Strangers in a Strange Land: A fork in the Road Map

by Gina Malka Waldman

The recent reports describing how Iraqis have forced Palestinians living in Baghdad for decades to flee their homes revive memories of my past as a Jewish refugee from Libya, opening old wounds.

When family fled Libya in 1967, we narrowly escaped death at the hands of a bus driver who, instead of taking us to the airport, tried to burn us alive inside the bus.

I one of nearly a million Jews indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa who were forced to flee their ancestral homes in the last 60 years. I am now the voice of a minority culture of Arab Jews who have been ethnically cleansed. Jews are the oldest existing indigenous group in the Middle East and North Africa, having lived there for millennia before the Arab Muslim conquest in the 7th century.

But, for all our contributions, we encountered racism and oppression that ultimately forced us out. In many Arab countries, Jews were never granted citizenship and persecuted under Islamic dhimmi rules.

(For more on the status of Christians and Jews under Islamic rule, see

In the 20th century, synagogues were bombed, family members thrown in jail on trumped- up charges and innocent people lynched or hanged before cheering crowds. Some Arab governments froze bank accounts and allowed Jews to leave with just one suitcase.

Though the circumstances of the exodus differed from country-to-country, the anguish of being uprooted from the only homeland we ever knew was the same.

No memorial exists to commemorate these once vibrant communities in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Yemen and beyond. My community in Libya, once 38,000 strong, is now extinct. Our cultural heritage has been obliterated. In short, more than 2,500 years of history has vanished. As we say in Arabic, ma fdel shei -- there is nothing left. I cannot even go back to Libya to visit my grandfather's grave.

Nevertheless, the plight of the two refugee populations -- the Jewish and Palestinian -- is a comparative study in refugee resettlement. Israel absorbed 600,000 Jewish refugees. They now comprise over half the population and hold top positions in Israeli society. Other refugees went to the United States and Europe. We rapidly integrated in our new host society.

By contrast, many Arab countries to this day refuse to integrate Palestinian refugees into their own societies. Why is it that the Palestinians continue to live in squalid refugee camps -- a people homeless and on welfare for 54 years, even under their own Palestinian Authority?

The Arab leadership sinned doubly by driving the Jews from their lands and refusing hospitality to the Palestinians who sought refuge in their countries. They perpetuated the misery of their Palestinian "brothers" for their own political ends, stoking the flames of Palestinianism and victimhood. Religious fanatics exploit the refugees' suffering and sow hatred against Jews, delivering willing suicide bombers to Hamas and Fatah.

Hate is a weapon of mass destruction. The same forces of hatred that turned me into a refugee and nearly burned me alive on a bus in the Libyan desert continue to deliver terror around the world: Bus bombings in Israel, skyscraper incineration in America and decimated discotheques in Bali.

Instead of becoming hateful and bitter, I pursued a career as a human rights activist, advocating for dissidents and Jews in the former Soviet Union and helping to resettle refugees such as Muslim refugees from Bosnia here in the Bay Area. I implore my Palestinian sisters -- uchty -- to join me by ending the hate education their leadership is propagating in their schools, mosques and media.

With the emergence of a new Palestinian leadership, a new opportunity presents itself. The Palestinians have arrived at a fork in the road. Their challenge is to choose whether to continue along the road of hatred or turn toward reconciliation and tolerance. As their Middle Eastern sister, resettled in America, I pray that they choose the right path.

Gina Malka Waldman is co-founder and co-chair of JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa), whose Web site

2003 San Francisco Chronicle June 5, 2003

Excerpts from Will Durant's The Age of Faith Pages 162-186 Pub. 1950