The Other Refugees

On May 30, two surprising resolutions dealing with the issue of Middle East refugees were introduced into the House and Senate. They call on President Bush to specifically guarantee international recognition of a certain Middle East refugee population-but not the population that likely comes to mind for most of the world. In fact, these resolutions seek to secure recognition of Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, and ask U.S. representatives to ensure that in all international arenas, when the issue of Middle East refugees arises, “any explicit reference to Palestinian refugees is matched by a similar explicit reference to Jewish and other refugees, as a matter of law and equity.”

Though not binding, if passed, the resolutions would express the spirit and intent of Congress. The resolutions have been sent to committee-in the House, to the International Relations Committee, and in the Senate, to the Foreign Affairs Committee-where they will be reviewed and then sent back to the floor for a vote. Those backing the resolutions anticipate that they will be adopted during this session of Congress, which concludes at year’s end.

Just who are these Jewish refugees? What were they running from? Where did they go? And why, for the most part, is their plight unknown? These questions prompted The David Project, in conjunction with IsraTV, to produce The Forgotten Refugees, a groundbreaking documentary about the mass exodus of Jews from Arab countries and Iran in the 20th century. The film, which has been screened at dozens of film festivals and on several PBS stations, will air on the Jewish Broadcasting Network on Sunday, August 13 at 7:30 p.m.

Joseph Abdel Wahed was born in Cairo in the 1930’s. The son of a successful Jewish businessman, Wahed has fond memories of his childhood in Cairo-its historic pyramids, flowing Nile river, street vendors and vibrant Jewish community of 80,000. “But,” says Wahed, “I also remember the darker side: my lost childhood, neighbors and school friends I will never see again, the harassment, the killings of innocent Jewish families, the sudden and unlawful confiscation of Jewish property. Most of all, I can still feel like it was only yesterday the deep and intense fear for our lives as crowds shouted edbah el Yahud (slaughter the Jews).”

In 1945 there were close to one million Jews living in the Middle East and North Africa, many of these Jewish communities dating back 2,500 years. Loyal citizens who contributed to every facet of society-music, politics, law, medicine-they saw their entire civilization virtually snuffed out over the course of thirty years. Hounded by state-sanctioned and -orchestrated persecution, they fled en masse. Today, there are only a handful of Jews left in Arab countries.

But the persecution of Jews in the Middle East and North Africa is not a new phenomenon. Virtually since the advent of Islam in the 7th century, Jews (along with Christians) living in Islamic countries were classified as dhimmi, literally “protected people.” Sadly, such “protection” translated into humiliating regulations designed to make non-Muslims subservient to their Muslim neighbors. Though the degree to which dhimmi laws were applied varied by time and place, they typically forbade Jews from riding certain animals and building or repairing synagogues. They also required Jews to pay exorbitant taxes, wear distinguishing clothing (providing the Nazis with a model for the yellow star) and perform all kinds of degrading tasks.

For thousands of years, the dhimmi degradations eroded relations between Muslims and Jews, fostering a culture of intolerance. Even in the best of times, the position of Jews within Arab societies was precarious. The situation of Jews grew more dangerous after the birth of the State of Israel in 1948, as virtually all Arab countries either declared or supported war against Israel. “I was only 12 years old,” recalls Wahed, “when I turned on the radio and heard Azzam Pacha, the president of the Arab League, announce, ‘This will be a war of extermination, like the Mongolian massacre or the Crusades.’ It spread a cascading chill of fear down my spine for the Jews of Egypt and the newborn state of Israel.”

In Syria, as a result of anti-Jewish pogroms that erupted in Aleppo in 1947, 7,000 of the town’s 10,000 Jews fled in terror, while in Egypt, more than 70 Jews were murdered by bombs in the Jewish Quarter of Cairo. Varying numbers of Jews escaped from 10 Arab countries, becoming refugees in a region overwhelmingly hostile to Jews.

Little is heard about these Jewish refugees because the vast majority of them were resettled in Israel. Of the nearly one million Jewish refugees who fled, roughly two-thirds sought refuge in the Jewish state. They and their descendants now constitute a little more than half of Israel’s Jewish population. Many of the families of Israel’s most prominent politicians and celebrities- among them Moshe Katsav, Sarit Hadad and Dana International- were driven from their homes in places like Iran, Yemen and Syria.

We know the Middle East is a highly volatile region, and so the mere fact of anti- Jewish persecution should be appalling but not surprising. What is shocking, however, is the fact that the plight- even the existence-of this significant segment of the Jewish population has been virtually cut out of history. “During these 50 years of exile, we were forgotten by the rest of the world,” says Wahed.

It was the notable silence around this issue that prompted The David Project to reach out to Jews from Arab countries, to ask them to tell their stories and ultimately give them a voice they never had. Justice requires that the history of an entire Jewish civilization not be lost, either to the Jewish people or to the rest of the world.

But this issue is important for another reason. It is a crucial corrective to the popular conception of the Arab-Israeli conflict. First, it demonstrates the historic persecution of Jews living under Islam and thus makes a lie of the notion that Zionism is the sole cause of Arab or Muslim animosity toward the Jews. Second, the simple fact is that Jews are indigenous to the Middle East and have maintained a significant presence there since time immemorial. If this seems obvious, it is worth repeating for the benefit of those like the president of Iran who recently instructed Jews to “go back to Europe.” Ironically, Israel’s President Moshe Katsav was himself born in Iran, in the same city as Ahmadinezhad’s predecessor. Finally, this issue demonstrates that two refugee populations were created by the Arab-Israeli conflict-one Jewish and one Palestinian-and that any just resolution must take into consideration the plight of both.

In fact, the resolutions recently introduced into Congress on the issue of refugees are part of a broader international initiative to secure recognition of the plight of Jewish refugees. The International Rights and Redress Campaign, which will launch in earnest in November, seeks to gather personal testimonies revealing this mass violation of human rights and the persecution of Jewish minorities by Arab regimes. “It would constitute an injustice were the United States to recognize rights for one victim population-Palestinian refugees-without recognizing equal rights of former Jewish refugees from Arab countries,” said Stanley A. Urman, executive director of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries. “Both were victims of the very same Middle East conflict and the rights of Jewish refugees must be addressed.”

The necessity for such a campaign highlights a phenomenon that is essential to understanding why this issue has been neglected for so long: Jewish refugees from Arab countries have largely been reluctant to speak about their turbulent history, even to their families. Instead of defining themselves as victims and seeking pity from the world, these individuals for the most part sought, through their own initiative, to guarantee for their children the opportunity and freedom of which they were deprived. Their will to move on is noble, and yet, with each passing year, the need for their story to be told grows stronger. “We don’t want to be forgotten anymore,” remarks Wahed in the final chapter of the film. This community appears ready to share its stories-now the world must prepare itself to listen. To learn more, we invite you to visit www.theforgottenrefugees.com.

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