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Crusader for refugees

GINA WALDMAN of Tiburon has horrific tales of escaping with her Jewish family from anti-Semitic mobs in Libya in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War between five Arab nations and Israel.

marinprofile
Forced to flee Libya as a child with her Jewish family, Gina Waldman devotes her life to show what hatred can do. She wants the world to remember the flight of Jews.

What happened to her then colors what she does now - trying to educate the world about the destruction of Jewish civilizations in North Africa and the Middle East where Jews had lived for 2,000 years.

"Palestinians are not the only refugees in the Middle East," says Waldman. In 1948, when Israel was founded, nearly 1 million Jews lived in Arab countries and Iran; today there are fewer than 5,000.

"My community (in Libya) is extinct," she says.

The Jews who fled have since been integrated into countries all over the world. But Waldman wants the world to remember their plight.

To that end, she testified last month before a congressional Human Rights Caucus, urging that any discussion of refugee rights should include the rights of other victims - Christians and Jews - displaced by the Middle East wars.

Caucus member Iliana Ros-Lehtinen pointed out that "Jews who were born in Arab countries have lost their resources, their homes, their heritage and their heritage sites." Canada's former attorney general, Irwin Cotler, testified that "rights

for Jewish refugees from Arab countries has to be part of any peace process if that peace process is going to have integrity."

In 2002, as part of her remembrance campaign, Waldman co-founded JIMENA - Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa - and as an unpaid volunteer gives dozens of lectures each year.

Her organization also records the stories of other Jewish refugees.

In recent months, Waldman has fortified JIMENA's mission to include a campaign against the kind of institutionalized hatred that keeps the Middle East conflict alive.

"I thought it was my moral responsibility to show what hatred can do to people," she says. "America has been so generous and so supportive - how could 9/11 happen?"

Waldman, now 59, has been a crusader for human rights since soon after she left Libya at 19.

In her comfortable waterfront home in Paradise Cay, she remembers a childhood in Tripoli where she was part of a hated minority whose rights were severely limited and where Arab children in madrasas were taught to hate Jews.

The hatred became manifest when the Six Day War broke out, and screaming Arab mobs took to the streets. They surrounded her family home, threatening to kill her father, her mother and a brother who lived at home.

At that moment, Waldman was at work at a summer job on the outskirts of Tripoli. She was taken into hiding by a colleague, British engineer Brian Foreman, and stayed with his family for four weeks until the Libyan government announced that the entire Jewish population of the country was to be expelled.

She rejoined her embattled family members when they packed up to go. Each was allowed to take only one suitcase, and no money. All other possessions were confiscated.

They bought airline tickets to Malta and a coupon to pay for a journey beyond.

Her father paid a huge bribe for a police escort to the airport, but their journey there was stalked by near-disaster. At one point, gasoline was poured beneath their stalled bus, and the driver seemed poised to set it on fire. Their savior, once more, was the British engineer.

Waldman, her grandparents, parents, an uncle and her 13-year-old brother ultimately flew to Malta, then Rome, where they settled.

When she was 21, Waldman applied to come to the United States. Her application was strengthened by the fact that she spoke excellent English and French, and was qualified to become a translator-interpreter.

In three days, she had a job at a bank in San Francisco.

Two years later, after attending a Union Square demonstration on behalf of Soviet Jews, she took a job with Bay Area Citizens for Soviet Jews, where she worked for the next 17 years and became its director.

One focus of her job was to help Jews to emigrate from Soviet Russia to Israel, the United States or elsewhere.

She traveled to the Soviet Union several times, and among other things smuggled Jewish contemporary art to this country; many such paintings now hang in her home.

In the late '80s, she brought three women artists to Marin and found them a place to work for three months.

In 1975, she met in Moscow with dissident patriot Andre Sakharov, who had just received the Nobel Peace Prize. He told her he would not be allowed to accept the prize in Oslo, and asked if she could deliver his acceptance speech to his wife, Yelena Bonner, then under treatment in a Florence hospital.

Waldman delivered the speech to Bonner and remains her good friend.

Waldman's work has been supported in many ways by her husband, Dan Waldman, head of a real estate management company and a former Peace Corps volunteer in India, whom she married in San Francisco in 1975. They have two sons, Noah, 29, and Josh, 25.

Before founding JIMENA, Waldman was active in a variety of Jewish causes. In 1993, she won the Martin Luther King Jr. humanitarian award from the Marin Human Rights Commission, and was honored with a special exhibit on her life by the Judah Magnes Museum in Berkeley last year.

She remains eloquent on the subject of Palestinian refugees, many thousands of whom still live in camps in the Middle East, schooled in hatred for their oppressors.

She is grateful that Jewish refugees like herself "have risen above the desire for revenge" and focused on "rebuilding our shattered lives."

"I have personally forgiven the people who tried to kill my family and me," she said in her testimony before Congress. "I do not believe in hating and I truly believe that hate is a weapon of mass destruction."

Beth Ashley can be reached at bashley@marinij.com.


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Original piece is http://www.marinij.com/ci_6661233?source=most_emailed


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