Will Yemen Play?
by Gad Nahshon
Go home and search for evidence. We the Jews of Yemen were victims of persecution. We were robbed of our property and our assets. We should not give in. We must ask Yemen for compensation for our sufferings and the sufferings of our families who used to live in Yemen, said Shimon Avi-Zemer, the president of Jews from Arab and Muslim countries. Avi-Zemer, a great speaker and an ex-diplomat, believes in developing of Israeli-Yemenite pride in Israel. He was a guest speaker of one of Israel's most active and most prestigious ethnic cultural, non-profit organizations: The Association For Society and Culture, located in Haatzmaut Square Number 11, Netania (Tel: 09-331-325). Basically, this organization, which runs branches all over Israel, promotes Israeli-Yemenite culture, pride, heritage and Israeli-Zionist legacy. The founding Father is Ovadia Ben-Shalom, a unique dynamo of activities and a true leader. Ben-Shalom, it should be noted, stays away from ethnic militancy or separatism.
You do not have to be an Israeli Yemenite in order to enjoy the huge amount of activities of this organization which has existed almost forty years. I attended one of the Association retreats which took place in a hotel in Netania. I could not believe that so many people came for a weekend to enjoy a journey into their roots: history, culture, music, prayers and lectures. Ben-Shalom, of course, has a Board and many assistants and volunteers, among them famous personalities in Israel such as Professor Avshalom Mizrachy, Rabbi Dr. Aharom Ben-David, Professor Yosef Toby, Menachem Ledarny, Avdar Shalom, Rabbi Yosef Kapach, Shoshana Damari and many others. By the way, Israel's Minister of Domestic Security, Avigdor Kahalani, is an Israeli Yemenite. It should also be noted that Ben-Shalom has always guarded this ethnic-cultural organization from any political involvement. Sad to say, recently, the Israeli society suffers from Apolitical ethnicity, a terrible aspect of Israeli society because it caused an old-new division of Israel. From Israel's point of view, survival in the 21st century is a national luxury.
Recently, the Association celebrated the Yemenite contributions to the State of Israel. For example: The establishment of The Yemenite Jews Forest in Israel. It symbolizes the role of these Jews who came in 1948-1950 and established many agricultural settlements near Jerusalem. The manifesto of this forest says: In the forest there will be on view many items showing the traditional Yemenite way of life. The Yemenite Jews began to settle in Israel in 1984. Many of them were farmers who helped to develop the land of Israel. The forest, today, turned to be an institution for reunions and recreation of the Yemenite Israelis.
Ben-Shalom's dream for Israel's fifty year anniversary is a production of a television series on the Yemenite community. Therefore, he negotiated a deal with the well-known Israeli producer from Jerusalem, Salim Fattal. The idea is to run three parts in order to cover the history from 1948-1998. The cost is only $600,000. Ben-Shalom, a man with vision and hope, calls on everyone to help the Association to finance this project. In the meantime, Fattal outlined (September 1997) his concept: Part One: Under the Imam's wing from An Isolated Diaspora to Yemenite Jewry's Bond with the Land of Israel. Part Two: The Tortuous Route to the Holy Land - Early Yemenite Pioneers to On Eagles' Wings - Yes, These are Indeed Messianic Pangs. The third part: The Yemenite Children Affair from The Plot Unfolds to Disinterment and Genetics Testing. This part has been discussed in Israel in recent years. It is relatively explosive, painful evidence. This issue of the disappearance of 687 Yemenite children from 1948 to 1954 is still in the air on the agenda of the Israeli public. There are few approaches to the issue, in Israel and abroad. Some are attacking the Israeli establishment for copping out or cover ups. Some even consider complaining in the U.N.! It is a terrible issue. We assume that most of these children were taken, secretly, from hospitals in Israel and were given to various adopting parents in the United States or other countries. We do not know, by now, the whole truth. But, certainly, those who participated in this process of adoption committed, at that time, a cruel crime. By the way, some of these babies came from other Muslim countries such as Persia.
Today, the investigation of this affair is in the hand of a special commission. The chairman is Yehuda Cohen and the members are: General (Ret.) David Maimon and Dalia Kovel. According to its report from January 1995, the Commission invited 97 witnesses to testify, visited cemeteries and opened 603 files of missing children. The Commission managed to expose 440 new cases of missing children. This Commission followed few previous commissions.
It should be noted:
Half of these children disappeared in 1949.
27% of the files have to do with children of 24 other than Yemenite ethnic groups in Israel!
Half of the children were in the age group of 0-6 months. This fact shows how hard it is today to trace their whereabouts. And many, probably, were taken to the United States. Ovadia Ben-Shalom believes that this Commission will expose the whole truth and that it will not cover up. It should be noted that some people claim that 3,000 children disappeared or were kidnapped. But some are using this issue in their attack on the Ashkenazi majority of the past, of being discriminatory against the non-Ashkenazi ethnic groups which came to Israel.
Ben-Shalom and the other leaders of the Association are looking towards the future. They invest their time and energies in the fight to preserve the Yemenite heritage and legacy. They use instruments such as the Yemenite Museum in Netania, The Encyclopedia of the Culture of the Jews of Yemen, the Institute of Documentation - AMachon Ledani, The Institute for Research of the History and Heritage of Israel's Tribes - AMachon Haneshi. It promotes research and Yemenite studies in the universities. It has developed a tribe of scholars such as Dr. Yosef Toby, Dr. Aharon Gimany, Dr. Yitshag Gluska and Avshalom Ratsabi, for example, who have dedicated their scholarly life to research of the Yemenite Jewish culture. The Association promotes adult education, Yemenite folklore, music, an Institute for Yemenite Dancing and publishes AHEAD, the house magazine and ATeima, the only scholarly publication which is dedicated to Jewish-Yemenite studies. It should be noted that the Association has a publishing house which has published 100 books on various Jewish-Yemenite issues such as The Jews of Alagabri, Yemen (Hebrew), 1997, by Zahara Grama. It is a fascinating documentation of Jewish life, culture and customs of a small Jewish community as a case study. It is the past. It is nostalgic for roots. The Jews left survived and immigrated to Palestine or Israel.
Yemen is, today, almost without Jews. But their heritage has not vanished, yet. Often, Yemenite diplomats promised to help to preserve this heritage. One even promised to establish a Jewish Museum in Tsana, the capitol. Well, Ovadia Ben-Shalom cannot wait. He and his devoted leaders have a sacred mission to fulfill: They are the last guardian angels of this Jewish heritage. Will it survive the next century?
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