“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.’”
Jews 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 frantic mother.
"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 Congress.
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 comprehensive peace."
"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 $100 billion.
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 killed.
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 were widespread.
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 interpretations.
"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 home country."
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 reasons."
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 confiscated.
"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 member.
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 difficult time.
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 Hussein.
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 homelands."