What the Jewish Group Members Said About Their Visit [Archives:2000/14/Reportage]
On the ocassion of the visiting Jewish group last week, Mohammed Hatem Al-Qadhi and Mohammed Bin Sallam of Yemen Times conducted the following interviews with some of the members of the group.
Moshe Hananel. I am involved in tourism in different aspects; travel agencies, airlines, hotel business in the United States and Israel. I had the opportunity to be involved with travel to the Arab and Muslim world in the last twenty years since Al-Sadat came to Al-Quds we were involved with travel from Egypt to Israel. We brought 100,000 people from the United States, Morocco and Jordan. We opened the doors to Jordan and brought almost 200 ,000 Israelis.
Q: What is the nature of the visit? What are the nationalities of the visitors? Are they of Yemeni Origin?
A: This group is mainly Israeli Yemenite Jews. They were born in Israel. The nature of the visit is cultural, religious and tourist. However, the main thing is religious and cultural but, of course, it also has its tourist aspect.
It is basically coming back home, to the origin. You know Jews were living here, in Yemen, for 3,000 years and they kept the religion, the language, the tradition. Now they miss their origin. They want to establish again the contact with Yemen. They bear much nostalgia. I think this is the biggest Yemenite community that Yemen has got in any place in the world. In Israel there is about 140,000 Yemenite Jews. But it is not only Yemenite origin because you have to understand that people originally from Yemen have children who married people originally from Poland, United States, etc., and the grandchildren see themselves also Yemenite origin.
Q: Do you mean that there some members who are not originally from Yemen?
A: Yes. For example, this gentleman(pointing at one of the group) is 25% Yemenite because his father is from Germany but his grandmother is from one side is from Yemen and he wanted to come to Yemen because he wanted to see his roots. It is impossible now to say fully Yemenite origin or 25% Yemenite origin because it is a big mixture.
Q: So the Visit is not official.
A: The visit is not organized by the government nor it is a political one. This is a religious, cultural and tourist visit. Of course, it has political implications but we are not politicians. We do not represent the government.
Q: Can we consider it a way for normalizing relations between Yemen and Israel in the tourism sector?
A: Sure. It will open the way for furthering our visits in the future.
Q: Was there any agreement between Yemen’s government and you on coming to Yemen?
A: Sure. The main purpose and the best promoters were these 140,000, we estimated, Yemenite origin Jews that want to come back to the roots, in the footsteps of the parents.
Q: Did you discuss the problem of the Jews in Yemen and their properties?
A: No. I am aware of this subject but we are not discussing this subject. I think that people exaggerate this subject. We are here not to make problems. We are here to make peace, not to make problems. People should understand this. But people who trace the subject about the Jews’ properties it is better to stop this process because this is not the purpose. The purpose is nostalgia. The people want to see where their parents were born, not to take the poor house that is there. You have to understand that the economic level in Israel is very high. The average salary in Israel is about $ 3,000 a month. Many people will take salaries of $ 9,000 a month or 10,000. House will cost $ 3,000-4,000 a month. This is the monthly salary for most people.
Q: Did you meet Yemeni officials?
A: We met with different Yemeni officials in different levels. Today we will also meet different people. If you will call me in the afternoon, I prefer to talk about this in the afternoon ,I also have permission from them.
Q: Does this mean that you will organize tourist visits for all Yemenite or Israelis to Yemen?
A: We will concentrate on the Yemenite Jews. But as I have explained to you with this gentleman( pointing at his friend, a photographer), he is quarterly Yemenite so it is not a clear-cut definition. The target is the Yemenite Jews in Israel but they married ladies from England or a lady from Yemen married a gentleman from Germany, so it is a big mixture in the entire generation. But this is the purpose, a cultural contact again between the Yemenite in Israel and the home country, Yemen.
Q: What are the places you visited?
A: Sanaa, the old Jewish quarter in Sanaa. The people in the neighborhood were very cooperative, the house of Isaac, the house Daood, the house of Tairy and so on. We visited Sanaa in a normal tourist visit. We tried to find the synagogue in Sanaa. We went to Raida to meet with the Jews there. We also tried to see their school and synagogue. These visits were very short.
One of the most important places that we visited was in Taiz, it was the Shebazi’s grave and his doughtier. Everyone wants to go to his own city. Basically, what we will do and that we will discuss with our colleagues here is to have the group coming and then split it into three different areas and everyone will go to his own area. Some people want to see the museums and the Yemenite culture. They miss the spices. They go to the market they look for spices, they can not get them in Israel. Others want to visit the Hajar Palace, Shibam, Kowkaban, etc. Moka is also very important to them. Shibam is also part of our religion. So people want to see these places. We are also planning to visit other places but we are moving according to the permits that we will get from the authorities in different sections of the country.
Q: How did you find the Jews in Raida?
A: We found them in a good situation living just as their Muslim neighbors. You can not compare it to New York or Tel Aviv. Raida is a small city. The living condition in Sanaa is better than those in Raida. But comparing Raida to its neighbors where I had the chance to move around, they are in good conditions. They have a school and a religious synagogue.
Q: Do you perceive a potential relationship between Israel and Yemen in the field of tourism and others?
A: The field of tourism can bring immediate benefit to Yemen because the infrastructure is here; there are hotels, busses, etc. These have immediate impact. Israelis want to come. The potential is very big for Yemen to double tourism capacity from what is it now. In other fields, the collaboration can be done in the cultural level. You know the Jews used to be here the jewelry makers and so on, and they went back to Israel. The systems are kept in Israel in the high schools so they teach Yemenite Jewelry and so on. So, this can be done to teach again more people this old tradition of Yemen that part of it was lost when Yemenite Jews left Yemen to Israel and they took the professional secrets of how to do. You can see even in the market you see old jewelry you can see the type of work that not always to find in new jewelry. Agricultural collaboration is something that can be done. You know there is desert in Israel and there is desert here. In Israel there is much experience to collaborate with other countries on the agricultural level and all levels. We will be glad if Yemen wants to collaborate with us. We did it with Egypt for example in quite big scale. There are of course many more fields. Now we are collaborating with Jordan, for example, in the hi-tech field. Israel is very strong in hi-tech. It is one of the strongest countries in hi-tech world-wide. This is another field that Yemen can benefit from this relation. We will not push ourselves. It is up to Yemen’s authorities. We are here to make peace not push ourselves and to have, for us, economical benefit. But we can share our experience if Yemen wants.
Q: Are there plans to make other visits to Yemen in the future?
A: Yes, We are planning to do other visits. We want to do them step by step.
Q: Any last word?
A: We are very happy to be here, We feel at home. Even if I am not Yemenite origin I feel Yemenite. We feel welcome from the people and we feel very comfortable.
Iris Mentzer from Israel. I am working with Moshe Hananel for many years winging Israelis to the Arab countries and joining him bringing Muslims to Israel. This was a big dream to come to Yemen and here we are.
Q: How do you assess your visit to Yemen?
A: I think that many Israelis will be very glad to come. And more than that I think that there are other sides and aspects of this visit because Moshe is working on another projects like agricultural projects, religious projects and some other things that can help the economy of Yemen to go up. You know, in Israel we are very good at agriculture; we have tomatoes in the desert and we have many things that we grow and we can help Yemen. I think cooperation will be good for both sides.
Q: Do you think that visits will improve and increase?
A: I am sure. Since it has started, it is like the snow ball that grows while snowing. I have found the Yemenis very friendly and very willing to accept, so we are here and I am sure it is going to grow. I have no doubt about it.
Salem Saleh, born in Ka’a Al-Yahoud in Sana’a 64 years ago. When I traveled to Palestine they changed my name to Shalom Sadouk. We left Sana’a for Aden in 1957 where they took us in lorries to Palestine. We came back to Yemen to see the place where we were born and where all our ancestors had lived for 2000 years. We visited all our relatives and friends who had greatly welcomed us. They treated us nicely although we are Jews. When we left Yemen we left it willingly in search for means of living because we were poor at the time when we decided to depart this country. Now, we have come to see our home and family who have shown us hospitality. Back in Yemen I have been received with much welcome and I would like to thank the Yemeni government for treating us well although we are Jews. In other countries they treat us really bad. When we arrived here people were happy to meet us and asked us many questions. I once went to Souk Al-Milh and many people recognized me. They talked to me happily and asked me about many people who have traveled to Palestine. They have also recognized my grandfather who used to work for the Imam. The Imam would give certain amount of silver and he was responsible for changing it into coins. He was very trusted and he had many Jewish and Arab workers. My wife’s grandfather Moor Yahya Al-Abyath was also the ruler of the Jewish community in Yemen after Moor Yahya Isaac. They also have pointed to me the houses of many people they know and who had traveled to Palestine.
Jewish people have problems in traveling to many countries like some in western Africa. The president Ali Abdullah Saleh visited New York in 1989 and accepted giving travel permission to Jews who do not bear Israeli passports. My family goes back to Yahya Isaac who was the ruler of all the Jewish community in Yemen he was my uncle. My father was a judge in Yemen which we call Dayan meaning judge. On Fridays, we used to have big meetings. All elite jurists of Sana’a would come over to our place and they would talk about Tawrat and Qur’an. There are not so many differences between both religions except in marriage and slaughter. There was no religious discrimination. At that time people respected our ruler. Some people said that the conditions during the rule of the Imam were safe. However, they also said that it was not al-Imam Yahya but rather Yahya Isaac. Normally, people would come to him every morning after having their breakfast and tell him that they did so and so asking him his opinion on what they did. They would do that everyday except on Saturdays. He was a rabbi during the Turkish rule and his duties were to tell people what was right and was wrong. He was a member of the Generals Society, thus, he had a general’s degree. He was responsible for keeping the people under his rule.
Siyan Hassan Bin Yahoud Hassan. I was born in Al-doubyra, Shara’ab. I traveled to Palestine when I was 4 and a half years old. I have always wanted to visit Yemen to see where I was born. I have not visited Shara’ab because I did not have any time to do so. I still remember some places though and that my father was a big trader. The number of Yemeni Jews in Palestine are approximately 450 000 because Yemenis like to have many children even 12 sometimes.
Ibrahim Habib from Arhab. I left Yemen in 1950 when I was 16 years old. I still remember lots of things. I have always wanted to see my homeland Yemen and my village Arhab. Unfortunately, I could not visit it because I did not have enough time. We are traveling back to Palestine tomorrow morning.
Representative of Al-Ma’amoun Traveling Agency.
This group wants to stay for 12 days. There was a group of three people headed by Mousa Al-Yaremi who came here first to arrange for the arrival of this group. When he came back the Israeli government asked for certain conditions. They said that they had to establish relations with the Yemeni government but this latter refused. So, Al-Kadi traveled to the United States for one night and got them traveling papers from the embassy there. As a company we did not know that they are Jews until Sunday. We thought that they were Americans coming through Jordanian travel and Tours company that we had business with. We talked about details of prices over the phone. Then we received the names list on Sunday and noticed they were Yemeni Jews. So, we started asking about details. They did not have problems because they did not have Israeli passports. They had temporary passports when they went to Jordan and then they got traveling papers from the embassy there.