JIMENA is sponsoring a screening of Remember Baghdad at the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival. Here JIMENA's founder, Gina Waldman, talks about her own story as a Jewish refugee from Libya, JIMENA's achievements, and what she liked about the film. Contrary to the impression the film might have given, she stresses that most Jews are legally barred from returning to Arab countries and have no interest in doing so. Interview by Michelle Shabtai and Karen Winokan of SVJFF.
SVJFF: What has JIMENA accomplished that you’re particularly proud of?
WALDMAN: One thing I’m extremely proud of is how we’ve put our story
into the narrative of the Middle East. It was practically non-existent
beforehand. Most people familiar with the refugee story during that
time, would refer only to Palestinian refugees, ignoring the fact that
we Jews also have a narrative. Another thing that has happened is that
we’ve pushed the Israeli government, which had completely neglected our
narrative because they didn’t see the importance of it. The Palestinian
refugee issue needs to be addressed, but to recognize one and ignore
ours is not right and not just.
JIMENA uses education to create an
awareness of these narratives. We’re now partnering with Beit
Ha’Tfutzot—the Museum of the Jewish People in Israel. All our data,
stories, history and photographs are going to be included in their
website. Every researcher, whether sitting in Timbuktu, Mali, Kenya or
anywhere else, will be able to tap into the JIMENA story and learn about
it. The Israeli government is also finally collaborating with is to
collect hundreds of testimonies from Jews of Arab countries. Ben-Gurion
University of the Negev has been curating JIMENA’s oral history
collection and students have written theses. The main thing is, that if
we once said that nobody knows our story, we can’t say that anymore. We
have an abundance of historical testimonies that are extremely powerful,
so there’s a lot we can be proud of.
SVJFF: What drew JIMENA to sponsor the screening of “Remember Baghdad”?
WALDMAN: Movies are an effective educational tool. It’s important for
the public to see how Jews lived in countries besides Poland or Russia,
and how they co-existed in other places. Also, I’m totally sympathetic
to some of the narratives that were relayed in the film. The lifestyle
of the Iraqi Jews back then differs from the lifestyle Jews experienced
in other Arab countries. Besides Moroccan Jews, who can visit Morocco if
they choose to, no other Jews are allowed to visit in Arab countries,
let alone live there or purchase property. It’s part of the law—you were
given an exit visa, you became a refugee, and you can’t claim it back
as your country, they will not take you back. If I were to go back to
Libya, the first thing they would probably do is arrest me.
Shuker, the protagonist in the film “Remember Baghdad” wanted to buy
property in Baghdad, to hang onto that last remnant of his family
history. I could really relate to how extremely nostalgic he was about
his background and growing up in Iraq. Realistically speaking, Jews
could not live in Iraq today. Antisemitism is even stronger today in the
Arab countries than it was when Jews were living there. While JIMENA
respects the hopes and aspirations of refugees from the Middle East and
North Africa, as an institution we are committed to representing the
greater interests of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Of the one
million Jews who fled or were ethnically cleansed from the region,
650,000 settled in Israel and are legally barred from entering the
countries that exiled them – including Iraq.
We confidently believe the
vast majority of Jewish refugees and their descendants have no interest
in returning to countries that violated their basic human rights and
confiscated their assets and communal property as they fled or were
expelled. Edwin is a friend of JIMENA and we appreciate his
advocacy—however, we view his desire for Iraqi Jews to buy property in
Iraq as an anomaly opinion that we don’t endorse.
SVJFF: What was especially meaningful for you in the film?
What did you like about it? What do you think makes it significant
WALDMAN: I think that would be the part about identity, for better
and worse. On the flip side, the film portrays very sad moments. Most of
the people interviewed share the anguish of the Farhud, or pogrom,
which also happened in Libya. I think it was 1945 when people in Libya
took to the streets. People were murdered. My father was a young man at
the time and volunteered to bury the severed bodies of his friends. This
traumatized him for the rest of his life. My mother ran from rooftop to
rooftop until she was saved by Christian woman who hid her in her
house. All this came back to me when watching the film. Righteous Arabs,
who saved the lives of Jews, should not be overlooked. When I was
hiding with my family in the garage of my British employer there was a
mob that came to burn down my parent’s house. My Arab neighbor came out
of his house and told them that there were no Jews living there, only
him and his family. He said, “Do you want to kill your fellow Muslim? Go
away from here, I’m an Egyptian!” He saved my family’s lives, so I
always mention him when give a presentation. Jews who left their houses
were knifed to death.
On the other hand, Jews from the Arab countries
identify very strongly with their own tradition and culture. In the
film, it’s when you see David Dangoor looking through the photo album at
the wonderful, smiling faces of people who loved living in the
community where they lived. There was a sense of belonging. In countries
where Jews were oppressed, like in Arab countries, Jews stuck together
in their insular communities. Since we couldn’t afford to leave the
walls of the community, we developed strong friendships, bonding closely
with one another, embracing one another with love and affection, where
we cared for and helped one another. This is an innate part of how I
grew up. In the film, when David Dangoor shows the place where parties
took place and people gathered together, whether it was for a Bar
Mitzvah or any other event, there was this sense of harmony. When you
leave a place, this is something you lose. My family, who stayed in Rome
after we left Libya, are part of a community that really stick
together. They have their own synagogue, marry members of the same
community, continue traditions, they are very, very strongly tied
When you come to the USA and scatter across the country you
lose a lot of the sense of identity. I cook a couscous dish that is
typical of Tripoli and I’m the only one who knows what that’s all about
because none of my friends would know.
“Remember Baghdad” – October 30th at 6:30-8pm, at the AMC Saratoga 14, in San Jose, California.
Cross-posted at Times of Israel (with thanks: Imre)
More about Gina Waldman and JIMENA