Earlier this year, a Jewish man, Saeed al-Nati, his disabled mother and three daughters were forced to leave their home in Amran province, Yemen. The family had been harassed by the fundamentalist, Iranian-backed Houthis, whose slogan is “convert or die.” Saeed was jailed but was released after promising to sell his home. He was offered asylum by the United Arab Emirates, which was about to sign a peace deal with Israel.
The departure of the al-Nati family leaves just five Jews—an old woman, her crazed brother and three others—in Amran province. There are 33 Jews still living in the capital of Sana’a.
The cleansing of Yemen of its Jews is almost complete. From a population of 55,000, there are now 38. This pattern has been repeated across the Middle East and North Africa. Of almost 1 million Jews inhabiting the Arab world in 1948, barely 4,000 remain.
This month has been declared Mizrahi Remembrance Month. The initiative comes not a minute too soon to recall the exodus of 850,000 Jewish refugees from the Arab world in barely a generation. The expulsion of the Jews is seen increasingly in the context of the plight of other MENA minorities—Copts, Assyrian and Palestinian Christians, Baha’is and Yazidis, persecuted or driven from the region.
How can we halt or reverse the decline? Greater secularization? Education? Enshrining minority rights in a country’s constitution?
Even if the comparison is not made as often as it should be, the Arab-Israeli conflict produced an exchange of populations between Jews and Palestinians not dissimilar to the exchanges produced by other 20th-century conflicts. The Indo-Pakistan conflict displaced 14 million Muslims and Hindus. In post-World War I, Greek-Turkish conflict 1.5 million Greeks and 500,000 Turks swapped places.
These exchanges were part of a process that the American social and political theorist Jeff Weintraub calls “ethnic simplification.”
This a hugely euphemistic term for what has included massacres (e.g., Armenians and Assyrians by Turks), discrimination (Christians and other religious minorities are so ground down that they have no choice but to flee), the redrawing of boundaries and a process of national homogenization following the dissolution of empires—the Austro-Hungarian empire no less than the Ottoman empire. Thus, Poland has divested itself of 30 percent of its non-Poles—Germans, Jews, Russians. Now, 97 percent of the country is Polish and Catholic.
In 1900, the Ottoman port of Smyrna (Izmir) hosted a motley population of Turks, Arabs, Greeks, Armenians and Jews. Today, the city is 100 percent Turkish.
Nowhere is “ethnic simplification” more pervasive than in the Middle East. The Christian population continues to shrink, while tribal and religious strife has ravaged countries like Syria and Iraq.
Some people look wistfully back to the “coexistence” prevalent in the Ottoman empire. Weintraub calls Ottoman coexistence “despotic multiculturalism.”
That system, says Weintraub, was built on a protection racket: Minorities are forced to pay for protection, while the ruler holds the ring between different sects. Sometimes, the ruler throws a minority to the wolves. The system is difficult to maintain in the face of mass mobilization movements. When it breaks down, a minority finds itself without rights and vulnerable to other groups, usually motivated by fear, who act violently towards it.
Ethnic nationalism, ironically founded in the Arab world by Christians, was a movement intended to cut across religious and sectarian lines and build loyalty to an overarching identity. But it failed and has been replaced by forms of theocracy.
To protect minorities it is not enough to enshrine their rights in a constitution. It is not enough to educate succeeding generations. Both of these are important, but not as important as what Weintraub terms “a culture of democratic pluralism.”
It is difficult to see how such a culture might emerge in the Middle East in the near future. The UAE is taking baby steps towards liberalization and de-Islamisation. But for the Jews of Yemen, it will be too late.
Lyn Julius is the author of “Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight” (Vallentine Mitchell, 2018).