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YEMEN: Tough choices for Jews living in the Arabian Peninsula

May 1, 2010 |  8:31 am

Abraham (2)Abraham Zahry loves his home country but says he finds it hard to keeping living there. He is now considering what many of his fellow Jews have done in the last year: Leave and settle elsewhere. 

“I might go to America, Canada, or even Israel," the 26-year-old told Babylon & Beyond. "I think America would be good. Education, business, everything is easier for Jews there."

Last year, assaults against the country’s Jewish community increased to such a level that American and Jewish organizations flew more than 100 Jews out. In one attack, a Jewish man was murdered outside his home. Many others have reportedly been threatened.

Most recently, Britain's Independent newspaper reported in mid-April that the British government is about to sign a secret deal which would allow some Yemeni Jews who have been subject to severe persecution to move to the United Kingdom.

Zahry, who stands out with his long locks of hair hanging from the side of his head, says he is sometimes verbally harassed on the streets.

“They call me things like Jew and dog,” he said.

He also remembers how one time someone grabbed his locks and pulled them.

While educated Yemenis differentiate between local Jews and despised Israelis, “the ignorant don’t," he says.

He says he and his community are scared of the “radicals” who have increased in number.

“There are much more radical people than before who think Jews are a horrible thing and that they don’t believe in God,"  he said. "Those who know and understand Islam know this is not the case…but others just base their information from what they hear on TV and from people."

Zahry, a son of carpenter who was taught to speak Hebrew, has lived his whole life in Yemen. It didn’t used to be like this. He is used to chew khat, a mild narcotic popular among Yemenis, with his Muslim friends and dance together at weddings. But things took a turn for worse in recent years.

Zahry believes there are only around 200 Jews left in Yemen. Jewish leaders in Yemen put the number slightly higher, at 370. In Sana, 70 Jewish families live under government protection.

Pg-20-yemeni-jews-a_352675t When so many Jews have left the country, Zahry said it's harder for the community to survive socially and culturally.

Finding a Jewish spouse for your kids at this point, for example, is no picnic, said Zahry. 

“People died and there was no one to take them to their graves," he said. "If my son wants to marry, where will he find a spouse in such a small minority? People’s friends left the country so they are now thinking of it too. It’s better for us to live in a group as a community."

He added, "I love my country but we are lacking temples of worship, education, and social organizations."

Some Yemeni Jews have suggested foreign countries pour money into building up Jewish institutions inside the country instead of giving them free flights out.

But Zahry, who has five children and a pregnant wife, said economic pressures are also forcing him to leave. he has no real job except from sporadically taking extra passengers in his car.

Zahry says he spends most days chewing khat in the Kharf village where he lives in Yemen's Omran province and thinking up ways to get money for his children.

He says he will always keep his home country close to his heart.

“Wherever I go, I will not forget my country,” he said.

-- Alexandra Sandels in Sana

Photos: From top, Abraham Zahry says he is considering leaving the country like many of his friends have done due to the current situation in Yemen (credit: Khaled Hilaly / For the Times);  displaced Yemeni Jews at a temporary residence in Sana (credit: AFP/Getty Images).