For Jewish ex-refugees, it’s about recognition, not politics
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November 30 marks expulsion and flight of 900,000 Middle Eastern and North African Jews since creation of Israel

For Jewish ex-refugees, it’s about recognition, not politics

Having been forced to flee their homelands, Middle Eastern Jews seek redress and insist their claims have nothing to do with the Palestinians

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Gina Waldman, president of Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA) in Jerusalem, November 30, 2014 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
Gina Waldman, president of Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA) in Jerusalem, November 30, 2014 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

Forty-three years after leaving his native Lebanon, Rabbi Elie Abadie boasts of the 3,000 Arab songs that he listens to regularly on his cellphone.

Shortly after the establishment of Israel in 1948, Abadie’s parents were forced to flee Aleppo, Syria, where his family had lived for millennia, under government pressure. Abadie, born in Beirut in 1960, hit the road with his family as it moved again in 1971, this time for Mexico, when the PLO relocated its headquarters from Jordan, where it was no longer welcome, to Lebanon.

“We lived in Lebanon with no citizenship, as registered refugees. Our identity documents read ‘stateless,'” Abadie recalled in a conversation with The Times of Israel on Sunday.

November 30 has been designated by the Knesset as the official day of commemoration for the expulsion and flight of some 900,000 Middle Eastern and North African Jews since the creation of Israel. The Jewish communities of the Middle East and North Africa shrank from a population of 856,000 in 1948 to under 4,400 today, said MK Shimon Ohayon (Israel Beytenu), who drafted the bill.

“Two thousand five hundred years of Jewish history came to an end in 25 years,” Ohayon told journalists at a press event in Jerusalem. “In Israel, nobody knows this history.”

It was former deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon who began the diplomatic drive to publicize the plight of Middle Eastern Jews driven out of their native lands. Ayalon’s critics accused him of opportunistically dubbing such Jews “refugees” as a counterbalance to Palestinian claims to refugee status and the right to return to reclaim homes and property lost during Israel’s War of Independence.

Rabbi Dr. Elie Abadie, co-president of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, November 30, 2014 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
Rabbi Dr. Elie Abadie, co-president of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, November 30, 2014 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

But Abadie, a gastroenterologist and rabbi of the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue in Manhattan — as well as the co-president of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC), an advocacy organization created in 1999 — rejected that critique.

“Ours isn’t a claim against Palestinian refugees,” he said. “We leave the political matters for the politicians, but the rights of Jews should simply be recognized. These Jews qualify as refugees under international law and there’s no statute of limitation on their claims. For any peace process to be credible, redress, truth and reconciliation are needed on both sides.”

Gina Waldman (nee Boublil) left Libya in 1967, when thousands of Muslim rioters took to the streets following the Six Day War, destroying Jewish property, including her father’s warehouse. Waldman, who was 19 at the time, hid for a month in the home of a British colleague.

At that point, the government ordered the expulsion of the remaining Jews of Libya and expropriated their property. Waldman’s family was ordered to head for the airport, allowed to take just one suitcase and $20 each. Following an arduous trip — during which her parents were almost burned alive by the bus driver who transported them — the family flew to Malta, and from there to Rome. The Libyan Jewish community, numbering 38,000 in 1948, shrank to 500 two decades later, according to data collected by the American Jewish Committee.

Waldman settled in San Francisco, where in 2001 she founded Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA), an organization committed to education and the collection of oral histories of Jewish refugees.

A Jewish wedding in Baghdad, date unknown photo credit: courtesy/JIMENA
A Jewish wedding in Baghdad, date unknown (photo credit: courtesy/JIMENA)

“I feel as though the chapter of our history was torn out of the Jewish history book,” Waldman told The Times of Israel. “Most Israelis originally from Arab countries don’t know their own histories.”

In 2011 JIMENA began translating the personal accounts it collected into Arabic and Persian with the help of Middle Eastern dissidents, launching an Arabic Facebook page last year which has already garnered 10,000 followers.

“We feel that unless the Arab young generation is educated, our job is not complete,” she said. “We get tremendously positive reactions.”

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