Gina Waldman was born in Tripoli, Libya with the family name, Bublil. Her family fled the country in 1967 as anti-Semitic mobs attacked Jews during the Six Day War. A human rights advocate, she found JIMENA – Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa – following the 9/11 attacks in the United States. In May 2013, she testified before a House of Commons standing committee on foreign affairs and international development that recommended the government recognize the fate of Jewish refugees from Arab countries, a position adopted by Parliament in March. She was in Toronto recently for a series of lectures, including one delivered at Congregation Darchei Noam.
Tell me about JIMENA. Who does it represent and what is its purpose?
JIMENA represents Jews from all Arab countries where there was a Jewish presence. JIMENA preserves the culture and traditions of these Jewish minorities, and our biggest mission is to educate the public about our story, the story of exile, which has not been adequately addressed.
We do that through several methods. The most successful is our 35-member speakers bureau. These are all eyewitnesses from different Arab countries who are sent to university campuses and synagogues to tell their stories.
We find that by telling the stories, people put two and two together and realize the Middle East has two groups of refugees, the Palestinians and the Jews.
Some people might say it wasn’t the Palestinians who expelled the Jews. But the Palestinians enlisted the help of the Arab League. They turned around and declared a different kind of war toward their Jewish populations by arresting them, or harassing them, or torturing them, or by hanging them in public squares.
They made our lives impossible and finally expulsion was what happened in many countries.
How well known among Arabs is the story of Mizrahi [eastern] Jews?
Arabs themselves don’t know their own history. Jews had lived and were indigenous to their region for over 2,000 years. The new generation is told by their parents that yes, Jews lived here, but they were Zionists and they chose to go to Israel and they left.
JIMENA has 10 websites, and we translated them all into Arabic. We used to get 50,000 hits a month. Since they were translated into Arabic, we get 150,000 hits a month. And a lot of that is coming from Middle Eastern countries. That tells us that these people really want to know what happened to their Jews.
What’s your own story?
I was born and raised in Tripoli in 1948, when there were some 36,000 Jews between Tripoli and Benghazi.
We were not considered citizens, we had no human rights, we were not allowed to have passports, we were not allowed to work for the government, we were basically what they called dhimmi [second-class citizens].
When I was 14, I went to study in Switzerland. I returned in 1967 to Tripoli for the summer when the war broke out between Israel and the Arab countries.
I was working for a British firm, and I had to go into hiding in the garage of my employer, who was a British Christian. After a month, I was able to reunite with my family. In the meantime, riots were taking place all over Tripoli and Benghazi. The people, the mob were running up and down the streets, identifying Jewish buildings with a white X and putting gasoline all around it and they would burn it.
If they were able to get into a Jewish home, they’d drag the Jews out and God knows, kill them. Two families were murdered in this period. My father’s warehouse was burned to the ground. Many properties owned by Jews were burned. Eventually the king said for your own protection, you better leave.
How did you get out?
We had to leave with only $20 equivalent and one suitcase. We boarded this bus taking us to the airport and in the middle of the road, the bus pulls over. I saw the conductor also leave. He said, there’s something mechanically wrong with the bus. And then he disappeared.
I decided something was definitely wrong. I ran to a gas station where the conductor was making a phone call in this little hut in the desert. And he said everything was OK. I struggled with him for the phone. I called my British employer and said, come quickly we’re in danger.
I hang up, and I see the driver outside. The driver has a packet of matches in his hand, and there’s a huge pool of gasoline under the bus. I look up and here’s my brother who’s 13, my mother is crying, my grandfather is praying, seven of us altogether. And I realized really the life of all my family is hanging on that box of matches.
That’s when I really lost my cool, and I started following this man’s hand with the matches. After a few minutes, this British engineer, Brian, and another engineer, John, came with two jeeps. They said, “Oh my God, this is ready to explode. Let’s get everybody out.” We left half of our luggage on the bus, we grabbed the people from the bus and off we went to the airport.
I started JIMENA after 9/11 because I wanted people to know that the culture of hatred that made me into a refugee, that made 850,000 Jews refugees, the intolerance in Arab countries, that was what 9/11 was all about. The people who perpetrated it, came from the same culture of hatred against America as against us.
How significant are the moves by the Canadian Parliament and the U.S. Congress to recognize the fate of Jewish refugees?
Very significant. Canada has always had a role in human rights. In this case, Canada could be an example to lead other countries to do the same thing.
Do you expect European parliaments will get on board with this?
We very much hope so and we feel that having Canada lead this would be really key.
Have any Arab governments apologized?
Some Arab countries have outright denied any wrongdoing. Some say, “You can come back.” The fact is, there is more anti-Semitism today in Arab countries… than when there were 850,000 Jews living among the Arabs.