Israel’s victory was Jews’ misfortune in neighboring states

Imagine if, every Friday night, your mother prepared dinner with fresh food your father brought home from the market. Sundown welcomed Shabbat, and with it, the smell of roasted tomatoes and spices mingled with fresh fish.

This was Gina Waldman’s Libya. Until June 1967.

When Israel defeated its Arab neighbors in the Six-Day War, Waldman’s government and its people made life nearly unbearable for Libyan Jews.

The day after the war began, a mob of protesters surrounded her parents’ home, shouting “Slaughter the Jews!” and other obscenities. Her mother warned her not to come home. For six weeks, Waldman stayed on a co-worker’s couch and her parents could not leave their house. They were afraid they would be killed.

“I would say the war was bittersweet,” said Waldman, who now lives in Tiburon. “Sweet because Israel won, and bitter because we lost our home. The Libyan Jewish community is totally extinct today.”

Life had not been easy for Arab Jews in North Africa and the Middle East since the creation of a Jewish state, but the results of the 1967 war made a difficult life even harder. Across the region, governments squashed the rights of Jews. They were expelled, jailed, or in some cases, killed.

Even though Waldman’s parents observed the Sabbath, they were never able to openly or publicly observe Jewish holidays or events. They were not considered citizens of their country. They were not allowed to have a telephone.

In Tunisia, just next-door to Libya, Jews were attacked after the Six-Day War by rioting Arab mobs, and synagogues and shops were burned.

In Iraq in 1968, many were jailed upon the discovery of an alleged local “spy ring” composed of Jewish businessmen. Fourteen men — 11 of them Jews — were sentenced to death in staged trials and then hanged in the public squares of Baghdad, according to the New York-based Justice for Jews in Arab Countries. No Jews remain in Iraq today.

Israel absorbed thousands of Arab Jews after 1967. Others went to France, Italy and the United States. They left their lives behind, but took their culture, cuisine and traditions with them.

In the Bay Area, many have found a new community through JIMENA, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, a group co-founded by Waldman.

Below, Waldman and Rémy Pessah, of Mountain View, reflect on how their lives changed in after the Six-Day War.

Egypt, 1967

Rémy Gazzar thought she had found the love of her life in Joe Pessah.

Then Egyptian police threw him into prison.

They wanted revenge. The Israelis had taken the Sinai and flattened their air force in the Six-Day War. And so they imprisoned every Jewish male in Cairo between 18 and 65.

Rémy was just 19. She had met Joe five years earlier at a Cairo synagogue, where he worked as a Hebrew teacher. He was two years older than she, tall, dark and handsome. After a couple years of friendship, they started going on chaperoned dates. They fell for each other, and he proposed.

Cairo had been unfriendly to Jews for nearly two decades, since the founding of Israel. Anti-Semitic graffiti littered the city’s walls. People scribbled “Jews are dogs” and “Kill the Jews,” Rémy remembered.

Many Jews, including Rémy’s siblings, couldn’t find jobs and became so frustrated they left their homeland in the early 1960s. Schoolchildren were penalized by their teachers for being Jewish, discrimination that showed up in their grades.

“The more they ostracized me, the more I loved being Jewish,” she said.

Even though Egyptian society was unkind to Jews, Rémy’s life was comfortable. Her father owned real estate and made a good living. It afforded him a big home with a housekeeper and a cook. They went to synagogue every week.

It was hard to know what really happened in Israel in June 1967, Rémy said. The Egyptian government told its citizens the army had won the battle, and blocked the radio airwaves so no one could listen to the international broadcasters reporting the truth.

Within two weeks, though, Egyptians learned that Israel had taken back the Sinai Peninsula. Policemen came knocking on doors of Cairo’s Jews. They claimed they merely wanted to question the men, and that they would return within a few hours.

Joe Pessah — and dozens of other men in Rémy’s life — didn’t come back. Not in a few hours, not in a few weeks.

Rémy had no idea where her fiancé had gone, or if he was alive.

“It was the scariest point in my life,” she said. “The uncertainty was the hardest part. The women, we felt helpless.”

A postcard arrived in the mail six months later. In Joe’s handwriting, it simply said, “Please send two sets of men’s underwear,” and listed the address of Abu Zaabal prison.

“This prison was well known for torturing people,” she said.

Another two months passed before Rémy was finally allowed to visit Joe. She and her father (who evaded prison because he was older than 65) traveled by train and taxi for nearly three hours to the prison.

They were allowed five minutes to see the detainees. “They were behind bars like animals,” she recalled.

She paused and looked away. When she met the reporter’s gaze, her hazel eyes were shiny like glass.

“It brings back memories where I felt robbed,” said the 59-year-old.

“I felt robbed from my happiness, my self-esteem. But yet, I felt no one could take away my integrity. So I fought. I fought to keep myself calm and not be humiliated.”

Joe stayed in Abu Zaabal for two years, then spent a third year in a lower-security prison, where Rémy was allowed to visit him twice a month.

“My mother’s friend told me, ‘Don’t waste your time waiting. Move on,'” she said. “But I couldn’t accept that.”

Rémy found hope within herself, even though around her there was no hope, she said. She refused to believe Joe would not be released.

Meanwhile, his mother could “no longer stand the pain” of having her son and husband in prison. So with her five younger children, she immigrated to Italy, and then to California.

Then one day, Rémy’s father came home from work and told her he “had the best news ever.” The imprisoned men would be released, he said.

Rémy still doesn’t know what or who prodded the Egyptian government to release the men, but thinks the American Red Cross may have gotten involved.

A few days before Joe was released, Rémy traveled to the prison with a rabbi. He married them so that when Joe was free, they could leave the country as a married couple.

On Jan. 21, 1970, Joe flew to Paris. Four days later, his young wife joined him.

“I have to say, the happiest day of my life was when I left Egypt,” she said. “I felt free like a bird. When the plane got off the ground, and only then, could I say ‘I am free.’ It was the most beautiful feeling I ever had.”

The pair stayed in Paris for six months, during which time they had a second wedding. Then they moved to the Bay Area, to be closer to Joe’s family, where they had a third wedding, officiated by Rabbi Herbert Morris at Congregation Beth Israel-Judea in San Francisco.

The Pessahs, who live in Mountain View, have two sons, ages 30 and 28, who live in Israel and Spain, respectively. Their first grandchild, David, was born in Israel on April 6.

Joe works as an engineer. For years, Rémy also worked as an engineer for a high-tech company in the Silicon Valley.

In 2001, as the tech boom slowed, she quit her job to “go with my passion.” She now teaches art classes around the Bay Area and makes hand-dyed silks.

The Six-Day War “has left an impact on my life,” she said. “It taught me that no one can steal away your happiness, no one can take away your integrity.”

Libya, 1967

Gina Waldman needed to get to her parents, barricaded inside their home. As non-citizens, Jews weren’t allowed to travel freely, but the government had just announced that all Jews had permission to leave the country.

The catch: If they left, they had to leave all their assets. And they couldn’t return. Waldman, then known as Gina Bublil, and her family decided they had no choice but to leave.

The mob outside their house had gone, but there were still guards watching the place at all hours of the day. Getting back to the house was a dangerous proposition.

Her co-workers developed a plan. They’d load into three cars, placing Waldman in the middle automobile. The first car would speed by as a distraction. Meanwhile, Waldman would hop out of the second car, and then the third car would also zoom by, serving as another distraction.

Her heart was beating so fast and her hands were shaking so much that when she managed to get out of the car and into the doorway, she could barely fit the key into the lock.

“When the day arrived when we were supposed to leave, a month later, we still didn’t know that Israel won the war,” she remembered. “All the radio stations said the Palestinians won. BBC was jammed. We had no idea what was going on.”

Her father had bribed a government official to get an escort for Waldman, her brother, grandparents, parents and uncle to get them to the airport safely. Still, they were nervous — just two weeks earlier, two Jewish families were killed on their way to the airport.

It didn’t take long to realize the bus driver was not taking them to the airport. When Waldman protested, he told her, “Shut up you filthy Jew, you’re killing my brothers in Palestine.”

When the driver stopped near a gas station, Waldman used the opportunity to call a friend. The bus driver didn’t speak English, so he didn’t know she had just arranged for someone to pick them up.

When her British friend arrived, he ushered them into his Jeep, horrified to see a pool of gasoline beneath the bus.

“The bus was ready to be blown up,” Waldman said.

When the family finally arrived at the airport, they were strip-searched by security guards. They flew to Malta, then to Rome.

Waldman ended up staying in Italy for a few years before getting assistance through the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to move to California. Two of her siblings have since joined her. Her mother still lives in Italy, and two of her brothers moved to Israel.

Waldman got a job with Security Pacific Bank, thanks to her fluency in five languages and her secretarial skills.

California’s progressive activist culture changed everything for her, she said.

“I went to a rally for the first time, and I felt like, ‘What do you mean I can speak my mind? I won’t get arrested? I can shout?’

“I was high from the experience, and became emboldened by the idea I could take to the streets.

“And I realized activism was my calling.”

She first worked with Russian émigrés, then advocated for human rights in Chile during the Pinochet regime, then helped resettle Bosnian Muslim refugees after their war. Then she helped start JIMENA, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa.

She lives in Tiburon with her husband, Dan. They have two sons.

She still makes hraimi, the traditional fish dish her mother made on Shabbat. In Libya, Jewish culture no longer exists — but in Waldman’s kitchen, half a world away, a flicker remains.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.