Jews from Arab lands gather to share forgotten story

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 injustice.

"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 organizations.

About 300 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 chairman 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 subjected to."

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."