Yemeni Jews face growing sectarian troubles
Shiite rebels, entagled in a fight with the government, drove members of the country's small Jewish community from their remote village.
Yahya Yousef Mousa is one of the several hundred Jews still living in Yemen. His grandparents refused to join the mass evacuation to Israel that followed anti-Jewish riots in 1948. Instead, they opted to continue a traditional life that their ancestors had peacefully pursued in Yemen for generations.Skip to next paragraph
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But, in January, that peace was shattered when Mr. Mousa was confronted by masked gunmen from a Shiite sect that accused him of spreading vice and corruption. He and his neighbors were told to leave their homes in the northern province of Saada or lose their lives.
Now, Mousa and eight Jewish families from the village of Salem are living in a secure residential compound in the capital, Sanaa. Their expenses are being paid by the Yemeni government, currently battling an armed rebellion mounted by the same Shiite group that threatened the Jews. "We are safe here, but we're afraid we'll be killed if we go back to our village," Mousa says. "We want to stay here until conditions improve."
Only Mousa's locks and skullcap visibly identify him as Jewish. He is dressed Yemeni-style in a long, white robe and shawl. He speaks Arabic, even praising Allah for his good fortune to be rescued and housed by Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Yemen's Jewish minority is clustered in small communities north of Sanaa. They are protected under Yemen's constitution and identify strongly as Yemeni citizens. Though these good community relations are being tested by the expulsion of the Salem Jews, Mousa is still determined that he and his family will stay in Yemen.
"We haven't had any help from the Israeli government," he says. "And if they offer us a home, we will refuse because we are all Yemenis and we want to go back to our village."
The threats against the Salem Jews are only a symptom of a larger local and sectarian grievances in the Zaydi Shiite heartlands, a remote region close to the border with Saudi Arabia.
An ongoing rebellion
Just days after Mousa and his group fled from Salem at the end of January, a series of skirmishes broke out between Yemeni security forces and the rebels. Fighting has escalated over the past two months, with hundreds dead and aid agencies warning of a humanitarian crisis. Journalists are banned from the conflict zone.
The rebels belong to an organization known as the Youthful Believers, a group that was initially established to spread Zaydi Shiite doctrine in the Saada region. They are loyal to the charismatic Houthi family, led by 20-something Abdul-Malik, and they have repeatedly taken up arms against the state. Abdul-Malik's elder brother, Hussein, was killed in the first insurgency in 2004 and his father fled to exile in Germany in 2005 at the end of the second bout of fighting.
"The Houthi family are sayyids who claim descent from the prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima and her husband, Ali," says Australian academic Sarah Phillips, an expert on political reform in Yemen. "They are strident critics of President Saleh's alliance with President Bush on counter-terrorism, and are increasing their rhetoric against the president's personal power and position."