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Mocha, Yemen

Yemen

Summary

Mocha, or Al-Mukha, is a mid-century trading city on the coast of southwestern Yemen. The name “mocha” is no coincidence: while merchants weren’t serving up your favorite chocolate-flavored latte from your regular coffee shop, the streets of this hub were once filled with merchants and traders from around the world. Mocha's coffee was the main draw to this port city.1


Founded in the 14th century by a Muslim holy man, as per tradition goes, Mocha prospered through the 17th century. In the 15th century, coffee became the primary export and drew traders mostly from India and Egypt. Soon after, other foreigners arrived - the British, the Dutch, and the French - and control of the city changed hands between the three and local leadership for some time. The three western European powers set up “factories,” or industry centers in Mocha and though the coffee beans were heavily protected by the locals, the Dutch managed to acquire it and began growing coffee for themselves in their colony of Indonesia.2

Description

Mocha’s Jewish Community: Mocha had a prosperous Jewish community that greatly benefited financially from Mocha’s premier position as global coffee-exporter. Not all of the Jews living in Mocha were local: many Jews came from around Yemen and the surrounding areas to work as merchants for a short time. In 1770, it is estimated that there were about 400 Jewish families, some wealthy businessmen, living in Mocha.3

The Jews of Yemen: Yemenite Jews are often placed in a separate category from the two general categories of Ashkenazi and Sephardic. Due to their different customs and traditions, Yemenite Jews are often referred to as “Mizrahi Jews.”

While there are conflicting theories on when exactly the Jewish presence in Yemen began, there is no doubt that Jews have lived in Yemen for several centuries, before a Muslim presence. The Himyar, or Himyarite, Kingdom of antiquity was a Jewish kingdom, having converted to Judaism in the fourth century. Yemen was under a Jewish crown for several centuries, until the kingdom converted to Islam sometime after the religion’s introduction in the seventh century.4 Sana’a had the largest Jewish population in Yemen and was the most influential Jewish community.5

Colonial presence in Yemen, as well as advancements in trade, made huge impacts on the Jewish community. For example, with new advancements in ship-building in the 17th century, Mocha was no longer an essential stop on the way from Egypt to India, rendering the merchants of the city useless and their exports unsold. The prestige of Jewish merchants in Yemen took a steep decline.6

In the following centuries, several discriminatory laws were passed against Jews. Violence against Jews was at a high during the era of partition in Palestine in the 1940s. From 1949 to 1950, Israel led Operation Magic Carpet, which brought approximately 50,000 Jews from Yemen to Israel in one of the largest emigration efforts ever.7

For a long time after, most believed that the Jewish community in Yemen was completely gone, but there have been rescue efforts to bring the remaining Yemeni Jews to Israel. In March of 2016, 19 Yemenite Jews were smuggled out of Yemen - currently in the midst of a civil war - to Israel. Due to the conditions in Yemen, these rescue missions were so clandestine that even upon arrival at the airport in Tel Aviv, authorities remain unsure of how exactly these families traveled from country to country.8

Today, there are approximately 50 Jews left in all of Yemen, most of whom reside within Sana'a.9

Mizrahi Jews: “Mizrahi” is a term used to describe the Jews who never left the Middle East and North Africa. It is a descriptive term for a demographic, in the same way that “Sephardic” describes Jews from the Iberian Peninsula and “Ashkenazi” describes Jews from Europe (primarily associated with Eastern Europe.)10

The earliest Mizrahi communities date back to Late Antiquity. The communities centered in Babylonia, modern-day Iraq; Persia, modern-day Iran; and Yemen. Today, most of these communities are completely gone. Most Mizrahi Jews live either in Israel or in America.11

Mizrahi Jews have faced a degree of stigma, in particular in Israel. Mizrahi Jews, as well as other Jews of color, have felt treated as second-class citizens to Ashkenazi, European-descent Jews. These sentiments have affected Mizrahi Jews on both an interpersonal, social level and on a political level  However, these conditions have reportedly improved greatly as the percentage of Mizrahi Jews is now around fify percent of the population of Israel. 12

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