In its zeal and need to address the plight of Palestinians, the world
allowed the plight of the Jewish refugees to fall by the wayside, Stanley
A. Urman of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries recently explained.
Jews who fled Arab lands now press their cause; Refugees
advocates link issue to Palestinians claims on Israel (San
Francisco Chronicle, March 28), by Chronicle Staff Writer Jack
Epstein, highlights the much overlooked plight of Jewish refugees from Arab
lands. At a time when Palestinian activists are renewing their demand that
Palestinian refugees and their descendants return to Israel
often a thinly veiled call for dissolution of the Jewish state articles
on the plight of Jewish refugees offer essential context and help provide
balance to the media's general Mideast coverage.
Epstein points out that the idea of Arab compensation for the 800,000-plus
Jewish refugees a number approximate to the number of Palestinian Arabs
who left Israel during the 1948 and 1967 wars is now garnering
significant Congressional support. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), in fact, has
introduce(d) a resolution that would instruct U.S. envoys to raise the
Jewish refugee issue every time the Palestinian refugee issue is raised as
an integral part of any comprehensive peace.
who fled Arab lands now press their cause
Refugees' advocates link issue to Palestinians' claims on Israel
Jack Epstein, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, March 28, 2004
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle
Regina Bublil Waldman, a Libya-born Jew, still recalls the minute details of
the day 37 years ago when her homeland turned against her.
The ordeal began in June of 1967, after the then-19-year-old translator for
a British engineering firm in Tripoli received a phone call at work from her
"Don't come home. There's a mob outside the house,"
Waldman's mother told her. "Find a place to hide."
Waldman, who now lives in San Rafael, is a Mizrahi Jew, one of nearly 856,
000 Jews who fled Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia
and Yemen in an exodus that began after the establishment of the state of
Israel in 1948 and ended about 1970. Today, only an estimated 5,000 Jews remain
in Arab lands, most of them in Morocco.
In recent months, independent Jewish groups have begun a concerted effort on
behalf of these "forgotten refugees," who they say were ignored by
the global community after being absorbed by other countries -- mostly Israel
-- while Palestinian refugees captured worldwide sympathy for living in
squalid camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Gaza Strip. According to the
United Nations, 726,000 Palestinians were forced out or voluntarily left the
new state of Israel.
"In its zeal and need to address the plight of Palestinians, the world
allowed the plight of the Jewish refugees to fall by the wayside," said
Stanley A. Urman, executive director of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, a
New York-based coalition of 27 Jewish organizations.
The campaign for justice for the Mizrahi Jews has strong support in
On Monday, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., is scheduled to introduce a resolution
that would instruct U.S. envoys to raise the Jewish refugee issue every time
the Palestinian refugee issue is raised as "an integral part of any
"The senator believes it's important to move forward in the peace
negotiations by considering all refugees, whether Christian, Jewish or
Palestinian," said Robert Traynham, Santorum's communications director.
Last year, House Resolution 311 called on the international community to
recognize Jewish refugees who "fled Arab countries because they faced a
campaign of ethnic cleansing and were forced to leave behind land, private
homes, personal effects, businesses, community assets and thousands of years of
their Jewish heritage and history."
The World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries, a group affiliated with
Urman's coalition, estimates the value of the confiscated property at more than
The attacks against Waldman's family -- her father's warehouse, where he
sold equipment to oil companies, was torched -- and on Libya's estimated 3,750
to 6,000 Jews began soon after the opening salvo of what is known as the Six
Day War in Israel and "the setback" in the Arab world. Synagogues,
homes and businesses were looted and burned, and more than 100 Jews were
Waldman hid out for a month at her employer's home while her father
maneuvered to get the family out of Libya -- tricky business for people without
passports. Most Libyan Jews had been denied citizenship even though many could
trace their descendants back to the third century B.C.
A month later, the entire Jewish community -- including Waldman, her
parents, grandparents, an uncle and a brother -- was expelled by King Idris I.
After a harrowing ride to the Tripoli airport -- her British boss rescued the
family when the bus driver tried to burn the vehicle -- the family flew to
Italy, where most still live today.
"We lost all our property," said Waldman, a longtime Bay Area
human rights activist and member of Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and
North Africa (JIMENA), a San Francisco group that sends speakers throughout the
United States to speak about the plight of Jews from Arab countries. "My
father fell into a deep depression from not being the family breadwinner in
Italy. He became suicidal."
Both Waldman and Urman insist that the campaign for Jewish refugees is not
about diminishing Palestinians' claim for redress, but about raising awareness
that Arab governments drove them out of their homelands.
Jews were stripped of their citizenship in Egypt, Iraq, Algeria and Libya;
detained or arrested in Algeria, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Iraq and Egypt; deprived
of employment by government decrees in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen and
Algeria, and had their property confiscated in all of the Arab lands except
Morocco, according to Justice for Jews from Arab Countries. Anti-Jewish riots
Emily Gottreich, vice chair of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UC
Berkeley, considers the 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors the
"turning point" in sparking anti-Jewish sentiment, not the creation
of Israel 19 years previously. "There was so much emotion at that time in
the Arab world," she said. "That's when things became very untenable
for Jews in the Middle East."
Gottreich also argues that hostility toward Jews was a product of the
community's close relationships to the region's then-colonial powers.
"It's not an Arab-Jewish thing as much as what happened after the settling
of the dust once the European powers left," she said. "In Algeria,
for example, most Jews left en masse when the French pulled out."
But Yitzhak Santis, director of Middle East Affairs of the San
Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council, disagrees. He says there is
proof of premeditated collusion among Arab governments to force Jews out of
their countries once Israel was created.
"We found minutes of a meeting of the political committee of the Arab
League in 1948 where they discussed what to do with their Jewish populations if
Israel was formed," Santis said.
But like most historical events in the Middle East, there are divergent
"There is no evidence that there was a master plan on the part of Arab
governments to expel Jews. There are no archives. Arab governments were all
tyrannies that were closed," said Asad Abukalil, a Lebanon-born professor
of political science at California State University at Stanislaus.
"Hostility (against Jews) varied from state to state. In Morocco they
could stay. In Iraq, they were stripped of their citizenship en masse. In
Lebanon, where I grew up, there was no government program against Jews."
While the debate rages, advocates for Jewish refugees are trying to push the
issue on the agenda of a final Mideast peace agreement "as a matter of law
and equity," said Urman, a former Canadian reporter.
Some Palestinian activists find this troubling.
"There should be no linkage of one refugee problem with another,"
said Jess Khanem, a member of the executive committee of the Palestinian Right
to Return Coalition and president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination
Committee in San Francisco. "It's not a Palestinian problem or issue. If
any person feels wrongfully displaced, that needs to be addressed with their
Meanwhile, most Middle East observers agree that the fall of Saddam Hussein
in Iraq and the recent transformation of Libya's Moammar Khadafy have boosted
the cause of Jews from Arab countries.
The U.S. occupation of Iraq led to an interim constitution this month that
calls for the Iraqi government to make restitution to those who lost
citizenship and property for "political, racial or sectarian
Khadafy, who wants to restore diplomatic relations with the United States,
sent emissaries to Vienna in January to discuss with Israeli officials the
possibility of visits by Jews of Libyan descent, according to the Israeli
newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. Al-Siyasa, a Kuwaiti daily, reported that Khadafy
is also considering compensation for Libyan Jews whose properties were
"After years of stonewalling, to have two Muslim countries say it is
right to compensate is a tremendous change," said Urman.
In Iraq, the estimated 135,000-member Jewish community was once one of the
largest in the Arab world. But after the creation of Israel in 1948, government
edicts removed Jews from public service, and barred them from entering
universities, traveling abroad or buying and selling property.
Such harsh laws caused more than 100,000 Jews to emigrate to Israel in 1951
in an airlift known as Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. That same year, the Iraqi
parliament passed the Deprivation of Stateless Jews of Their Property Law aimed
at Jews who had renounced their citizenship, a pre-condition for emigration.
A series of bombings of Jewish institutions and more laws that limited their
freedom persuaded the remaining 6,000 Iraqi Jews to leave in the early 1950s.
As a result, an estimated 300,000 Iraqi Jews and their descendants now live in
Israel and 40,000 elsewhere.
One is Emeryville attorney Semha Alwaya, who left Baghdad with her parents
in 1951 when she was just 6 months old. She is a member of a prominent Iraqi
family -- her great-uncle was the finance minister, and her grandfather served
as director of Bedouin affairs under the British mandate (1917 to 1932).
After leaving Iraq, her family lived in transit camps in Israel for two
years before moving to Iran for 12 years, where Alwaya's father sold insurance
and her younger brother Albert was born. The family later settled in Israel.
"We lost our home and our bank accounts and were sent out with just 20
dinars and the clothes on our back," said Alwaya, who is also a JIMENA
Alwaya, who has taught Arabic at UC Berkeley and Stanford, says she has no
plan to reclaim her family home in Iraq. "We are not interested in
economics, but justice -- you can't put a price on that," she said.
However, Iraqi Jews who do want to reclaim their properties may have a
In July, Ayatollah Kadim al-Haeri, a Shiite cleric who lives in Iran, issued
a fatwa demanding death for Jews who buy property in Iraq. In Baghdad and
Fallujah, reporters have seen signs that warn Iraqis not to "stab your
fellow Iraqis in the heart" by selling land to "al
Yahud" - "the Jews." "Credible or not, there has been
a lot of press in the Arab world of Iraqi Jews returning on American tanks to
buy up property," said Abukalil. "If they are seen as an appendage of
the American occupation, it will hurt their cause."
Perhaps that explains the language in the interim constitution that requires
the Iraqi government to "restore residents to their homes and property,
or, where this is unfeasible, provide just compensation (for) the injustice
caused by the previous regime's practice." Jewish groups hope the wording
isn't a device for limiting restitution to abuses committed only under Saddam
In Baghdad, Ibrahim Jaffari, one of nine rotating presidents of the
25-member Iraqi Governing Council, tried to assuage those fears: "Religion
does not matter in the new Iraq. Iraq now allows all people of Iraqi origin to
return, be they Muslims, Jews or Christians."
Hamid al-Kifaey, a spokesman for the Governing Council, insisted that future
Iraqi governments will not amend the constitution to discriminate against Jews
once U.S. occupation ends. "Whether or not (U.S. administrator of Iraq
Paul) Bremer goes, this law will stand," he said. "We'll give them
(Jews) their rights."
Meanwhile, Waldman and Alwaya are waiting for other Arab governments to
acknowledge that they too were human rights violators.
"The Japanese apologized for the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Germans
apologized for World War II, and Pope John Paul II apologized for Catholics who
attacked Jews for murdering Jesus," said Alwaya. "It's time for Arab
countries to acknowledge that Jews in the Middle East were kicked out of their