libya jews 298.
(photo credit: Beth Hatefusoth)
Tripoli, Libya, was ablaze for weeks after the start of the Six Day War in June 1967 as Muslim mobs terrorized Jews, destroying property and claiming lives.
The Libyan government finally allowed - or forced - the Jews to leave the country, but anti-Jewish anger remained high.
Regina Bublil and her family were on a bus that was supposed to bring them to freedom, but she didn't believe they were safe in the hands of the driver. When he pulled over well before they reached the airport, saying the bus had "broken down," her suspicions became stronger.
Bublil, 19, asked the driver's helper to call a cab for her family from a nearby gas station and then followed him. She overheard him telling someone that the situation was "under control" and decided to make her own call for help.
Bublil wrestled with him for the phone and then called the British engineer she had worked for that summer until the violence forced her to take secret refuge in his house. Her parents and siblings survived because their upstairs neighbor, a Muslim, hid them and convinced the mob surrounding their home that they were out of the country. Meanwhile they burned her father's factory and real estate.
Clutching the phone with shaking hands and speaking English so she wouldn't be understood, Bublil explained to her boss where the bus was stopped and told him to hurry. When she got back to the bus, she found the driver holding a match to the gas-drenched vehicle in order to set it ablaze with her family inside. But just in time, her boss pulled up and helped her and her family escape.
When they got to the airport, they found that they weren't expected. "Bublil family?" the airport attendant asked with surprise. "You're not supposed to be here."
Their reservations presumably canceled because the plot against them was expected to succeed, the British engineer contacted a friend who worked at the airport. The friend removed seven British passengers from a flight departing right then for Malta so that the Bublils could escape.
In Malta, doctors and stretchers met them at the plane. They were so traumatized, she recalled, that "we couldn't talk."
But now, Bublil isn't afraid to speak out. The problem today, she said, was that not enough people knew what she and other Jews driven out of Arab countries endured.
"The Jews from the Arab countries wanted to let bygones be bygones and just get on with their lives. It wasn't until the next generation came to haunt us that [we realized] this story is not being told, that our heritage is gone, that we're extinct," she said.
Bublil, now known by her married name, Waldman, heads the San Francisco-based advocacy group Jimena: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North America. On Monday she was in Israel to participate in a conference launching an "International Rights and Redress Campaign" on behalf of the estimated 850,000 Jews who fled from Arab states after the creation of the State of Israel.
According to Jimena, less than 10,000 are now left in these countries; the Jews who lived for more than 2,000 years in Libya are entirely gone.
Part of the campaign examines the issue of restitution for Jews who had to leave everything behind at a moment's notice, but its overall focus is on raising awareness. "We want to be part of history," Bublil said. "We don't want to be called the forgotten refugees anymore."
She acknowledged that Mizrahi Jews hadn't done enough to raise the issue within the Jewish community. "We have to look in the mirror and say, 'What have we done to tell our story?'"
She also said that Israel, by successfully resettling the refugees without asking for international funds, hadn't brought attention to the issue.
But she added that when it came to international forums such as the United Nations - where the Palestinian refugee issue has been addressed in hundreds of resolutions while none have been devoted to the Jewish refugees - anti-Semitism was at play.
"There wasn't sympathy toward [us]. People really didn't care," she said. "The war in the Middle East created two populations of refugees, and it's a mistake to think, like the international community does, that there's only one group of refugees - the Palestinians."
Bublil said Palestinian refugees' grievances needed to be addressed as part of the process of creating two states, just as those of Jews would.
She also said she hoped that until that happened, the Palestinians would learn from her example.
"Instead of feeling victimized, I never felt I was a victim," she said. Instead she crusaded for the rights of Soviet Jews, victims of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and Bosnian Muslim refugees.
"I have forgiven the perpetrators [in Libya]," she said. "Hate is a weapon of mass destruction. And what I think is really sad in the case of Palestinians is that these are people who deserve a better life. They have been victimized by their own leaders, and caught in a web."
"So long as the Arab leaders keep on perpetuating the hatred in the Palestinian territories and in Gaza, they will keep the Palestinian people perpetually walking the path of death and destruction," she said.