A Lesson for Peace from a Historical and Cultural Interaction of Two Religions

Ephraim Isaac

Institute of Semitic Studies at the United Nations- Israel Mission to the UN

June 5, 2018


First, I wish to thank H.E. Ambassador Danny Danon, Permanenet Representative of Israel Mission to the the United Nations, for kindly agreeing to host the closing of our just concluded: The Yemenite Conference: Shared Jewish & Muslim Cultural Values. I thank especially Dr. Rahel Yadid, the visionary of the Conference and her organization E’eleh BaTamar, her partners the American Sephardic Federation and the Institute of Semitic Studies of Princeton, New Jersey, all generous contributors, and most importantly, the international scholars who made the academic Conference a great success. Such conferences that would expolre the historical and cultural relations of Arabs and Jews are of paramount importance; for, above and beyond their important contribution to scholarship, they can, I think, also contribute to examining the path of peace in the Middle East, in general, and peace and understanding between Jews and Arabs, in partiular.


In his book Jews and Arabs: Their Contacts through the Ages (1955) and his other writings, the late Prof. Shlomo Goiten showed that Yemen, a fundamentalist religious state, is a most crucial player in our understanding the history of Jewish-Arab relations. With view to this and in order to construct a reasonable paradigm of the interaction between Jews and Arabs, scholars have been investigating for about half a century the various theories and perceptions pertaining to Jewish-Muslim relations in Yemen from ancient times to the present.


We just completed a major scholarly conference organized by Dr. Rachel Yadid’s E’eleh Betamar, our Princeton, NJ, Insititue of Semitic Studies, and the New York American Sephardic Federation. We discussed the affable and on the whole warm Jewish-Moslem relations and shared cultural values in Yemen. We also had great Yemenite Jewish Israeli singers, including Avihu Medina, Zion Golan, Miriam Safir, who sang beautiful Yemenite songs in Arabic and Hebrew. We had beautiful Yemenite Jewish women marching in the Israel day parade, dressed in colorful traditional Mideast dresses. Among our important speakers were two distiguished Yemeni Moslem scholars: Yusuf Hamid-ad-Din of Jordan, a relative of Imam Yeheye and Prof. Hamid Alawadhi of the Uiversity of Point Park-Pittsburgh.


From our examination of the historical and cultural processes in Yemen, our scholars analyzed a model of  not only for understanding Muslim-Jewish relations in Yemen but also for furthering our knowledge of general Muslim-Jewish relations in general. From our analysis of a close cultural and congenial Jewish-Moslem relations, we discussed the shared Jewish-Moslem mutual emotional and respectful culture at birth and death.


Although our conference targeted academics, students of religion and cultures, and other professionals, our study and analysis was also meant to  inform and influence policy makers and students of conflict resolution and peacemaking as well intercultural and inter-religious understanding.


Yemen, the Arabia Felix of Classical antiquity, is a small, fertile strip of land in the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula. It represents, together with Ethiopia, the 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 inhabited Yemen since time immemorial. They played a very important role in both pre-Islamic and Islamic civilization of Yemen until 1948 when they made a mass Aliyah to Israel on Operation Magic Carpet. A heroic, generous, hardworking people who clung to Jewish tradition even under adverse conditions at times, they were skilled artisans who kept alive the ancient Hellenistic delicate filigree work that the local Muslim population admired and appreciated. Although subjects of a religious state, the Jews conducted an egalitarian way of life within the boundaries of their ghetto. There were no official rabbis: everyone was, so to say, a rabbi. As prescribed in the Talmud, conflicts were heard and settled by the Bet 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 Easter virtues and culture in dress, food, marriage customs, music and many areas of religious and general Semito-Arabic life-style. More than any other Jewish group, they 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 always accompanied by the recitation of the Aramaic Targum on Sabbath and holidays, according to the ancient synagogue custom described in the Talmud. Their children read the Bible in all four directions and their elders recite it by heart. The Hebrew pronunciation of Yemenite Jews goes back to at least the early Middle Ages. Musicologists, like Idelsohn, compare their respective antiphonal form of chanting and musical melodies to early church music, the Gregorian chant and Quranic chants, both believed to be rooted in ancient Jewish ritual music of the Temple in Jerusalem.


Professor Goitein described Yemen as a strong religious country: he claimed Yemenite Jews to be the most Jewish, Yemenite Moslems the most Islamic. So, how did such an ancient strictly Jewish community survive in Yemen among a strictly Moslem nation? This is the question that makes Yemenite Jewry overall central in the study of Jewish-Moslem relations. And this has been the question that many scholars who look into the paradigm of Jewish-Moslem relation have been investigating.



The prophet Muhammad ordered explicitly not to force Islam upon the Jews. On the other hand, he taught that "there shall not be two religions in the Arabia Peninsula". Perhaps because of this ambivalent command, the very survival of the Jewish community in Yemen came into serious question after his death (632 C.E.) and the conquest of Yemen by the Muslim army (629 C.E.). We cannot deny that at times conflicts arose between Islamic and Jewish scholars. It is thought that Caliph Omar (634-44) initiated a policy of expelling Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula, including north Yemen. In spite of that policy, after the 11th century, when even no more Christians remained in Yemen, Jews succeeded to assure themselves a place in Yemeni society. Some think that this is also because Judaism was seen as not too different a religion. Their survival was secured under the Zaydi dynasty whose founder signed an accord with the Jewish communities in 897 C.E., recognizing their right to exist with dignity, albeit as dhimmi citizens and as long as they pay a protection tax (jizya).


There are two opposing views about Jewish Muslim relations in Yemen over the centuries — pessimistic and optimistic. The pessimistic view holds that Jews were subject in Yemen to harsh treatment in a repressive fanatical religious Zaydi controlled state, principally, in the environs of Sana'a and the highlands (Schechtman 1961, Brauer 1934, Kafih 1963.)


Citing the Qur’an (9, 29), the early Caliphs, specifically Omar I (634-644) imposed restrictions upon non-Moslems labeled Dhimmis. The restrictions involved dress and public behavior, house and synagogue construction, etc. (Tritton 1970:5-17). Although the Dhimmis were not allowed to own land, they were nonetheless, subject to the kharaj, "property" tax. More significantly, the Dhimmi were systematically levied a poll tax, the jizya, the price of being a protected minority.


Abused at times in parts of the Islamic world (as in Shi'ite Iran?) at the whim of the ruling party, the Covenant of Omar and the prescribed restrictions were applied to Yemenite Jews with excessive zeal and harshly by the Zaydi religious legal authorities of Yemen (Loeb 1977; Brauer 1934; Schechtman 1961:40-43.) The ideological alliance between the ruler and the religious leaders created an atmosphere of extreme religious fanaticism that impacted the Jewish minority. Jews, although the skilled smiths of Yemen, were not permitted to carry arms or the very jambiya they crafted and which every Yemeni man wears as a sign of dignity; build houses more than two stories high; ride a horse or a mule in the street; walk on the same side of the street as the Moslems; wear colored clothes or shoes; or have lights on the streets in the Jewish quarter; and so forth.


According to this pessimistic view, from the 15th century onwards, intolerance towards the Jews worsened. Elements of the population derided Jews and occasional mob violence oc­curred (Helfritz 1935:249; Bury 1915:147-48; Farago 1939:266; Niebuhr 1792:378-79; Harris 1893:313; Sapir 1951:59-63; Semach 1910; Ratzaby 1977:6). At times, 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 (Zadoc 1967:61). In one particular instance, in 1679 CE, 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 ghetto walls. They were ordered to perform particularly degrading tasks, such as obliging 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 the 18th century (1725 C.E., 1762 C.E.) there were renewed unsuccessful attempts at converting or expelling the Jews instigated by the religious authorities. The pessimistic view did not represent Islam as much as the political whims of the respective rulers of Yemen at the time. The Moslems were equally oppressed by some of the ruthless rulers.


The optimistic view holds that the Jews ranked relatively high within the tribal system of Yemen. Many studies of traditional highland Yemen (c.f. Brauer 1934; Scott 1942; Bury 1915; Farago 1939; etc.) suggest a rigid order of social hierar­chy. The term "caste" is used to apply to endogamous units with respective occupa­tional trades and attendant prejudices.  The claim that within this system the Jews were ranked as low caste and for the most part “untouchable” has been questioned (Stevenson 1985, Gerholm 1977; Messick 1978). The optimistic view advocates and argues that aside from being subject to paying a higher jizya,  ‘poll tax,’ Jews in Yemen were well treated, soldiers protecting their synagogue and their quarters (Goitein 1955). Jews were encouraged in their piety. Rural Jews, removed from the main centers of Zaydi control, generally fared even better than the Muslim within the various social groupings. The Law of Orphans, 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 regions (Ma'tuf 1984:120-122.) Yemenite Jews, who spoke Arabic and sang even religious songs in Hebrew and Arabic, specially the sixteenth century songs of the famous poet Shalom Shabbazi, felt at home in Yemen and adopted well to their environment. Most Moslems respected the Jews and their piety. They even equally respect Jewish Moris (teachers, rabbis), in particular, the great Jewish poet Shalom Shabbazi.


Both the pessimists and the optimists agree that in spite of the pressure of some Yemeni political leaders to expel the Jews and the usual policy of the Imam to accede to their demand, the government in the main refrained from drastic actions on account of economic considerations. In spite of everything, Yemenite Jewry flourished economically as professional goldsmiths and silversmiths and managers of the Royal Mint. Yemenite Jews themselves respected the Moslems. As an example, a friend told me that Jews would not eat in  public or outside their home during Ramadan in  difference to the Moslems. The rulers put greater trust in Jews than in Muslims owing to the great importance of the monetary process. In other words, the policy and dictates of the religious leaders had a place only as long as it did not conflict with political, social and powerful economic interests. Some believe that the mass emigration of Yemenite Jews to Israel in 1948 may well have resulted in economic Yemeni decline which inadvertently fostered political instability that culminated in the successful independence move­ment of 1967.


In short, the overall relation of Jews and Muslim in Yemen were positive. Culturallly speakinng, there was high respect for Jews as ahal al-kitab people of the Book. Eminent scholars like Shalom Sshabbazi were venerated. A few years ago, when attempt was made to bring the remains of Shalom Shabbazi to Israel, the Moslems would not allow it because they also pray at the rabbi’s grave. Yemeni Jewish art was sought after by the Moslem community. Even today, Israeli Yemenite Jewish singers like Ofra Haza, Zion Golan are listened to and highly regarded in Yemen. The study and understanding of Yemenite Jewish-Moslem relations can help promote better JewishMuslim relations. Most significantly, the scholars and artists who participated in our symposim think and agree that Yemenite Jews can play a central role in bringing Jews and Arabs together and promote Mideast peace.