Thursday, November 12, 2009

The End of a Diaspora

Like many, I was horrified to read about the brutal murder last year of Moshe Ya'ish al-Nahari, a man whose only crime was being Jewish in Yemen and being a member of a prominent family in that community. Even more disturbing, however, was what happened at his killer's trial. The judges opted to believe the killer's insanity defense and ordered him merely to pay a fine. The sad irony that under Shaaria, the usual penalty for murder is death only reinforced the idea that the blood of Muslims this redder than that of Jews. Even more pathetic was the fact that the family of the gunman, in addition to continually threatening the Nahari family during the trial and saying they would wipe out the community, had the chutzpah to even protest the fine itself, saying that it was "against Sharia" to try Muslims for killing Jews. When I read about the Nahari family being threatened with death at the damn trial of their son's killer, only one thought ran through my head: "Wow, they really want to kill us." (I had the same thought when I read about similar crap happening at the Halimi trial in France around the same time.)

The government had promised to protect its Jews. Their solution was to relocate them into a "protected area," effectively ghettoizing the community and admitting that they were unwilling to challenge violent extremists in Yemen. Things have gotten so bad even outside agencies are criticizing the government for its basic incompetence in protecting its citizens from attacks. It wound up being a moot point; the government hasn't followed through with their plan and so the Jews who have stayed there are still vulnerable. Even though Nahari's killer was re-tried and sentenced to death in June, many Yemenite Jews seem to be contemplating immigrating. Some seem like they'd like to stay in their country-- their home, after all--, but simply don't feel safe anymore. And so trickles of Yemenite families have been leaving, bit by bit, since the trial. And now this month, from the Wall Street Journal:

There, they met U.S. State Department officials conducting a clandestine operation to bring some of Yemen's last remaining Jews to America to escape rising anti-Semitic violence in his country.

In all, about 60 Yemeni Jews have resettled in the U.S. since July; officials say another 100 could still come. There were an estimated 350 in Yemen before the operation began. Some of the remainder may go to Israel and some will stay behind, most in a government enclave.

In the 1800s, there were 30,000 Jews in Yemen. In 1948, close to 50,000, most of whom were evacuated to Israel. Now, after thousands of years, almost none, and almost certainly no more to come.

There are two reasons for this being rightly considered a tragedy. One is the fact that despite all the promises and aspirations towards equality so often repeated through the 20th (and 21st) centuries, there are still plenty of places in the world where Jews (among others) are not welcome, and have to live in physical fear of their lives. As an advocate for a close Israel-Diaspora relationship based on mutual standing, and one who gets pretty irritated at the suggestion that the Diaspora is irrelevant if not dead, it pains me to see a diaspora community disintegrating in front of our eyes. I believe that the Jewish world is continually enriched by the cultural contributions from all our outposts, even the small ones.

The other reason for this being a tragedy is that it underscores the damage that Jewish leaders and activists do to the Diaspora as a whole when they actively work to encourage aliyah as supposed to encouraging viable Jewish communities abroad. Think of the Bnei Menasche in India. Or the long-dead community in Kaifeng. Amazingly, after god-knows-how-many generations, a few descendants of the Kaifeng Jews in China have become interested in Judaism and the Jewish people. Michael Freund's response? "Quick, send 'em to Israel."

The group from Kaifeng, in eastern China, was taken to Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu in the north, where they will attend Hebrew enrichment (ulpan) classes.

Thought: does Israel really need seven new random kibbutzniks? No. But the Diaspora and global Jewish culture certainly does need vibrant Jewish communities around the world. Obviously, it's far from easy to be an Orthodox Jew in China. But if nothing else, we should at least spend as much energy, effort and money helping these communities re-establish themselves as much as some do treating them like Olim farms to be harvested at every opportunity.

I can see how it may not be optimal to be a Jew in China right now. But I imagine it's a lot better than Yemen. Every Diaspora community lost is a tragedy. If we can support small communities that CAN be viable, whose members don't have to live in fear of their lives and actually are interested in staying within their home countries and strengthening themselves, I think we owe it to future generations to do so.

Hat-tip: Failed Messiah.

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