Gina Waldman, a preeminent human rights activist, spoke to a packed room at the Yale Women’s Center yesterday. Waldman is a Mizrahi Jew — a Jew indigenous to the Middle East or North Africa. She is one of 900,000 Mizrahi Jews to become refugees after the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. Her story illustrates the fundamental issue behind the Middle East conflict today: The Palestinian Authority and the Arab world, not Israel, are at fault for the injustices now suffered by the Palestinian people.
Waldman was forced to flee her home in Libya, where her family had lived for thousands of years. Prior to 1948, Waldman’s family and the other 38,000 Jewish residents of Libya had been active members of society, contributing to Libyan art, music, business and government. Waldman and her family had every intention to remain in Libya after the founding of the state of Israel.
This became increasingly difficult as Libyan mobs perpetrated crimes against Jews in government-sponsored pogroms.
In 1948, 280 Jewish houses were destroyed in a mass riot. In 1963, Jews were forbidden to hold public office or vote in elections. Nonetheless, the Waldman family persisted in its determination to remain in Libya. By 1967, only 6,000 Jews remained.
Mass riots broke out in reaction to the 1967 war between Israel and her neighbors. Synagogues, shops and homes were looted and burned. Hundreds of Jews were killed. Waldman recalled how her father’s friendship with a government official allowed for her family to receive travel documents permitting them to emigrate.
Leaving everything behind, including their home, their clothes, and all of their possessions besides $20, they boarded a bus to the Tripoli airport — only to be sabotaged by the terrorist bus driver intent on blowing up the bus and all of the Jews within.
Waldman paused as she shed a tear and lost her voice, remembering the fear she experienced while being chased from her home to an almost certain death. Eyes watery, the audience listened to her story, stunned. She and her family were finally saved by a friend who rescued the passengers of the bus and safely transported them to the airport, where they boarded planes for Israel.
The incredible fact about Waldman’s story is that it is not unique. Between 1948 and 1973, there were more Jewish refugees from Arab countries than there were Palestinian refugees from Israel. Jewish refugees experienced the same pain in being forced from their homes as did many Palestinians. Hostile Arab governments destroyed the rich culture of Mizrahi Jews from Arab countries such as Iraq, Egypt, Morocco and Algeria. In Iraq, where the Jewish community of 130,000 outdated the Muslim community by centuries, 90 percent of the national orchestra had been Jewish before Jews were forced to flee. Jews in Egypt had been pioneers in Arab medicine. Jews in Morocco had been prominent in the government. The tragedy of their refuge from the Arab world has been largely ignored.
The reason for this ignorance is that the young Jewish state managed to absorb all 600,000 Mizrahi refugees within a short period of time (the other 300,000 emigrated to countries other than Israel). With little financial support and constant bombardment by enemies, Israel solved her refugee crisis and made the Mizrahi Jews full-fledged members of society. Mizrahi, or Sephardi, Jews currently make up 55 percent of Israel’s population. The current president of Israel, Moshe Katsav, was born in Iran. The defense minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, is Iraqi.
Understanding the duality of the refugee crisis after the founding of the state of Israel is fundamental to understanding the current conflict in the Middle East. Whereas the Jewish state absorbed all of its immigrants, the Arab countries rejected the Palestinian refugees, confining them to refugee camps where they live to this day. Currently, 90 percent of all Palestinians in Israel proper live under the administration of the Palestinian Authority. Yet even now, with self-autonomy, they are confined to the same squalid refugee camps. There is no good reason why these Palestinian refugees have not been absorbed into any Arab country, or into their current society under Palestinian Authority administration. Some will say that there is not enough money — yet there are millions of dollars being raised in Saudi Arabia and Iraq for families of suicide bombers. How can the Arab community raise money for terror, and not for the well-being of the Palestinian people?
The current conflict is fueled by the injustices being perpetrated against millions of Palestinian refugees. We must understand that the leadership of the Arab world, not Israel, is perpetrating these injustices. Above all, these injustices are being perpetrated by the current Palestinian Authority, which values terror above peace. As Waldman said to the leaders of the Palestinian people, “Haram Aleikum” — “shame on you.” Shame on the Palestinian Authority for using Palestinian refugees to legitimize terror. Only when the Arab leadership can learn from the example of the young state of Israel, by caring for its refugees and striving to give them real lives, will peace be possible.
Robert Spiro is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College