to help him out. The kinderlach [children] want to learn, so they sit with him and they learn with him.”

Nahari taught in a Satmar-run school, led prayer services and served as a kosher slaughterer, in addition to serving as a general go-to leader for Jews in need of help.

“He was a very good leader,” said another acquaintance of Nahari’s, who asked not to be named. “If there was a problem, he always had a solution.”

But it is not clear that the murder is part of a larger pattern of violence. Al-Abdi was promptly arrested and has confessed to the crime. The government has accused him of being a Muslim extremist, while defense lawyers reportedly have argued that al-Abdi is insane, saying that he killed his wife two years ago. The judge has ordered a medical evaluation.

The Yemenite government has, by many accounts, attempted to protect members of the Jewish minority, allowing them to travel freely in and out of the country. In early 2007, when a group of 45 Jews from the town of Saada fled what they said were dangerous conditions, the government resettled them, with protection, in the capital of Saana.

But in a country characterized by tribes that jealously guard their domains, the Yemenite government’s control becomes more tenuous away from the capital city. Thus the government cannot guarantee the safety of the Jews in Raida. The president of Yemen has offered to resettle the Jews of Raida in Saana, as well, reportedly offering them plots of land and money to move to a government-protected area.

Even so, it is not clear that all the Jews of Raida will accept the offer.

“We feel safe,” Yosef Amar, a Jew who lives in Raida, told the Forward. “Some people are afraid, but what can you do?”

With reporting by Nathan Guttman.

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