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B'siyata d'shmaya - With the help of Heaven

Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries:
Real Victims Deserving Real Recognition

By Shelomo Alfassa

Published in The Cutting Edge News April 14, 2008 & syndicated to the Chicago Sun-Times April 16, 2008

On April 1, 2008, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed a Resolution which grants first-time-ever recognition to Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim countries. The adoption of House Resolution 185, affirms that all victims of the Arab-Israeli conflict must be treated with equality, and this may be the catalyst for a dramatic shift in United States policy.

Why? Because prior to last week's adoption, all U.S. Resolutions on Middle East refugees referred only to Palestinian Arabs. The new Resolution underscores the fact that Jews living in Arab and Muslim countries suffered human rights violations, were uprooted from their homes, and were made refugees.

Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC) is the tip of the spear for the International Rights and Redress Campaign, a global movement backed by a coalition of over 77 Jewish organizations. The Campaign seeks legal rights and redress for the over 850,000 Jews who lost everything from their dignity and property, to their loved ones—many of whom were beaten, tortured and murdered prior to or during their flight from Arab countries. The 77 Jewish organizations which have worked with JJAC, have lent their active support to a human rights issue which has brought the Jewish community together.

The main focus of this global Campaign is to register the narratives of the Jews that were displaced from Arab and Muslim countries. This is a paperwork process, a tedious one. It requires people who were born in, and who fled from, Arab and Muslim countries to document where they came from and what they had to leave behind. Over the course of several years, many thousands of people have been registering with JJAC, providing not only names and addresses, but descriptions and documentation of the loss of their possessions. More than the possessions however are the tragic stories of their experiences.

--An Iraqi Jewish woman called Rachel recounts: "My husband was arrested three times and was tortured in prison. He was almost killed the latest time while I was pregnant. We had to escape from Iraq on foot and had to leave all our property and belongings."

--An Iraqi Jewish woman called Lorraine recollects: "My father was imprisoned twice in 1948 and 1978, for selling one of his carpets because we had no cash. We fled and had to make life for ourselves without the parent's emotional or financial support. We were orphaned for more than 20 years. My parents had to remain in Iraq and from 1964 to 1990, Jews could not sell their property. When my parents were able to escape, they were humiliated, helpless and penniless, leaving behind everything with only the clothing on their backs."

--An Iraqi Jewish woman name Fortune recounted: "My father was arrested at our home and tortured almost half to death. We saw him again after eight months. He was able to obtain a passport and fled to Lebanon where he then managed to flee to Switzerland and eventually Israel. My mother supported us alone as one by one my family fled the country. One relative fled to Turkey then to Israel after learning her entire family was murdered while she was in school. My brother and I fled to Northern Iraq where Kurds were paid to bring us to Tehran and then we went to Israel."

--A Jewish woman, Victoria from Tunisia, told: "On several occasions my father was taken away in the middle of the night by the police without charges. My brother and I were harassed in school and discriminated because we were Jews. I was often humiliated in front of my classmates. We lived in CONSTANT fear."

--A Syrian Jewish woman called Stella remembers: "As all the young people were escaping from Syria, the government was putting their families in jail. The locked up several fathers and mothers. The next day the community decided to stay in the synagogue where a black flag was flown outside the building. After crying and praying all day, we gathered at the government building, like a rally, and demanded they better kill us, as we screamed for our freedom. It was like a civil war. My father had been captured, but eventually came home as a sick man. The next day he had a heart attack and died."

--David, an Egyptian Jew recounts: "The police came into my jewelry store then took me to a police station where we were handcuffed and beaten. The put us on a truck and took us to a prison camp where they hit us with belts and sticks. We were terrorized by the officers all night. I lost everything. A year later I was transferred to another prison, and three years later I was deported."

--Frieda, a Jew from Egypt tells that her father: "Was arrested and taken outside of Cairo to what we call a concentration camp to be interrogated with other ‘Jews' and foreign nationals. My mother was placed on house arrest. When we left we had 48 hours to get ready and we left behind everything."

--Joe, a Jewish man from Egypt recounts: "I remember the darker side: my lost childhood, neighbors and school friends I will never see again, the harassment, the killings of innocent Jewish families, the sudden and unlawful confiscation of Jewish property. Most of all, I can still feel like it was only yesterday the deep and intense fear for our lives as crowds shouted 'edbah el Yahud' [slaughter the Jews]."

--An Egyptian Jewish man called Steven recalls: "My mother went to the bank to withdraw the money she had saved which was in the tens of thousands. The bank teller said, ‘We don't give money to Jews.' She went to gain access to her safe deposit box to get her jewelry, diamonds and gold, and was denied. My father died penniless in Israel, he had left everything in Cairo."

Underscoring the importance of this Resolution, Congressman Joseph Crowley (D-NY), one of the bi-partisan co-sponsors, said, "The world needs to understand that it is not just the Arabs and it's not just the Palestinians in the Middle East, but also Jewish people who themselves were dispossessed of their possessions and their homes, and were victims of terrorist acts. These are people who lived in Middle Eastern communities not for decades, but for thousands of years." Rep. Crowley added that the Resolution will, "bring light upon an issue that has been swept under the carpet."

While Palestinians have been left to linger in refugee camps by their fellow Arab cousins, and just because Jews have moved forward over the last decades, that does not negate the fact that Jews were also refugees, and that Jews suffered terribly.

It would constitute an injustice were the United States to recognize rights for one victim population - Palestinian refugees - without recognizing equal rights for former Jewish refugees from Arab countries, as both were victims of the very same Middle East conflict. Because of this, House Resolution 185 also urges that the President and U.S. officials participating in Middle East discussions ensure: "That any explicit reference to Palestinian refugees is matched by a similar explicit reference to Jewish and other refugees, as a matter of law and equity."

At the end of WWII, there were close to one million Jews living in the Middle East and North Africa. They were loyal citizens that contributed to every facet of society. These people watched as their entire civilization, everything they knew, was destroyed because of discrimination, harassment, violence and worse. Thus, it is in the spirit of equality, fairness, and legitimate moral leadership that the United States government passed this important Resolution which recognizes the suffering and hardship these hundreds of thousands of victims experienced.

Shelomo Alfassa is U.S. Director of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries.



© Shelomo Alfassa