Under a bright sun, Guilla Boukhobza walked up to a microphone in front of the Isaiah Wall near the United Nations and cleared her throat.
For the first time, she was going to publicly talk about her family’s perilous expulsion from her native Libya.
It was not easy, Boukhobza confided, because even a generation later, a deep fear remains about discussing the heart-rending events that forced her parents and seven siblings to leave Tripoli one step ahead of anti-Jewish mobs.
"The memories are still painful but I felt I had to be here today," said the 52-year-old Westchester resident.
Boukhobza joined a handful of Arab Jewish refugees on Monday to help publicize a new report contending that some Arab governments apparently conspired to persecute Arab Jews so they would flee their native countries after the creation of the State of Israel.
The 36-page report, prepared by Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, calls for redress and compensation for hundreds of thousands of Jews who lost their homes, savings and jobs in 10 Arab countries. The report said there were 856,000 Arab Jews living in such countries as Egypt, Algeria, Syria and Iraq in 1948, and only 7,800 are left.
Irwin Cotler, a member of the Canadian Parliament, charged the Arab governments with "a pattern of ethnic cleansing."
Cotler, an international human rights lawyer and JJAC co-chair, said the report’s evidence of "state-orchestrated" sanctions and repressive measures against Jews replicated in several Arab Muslim regimes have "the markings of a criminal conspiracy."
In a related development, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has requested Senate hearings on the plight of Arab Jewish refugees, The Jewish Week has learned.
In a June 16 letter to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Wyden wrote: "We must raise awareness of this issue to ensure that their rights are secured as a matter of law and equity."
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), whose district includes a Sephardic enclave in Deal, last month called for hearings in the House of Representatives.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he would present the report to the White House.
Cotler, who also presented the report this week to government officials in Israel and Great Britain, said the time is right to push for justice because of three factors: a new campaign to collect eyewitness testimony from Jewish refugees, new documentation of forced expulsions of Jews and a "dramatic revolution" in international human rights law.
"This document deserves attention," said JJAC honorary co-chair Richard Holbrooke, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He noted that in the Middle East, "almost all the attention is devoted to refugees from just one side," referring to the Palestinians.
"Historical truths cannot be denied," Holbrooke declared, reminding his audience that he stood on the same spot last year making the same call for action.
The JJAC report insists that recognizing the Arab Jewish refugee issue with the Palestinian refugee issue is key to a Middle East peace plan.
"If one looks at the peace process in context, if one places Israel in the Middle East, where it obviously is, if one accepts that peace in the Middle East means peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors as much as with the Palestinians, then it is impossible to overlook the issue of displaced Jews," stated the report, prepared by JJAC director Stanley Urman and Canadian human rights lawyer David Matas.
The report recommends several legal avenues to explore, including bringing the case before the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees. It concluded that going to local Arab courts for relief would be ineffective.
Boukhobza, a petite woman with long brown hair, overcame her reticence to give voice to her family history.
"I can no longer be a Jew of silence, nor can I allow myself to become a forgotten Jew," she said before a sparse crowd straining to hear above the truck traffic on Manhattan’s First Avenue.
"It is time to reclaim my history. It is time to demand accountability for the massive human rights violations that occurred to us in Libya."
Boukhobza explained that Jews had lived in Libya for more than 2,000 years, predating by centuries the Arab conquest and occupation. Her family had lived on Libyan soil for hundreds of years.
Most of Libya’s nearly 40,000 Jews left between 1948 and 1951, she said, because of a wave of anti-Jewish rioting, beginning in 1945, that left hundreds dead and injured and thousands homeless.
Boukhobza’s family stayed hoping for things to calm down in light of Libya’s new independence and constitution, but it turned out to be a false hope.
"By 1961, Jews could not vote, hold public office, obtain Libyan passports, buy new property or supervise our own communal affairs," she said.
Things got worse when the Six-Day War erupted in June 1967. "The anti-Jewish atmosphere in the streets became terrifying, so much so that my family could not leave our house in Tripoli," Boukhobza said.
Her family survived a mob attack and fled to Italy, taking only some suitcases. Other Libyan Jews were killed and put in concentration camps.
Knowing no one, and with little money, the Boukhobza family started from scratch in Rome.
"We did not wallow in self-pity; we did not seek to make ourselves wards of the international community; and we didn’t plot revenge against Libya," she declared. "We simply picked up the pieces of our broken lives and moved on.
"Today, to the best of my knowledge there is not a single Jew left in Libya. An ancient community has come to a complete end."
It wasn’t only Libya. Brooklyn Professor Victor Sanua discussed persecution against Jews in Egypt. Maurice Soussa of Montville, N.J., described atrocities in Iraq.
The JJAC report also had presented evidence of state sponsored persecution against Jews in Tunisia, Yemen, Aden, Lebanon and Morocco.
The JJAC campaign apparently is being supported by several mainstream national Jewish organizations as well as Sephardic groups who have long lobbied for the cause.
"There is no doubt that the Arabs colluded to kick us out," Joseph Abdel Wahed, co-founder of the San Francisco based JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa), told The Jewish Week.
Wahed noted the major Nazi-Arab connection during and after World War II that influenced the anti-Jewish legislation in Arab nations.
Meanwhile, some Middle East experts cautioned that the issue is more complicated than the JJAC is presenting, with some disturbing undertones.
NYU Middle East Professor Zachary Lockman said there is evidence that "Israeli agents played some role in worsening relations between Jews and Arabs in these countries in an effort to get Jews who were reluctant to leave to pack up and go.
"Most of the Jews in these countries hadn’t been Zionists," he explained.
One Sephardic activist criticized the new JJAC campaign for the lack of Sephardic leadership.
David Shasha said being ignored is a primary issue facing Sephardim: the huge economic and social gap that exists in Israel; failure of schools to teach Sephardic history in Israel and America; and professional Jewish organizations "are under Ashkenazi control."
"The attempt to place the Arab Jewish question now on the table is yet another elision of the real issues facing the Sephardic community," he said.
- Canadian parliament
- Eric J. Greenberg
- Richard Holbrooke
- executive vice president
- Malcolm Hoenlein
- Great Britain
- U.S. ambassador
- Richard Lugar
- David Matas
- Ron Wyden
- Irwin Cotler
- Stanley Urman
- Frank Pallone
- House of Representatives
- New Jersey
- White House
- New York
- Staff Writer
- United Nations
- Middle East