Activist seeks recognition for Jews expelled from Arab lands

In his work with Jewish refugees from the Middle East, Stanley Urman catches a lot of flak. The usual charge against him: stealing the Palestinian narrative.

As the executive director of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC), Urman says when it comes to refugees — Arab and Jew — no one has to steal anything. There was plenty of misery to go around.

Urman’s organization works on behalf of the nearly 1 million Jews exiled from Arab lands after the founding of Israel in 1948, and their descendants. Those Jews had their assets stolen and their communities erased, even after having lived for generations in countries like Iraq and Libya.

“Palestinian refugees have had a virtual monopoly on the issue of refugees,” Urman said on a recent visit to the Bay Area. “While their plight is compelling, it’s important to recognize there were Jewish victims of that conflict.”

The Bay Area belongs on his itinerary. Not only is there a large population of Mizrachi, or Middle Eastern Jews here, but San Francisco serves as home base for JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa). Urman spoke at the Commonwealth Club on Feb. 12, alongside JIMENA co-chair Regina Waldman.

“I’m here to support the work of JIMENA,” Urman said. “I wish there were JIMENAs across the country.” Similar organizations have sprung up in Boston and Chicago.

Like JIMENA, Urman’s JJAC seeks to educate the public and the media, but takes things a step further, advocating policy changes in Washington, D.C.

High on his agenda now is H.R. 185, a nonbinding congressional resolution in support of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. The late San Mateo Congressman Tom Lantos introduced the legislation.

The resolution stipulates that any U.S. negotiations on the claims of Palestinian refugees must also take into account the rights and claims of the exiled Mizrachi Jews.

Urman pressed to have the issue raised at December’s Middle East Conference in Annapolis, Md.

“We understand this issue was raised at Annapolis. And a statement from [Israeli Foreign Minister] Tzipi Livni referred to the issue of Jews from Arab countries,” he said. “We know during Bush’s visit to Israel, he raised the issue with [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert.”

In his last job, Urman worked for the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation. There he studied the Palestinian refugee crisis, a problem he understands.

The Palestinian crisis “was a human catastrophe,” he acknowledged. “But who was to blame?”

Some blame must go the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, and its standards on refugees. “The [U.N.] established standards for every refugee — protection, resettlement and rehabilitation — except for Palestinians,” he said. “For UNRWA the mandate is only protection. That anomaly perpetuated the problem. Palestinians were used as pawns by the Arab world.”

Urman’s organization seeks redress for the Mizrachi Jews, who today, with their descendants, number close to 4 million. From his perspective, this redress need not involve a zero sum game between Arabs and Jews.

“Some people say, ‘You’re trying to support Israel and screw Palestinian refugees.’ Our efforts to support rights of Mizrachi Jews in no way de-legitimize their rights and claims. Our only concern is that the rights of Jews are also on the table.”

So why would Urman, an Ashkenazi Jew, care so much about the plight of Jews from Arab lands? For him, it’s a cause all Jews should care about.

“It’s not a Mizrachi issue,” he said. “It’s an issue for the Jewish people. You have years in Arab countries, where Jewish communities have thrived a thousand years before Islam, a history that has been expunged.”

The refugees’ struggle also stands in contrast with the claims of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The Iranian leader “claims Israel is a country of white European colonialists who parachuted in,” Urman said. “We are indigenous people of the Middle East.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.