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Maimonides and the Jews of Yemen

Jan. 23 2018

Moses Maimonides’ epistle to Yemen is now considered one of his most important works, one that shows the great philosopher and jurist playing a pastoral role as he addresses the needs and fears of a community in crisis. Shortly before the time of its writing, a charismatic Muslim leader had seized Yemen from the Fatimid caliphate; upon his death, his son and successor began persecuting Yemenite Jews. Dor Saar-Man explains how these circumstances led to Maimonides’ famous letter, and its legacy:

[I]n the year of 1172, a Yemenite Jew . . . presented himself as the messiah, . . . and many Jewish communities started to believe the messiah was actually coming soon and even started to change some of their practices and prayers accordingly. . . . Rabbi Yaakov ben Nathaniel of Yemen wrote to Maimonides with fear about the hard times the community was going through and wondered whether that new person might be the true messiah. Maimonides . . . replied at length, with empathy and attention.

In his detailed response, Maimonides tried to console Rabbi Yaakov and asked him to pray diligently and to keep in mind that troubles come and go and will eventually pass. He urged him not to surrender to persecutions and forced-conversion decrees, as these had happened in the past and yet the Jews prevailed. Maimonides referred to both Islam and Christianity as false religions and urged the Yemenite Jews not to conduct calculations of the end of times. . . . As for the messianic pretender, Maimonides clearly stated that he was a false messiah, a madman not to be trusted. . . .

The messianic enthusiasm in Yemen died out a few years later. . . . Saladin occupied Yemen and founded the Ayyubid dynasty, and everything returned to normal. The Yemen epistle, however, retained its significance and influence for centuries. . . . More than any other Jewish community, the Yemenites studied Maimonides’ work and accepted his theories. In time, two sub-groups were formed among them: the Shami, who partly assimilated into the Sephardi culture and adopted the Sephardi liturgy, and the Baladi, who followed Maimonides, especially the halakhic rulings set forth in his code, the Mishneh Torah.

Read more at Beit Hatfutsot

More about: History & Ideas, Moses Maimonides, Yemen, Yemenite Jewry

How the U.S. Can Strike at Iran without Risking War

In his testimony before Congress on Tuesday, Michael Doran urged the U.S. to pursue a policy of rolling back Iranian influence in the Middle East, and explained how this can be accomplished. (Video of the testimony, along with the full text, are available at the link below.)

The United States . . . has indirect ways of striking at Iran—ways that do not risk drawing the United States into a quagmire. The easiest of these is to support allies who are already in the fight. . . . In contrast to the United States, Israel is already engaged in military operations whose stated goal is to drive Iran from Syria. We should therefore ask ourselves what actions we might take to strengthen Israel’s hand. Militarily, these might include, on the passive end of the spectrum, positioning our forces so as to deter Russian counterattacks against Israel. On the [more active] end, they might include arming and training Syrian forces to engage in operations against Iran and its proxies—much as we armed the mujahedin in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Diplomatically, the United States might associate itself much more directly with the red lines that Israel has announced regarding the Iranian presence in Syria. Israel has, for example, called for pushing Iran and its proxies away from its border on the Golan Heights. Who is prepared to say that Washington has done all in its power to demonstrate to Moscow that it fully supports this goal? In short, a policy of greater coordination with Jerusalem is both possible and desirable.

In Yemen, too, greater coordination with Saudi Arabia is worth pursuing. . . . In Lebanon and Iraq, conditions will not support a hard rollback policy. In these countries the goal should be to shift the policy away from a modus vivendi [with Iran] and in the direction of containment. In Iraq, the priority, of course, is the dismantling of the militia infrastructure that the Iranians have built. In Lebanon, [it should be] using sanctions to force the Lebanese banking sector to choose between doing business with Hizballah and Iran and doing business with the United States and its financial institutions. . . .

Iran will not take a coercive American policy sitting down. It will strike back—and it will do so cleverly. . . . It almost goes without saying that the United States should begin working with its allies now to develop contingency plans for countering the tactics [Tehran is likely to use]. I say “almost” because I know from experience in the White House that contingency planning is something we extol much more than we conduct. As obvious as these tactics [against us] are, they have often taken Western decision makers by surprise, and they have proved effective in wearing down Western resolve.

Read more at Hudson

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, U.S. Foreign policy, Yemen