A dusty oasis of tolerance

A tiny Jewish community lives peacefully with Muslim neighbors.

Wandering through the dusty paths of Raydeh, Yemen, one has just to call out "Where are the Jews?" and dozens of Muslim neighbors will stop what they are doing to point out the way, or even accompany you there. "We are all friends. They are Jewish. We are Muslim. So what?" says Abd Malik Qubatee, pounding on the door of the Jewish school compound. He is greeted warmly by the bespectacled watchman inside.

In a region where Arab hostility toward Israel often runs as hot as the desert sand, a tiny remnant of a religious community that predates Islam thrives in the remote village of Raydeh, where a few hundred Jews live side by side with thousands of Muslims. These are virtually the last of Yemen's 60,000 Jews, most of whom emigrated to Israel from 1948 to 1951.

Small pockets of Jewish communities live throughout the Arab world. Some 3,000 Jews live in Morocco, a few hundred in Egypt and Tunisia, and several dozen families in Syria, for example. Here, Yemen's only indigenous religious minority remains insular, teaching its children Hebrew, keeping its own religious dietary and cleanliness rules, and marrying within the community.

Inside the dimly lit, one-room school house, two dozen boys, with traditional side locks and head coverings, are squashed together on rickety benches poring over their Torahs and reciting passages.

Seated in the corner with his eyes half closed, Rabbi Faiz Aljarazi reaches out and whacks the kids with a stick when they miss a word or stumble over a phrase.

Rabbi Aljarazi insists on being interviewed in Arabic, not Hebrew. "Things have not always been simple," he explains. "But things are now fine. I love my country. I have my land now. I don't intend to leave." He admits he does not know whether the younger generation will stay around.

Relations with the Muslim neighbors, adds Mariah Karni, another rabbi, are good - until politics come up. Sometimes, when the government says something about Israel, riled neighbors come to the synagogue to argue. "Most here think we are with [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon. But we are not. We love the land of Israel but not the politics of the country," Rabbi Karni says. "There is no need to blame us for decisions made far away!"

Most scholars believe the first Jews came to Raydeh around 70 AD, and that Yemenis converted en masse to Judaism before later taking up Islam. As Jews became the minority, they lived under growing restrictions, including prohibitions on land ownership. Even today, Jews cannot serve in the army or hold elected positions.

That said, life is comfortable. If they have complaints, or feel harassed, they turn to their local sheikhs. During the past two years, the government has facilitated the reconstruction of a Jewish school here, which was destroyed by Islamists in 1992. In addition, although Yemen does not recognize Israel and President Ali Abdulla Saleh has condemned Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, the government nonetheless allows its Yemeni Jews to travel freely to Israel.

Abdul Karim Iryani, the former prime minister of Yemen and a close adviser of the President, stresses that the government hopes some Jews will always remain in this country. "There is no harassment today. No rejection," he says. "They are a part of us."

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