‘Forgotten’ Jews Address Injustice
Addressing a conference of Jews predominately from the Middle
East and North Africa, keynote speaker Stan Urman delivered a quip that
underscored the sentiments of many audience members.
“When I first heard about your group, JIMENA [Jews
Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa], and knowing that it originated
from California, I thought it was wonderful that there was a group of Hispanic
people concerned about the plight of Jewish refugees,” said Urman.
Urman, the executive director of the Center for Middle East
Peace and Economic Cooperation, followed his humorous opening remarks with some
pointed remarks Sunday at JIMENA’s conference held at San Francisco’s Reform
Congregation Sherith Israel.
“Why have this discussion now?” Urman asked rhetorically.
“The answer is because the Jewish community is appalled by the ignorance of the
world to the facts of the situation, and because as the living witnesses to
history pass on, it becomes even more pressing that we address this historical
“Whenever the ‘conflict’ in the Middle East is addressed,
Palestinian and Arab refugees are always referred to,” Urman continued, “but
where are the stories of Jews from Arab lands whose property has been
confiscated? Those stories are rarely told.”
The conference, “Forgotten Refugees: Jews Expelled From Arab
Countries,” was sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council, JIMENA and
the Jewish Community Endowment Fund of the Jewish Community Federation. Support
came from the World Jewish Congress and other local and national Jewish
About 300 people attended the four-hour event, hearing and
sharing testimonials detailing imprisonment at internment camps, mass
deportations, rape and ethnic cleansing. The stories were interspersed throughout
the conference, which also featured panels on community activism, the role of
the United Nations in the Middle East and a keynote address by Algerian-born
Jew Eric Benhamou, the chair of 3Com Corp.
Urman went on to debunk what he considered to be a slipshod
analogy between the two groups of refugees. “Israel, in its infancy, absorbed
650,000 Jews from the Diaspora, whereas the Arab countries, with the exception
of Jordan, turned their back on the Palestinians and used them as a political
weapon for the past 55 years.
“There is no symmetry, and no comparison.”
Urman, a Canadian Jew of European ancestry, offered some of
the guiding principles of the conference. He recalled the “rich heritage of
Jewish culture in Arab lands,” and advocated “exposing the myth that there is a
greater number of Palestinian refugees than Jewish refugees from Arab lands,”
citing the “state-mandated hate that Jewish residents of Arab lands were
Urman also called for financial restitution to Jewish
refugees exiled from Arab countries and insisted that any Palestinian-Israeli
accords include discussion of that restitution.
Yitzhak Santis, the director of Middle East affairs for the
JCRC, echoed Urman’s comments, adding that a movement to redress the grievances
of Jewish refugees from Arab countries is just beginning to gain momentum.
“There really cannot be true justice and reconciliation in
the Middle East, and between Israel and the Palestinians until this issue is
fully addressed and made part of the final settlement equation,” Santis said.
Spinning a joke about the prevailing Jewish paradigm, JIMENA
co-chair Joseph Abdel Wahed said, “There aren’t too many Goldbergs or
Goldsteins here this afternoon, but there are plenty of Semhas and Wahbas.
“We’d like to change the perception of the organized Jewish
community,” said the Egyptian-born Wahed. “After World War II, the focus was on
[the fact that] European Jews had been slaughtered, and rightly so.
“But there were hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab lands
who also lost their lives and property. Our story isn’t very well-known, and
now is the time to finally tell it to the world.”