Hails crown prince's 'drastic steps for progress'

Israeli born in Saudi Arabia implores king to allow him to visit before he dies

David Shuker grew up in small Jewish community in Najran that dissolved in 1948 amid regime hostility; ‘I want to visit the place where I was born. I came from the dirt of Najran’

David Shuker (Channel 13 screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
David Shuker (Channel 13 screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

An Israeli man who was born in the Saudi Arabian city of Najran is making an appeal to the kingdom’s rulers to allow him to visit the place of his birth before he dies.

David Shuker, 78, has made several such calls in the media, most recently in an interview to Channel 13 news on Friday.

“I’m asking Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his father King Salman to go to the city of my birth, Najran, while I am still standing on my feet… to see where my grandparents are buried,” said Shuker, a former mayor of the town of Bnei Ayish, near Ashdod.

“I want to visit the place where I was born and grew up. I’m asking this as a humanitarian issue. I came from the dirt of Najran. I was born of its earth.”

Though Israel and Saudi Arabia are widely reported to have clandestine relations, the countries do not share open ties, and Israeli citizens can not visit the nation.

In a piece published in The Wall Street Journal in August, Shuker styled himself as “the last survivor” of the Najran Jewish community.

Shuker was born in Najran, in the Saudi southwest, in 1944. Once considered part of Yemen, the city was taken over by Saudi Arabia when the kingdom was formed in 1934. It is known to have had a small Jewish community, but rising persecution amid the establishment of Israel caused most to flee to Yemen and from there to Israel.

David Shuker as a child (Courtesy)

“Jews lived in Najran long before the Saudi rule. In fact, there is evidence that Jews lived there as early as 2,000 years ago,” Shuker told Channel 13.

“Children in Najran grew up fast. A four-year-old in Najran was like a seven-year-old today. If you didn’t fight, you didn’t survive.”

The size of Saudi Arabia’s current Jewish population is not formally known, but estimates range from the hundreds to low thousands of Jews living in the kingdom, all of whom are expatriates. Even today, despite Saudi Arabia opening up significantly to the West, there is no open practice of Judaism in the country and proselytization of any religion but Islam is illegal and can carry harsh penalties.

There are few accounts of an indigenous community there following the advent of Islam in 632 CE, and what few Jews there were in the country fled to Israel along with Yemen’s Jews in 1949-1950.

Shuker recalled that some 60 Jewish families lived in Najran and the surrounding villages when he was a young child. “We were openly Jewish. The relations between the Jewish and Muslim communities were very close. They even helped us keep Shabbat.” But “the rulers treated us like second-class citizens… Jews were not equal to Muslims.”

This April 22, 2015, photo, shows Saadan historic palace in Najran, Saudi Arabia (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

Once Israel’s War of Independence began, attitudes toward Jews turned sour. “In 1948 at the king’s instruction we left Najran and reached the Yemeni border,” Shuker said. From there his family came to Israel in 1951.

Shuker on Friday hailed positive changes in the kingdom in recent years.

The crown prince, he said, “has taken drastic steps for progress. He has liberated Saudi Arabia, which was as closed off as Iran. He’s led a great revolution.”

Shuker expressed hope that in the vein of such progress, the royals would heed his plea and allow him to visit his place of origin just once more.

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