JIMENA kicks off quest to document dispossession of Arab Jews

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Yes, a shade under 900,000 Jews were expelled from Arab countries in 1948, the vast majority of them shaken down for all they were worth before being unceremoniously shown the door.

Stanley Urman wants to get that in writing.

The executive director of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries is helping to launch an international advocacy campaign to collect testimony and documentation of the “murder, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, stripping of citizenship and seizure of property” suffered by Jews prior to their expulsion.

“The primary objective is to ensure that the rights of former Jewish refugees from Arab countries are dealt with in any Middle East peace process,” said Urman, who will be in the Bay Area next week to meet with the San Francisco-based Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA) for a briefing on the campaign.

“Whenever there’s an explicit reference to Palestinian refugees, there must also be a reference to Jewish refugees. This is not about money. It’s about rights and recognition.”

The first thing Urman would like is a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t from the Arab nations themselves, which have never formally acknowledged the organized plunder and expulsion of their Jewish communities — communities that had been in place since long before the birth of Jesus.

And the redress for the Jews’ expulsion isn’t as simple as cutting a few hundred thousand checks and dropping them in the mail.

“It could be endowment funds to protect Jewish holy cites like cemeteries. It might be setting up chairs at a university to study the rich culture of Mizrachi Jews in Arab countries. And it might also be compensation for lost communal and personal property,” said Urman, a Quebec-born New Jerseyan who does not have a drop of Arab Jewish blood in his veins but finds himself compelled to the cause.

Urman sometimes finds himself on the receiving end of harangues by pro-Palestinians who say that by raising the issue, he is deliberately tossing a monkey wrench into any possible Mideast peace plan.

Not so, he says. But the world should stop treating the Palestinians as if they have a monopoly on the refugee business.

“Why have the rights of Palestinian refugees gotten such wide-ranging recognition? At last count, 101 United Nations resolutions focused on the rights of Palestinian refugees. Not one has focused on Jewish refugees,” he said.

“Why? There are those who say Israel was created to take Jewish refugees, so there’s no need to take care of this issue. Meanwhile, the Arab world has turned its back on the Palestinians, and all of the sudden they’re the wards of the international community. There are those who say there was a deliberate attempt by the Arab world to not allow any resolutions to be discussed by the U.N. There are those who say that because of the Soviet and Third World and Islamic blocs, there’s no way any pro-Jewish resolution could have found the light of day. And there are those who say anti-Semitism.”

But, Urman maintains, progress is being made. He points to recent comments by Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, who stated “A refugee is a refugee. I think we’ve got to be prepared [to take Jewish claims] into consideration.”

Still, “success could dissolve into failure” if written records of human rights abuses and communal and personal losses aren’t produced. So, in March of 2006, an effort to collect such records will be launched in 14 nations.

“We’re encouraging people to write their stories and register their losses,” Urman said.

Locals with a story to tell are encouraged to contact JIMENA at (415) 977-7407.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.