Yemen’s Vanishing Jews and the Totalizing Effects of the Modern State on Human Identity

Contra some critics of “multiculturalism” (an ill-defined term to begin with), the diversity of the human race enriches us all, and human dignity is better served when individuals can possess multiple, overlapping sources of identity rather than having to face life as a tiny, lonely piece in a huge, undifferentiated mass of humanity.

Nationalism generally predicates itself on cultural attributes, but it often destroys the rich diversity of culture that was the legacy of premodern societies. Nationalism, in turn, was a response to the development of the modern, direct-rule state that swept away local autonomies and particularities. One small example of how this trend is still playing out in the world today can be found in an Economist story about Yemen’s vanishing Jews. These Jewish Arabs no longer find their identity recognized in either Yemen or Israel:

The last hundred or so Yemeni Jews are set to leave after more than two millennia in the country. A century ago some 50,000 of them lived more or less peacefully alongside the Muslim majority, now numbering 23m. Life became harder for them after the creation of Israel in 1948, with outbreaks of violence against Jews. Most were spirited out over the next few years in Operation Magic Carpet on American aircraft. A second, much smaller wave of around 1,200 of them were resettled in the early 1990s.


Elsewhere in the Arab world most Jewish communities have shrivelled. In Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad (where Jews were once the largest single community) numbers have shrunk to a handful of old folk keeping a nervously low profile. Yemen’s few hundred Jews were some of the last who preserved their synagogues and continued to conduct ceremonies in them. Zion Ozeri, a Jewish photographer of Yemeni descent who has documented the last of Yemen’s Jews, says that, for those who settle in Israel, there are “negative undertones” attached to being an Arab Jew. “In Israel or the diaspora, hardly any Jew considers himself of Arab culture.”

The descendants of Arabic-speaking Jews who leave for Israel or the United States will speak Hebrew or English, and the identity will eventually disappear, amalgamated into broad, generic identities politically supported by the states that now depend on nationalist sentiment to help field armies and keep the taxes paid.

4 thoughts on “Yemen’s Vanishing Jews and the Totalizing Effects of the Modern State on Human Identity

  1. I am from Syrian Jewish descent, and live in a community of some 40,000 Syrian Jews in Brooklyn, they started coming in 1900 up until 1994 when the last Jews of Syria were allowed to leave. Anyhow, despite some being here for four generations, many hold a strong Syrian identity, listen to Syrian music, eat Syrian food (although most of us don’t speak Arabic). The same is true for the Persian, Lebanese and Egyptian Jewish communities in New York… despite being in the US for many years they have managed to hold on to their identities quite well. Interestingly though, in Israel these same groups are not able to hold onto their identities as well and just become generic Sephardic Jews, which I think proves Jason’s point. Jewish nationalism in Israel certainly takes away from individual cultural identities.

  2. Interesting point, Jack. I think the U.S. does give more space to allowing these identities to continue, at least for a time, perhaps because American nationalism is more civic than cultural or ethnic. In Syria or Yemen, being Jewish, even if Arab, is seen as intolerable by the majority. In Israel, being Arab, even if Jewish, is seen as intolerable by the majority. In the U.S. those pressures to conform aren’t as strong, because the unusual identity of Arabic-speaking Jews poses no threat to American majority culture.

  3. Those matter too. TV & radio tend to homogenize through slow, unconscious effects. However, the political pressure to conform comes from nationalism, it seems to me, and nationalism is ultimately a popular response to conditions created by the modern state – stateless groups trying to get one of their own, and majority groups trying to universalize their culture.

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