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The Jews of Yemen and Iran Speak Out

NPR and the New York Times highlight two dwindling communities

Sara Ivry
February 19, 2015
Es'hagh Akhamzadeh during morning prayers at Youssef Abad synagogue in Tehran on September 30, 2013. (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)
Es’hagh Akhamzadeh during morning prayers at Youssef Abad synagogue in Tehran on September 30, 2013. (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)

Lest the depressing news of a surge in anti-Semitic attacks in Europe cause you to forget other hubs of anti-Jewish zeal, the New York Times has a report on the last Jews of Yemen, who are living under near house arrest and who endure taunts and attacks for their beliefs and practices.

Reporter Rob Norland visited the country’s two remaining communities—in the cities of Raida and Sana—and found their members face constant verbal and physical assault. Anti-Semitism is a “central plank” of the ideology of Houthi militants who control the region, Norland writes, and whose slogan—“Death to America, death to Israel, damnation to the Jews”—is chanted at rallies, painted on walls, broadcast over the airwaves.

“We have no friends,” Abraham Jacob told Norland, “so we just try to stay away from everyone as much as we can.” His older brother, Suleiman, tucks his peyot under an “Arabic-style head scarf” when he goes out. Others have shorn their side-locks altogether to try as best they can to avoid unwanted attention

Until last week, Norland writes, when they closed their embassies, the U.S. and British governments were helping Yemen’s last Jews flee. The estimated 95 who remain are scared, but, arguably, understated in expressing their fear. “This cursing us to damnation is distressing and hurtful to us.”

The handful of Jews whom NPR’s Steve Inskeep spoke to some 1,200 miles to the north, in Iran, tell a different story. The country remains home to more than 8,000 Jews, a population that’s lived there since before the advent of Islam, and that endures despite the recurring invocations of “Death to Israel” and the denials by heads of state that the Holocaust took place.

In Tehran, David Shumer, a young restauranteur, declared, “I’m so happy,” and denied that Jews are persecuted by the regime. He asserted that Jews enjoy equal rights—an erroneous claim Inskeep corrects. In Isfahan, Siamak Moreh Sedgh, a doctor and Iran’s lone Jewish member of Parliament, observes that Iran is a country full of paradoxes, and notes that “There is a great difference between being a Jew and being Zionist.”

It’s hard, though, to imagine that either is safe there.

Sara Ivry is the host of Vox Tablet, Tablet Magazine’s weekly podcast. Follow her on Twitter@saraivry.