The Jewish Community in 19th Century Yemen

Yehuda Nini
The Jews of the Yemen, 1800-1914

Translated from Hebrew by H. Galai.
Chur, Switzerland: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1991. 256 pp.

Reviewed by Daniel J. Schroeter
[Dept. of History, University of California, Irvine, CA 92717-3275]

Yemen Update 35(1994):28-30

In the 1970s, a new generation of scholars concerned with the history and culture of the Jews of the Muslim world in the modern period began to be integrated into institutions of higher learning in Israel. While the essential historical narrative of the dominant Ashkenazi communities was already well established, relatively little was known of the modern history of Jews from the Arab world, nor was this history considered to be of any great importance in the Israeli curriculum. As ethnicity became increasingly politicized in Israel in the 1970s, this attitude began to change. Scholars, often of "Oriental" background, sought to incorporate into the national education the broad outlines of a history that could serve to legitimate the growing political importance of communities that had felt and still feel discriminated against by the Ashkenazi establishment.

These preliminary remarks, I believe, are necessary for placing The Jews of the Yemen, 1800-1914 by Professor Yehuda Nini in perspective. This translation of the original 1982 edition in Hebrew from a 1976 doctoral dissertation, is one of a few pioneering scholarly works from the 1970s on the history of Yemenite Jewry./1 No attempt was made to update the original edition nor consider revisions in light of more recent scholarship. The translation is much too literal, and does not read like it was done by a native English speaker. The problematic syntax and awkward language of the translation is further hampered by the numerous typographical errors. The many allusions to different regions and towns in Yemen are confusing and could have been helped by the inclusion of a map. There is a great deal of parochial knowledge, but the reader is not given a clear general picture of the relationship of state and society, nor of the social structure of tribes, which are of critical importance for understanding the relationship between the Jewish community and the Muslim authorities&emdash;the central focus of the book. It is unfortunate that the editor chose not to pay attention to these deficiencies.

Part of the problem lies not only in the translation, but also in the original Hebrew edition. The many quotations from the original sources seem to blur together with the author’s own turgid narrative. This stylistic difficulty points to the major problem with the original work. The author is unable to separate himself from his original sources, and much like the nineteenth century texts he is quoting, frequently passes judgment on the moral and spiritual standards of the community. This creates a rather odd semblance of a modern historical study combined with a moralizing tract, reminiscent of what one might expect to find in an “enlightened" rabbinical portrait of a community.

It is perhaps unfair to judge the author’s lack of analysis, of an either comparative or theoretical nature, against the standards of scholarly works for other parts of the world where the essential historical narrative is already known. Niniis the first of a generation to provide a learned account of the major events affecting the Yemenite Jewish community. A brief introductory chapter on "Muslim Yemen," is followed by the largest chapter of the book, entitled "The Jews of the Yemen and Sanaa against the background of political events in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries." This chapter contains a somewhat fragmented chronological listing of "events" that were clearly deemed as important by the Yemenite community. Within this outline of political events, specific themes are treated, often with undue repetition, in the following chapters: institutions and leadership of the community, messianic movements, relations between Yemenite Jews and Jewish communities in other countries, and the migration to Palestine. In view of the paucity of the sources, and their particular literary and religious characteristics, the author devotes much attention to discussing the authenticity and reliability of his texts in an attempt to correct some of the conclusions drawn from the same sources by other authors.

The book is primarily a political and religious study of the Jewish community, conforming to what is commonly referred to as the "lachrymose" tradition in Jewish historiography. A successive chain of incidents of persecution and distress (drought, famine, and poverty), are seen as leading to a resurgence of messianic expectations, and inspiring Jews to migrate to Palestine. The Yemenite emigration to the Holy Land began almost simultaneously with the Eastern European Biluists, but the author also underscores the difference between the two movements: "the 1881Yemenite immigration was characteristic of unorganized distress immigration [sic] without distinct ideology, apart from vague theories about the Holy Land. But this distress immigration, emerging from the black night of exile, created its own poetic force because of its ability to detach itself from its country of birth and putdown deep roots elsewhere (p. 190)." By placing emphasis on persecution that culminated in emigration to the Land of Israel, Yemenite Jewish history, with its particularistic messianic yearnings, is represented as a legitimate part of Zionist history. The teleological framework of the book is revealed in the title of the original 1982 Hebrew edition that was published by the World Zionist Organization: Yemen and Zion: the Political, Social, and Spiritual Background to the First Waves of Emigrants from Yemen,1801-1914. /2

The essential contours of the historical narrative are the following: The beginning of the nineteenth century spelled the end to a period of political stability for the Shi'iteZaydi state. Coinciding with the spread of the Wahhabi movement, the Zaydi imams were barely able to extend their authority beyond Sanaa, while much of Yemen was ruled by independent forces. In 1818, Sanaa was put under siege and plundered, gravely affecting the Jewish community. The political disorder and the British occupation of Adenin 1839 resulted in heightened messianic expectations in the Jewish community. The increasing inability of the Zaydi state to rule, marked by the frequent overthrow of imams, subjected the Jews (as well as the general population)&emdash;especially of Sanaa&emdash;toconstant persecution and caused the community to scatter throughout Yemen. The first apocalyptic figure, Shukr Kuhayl appeared in 1859when "Sana’s cup of bitterness was full" (p. 138), while the second appeared in 1863./3 From 1872, the Ottomans succeeded in taking control of Yemen, and Ottoman rule (referred to curiously as "liberal but decadent," p. xi) was at first welcomed by the Jews but proved to be exacting, as corrupt Ottoman walis arbitrarily exploited the Jewish community, such as forcing the community to mill grain for soldiers. Increasingly the institutions of the Jewish community, such as the Rabbinical Court (Beit Din), were undermined as were the moral standards, and hardships increased messianic expectations(the third apocalyptic figure, Yosef 'Eved ha-El, appeared in the1890s) and the appeal for emigration to Palestine. Through emissaries, merchants, and connections with the growing Jewish community under British rule in Aden, Yemenite Jews increased their contacts with their coreligionists abroad, raising false expectations that powerful Jewish notables and philanthropic organizations such as the Alliance Israélite Universelle, the British Board of Deputies, and the Anglo-Jewish Association, were capable of effecting change in the status of the Jewish community in Yemen.

For each phase in Yemen's history, Nini seesa worsening of Jewish status and a decline in moral and spiritual standards, yet for the reader it is hard to distinguish between the periods since the whole narrative in linked by what appears to be constant oppression. Two abusive edicts especially are emphasized: one that ordered the forcible conversion of Jewish orphans to Islam, and the second, the "decree of the dung-gatherers," that compelled the Jews to clear the dung and sewage from the streets and pathways of Sanaa and perhaps other surrounding communities. The author asserts unconvincingly that these two decrees, that plagued the Jewish community throughout the nineteenth century, "gradually sapped the strength of the community and were eventually to cause its disintegration (p. 26)." Another major cause of tension for the Jewish community was the role of some Jews in minting coins for the Zaydi rulers, which often put them in the middle of political intrigues and exposed the Jewish community as a whole to considerable danger.

The period of Ottoman rule in Yemen raises some interesting questions about the position and status of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire. Nini describes how the Tanzimat reforms were implemented in Yemen. In conformity with the reform of the Ottoman Jewish community, a hahambasi was appointed (the president of the rabbinical court of Sanaa, Rabbi Sulayman al-Qareh). In the language of the Tanzimat decrees, civic notions of equality were introduced. Nini does not mention that the status and terminology of dhimm£ status were formally abolished. The capitation tax(jizya), required of ahl al-dhimma, was eliminated, and in its place, a military substitution tax was paid (bedel-iaskeri). But according to the author, the Jews continued to payjizya and to be regarded as dhimmi. Did this mean that the central Ottoman authorities considered it inopportune to disrupt the social order by fully implementing the reforms affected elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire? To what degree was Ottoman policy created on a local level? Was it because of the relative absence of foreigners in Yemen that the Ottoman government felt little pressure to implement changes that may have adversely affected their ability to rule? Such questions are highly relevant both for understanding the position of the Jewish community of Yemen in this period and the relationship of the Ottoman government to the periphery regions in the last period of the empire.

Ottoman rule both formalized the position of the autonomous Jewish millet, yet in theory weakened the authority of the self-governing institutions by its appointments ofhahambasis and its introduction of notions of Ottoman civil status. The result in Yemen, or at least in Sanaa and those regions under direct Ottoman control, was the weakening of the jurisdiction of the Jewish court, to such an extent that by 1902, it had ceased to function. Prior to the Ottoman period, the institutions of the Jewish community were tenuous and their functions were not clearly defined. According to Nini, the rabbinical court of Sanaa exercised considerable moral authority over all of Yemen. Its decisions, however, were sometimes challenged by the Sanaa yeshiva (not an academy of religious instruction as elsewhere), that also passed judgment on religious issues and sometimes came into conflict with the Rabbinical Court. In smaller communities throughout Yemen, Jewish authority was centered in the mori, an individual who performed numerous religious functions.

This structure of the community, at least in Sanaa, was considerably undermined by Ottoman rule. With the declining influence and ultimate eclipse of the rabbinical court, Jews began going to "gentile" courts, and finally, the revolt of the Imam Yahya ibn Muhammad Hamid al-Din that devastated Sanaa in 1905put an end to the court. The author does not clarify if the demise of the Sanaa court meant that local courts elsewhere in Yemen, mentioned briefly by the author, ceased to function. What the end of theBeit Din in Sanaa implied for rabbinical and halakhicauthority in the diverse communities in Yemen, which seems to be the important question, is not discussed. Perhaps the nature of the available sources circumscribes the kinds of questions asked, but this should have at least been acknowledged by the author. At times it is unclear if the author is speaking about all of Yemen or just Sanaa, but what is sure is that the reader has a more complete picture for the community of Sanaa than for the rest of the country.

The "veil of tears" approach to the Jewish history of the Diaspora pursued by Nini, is a reflection of Jewish literature and religious thinking from time immemorial, but one can also deduce from reading this book that for the most part Jews were given a large measure of autonomy to run their own communities(though with some change in the Ottoman period), were able to move from place to place, and especially outside Sanaa, were protected by the Muslims in a network of patron-client relations. Nini's study gives us little sense of the day to day interaction with the Muslim population and the degree to which Yemenite Jewish culture was also a reflection of the wider cultural milieu of the Yemenite Muslim community. The realities of Muslim-Jewish coexistence are subsumed in the theme of persecution and visions of the apocalypse.

The translation of this erudite history of Yemenite Jews in the nineteenth century can serve to point future researchers in the direction of a more analytical study of the historical experience of the Jewish communities of Yemen.


1 The same year of the dissertation, another study on 19th century Yemenite Jewry was published by Yosef Tobi, The Jews of Yemen in the 19th Century (TelAviv: Afikim, 1976) [in Hebrew]. Nini does not refer to this work in either the Hebrew nor English edition of his book.

2 A less precise English translation of this title is given in the book: Yemen and Zion: The Jews of Yemen, 1801-1914; A Political and Social Study of their Emigration to Palestine. The settlement of Yemenite Jews in Palestine has been thoroughly investigated by Nitza Driyan,Without a Magic Carpet: Yemenite Settlement in Eretz Israel(1881-1914) (Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 1981) [in Hebrew].

3 These messianic movements have been studied in depth in a recent book by Bat-Zion Eraqi Klorman,The Jews of Yemen in the Nineteenth Century: A Portrait of a Messianic Community (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1993)

Search Site

Search Library Collection