Judaism and Islam in Yemen: A Cast Study in Historical and Cultural Interaction

By: Ephraim Isaac

Muslim Arabs have coexisted more or less peaceably with Jewish minorities within their dominant theocratic polities, in several parts of the world for a millennium-and-a-half. So it was in Yemen, where, additionally, both groups were always exceedingly devout.

Even though the Arabs curse the Jew, swear at him and then beat him up for want of anything better to do, deep inside themselves they regard the Jew with a certain respect. It is the glowing religious fervor of the Yemenite Jew -his personal sacrifices to the complicated ritual of his faith which makes the Arab look upon the Jew as a sort of superman.
-Ladislas Farago, Arabian Antic (1938)

We live at a deeply paradoxical moment. On the one hand, among Jews and Arabs there is the emerging parallel sense- however grim, grudging, and halting -that there will be an eventual two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the other hand, with the Oslo peace process in shambles and the "road map" drawn up by the U.S.-European quartet of dubious reliability, we are increasingly afflicted by an inability even to imagine how to get from "here" to "there." What strikes us as inevitable simultaneously seems impossible -and vice-versa.

Perhaps this is a moment to be less visionary and more historical. Perhaps also we need to re-focus from how the Middle East problem looks from the perspective of top-down peace-making efforts in distant Oslo or even Camp David to a closer look at the fabric of coexistence of Sephardic and Oriental Jewries with Muslim and Arab societies during the 13 centuries before the re-founding of Israel. In this way, we may be able to discover threads of understanding that might lead us at least part of the way through the maze of current perplexities. In particular, might yet the Yemeni Jewish historical trajectory, from the Arab World to Israel, provide unexplored avenues for narrowing the Muslim-Jewish divide?

Such, in any case, was our thinking. In the fall of 2002, the Institute for Semitic Studies, Princeton, NJ, under a Carnegie Corporation grant and Princeton University's Department of Near Eastern Studies, co-sponsored a symposium for about 250 participants to appraise the status of research on Arab/Muslim-Jewish relations in Yemen, but also to further our knowledge of general Arab/Muslim-Jewish relations both in past centuries and in recent times. In honor of Imam Yahya, the last of the great Zaydi Imams who ruled Yemen from 1918 until his assassination in 1948, and his advisor, Mori (Rabbi) Shalom ben Saadya Gamliel, spiritual head of Yemenite Jewry until he emigrated to Israel in 1935, the symposium featured the participation of both the Imam's and the Rabbi's families, representatives from the Yemeni Institute for Diplomacy, the Yemeni Heritage Research Center, the Center for Islam and Democracy, and the Yemeni Jewish Museum and Shalom Center, and scholars from Princeton University, the Open University, Tel Aviv, Israel, University of Cologne, Germany, New York University, and the University of Sana'a. Topics ranged from the historiography of Arab-Jewish relations in Yemen, to the political interaction between Imam Yahya and Mori Gamliel, to Arab-Jewish musical and dance traditions in Yemen, to the architecture of Imam Yahya's palace, and Moti Gamliel's attempt to replicate it in Jerusalem.

Yemenite Muslims have been called "the most Muslim of Muslims," and Yemenite Jews "the most Jewish of Jews," yet Yemen has often been unjustly ignored by students of comparative religion. Yemen is a valuable case study from which to derive lessons about, not only the role of religion in the governance of a fundamentalist non-democratic society, but also the historic efforts by Muslims and Jews, despite theocratic barriers, to achieve some semblance of intercultural coexistence with mutual respect and understanding.

Yemen, the Arabia Felix of Classical antiquity, is a small, fertile region in the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula. It represents, together with Ethiopia, the fabled ancient lands of the Biblical Queen of Sheba. Thousands of inscriptions, statues, columns, and walls; amazing building structures comprising cities, temples, and fortifications; and impressive irrigation dams -all attest to a rich pre-Islamic economic and cultural past.

A small, but dynamic Jewish community thrived in Yemen since time immemorial and played a very important role in both the pre-Islamic and Islamic civilization of Yemen until 1948. A self-reliant, hardworking people, who clung to Jewish tradition even under occasional adverse conditions, Yemenite Jews were skilled artisans; they kept alive the ancient Hellenistic delicate filigree work that the local Muslim population admired and appreciated. Although subjects of a non-democratic, fundamentalist state, the Yemenite Jews lived a remarkably egalitarian way of life within the boundaries of their quarters. There were no official rabbis: everyone was, so to speak, a rabbi. As prescribed in the Talmud, conflicts were heard and settled by the Beit Din, a court of three learned members of the community; other important decisions were made by consensus.

Yemenite Jews are unique in many ways. As Arab Jews, they epitomize Middle Eastern values and culture in dress, food, marriage customs, music, and many areas of religious and general Semito-Arabic life-style. They have enriched Israeli culture across a broad aesthetic spectrum (music, dance, jewelry) since 1948. More than any other Jewish group, Yemenite Jews preserved the smallest details of ancient Jewish law and lore. They are the only Jewish people in the world that reads the Hebrew Bible aloud accompanied by the recitation of the Aramaic Targum, according to the ancient synagogue custom described in the Talmud. Their children read the Bible in all four directions of the compass and their elders recite it by heart The Hebrew pronunciation of Yemenite Jews goes back to at least the early Middle Ages. Musicologists compare their respective antiphonal form of chanting and musical melodies to early Church music like the Gregorian chant, both believed to be rooted in the ancient ritual music of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Professor Shlomo Goitein described Yemen as a faith-based society par excellence. (Goitein, 1955) How did an ancient, strictly Jewish community survive in Yemen in the midst of a strictly Muslim nation? This question -of broad comparative significance -makes the history of Yemenite Jewry central to the study of Jewish-Muslim-Arab relations.

It is held that Muhammad explicitly forbade forcing Islam upon the Arabian/Yemenite Jews while, on the other hand, he enjoined that "there shall not be two religions in Arabia" and in all countries within the peninsula. Because of this ambivalent command, the very survival of the Jewish community in Yemen came into serious question after the conquest of Yemen by the Muslim army (629 C.E.), three years before Muhammad's death. Caliph Omar (634-644 C.E.) initiated a policy of expelling Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula, including northern Yemen. In spite of that policy, and the disappearance of Christians from Yemen after the 11th century, Jews succeeded in assuring themselves a place in Yemeni society, albeit as second-class citizens. Their survival was finally secured under the Shi'ite Zaydi dynasty whose founder signed an accord with the Jewish communities in 897 C.E., recognizing their right to exist with dignity as long as they paid the jizya, an exaction for protection.

There are two opposing schools of thought about historic Jewish-Muslim relations in Yemen. The pessimistic view holds that Jews were subjected to harsh treatment by the repressive religious state, controlled by fanatical Zaydi imams whose sway extended from the environs of the capital city of Sana' a to the central highlands. (Brauer 1934; Schechtman 1961)

Throughout the Islamic world, the Qur'an (9, 29) and the early Caliphs, specifically Omar I, imposed restrictions upon non-Muslims labeled Dhimmis: "Until they pay tribute ...[they must] be humbled." The restrictions involved dress and public behavior, house and synagogue/ church construction, and many other facets of life. (Tritton 1970) Although Dhimmiswere not allowed to own land, they were often subject to the kharaj or "property" tax. More significant, the Dhimmis were systematically forced to pay a poll tax, the jizya, the price of being "a protected minority."

Inconsistently applied to Jews everywhere in Muslim lands, the so-called "Covenant of Omar" and the prescribed restrictions were imposed with excessive zeal and cruel severity on Yemenite Jews by the Zaydi religious and legal authorities, whose occasional repressive strictures parallel the more recent example of the Ayatollahs' Iran, according to some observers. Ironically, the rise of a fundamental Shi'a belief, and indeed the rise of the Shi'a movement, is attributed by an early Muslim writer, Saif Ibn Omar, to the teaching of a certain Yemenite Jew called Abdallah Ibn Sabah, who preached that Ali was not really dead but hidden and would reveal himself again to establish God's Kingdom on earth! The ideological alliance between the imam, Yemen's political ruler, and the Shi'a theologians and jurists created an oppressive atmosphere of religious fanaticism that impacted the Jewish minority. Jews, the skilled smiths of Yemen, were not permitted to carry arms or the very jambiya (daggers) they crafted and which every Yemeni Muslim wears as a sign of dignity; to build houses more than two stories high; to ride a horse or a mule in the street; to walk on the same side of the street as the Muslims; to touch food to be used by Muslims; to wear shoes or brightly colored clothes; or to have lights on the streets in the Jewish quarter; and so forth. (Brauer 1934; Schechtman 1961)

According to the pessimistic view of Yemenite Jewish history, from the 15th century onwards, intolerance worsened. Despised by many Muslims, Jews were the victims of occasional mob violence. (Helfritz 1935) At rimes, the religious and political authorities themselves violated the mandate to protect the Jews, as when in 1618, the Jews of Sharab were ordered to convert. In 1679, the Jews of Sana'a and Central Yemen were expelled from the main cities to a desolate area near the village of Mawza (hence the expression the galut of Mauza); their synagogues were destroyed or converted into mosques. Although they were later permitted to return for economic reasons, they were forbidden to settle outside the walls of a new ghetto. They were ordered to perform particularly degrading tasks, such as the obligation of the Jewish community of Sana'a to clean the city latrines. Jewish orphans, even if their mothers were still alive, were seized and converted. In 1725 and 1762, there were renewed attempts, though unsuccessful, at converting or expelling the Jews instigated by the religious authorities.

The alternative, more optimistic, view of Yemenite Jewish history does not deny discrimination but paints a more nuanced, less bleak, picture. The Jews ranked relatively high within the tribal system of Yemen. Many studies of traditional highland Yemen (Brauer 1934; Farago 1939) suggest a rigid order of social hierarchy. The term "caste" is used to apply to endogamous units defined by occupational trades and attendant prejudices. Within this system, the Jews were generally not ranked as low caste or "untouchable." (Gerholm 1977) Aside from being subject to paying a particularly higher jizya or "poll tax," Jews in Yemen were usually well treated, with soldiers protecting their synagogues and their quarters. (Goitein 1955) Muslims even made donations to encourage Jewish piety. Rural Jews, removed from the main centers of Zaydi control, generally fared even better within the various social groupings. The orphan decrees, restrictions on camel and donkey riding, forced removal of wastes by Jews from alleyways and Muslim home areas, and other similar restrictions were unknown in many rural regions. Yemenite Jews, who spoke Arabic and sang- even religious songs in both Hebrew and Arabic, especially the songs of the famous poet Shalom Shabbazi (16th century), felt at home in Yemen and adapted well to their environment.

Both the pessimists and the optimists agree that, in spite of the pressure of the Yemeni religious leader's to expel the Jews and the inclination of the imams to accede to their demands, the government in the main refrained from drastic actions on account of economic considerations. Despite everything, Yemenite Jewry flourished economically as professional goldsmiths and silversmiths and managers of the Royal Mint. With respect to this critical function, the rulers put greater trust in Jews than in Muslims. In other words, the hostile dictates of the religious leaders were implemented only so long as they did not conflict with political, social, and powerful economic interests. Recent history perhaps dramatizes the traditional economic importance of the Jews. The mass emigration of Yemenite Jews to Israel in 1948 may well have accelerated Yemen's economic decline and the resulting political instability that culminated in the successful revolution of 1967.

Most treatments of Jewish-Muslim interaction in the Arab world contrast the alleged openness of Morocco, for example, with the narrower opportunities for freedom available to Yemenite Jews. (Stillman 1979) Newer scholarship suggests a considerable revision of this picture. (Dallal 1999) Not only economically but culturally and politically, Yemenite Jews managed to structure an autonomous communal sphere and networks of influence; they were thus able to leverage the informal tolerance by Imam Yahya and his immediate successors to Jewish immigration from Yemen to Israel during the critical period of 1948 to 1950. Even earlier, Yemenite Jews who made aliyah were a more significant force in the development of the yishuv than portrayed by most modem historians of Zionism. (Halper 1991) Not all paths to Jewish modernity led through Europe or the Ashkenazi experience. (Meyer 2001; Goldberg 1996; Stillman 1995)

To explore the complex history of Muslim-Jewish interaction in Yemen, scholars and researchers have utilized Arabic and Hebrew documents, especially those from the collection of the late Mori Gamliel of Jerusalem. Mori Gamliel, a noted Jewish scholar, was a close personal advisor and assistant for 12 years to Imam Yahya. When Mori Gamliel emigrated to Israel in 1935, he brought with him numerous Arabic documents from the official archives of the Imam and published several books containing fascinating documents about Jewish-Arab relations in early 20th-century Yemen. These Arabic manuscript archives of the government of Yemen are now found in the Shalom Research Center Library in Jerusalem, on which board I have the honor to serve.

The Shalom Research Center is unique in its mission to publish scientific books based on original government manuscript documents from an Arab country in modern times. The Center has so far published 22 books of original manuscripts, including those from the Second World War era. Among these books are The Jews and the King of Yemen- a fascinating account of the relationship between the Imam of Yemen and the Jews in the first half of the 20th century, based on the only remaining collection of original manuscripts from the period shortly before the overthrow of the Imamate.

During that period, Imam Yahya and Mori Gamliel managed to enlarge the space for intercultural and inter-religious coexistence between Jews and Muslims even within the constraints of a non-democratic fundamentalist society. From their lives and memories, we can perhaps learn how individuals can playa positive role in difficult circumstances, as we strive to map new routes to peace and democracy ill our troubled world in this new century. 

To sum up: Muslim Arabs have coexisted more or less peaceably with Jewish minorities within their dominant theocratic polities, in several parts of the world for a millennium-and-a-half. So it was in Yemen, where, additionally, both groups were always exceedingly devout. Can Islamic Arab now coexist with a Jewish state in their midst that is not only independent, but also at least as strong and vibrant as their won Muslim societies? As a guideline for this kind of future can lessons from ancient Yemen be widely known and taught -lessons that show how brotherly Semitic cross-stimulation can produce positive mutual results? Could such Yemenite lessons possibly help to prepare the two peoples for what will inevitably be their new neighborhood? Such possibilities are not quixotic: ideas change people's minds; therefore, better ideas may very well bring about better futures.



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