In June 1967, Regina Waldman received a call from her mother telling her not to come home from work. Waldman’s family lived in Libya, part of an ancient Mizrahi Jewish community that had resided in Libya for more than 2,000 years. That changed in 1967, when the Six Day War broke out between Israel and her Arab neighbors.
“My mother called me at work to tell me that thousands of people had taken to the streets rioting and burning Jewish properties,” Waldman recalled. “She begged me to find a hiding place, because it was too dangerous for me to return home. Killing people, rampaging and burning Jewish properties went on for days.”
Waldman, who was 19 at the time, hid in the home of a Christian British engineer for a month before returning to her family.
“All Jews were expelled,” Waldman said, “and their property, including their bank accounts, were expropriated by the government.”
Waldman’s family barely made it out of Libya and fled to Italy, where they still live. Waldman’s experience, however, transformed her into an activist, leading her to advocate for human rights in Argentina, fight for the freedom of Jews in the former Soviet Union and to call for recognition of the plight of Jewish refugees.
“It was almost like an epiphany for me to realize that I could actually use my history as an example to show what intolerance could do to people,” she said.
Waldman has taken it upon herself to help gain recognition for the “900,000 Jewish refugees, dispossessed and uprooted from their homes throughout the Middle East and North Africa.” She heads an organization called Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA), based in San Francisco.
“Very little is known about this particular area of history,” Waldman said, “so we find that people are not just fascinated by the ... narrative of Middle Eastern Jews and what happened to us, but also because they’re so completely surprised that Jews themselves don’t even know about it.”
Waldman said there is very good reason why this history has remained buried for so long.
“Israel had a huge number of refugees from the camps in Germany and people who had suffered horrendous experiences through the Holocaust,” she explained, “so when the Jews from North Africa arrived, there was this sense of ‘oh, don’t say anything about what happened to us, we cannot begin to compare ourselves.’”
Waldman also believes that the Israeli government “felt that if they recognized the Jews from these other countries as refugees, then they would have to turn around and also recognize the Palestinians as refugees, which they do today, but they didn’t then.*”
The result is that these histories have had little recognition.
“The issue of the Jewish refugees was not really properly recorded, neither by historians, nor by political figures, nor was it ever recognized by international organizations,” she said.
Waldman’s work has been paying off. She has been asked to speak on the behalf of Jewish refugees at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Wellesley, Stanford and Berkeley. In 1992, she was awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award. In addition to these accomplishments, Waldman testified before the United States Congress in 2007 as an expert witness on the experiences of Jewish refugees.
Waldman has also worked with filmmakers to produce a documentary on the history of the Jewish refugees, The Forgotten Refugees, in which, among other stories, she relates her first experience with hatred: a math teacher asking her class, “If you have 10 Jews and kill five, how many do you have left?”
Although some might consider her controversial due to her position that Jewish refugees deserves recognition just like Palestinian refugees, Waldman doesn’t feel that’s the case.
“The fact that we were absorbed successfully either by Israel or by the countries that hosted us shouldn’t make our plight a lesser plight,” she said. “It is to our credit and to the credit of Israel that, without a single penny from the West, we got absorbed but, nonetheless, we should be recognized as a group of refugees and we were not.”
*Here I would differ with Gina. The Jewish plight was buried for so long not because the Israeli government did not recognise the Palestinian refugees, but because it did not recognise Jews from Arab countries as refugees, preferring to see them as Zionist immigrants - Ed.