Area Jews who fled Arab lands want concerns on table

But that changed when Gamal Abdul Nasser came to power in 1954. "That's when the problems started," said the San Francisco resident. "They started kicking us out."

A retired economist for Wells Fargo Bank, Wahed has long been active in Bay Area Jewish causes. And now he is among the founders of a new group, the Bay Area-based Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, or JIMENA, which is forming under the auspices of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Close to 800,000 Jews were forced out of Arab countries around the time the state of Israel was created, according to JIMENA members. And most went into exile without their possessions.

While members hope that sharing their perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will lead to a heightened awareness, they also hope to preserve their culture and integrate it into Jewish institutions and curriculums. Education — of both the Jewish community and the community at large — is JIMENA's primary goal.

Although Wahed's family lost everything when they fled Egypt in the '50s, he is not interested in receiving reparations. He is just seeking parity in a debate that he considers woefully one-sided.

The concerns of Palestinian refugees have certainly come to the forefront of media coverage on the Mideast conflict. "But no one hardly ever mentions the other side of the refugee problem: those Jews kicked out mercilessly from Arab countries," said Wahed, whose great-grandfather changed the family name to an Arabic one. "We thought it's unfair. There should be a more balanced analysis of this problem."

At the time of Israel's formation, Palestinians were not the only people to become refugees, he added. "Two groups of people became refugees. When the Arabs invaded Palestine, they created the refugee problem and we thought it's about time we tell our story to the outside world."

Another widely held misconception, according to Wahed, is that before the birth of the state of Israel, Jews in Arab countries lived harmoniously with their neighbors for centuries.

While on the one hand, Wahed said he suffered no discrimination as a Jew in Cairo, on the other, "my family was never fully accepted there as citizens." For instance, they were never able to hold Egyptian passports.

A member of the Karaite Jews of America congregation in Daly City, Wahed remains closely attached to his culture — one that diverges strongly from that of European Jews. Ideally, he would like Ashkenazi Jews to become more knowledgeable about Jews from other cultures.

"I know more about the Holocaust than the Ashkenazim know about us." he said. "We went and rioted in front of the Russian Embassy asking to free Russian Jews. I'd like to see a similar commitment to fight for us, too."

Wahed is adamant that he is not interested in financial compensation for his family's loss.

"Compensation realistically is symbolic. The Arabs will never give me back a penny what they took from us."

On the other hand, he believes he is entitled to compensation if a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians includes reparations for the Palestinians, because "we left 100 times more in the Arab world than Arabs left in Palestine at that time."

Another member of JIMENA, Semha Alwaya, of Berkeley left Iraq as a baby. She, too, says her decision to get involved in the organization is motivated by a need to dispel the myths about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A major one is that Jews of Arab lands left their homes for Israel by their own volition.

"The Jews of Iraq had been there 2,500 years," she said. "You would have to stretch the imagination to think that all of a sudden, if they were so happy there, they would go to a swampy place, wanting to live in crowded little homes and work with the land when they had palaces back at home."

Unfortunately, Alwaya believes myths like this one serves as a major obstacle in solving the conflict."Had we not been absorbed in Israel, our situation would be the same as the Palestinian refugees," she said.

JIMENA is only trying to level the battlefield, she said, adding that if anyone should empathize with the plight of the Palestinians, it should be Jews from Arab lands.

"We were brought up in that same culture," said Alwaya. "But if my feelings are not respected, there is no way I can respect someone else's feelings. We need to tell the other side 'Let's leave this issue out of the picture. You're not the only ones suffering.'"

Information on JIMENA: Yitzhak Santis, executive director of the Peninsula JCRC, (650) 493-5413.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."