MONTREAL (Jan. 5)
When teacher Gabrielle Taoufik was a young girl in Lebanon, she experienced anti- Semitism first-hand.
"It was 1948 and the State of Israel was born," she recalled. "My recollections, however, include a huge riot in Beirut, under a window on the main street, with Palestinians shouting out terrible things. Palestine was their country and Jews were their slaves, they said, things like that," she says.
Taoufik’s memories are shared by many Jews who lived in the Arab world.
In the years immediately following the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, some 800,000 Jews fled their Arab homelands, fleeing long-term dictators and short-term pogroms.
Recently, more than 450 people attended a conference in Montreal to hear one witness after another discuss their experiences as Jews in the Arab world – – part of an effort to raise the issue as a bargaining chip in future negotiations with the Palestinians.
"I don’t think there has been any attempt to hide the fact that this is opening up a second front" for Israel and provide the ability to meet the Arab propaganda that is ongoing, with regards to the Palestinian narrative," said Keith Landy, national president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. "What this does is allow those Jews that were expelled from Arab countries" to tell their personal stories.
"Any future peace plan must address, as a matter of international law and morality, the material losses of Jewish individuals and community property," Landy added. "U.N. Resolution 242 calls for a ‘just settlement of the refugee problem.’ It makes no distinction between Arab refugees and former Jewish refugees, the majority having been resettled in Israel."
The Canadian Jewish Congress sponsored the "Jews From Arab Lands: A Forgotten Exodus" conference in conjunction with the World Jewish Congress.
The first such conference was held in Paris last year, Landy pointed out, adding that there were plans for Israel to launch a registry of Arab Jews who were forced to leave their countries of origin.
Expert speakers participated in the event, including WJC Secretary-General Avi Beker, chairman of the WJC board of governors Israel Singer, Canadian member of parliament Irwin Cotler and human rights lawyer Arno Klarsfeld.
But the most moving speeches came from those Jews who fled the Arab world.
One speaker at the conference, an Iraqi-born Jew named Steve Acre, witnessed terrible things as a child in his homeland. "I remember the first incident, or ‘farhood,’ in Arabic, happening when I was 9 years old, in June 1941," recalled the 70-year-old Acre, who came to Canada when he was 24. "It is the worst of my memories. I was sitting outside and hearing lots of people running in the streets yelling, ‘Massacre the Jews, massacre the Jews.’
"We had a date tree in the garden, so I climbed it to try to see better what was going on. I heard lots of shots, lots of gunfire, and the screaming and screeching of people, especially women. I had no idea then what was happening and it was only later that I found out that these women were being raped.
It was only the actions of the Arab landlord of their house, a religious man, whose intervention saved the Acre family.
The British army’s capture of Baghdad prevented further violence against the city’s Jews, Acre said.
Upon the creation of the State of Israel, Acre feared another anti-Jewish pogrom.
"I was the one left behind to defend our house," he said. "I was faced with the dilemma ‘What do I do should they come for my mother and my sisters? Do I let them be raped or mutilated, with me standing and watching, or do I shoot them? Do I shoot my own mother and sister first?’
"Can you understand how difficult that is?" he asked, his voice breaking with emotion so many years later. "I was only 16 years old."
The government declared martial law, however, and no violence occurred.
After three attempts, the family finally made it to Israel through the Jewish underground, as refugees via Tehran. "We took a deep breath upon landing, realizing we were finally safe."
For Taoufik, the exercise of marking the exodus of so many Jews from Arab lands is just another reminder that she suffered a terrible personal loss in her homeland.
It wasn’t always turmoil. "Generally speaking, in Lebanon, we led a relatively quiet life with the Christians and Muslims. I went to a Jewish school and, even later on when I went to the American University, it was OK," she said.
But in 1971, Taoufik’s world collapsed. She had left Lebanon for Montreal by then, to settle down with her husband, but her parents remained in Beirut. Her father, Albert Elia, the executive secretary for the Jewish community’s main organization, was approached by two men who asked him to get into a car.
Elia was never seen or heard from again.
Although Taoufik has spent decades trying to find out exactly what happened to her father after his abduction, going through official Lebanese, Syrian, French and American channels for decades, Albert Elia’s exact whereabouts and eventual fate remain a mystery.
"I was eventually told he was tortured in a prison in Damascus and did not survive longer than a month," Taoufik said. "I just want people to know Albert Elia did exist, that he had a name. And that one day, we hope we will recover his body and give him the burial he deserves."