Yemeni identity in Israel
Jews from the mountain village of Maswar in northwest Yemen, 1902. Photo: Hermann Burchardt; published in the German journal Ost und West (Berlin), 1902: 340. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Yemeni identity in Israel

Yemeni Jews in Israel are caught between assimilating into Israeli society and preserving their culture, said Ari Ariel at the Center for Near Eastern Studies event, “Yearning for Yemen: Migration and Memory.”

By Kyilah Terry (UCLA 2019)

UCLA International Institute, February 1, 2019— “Yemeni memories often run counter to the Zionist narrative and counter to much of the academic literature written by the community. These memories represent the emergence of double consciousness that manifest in a desire to become Israeli, but to remain Yemeni,” said Ari Ariel recently at the Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES). The academic literature on Yemeni-Jewish migration and identity is incomplete, he argued. Using migrants’ memoirs and Yemeni-Jewish cultural practices, he described the malleability of Yemeni Jews' identities in both Yemen and Israel.

Ariel teaches Modern Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Iowa. He was the featured speaker at an Averroës Lecture cosponsored by CNES and the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies.

An incomplete picture of Yemeni migration

Academic accounts of Yemeni-Jewish migration usually explain this migration in four ways: Messianic impulses, longing for Zion, Muslim oppression of Jews or rising Muslim-Jewish tensions. However, historical accounts provided by the speaker did not fit into these categories.

Ari Ariel of the University of Iowa. (Photo: Kyilah Terry/ UCLA.) In one such example, a man decided to leave Yemen to teach abroad. He arrived in New York and moved to the Lower East Side to be closer to the Jewish community. However, they did not accept him until he was able to cure the local rabbi’s son of jaundice using traditional medicine. The community embraced him, and he was able to settle comfortably. Nevertheless, his stay was short-lived and he returned to Yemen.

Neither Palestine nor Israel is mentioned in this story, and the significance of migration memoirs show that the return to Yemen is not an isolated case, remarked Ariel. “Yemeni Jews traveled to various places and created numerous networks during the 19th and 20th centuries,” he noted.

The singular focus on Yemeni migration to Palestine and Israel to the exclusion of all other destinations removes the significance of migration to other places, as well as the frequent return home of Yemeni migrants, claimed Ariel. “Stories of return migration require that we assess our understanding of Yemeni history as well as the history of migration to Palestine and Israel,” he commented.

The double-edged sword of assimilation

Yemeni-Jewish identity faces contradictory requests and constraints. “Israeli society demands that Yemeni Jews become Israeli and only allows a limited space for the preservation of a pre-migrated culture,” remarked the scholar. “Muslims, on the other hand, claim that authentic Yemeni [identity] is in opposition to Israeli identity.” Yemeni Jews caught between these positions have embraced Israel, he said, but hope to remain Yemeni at the same time.

The challenges faced by this group include discrimination from Jews of European descent in Israel, as well as the hardships associated with moving to a new country and adjusting to a new culture. “The stereotypes were that they are hardworking, honest, possess the true spirit of Judaism and are content with little,” said the speaker, “But these stereotypes rationalized paying Yemeni Jews less than others while expecting them to sacrifice more.”

Stereotypes were further perpetuated by Middle Eastern scholars who encountered Yemeni-Jewish communities and described them as “societies frozen in time and filled with biblical figures,” he added. However, said Ariel, “Yemeni Jews argue that if this is the case, then they possess the most genuine Jewish culture and should not be excluded from other Jewish communities as they have been.”

The tangible cost of integration

Women’s memoirs highlight the contradictions between the way that migration to Israel has changed Yemeni’s food consumption and other traditions. This prompted a call for the preservation of Yemeni food customs, but ultimately ended in the homogenization of Yemeni cuisine. “Yemeni Jews did not know or like olives; they thought they looked like goat dung,” mentioned the scholar. Many also found that their traditional food was used differently in Israel. In one account provided by Ariel, he described a Yemeni woman refugee who became sick at the sight of a Yemeni spread being placed on top of Israeli food.

“From [another] Yemeni migrant woman’s memoir, we see her encountering a rolled pastry that comes from a part of southern Yemen in an Israeli market, which will later be sold internationally,” commented Ariel. These memoirs also reveal how culinary terminology and cutlery have been impacted by migration. “Yemenis began to use the term ‘pita’ to describe a wide variety of bread,” said the speaker, “They also had to incorporate western behaviors, such as using a knife and fork.”

Yemeni Jews and identity in Israel

By 1950, most of the Jewish population in Yemen had emigrated. In Israel, they created songs and sang them as a form of ethnic identification and pride, although some Israeli residents perceived their ethnic identity as opposed to Israeli identity. Ariel highlighted another important point: “Yemeni actors remember Yemen in different ways; and all are partially at odds with Zionist ideology and historical narratives, though the storytellers consider themselves loyal Zionists.”  

The preservation of Yemeni-Jewish identity in Israeli society has posed challenges for Yemeni Jews. Whether this situation changes remains to be seen. The cultural gap that this group has overcome represents a semi-acceptance of Israeli tradition and assimilation into the Israeli community, observed Ariel. However, the limited space for ethnic differences has resulted in a single, flattened Yemeni identity. “Hopefully, migrants will continue to insist on maintaining their Yemeni culture,” concluded the speaker.