Thursday, September 4, 2008
The Forgotten Refugees
At the Arab Cultural fair in Golden Gate Park, the flags of the Arab world hung proud and straight, except for the Palestinian flag. Ex- English majors can find whatever symbolism they want in that.
Thanks to our friends at Oakland Women in Black for sharing their experiences.
Debate on the middle east often focuses on the plight of the Palestinians refugees, perpetual victims of the Arab leadership which has turned them into pawns in the battle to destroy Israel. Until very recently, little has been heard about the Jews who fled Arab countries after Israel's founding in 1948, leaving behind assets valued today at more than $300 billion. These refugees hold property deeds on a total area of about 100,000 sq. km. -- five times the size of the State of Israel.
A May 16, 1948 New York Times article "Jews in Grave Danger in Moslem Lands: Nine Hundred Thousand in Africa and Asia Face Wrath of Their Foes" by Mallory Browne stated "There are indications that a stage is being set for a tragedy of incalculable proportions". Yet the story of these refugees has been largely ignored.
Fortunately, that is changing. In March, 2008 Regina Bublil Waldman of Jimena, dressed in her traditional Libyan garb gave a talk to the UN Human Rights Council. A month later, the U.S. House of Representatives approved an unprecedented resolution recognizing Jewish refugees from Arab countries . According to H. Res. 185, U.S. officials involved in Middle East peace negotiations which reference the Palestinian refugee question are to "also include a similarly explicit reference to the resolution of the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries." In July, 2008 - the first hearing in a European Parliament was organized by Paulo Casaca, with the European Friends of Israel and B'nai B'rith in association with Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, the international coalition of organizations that seek justice for the Jews displaced from Arab lands.
With recent attention on the Jews from Arab lands, the organizers of the 14th Annual Arab Cultural Fair still seemed angry when a dozen activists showed up in Golden Gate park in San Francisco bearing signs describing the ethnic cleansings of Jews from Arab lands . The group, Oakland Women In Black decided that the time had come to bring public awareness to the forgotten refugees of 1948, the Jews expelled from Arab lands.
Oakland Women in Black describe themselves as Jews and allies who stand against injustices tolerated by others, rejecting the notion that some people are worthy victims. They have broken off from the other Bay area Women in Black groups in their belief that all people, not just a select few, have the right to security, home, education, justice and freedom.
There had always been a Jewish presence in the Arab world. Since the expulsions of the indigenous Jews, this important thread is missing from the rich cultural tapestry of the Arab world. The Oakland Women in Black prepared informative signs showing the numbers of Jews in respective Arab countries before the expulsions and at present.
Tunisia 1948 Jewish population: 105,000 2008: 1,500
Algeria 1948 Jewish population: 140,000 2008: 100
Egypt 1948 Jewish population: 75,000 2008: 100
The group maintained a solemn vigil, dressed in black and bearing silent witness to the destroyed Jewish communities of Arab land. And, true to form, festival organizers called the police. This tactic shouldn't surprise anyone. The Arab Cultural Fair is, after all, headed by Jess Ghannam , a member of the executive committee of the extremist group Al Awda the Palestinian Right to Return Coalition who never misses an opportunity to bash Israel. To their credit, the San Francisco Police department immediately recognized Ghannam's charade, and declined to be used as an instrumentality of oppression.
Reactions from Fair participants was mixed- many welcomed the information and acknowledged the shared heritage. A conversation that began with the accusation "You stole our falafel" met the response "I also ‘stole’ enchiladas and lasagna, and I'm glad I did. Isn't it great we can enjoy and share and learn from each other?" It became a discussion of the Bay areas favorite topic beside politics- food. Recipes were compared and exchanged. Yet others took the vigil as an opportunity to argue. A Palestinian with his blonde wife and child maintained that Israel discriminated against him because he was “brown”. The fact that he was as white as snowfall didn’t faze him a bit. Being mistaken for a Jew a moment later- now that was offensive! Ahmed, an insurance salesman representing Prudential, left his table on numerous occasions to shriek at the vigil regarding the 7 or was it 9 million Palestinian refugees, the number escalating with each tirade. Ahmeds' ad hominem attacks on the silent group were a shrill reminder of the intolerance that remains an major obstacle to peace in the region.