There are legends that date the arrival of the first Jews in Arabia as early as Moses' time; others tell of 80,000 priests coming there after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. It is certain, however, that the Jewish community of Arabia, including Yemen, was of great antiquity. In the 6th century BCE the Jews of Yemen had ignored Ezra's call to return to Eretz Israel. Only in 1949-50 did the Yemenite community emigrate to the State of Israel.
Before the rise in Islam in the 7th century, there were powerful Jewish tribes in Arabia which even ruled pagan vassal tribes, and considerable numbers of non Jews converted to Judaism. Apparently whole tribes followed this course, and there is evidence of a proselyte kingdom and also of a Jewish king, Yusuf Dhu Nuwas (517 - 525). Muhammed's hopes of converting the Jews to Islam were disappointed, and this caused his relations with them to deteriorate. At the same time, he integrated certain elements of the Jewish faith into his new religion. The Jewish tribes were nevertheless gradually expelled from Medina, and all the male members of one of them put to death. Jews were required to pay special taxes for the privilege of living among Muslims - a practice which was followed in all countries under Muslim rule. The basic Muslim attitude to the infidels is laid out in the Covenant of Omer, formally ascribed to the year 637.
The ahl al-dhimma doctrine governed the rights of the people of protection who comprised both Jews and Christians. It gave them the right to exist under Muslim rule and provided for security of person and property and provision to pursue religious worship according to the faith concerned. The special tax was a condition of this privilege. The social and economic position of Yemen's Jews was very low; Indignities and restrictions were heaped upon them; they were forbidden to wear bright clothing or stockings; they could not bear arms or use saddles; all minor Jewish children who were orphaned had to convert to Islam. Nor could they engage in the same occupations as Muslims. Many Jews worked in silver and gold, since Muslims were forbidden to do so.
One result of this persecution was that the Jews remained ethnically apart and kept distinctive customs. Their unique pronunciation of Hebrew and their ritual practices are the subject of considerable research in modern Israel, since these were apparently preserved intact for well over 2000 years. It is thus surmised that such studies will throw light on ancient Hebrew language and culture.
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