A small group of men gathered at the small cemetery of Rehovot on Wednesday to pay their final respects to a pillar of Yemen’s dwindling Jewish community. Aharon Zandani, 53, a mechanic from Sanaa, was murdered in the marketplace on May 22, his body laid to rest in this sleepy Israeli city almost one month later.
The solemn memorial ceremony, recited in the guttural Hebrew of an ancient Jewish community, evoked the sad realization that these are likely the last days of Yemen’s age-old Jewish community. This tough lot, which withstood persecution from 12th century Fatimids to the 20th century autocrats, seems finally about to succumb — to Al-Qaeda.
“Anyone with some sense will emigrate to Israel,” says Yahya Zandani, Aharon’s 28-year-old son. “In about five years time, there will be no Jews left in Yemen.”
Aharon liked Yemen, his son told The Times of Israel. He had tried to relocate his family to Israel back in 1999, but could not secure government housing for his wife and 11 children. The cultural gap was significant too, relatives say.
“I would have moved to Israel years ago, but I stayed in Yemen because of my father,” Yahya says. “He loved it there.”
Unlike the 100 odd Jews still living in Yemen — who in recent years began hiding their traditional earlocks under hats for fear of being singled out — Aharon was trusting of his Arab environment. A popular mechanic, he would exit the gated compound where Jews have been living under government protection for the past four years, undaunted, with his traditional headgear. He went shopping in the market every day.
But on May 22, a man jumped him as he was returning to his car, stabbing him in the neck. Aharon’s son Yahya, who stood nearby, rushed him to the hospital where he died four hours later. Yahya says the assailant was an Al-Qaeda terrorist who drove four hours from the city of Hadhramaut in search of Jews to kill.
Yahya attended the murderer’s police investigation, where the investigator asked him whether he suffered from mental problems.
“He said: ‘I have no problem, my head is like a computer.’ That’s why the investigator told me I won’t even need a lawyer.” But before coming to Israel Yahya did appoint a lawyer, fearing his father’s murderer may be released if no one is there to oversee the process.
Zandani is the third Jew to be murdered in Yemen over the past decade. In December 2008 Moshe Yaish-Nahari was gunned down in the northern city of Raidah — home to the country’s second Jewish community — by a man who reportedly shouted at him “Jew, accept the message of Islam.” Yahya Buni, a merchant from Saada, was shot dead in 2002 outside his shop.
“They still throw stones at Jews and shout insults at them like ‘Jew’ or ‘Zionist’,” says Yahya Zandani, 36, Aharon’s son-in-law, who emigrated to Israel in 1993. “We only have 20-30 relatives left in Yemen and we want them here with us, for better or worse.”
Yahya’s home in Rehovot, where the traditional shiva mourning week took place, feels more like Yemen than like Israel. Women sit separately from men, wearing black headscarves that resemble veils, dark embroidered dresses and heavy silver necklaces. The men, mostly bearded and with long curly earlocks, sit at another corner of the broad courtyard, chewing wads of Qat, the ubiquitous and stereotypical Yemeni narcotic plant, grown locally in backyards. Their language is a medley of Hebrew and Arabic dialect.
The Jews of Yemen trace their origins in the country to the destruction of the first temple, in the year 586 BCE. Geographically isolated from Ashkenazi communities in Europe and Sephardi communities in Asia and North Africa, the small community maintained contact with the outside Jewish world through occasional visits by emissaries and correspondence with rabbis, most notably Moses Maimonides in the 12th century.
The first Yemeni Jews emigrated to Israel in the 1880s, but the largest immigration wave came immediately after the declaration of the state, when some 50,000 Jews were brought to Israel in operation “Magic Carpet” during the years 1949 and 1950 by the Joint Distribution Committee.
Today, most Yemeni Jews live in Israel, with smaller numbers incorporated into the Satmar Hassidic communities in New York and London. Yahaya Zandani and his brother, who still lives in Yemen, have spent years among the Satmar of New York.
‘The government is good to us, but Al-Qaeda threatens it as well,” says Yahya
The Zandanis are among the last Jews to stay in Yemen. They moved to Sanaa four years ago from the city of Saada, 150 miles north of the capital, after Al-Qaeda drove the Jews of that town out of their homes.
“They gave them one week’s written notice to leave and then began shooting at their homes,” says Shlomo Zandani, Aharon’s brother-in-law, who emigrated to Israel in 1961.
Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh provided the Jews with free housing in an ex-pat compound in Sanaa, as well as a financial stipend.
“But what use is money when you can’t leave your home?” chorus the family members.
Yahya says that following the murder he would only leave his home for five-minute periods before rushing back, for fear of being attacked on the street. He tells of a man from the Jewish community in Raidah who recently had a landmine placed at his doorstep, and who exits his home through the window ever since.
The Zandani family takes pains to differentiate between the government of current President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi — which like his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, protects the Jews – and members of Al-Qaeda, who they say have taken effective control of the country.
“The government is good to us, but Al-Qaeda threatens it too,” says Yahya. “Half the country is Al-Qaeda, if not more than that.” Jews can still travel to and from Yemen, so the family is understandably wary of speaking out against the government.
‘We only have 20-30 relatives left in Yemen and we want them here with us, for better or worse.’
It is not with nostalgia that the Zandanis recall their former homeland, but with pity. As the community shrunk, educating the children became a true challenge.
“I want my children to grow up here and receive a proper education,” says Yahia, who left his wife and two children behind to escort his father’s body to Israel. “Once I bring my family here, I won’t go back.”
But an elderly man dressed in traditional Yemeni garb says he still travels back and forth to Yemen on business. “Look, the stones in Israel are good for being buried in,” he says with a smile.