Maxine Schwartz, left, cochair of the Israel at 60 committee, talks with Shelomo Alfassa and Miri Hasson, speakers at a Jan. 17 event at the Wilf campus that focused on the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Photos by Elaine Durbach
January 24, 2008
After decades of neglect, the rights of the hundreds of thousands of Jews forced to flee from their homes in Arab lands is finally gaining attention, according to Shelomo Alfassa, the United States director of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries.
As if to prove his point, about 50 people defied snow and ice to crowd into a room at the Wilf Jewish Community Campus in Scotch Plains on Jan. 17 for a two-part program on the subject.
That same day, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs called on members of the Jewish community to write to or call their local legislators to support a congressional measure that will add weight to efforts to recognize Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
House Resolution 185 — which is scheduled to be brought up in early February in the House Foreign Affairs Committee — states that “any resolutions relating to the issue of Middle East refugees, and which include a reference to the required resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue, must also include a similarly explicit reference to the resolution of the issue of Jewish, Christian, and other refugees from Arab countries.”
Contacting government representatives about the bill “really makes a difference,” Alfassa said. “They keep count of the number of messages that come in.”
Alfassa, a Brooklyn resident and a leader of the international Sephardi community, shared the platform with Israeli emissary Miri Hasson, whose mother fled with her family from Tunisia in 1979.
The program was the first of four marking Israel’s 60th anniversary. The series is cosponsored by the Jewish Federation of Central NJ’s Jewish Community Relations Council; the Israel Support Committee of Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains, Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford, and Temple Emanu-El in Westfield; and the JEC/Elmora Avenue Shul and JEC/Adath Israel Shul in Elizabeth.
Alfassa spoke in place of JJAC executive director Stanley Urman, who had to cancel because of a death in the family. An author and hazardous materials expert, Alfassa has served with the U.S. Public Health Service on one of its three national terrorism response teams. He now works full-time on JJAC’s international rights and redress campaign.
Members of the audience responded with surprise to his statement that while 726,000 Arabs fled their homes in what became Israel in 1948, 856,000 Jews were forced from their homes in Arab countries from 1948 on. “Why don’t we hear more about this?” one woman asked.
Alfassa pointed out that while the Jews were absorbed into host communities, the Palestinians, for the most part, remained outsiders, living in temporary conditions. That was the result, he said, of a deliberate policy by Arab governments to keep up international pressure against Israel. There was no equivalent effort to keep a spotlight on the Jewish refugees, despite documented evidence showing coordinated policy and plans by Arab governments to deliberately victimize and dispossess their Jewish citizens.
According to United Nations figures, the number of Palestinian refugees has grown in the past 60 years to at least four million.
Alfassa showed a 15-minute film, an extract from a longer movie, The Forgotten Refugees, about the varied stories of the latter-day Jewish exodus from countries like Morocco, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia.
He stressed that the group has no intention of playing down the suffering of the Palestinians. They just want to gain equal recognition of the suffering and rights of the Jewish refugees.
A member of the audience challenged him on the number of Jews from Morocco. Alfassa was emphatic that the numbers he cited are from the UN, and for good reason: In making the case for UN recognition of the Jewish refugees, he said, it was essential to use data already accepted by the organization.
Shelomo Alfassa talks with a fellow Sephardi Jew, Julie Roffe Barkin of Cranford, whose family came from Morocco.
Israeli-born Hasson, working this year with the Central federation, put a personal face to the wider litany of loss, telling the story of her mother’s family’s departure from Tunisia.
The family lived well and in harmony with their Arab neighbors, even as the atmosphere around them grew more antagonistic following the Six Day War in 1967 and local groups became militantly supportive of the Palestinian cause. As their numbers dwindled, it became harder to maintain a Jewish communal life, and finally, in 1979, the family — both parents and six siblings — left.
Three set out, and then another three, lest they arouse too much attention. At their departure, they said they were going to a wedding in France. It wasn’t safe to say they were going to Israel. And they took almost nothing with them, aside from a few suitcases of clothing and a few volumes of Torah texts from the synagogue that had belonged to the family for decades, carefully wrapped and concealed in their luggage.
While Hasson’s tale wasn’t a saga of violence and victimization, it was a story of loss — and determined adaptation — that echoed the experiences depicted in the film. Hasson said her family left behind the life they had known “and all their memories.”