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The plight of Jews from Arab countries was first raised in the 1970s in Israel, when the government tried to get the United Nations to recognize Jewish refugees as part of Resolution 194, which called for the repatriation of Palestinian refugees. The attempt failed, but activists in the Sephardic community, mainly outside Israel, continued to make the case for acknowledging the expulsion of Jews from Arab countries as a matter worthy of recognition and possible reparation. In 2010, Israel’s Knesset passed a law requiring the government to include compensation to Jews displaced from Arab countries in any future final status agreement with the Palestinians. The bill, however, is vaguely worded and does not make receiving compensation a condition to signing a peace deal.
Official Israeli estimates put the number of Jews who were forced to leave their homes in Arab countries following the establishment of the State of Israel at 850,000. In some countries, such as Iraq and Yemen, pogroms and riots against local Jews broke out as Israel struggled for its independence, forcing Jews to flee, leaving their property behind. In other countries, Jews were targeted later on. Most of Egypt’s Jews left in 1956, following an anti-Jewish government decree issued after the Sinai war with Israel; in Morocco, 100,000 Jews were forced out in 1963, and in Libya, riots and government decrees led to the escape of the country’s Jews after the 1967 war.
Gina Waldman was 19 when she and her family were driven out of their home in Tripoli, Libya. She remembers the crowds pouring into the streets in the summer of 1967, torching Jewish homes and businesses. Her family, like other Jewish families in Libya, was allowed to exit the country under the condition they leave all their property behind. Though the angry mob followed the family to the airport, they finally managed to get on a plane to Malta and from there to Italy, Waldman recalled.
“The first step is to acknowledge that these wrongs were done to us,” said Waldman, who eventually moved to the United States and became active in the campaign to free Soviet Jewry. After this campaign, Waldman co-founded Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa. She is also vice president of JJAC. Both groups, and a British organization named Harif, have been pushing for more than a decade for recognition of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
“In recent years, as the peace process stumbles, significant people in the Israeli government became more interested in the issue and managed to promote it politically,” said Henry Green, professor of Judaic studies at the University of Miami. Green is the international director of Sephardi Voices, an audio-visual project that collects the testimonies of Jews from Arab countries.
In addition to the law it passed in 2010, the Knesset has organized a forthcoming conference scheduled for September to discuss Jewish refugees from Arab countries.