A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
In 2011, the number of social media users in Yemen increased significantly as the country witnessed a popular uprising against a three-decade regime. Since then, the numbers have continued to rise and social media has become one of the most important means of mobilization and political polarization. Against this background, organized political factions began creating fake accounts on various social media platforms, usually on Facebook. Some of these accounts inadvertently reveal themselves as fake because they are not personalized. Others use names that at first appear to be real and include personal images, and which have noticeable activity, but as time passes users realize they are fake accounts.
The danger of these accounts is that they belong to users who are trying to influence and spread news and their agendas, but that their backgrounds are unknown. They usually use first names without family names, so on a local level there is no traceable regional background or assumed political background. This gives followers an initial impression of neutrality and allows these accounts to gain the confidence of the public. Another tactic is the use of names with a feminist connotation. The attention women receive online often encourages more followers, especially with the rise of women in political life. As well as this, for some male users, such accounts lead to hopes of meeting and establishing some form of online relationship with members of the opposite sex.
During that time, accounts posing as Yemeni Jewish also appeared with an active political message. Most of them were loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, such as the Yahud al-Yaman (Yemeni Jews) page, which was re-launched in December 2016. It is important to mention that the Yemeni Jewish community participated in demonstrations in 2011 in favor of President Saleh.1 Their position was understandable for a tiny minority that feared for its existence after facing expulsion when the State of Israel was established in 1948, and being among the first internally displaced groups after the outbreak of the Saada wars in 2004.2
Most of the accounts that appeared in 2011 have since disappeared, but the phenomenon of posing as Yemeni Jewish on Facebook did not end. In fact, it spread to Twitter, whose popularity increased after a group of activists launched a campaign against the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The idea was that as Twitter has fewer users in the country, there would be less risk of trolls. And it also meant that criticizing the UAE through the platform would reach a wide international audience, unlike through Facebook which has long held a monopoly in Yemen and remains the preferred platform for Yemeni users. The accounts impersonating Jewish Yemeni identity have different connotations than feminist accounts, and they are a phenomenon that is worth investigating, especially given their wide popularity, which highlights a particular emotional and political situation.
The Yemeni Jewish community on Facebook and Twitter
The first Yemeni Jewish representative pages or accounts appeared after 2011. Some have since disappeared, making way for a new wave that started to appear towards the end of the transitional period in 2014.
Altogether there are four prominent pages that stand out. The first and oldest is Yahud al-Yaman fi Israel (The Jews of Yemen in Israel). Today it has a follower base of 20,000, which is low considering that it was established in October 2012. Its main focus is sharing pictures and songs from Yemeni Jewish culture; however, it has been inactive since January 2017. The last post on the page expresses sadness for the state of conflict and war in Yemen.3
The second is Yahud al-Yaman al-Madhi wal Hadher (Jews of Yemen, Past and Present), which was established in March 2014. Its content includes pictures and videos about Yemen in general, without any captions or comments, and its follower base exceeds 150,000.4 The third is Aghani Yahud al-Yaman al-Shabia (Yemeni Jewish Popular Songs), and was established in October 2014. As its name implies, it focuses on Yemeni Jewish songs, and boasts more than 230,000 followers, which is a large number for a public Yemeni page.5
The fourth and last page, Yahud al-Yaman (Yemen’s Jews), was established in December 2016 and has 70,000 followers. Unlike the others, it is the only page that has a clear political orientation and shares posts that indicate its loyalty to former President Saleh.6 In total, these pages have a considerably higher following than other Yemeni pages, which rarely exceed 10,000 followers, especially those that are not news oriented.
On Facebook, Yemeni Jewish accounts predominantly focus on culture and folklore through pictures and music, and rarely delve into politics. However, on Twitter, where the numbers of Yemeni users are far fewer, the content is considerably different. They tend to be very politicized, and despite being a relatively new phenomenon on the platform, two of these accounts already have a high number of followers.
Most accounts of Yemeni public figures or those involved in the public domain do not exceed 10,000 followers. In rare cases accounts may come close to 400,000 followers; for example, well-known personalities such as Hani Bin Breik, Vice-President of the Transitional Council, or former Prime Minister Ahmed Bin Dagher, or Houthi spokesman, Muhammad Abdul Salam. Others, like Yemeni Prime Minister Maeen Abdul Malik Saeed, have around 200,000 followers. There are also rumors that some public figures bought followers. This is especially visible in accounts that went from a low number of followers to half a million or a million followers, which is an exaggerated number given the low number of Yemeni users on Twitter as well as the lack of international interest in Yemeni affairs.
There are two well-known accounts representing the Yemeni Jewish community on Twitter. The first, Amos Qabbas al-Salem, was created in August 2019 and has 69,000 followers. This is a high number considering its recent launch and the low number of Yemeni users on Twitter. The second account is under a female name, Rosan Qabbas al-Salem. It was created in September 2019, shortly after the first account, and has a follower base slightly above 55,000. The Salem family name is well known among the Yemeni Jewish community, and both accounts share the name. Despite being two separate accounts, one belonging to a man and the other to a woman, the content and political orientation is quite similar.
Unlike the Yemeni Jewish accounts on Facebook, these accounts are highly politicized, although they often resort to humor and sarcasm. Their content is almost devoid of the usual folkloric songs and traditional pictures, aside from a few occasional pictures posted by Amos Qabbas, which perhaps had the aim of giving some credibility to the account.
Amos describes himself as being a Yemeni, who carries Yemen in him, while Rosan describes herself as a lieutenant in the Israeli army, a devoted Yemeni of Arab descent with a Sabaean vision. Both accounts have similar political orientations. The bulk of their criticism is towards the Arab Coalition, with a focus on the UAE, as well as the Houthis, the Transitional Council, and some members of the government. The Islah party and President Hadi are generally exempt from criticism, with Turkey mentioned positively, but no mention of Qatar.
It is striking that neither of them talks about life in Israel or about being a Jew. Oddly, Rosan actively defends Sunni Islam and accuses the UAE of targeting them. The most important question here is why, despite being obviously fake, are these two accounts so popular? And why are some people posing as Yemeni Jewish on social media to direct their political messages?
Why Yemeni Jewish accounts?
The surge of Yemeni Jewish accounts and their popularity came at the height of the debate on Yemen’s pre-Islamic identity in 2011. The discussion grew further following the Houthi assumption of power over the majority of North Yemen. Prior to Islam’s arrival, Yemen was mostly Jewish. This is where it enters the discussion on Yemen’s ancient identity prior to Islam, which was followed by the Imamate. This identity-driven trend is represented in another form by a group named al-Aqyal, borrowing from an old term that refers to the ancient Himyarite kings of Yemen. This group has public pages on Facebook that are promoted by some Yemeni writers and activists who support the reviving Yemen’s ancient identity, an idea which has gained popularity recently.
In this account, the Jews in Yemen are understood as the indigenous people of Yemen who had to face an invasion from Quraysh, who were Hashemites, and brought the idea of the Imamate with them.
This historical narrative became popular after the war, since it is directed mainly against the Houthis. According to this narrative, the Houthis are not indigenous Yemenis but are descendants of the Hashemites. The tribe of Quraysh, which the Hashemites belong to, is from the Arabs of the North while the Yemenis consider themselves Arabs of the South.
As for the Houthis, their slogan directly targets the Jews, and they are responsible for the expulsion of the Jewish community from Saada to Sana’a in 2004. Then once again when they took over Sana’a in 2014, they expelled the Jewish community, this time out of Yemen.7
Going back to al-Agyal group, the revival of Yemen’s ancient identity among its members, including Yemeni intellectuals, carries an implicit attack on the Islamic identity. From their perspective, Islam is considered a historical turning point that moved Yemen from a major cultural center on the peninsula to a marginal part of Islamic civilization.
Altogether the crisis of identity and nostalgia for the past are essential factors in the sudden positive engagement with the Jewish community in Yemen. In Yemen’s social ladder, Yemeni Jews were placed at the bottom, with the Sayyids (Hashemites) at the top, followed by the Qadis (judges) and tribal Sheikhs. Today it is still common practice to describe a person as a ‘Jew’ or ‘son of a Jew’ as an insult and a slur meaning ‘stingy’ or ‘miserly’.
Deeply rooted in social norms, even with the emergence of a positive attitude towards the Jewish community among some groups, anti-Semitism and negative views still lurk in the background. Since the Jew is a criterion for the worse, many comments come in the form of “even the Jews love their country which expelled and mistreated them”, “even the Jews reject what some Muslims accept, such as Israel’s takeover of Jerusalem”, or “likening the Houthis to the Jews because they break covenants and treaties”, or “they act with mistrust towards others”. So the conclusion is “even the Jews are better than the Houthis”.
In this context, Yemeni Jewish accounts assume neutrality in a sectarian struggle. It is easy to attack this or that on the pretext that it is sectarian or partisan. Assuming a person’s identity on the basis of family name is one of the obstacles to dialogue between Yemenis because most Yemenis cannot accept any political proposition without an indication of the author’s family name.
It is important also to point out that this phenomenon is not free from a certain covert normalization of the Israeli state. Mainly, it follows the premise that the priority in the region is to fight Iran, and that Yemen’s destruction is the result of an intervention led by Muslim countries and not Israel. It also promotes the idea that Yemen’s sectarian problem is a problem of Islam, and that Yemen’s war remains a neglected affair by neighboring Arab countries despite Yemen’s continuous support of other Arab affairs.
This is the background against which many Yemeni users accept and follow accounts like Rosan’s, who openly identifies as a lieutenant in the Israeli army. In reality, it is a major shift in the stance of Yemenis, who have always been strong supporters of the Palestinian cause.
This brings to mind the controversy that arose over the participation of Yemeni-Israeli musician, Zion Golan, in a wedding party of a relative of former President Saleh in the Jordanian capital Amman. Hussein Moheb, a Yemeni musician who also participated in the event, was subjected to a wide attack on social media, along with the family of the wedding party. For many Yemenis, this gesture was considered a form of soft and unacceptable normalization with Israel; even if the musician is of Yemeni origins, he is also Israeli. However, others defended the invitation on the premise that Zion Golan is a Yemeni who cannot be held responsible for being displaced outside of Yemen, and all his songs are about Yemen and its heritage. Some even believed that the campaign was supported by the Houthis who “are against everything that is Yemeni”.8
In conclusion, the emergence of Yemeni Jewish accounts cannot be separated from the questions of identity raised by the war in Yemen. These have not yet been resolved and are still under discussion as they continue to stir controversy, which is normal during civil wars and conflicts. That said, at a local level it is one of many attempts among political factions to search for platforms in which impartiality is assumed, making it easy to gain popularity. At a regional level, however, it is part of a new wave that minimizes the danger of Israel in favor of stressing the danger of other internal and regional parties.
Similar to their predecessors in 2011, these accounts are expected to disappear once their political function ends or their popularity declines.
Maysaa Shuja Al-Deen is a non-resident writer and researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies. Her writing has appeared in Al-Monitor, Carnegie, Al-Arabi Al-Jadeed, Al Jazeera, Jadaliya, Democracy now, and the Atlantic Council, among others.