Joseph Abdel Wahed would face his audience — and he faced hundreds over his lifetime — and introduce himself in elegant, accented English as an Arabic-speaking Middle East refugee.
Then he’d go in for the kill. “I’m not Palestinian,” he would tell the crowd. “I’m a Jew.”
Long ago, anti-Semitism forced Wahed to leave his native Egypt and go into exile. He trained in Europe as an economist and eventually made his way to California, where he thrived in the banking industry.
But his greatest impact came as an advocate for Jewish refugees from Arab lands, most notably as co-founder of JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa).
An internationally revered business leader and Jewish community activist, Wahed died Dec. 31 at his Moraga home following a long illness. He was 77.
“He really made the issue of Jews from Arab countries popular, almost a household word,” said Gina Waldman, JIMENA’s co-founder. “I cannot imagine JIMENA would exist had it not been for his vision.”
Added his wife, Kathi Wahed: “He was able to use his charisma and great talent for giving speeches for a cause that was really important to him. He made a big difference in educating the world.”
Born in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis, Wahed attended a British prep school, counting actor Omar Sharif and Hussein Bin Tal — the future King Hussein of Jordan — among his classmates.
“We always carry some nostalgia for the good old days before 1940,” Wahed told J. in 2005. “At that time, things were fairly decent, not because the Arabs loved us but because much of the Arab world had colonizers. In a sense we were protected. But it doesn’t mean we love the culture. It teaches children to hate Jews.”
Wahed never graduated. Once Gamal Nasser seized power in Egypt, a systematic campaign of persecution against the nation’s 80,000 Jews took place, reflecting anti-Jewish persecutions across the Arab world.
In 1952, the family fled to Paris. Wahed later attended Scotland’s University of Aberdeen, where he earned a master’s degree in political economics. He then returned to Paris, where he earned a postgraduate degree in economics at the Sorbonne.
With the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Wahed immigrated to San Francisco in 1962. He landed a job with Bank of America’s economics department, then moved to Wells Fargo Bank, where he eventually became chief economist and senior vice president.
He also married and had two sons. One of them, Dan Ovadya, remembers his father as “My personal No. 1 coach. He had a gentle wisdom about people and life. He said you want to aim high and be motivated, but be well grounded in the people around you. Don’t get disconnected from the important things.”
Fluent in three languages, Wahed became known for his bracing lectures on California’s economy during his 27-year banking career.
He served as chairman of the Economic Advisory Committee to the California Chamber of Commerce and was a trade delegate to Japan with San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein.
Wahed met his second wife when they both worked at Wells Fargo. “We worked on a project together,” Kathi Wahed recalled. “It was love at first sight. He always made lots of friends and was just a gregarious person.”
Despite a busy career, Wahed devoted energy to Israel and the Jewish community. He founded Congregation B’nai Israel and the Karaite Jews of America, thriving Daly City–based institutions representing the ancient Jewish sect, most of whose members are Jews from Arab lands.
“When the Karaites came to America they kept their identities hidden because they didn’t want more persecution,” noted B’nai Israel Rav Joe Pessah, who left Egypt in 1970. “[Wahed] served as a link and revived Karaism in the United States.”
He worked with the Jewish Community Relations Council in the 1970s, making sure a Mizrachi voice was heard in that agency. In the early 1980s, he served on the Project Renewal economic development subcommittee and helped forge a sister-city relationship between the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Kiryat Shmona in Israel.
He also served as economic advisor to the federation’s endowment fund.
Dan Ovadya recalled another valuable two-edged lesson he learned from his father.
“He taught us never to adopt the mentality of a victim,” he said. “On the other hand, my father had a strong sense of justice. He wasn’t going to let others redefine the broader conflict and ignore this huge story [about Jewish refugees from Arab lands]. He was motivated not from the victim’s perspective but from the justice perspective.”
That led him in 2001 to found JIMENA.
“After the second intifada, Joe was so upset,” remembered his wife. “I encouraged him to get involved in some way, and as it turned out, along with the other people he recruited, they started JIMENA.”
One of the first people he recruited for the project was Waldman, a Libyan-born Mizrachi Jew who had been instrumental in leading the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews.
She remembers being skeptical at first. “At the time I didn’t see the value,” Waldman recalled. “It seemed like too little, too late. I didn’t know where he was going with this, but he obviously had a big vision of how the refugee story played in terms of Israel and hasbara [public relations].”
She remembers Wahed’s boundless energy during the organization’s early days. He was one of the most popular lecturers in JIMENA’s speakers’ bureau.
“Joe did not see anything unjust and not talk about it,” added Pessah. “He thought there had been injustice done to the Jews of Egypt, so he put his foot down and said we are also refugees of a different kind. But we did not continue to be refugees. We established our lives and prospered.”
Wahed also came up with the idea of JIMENA making a documentary film to further spread the message about the 900,000 Mizrachi Jews forced out of their homes.
“I was sitting with him at the kitchen table and he said, ‘Why don’t we make a movie?’” Waldman said. “He used the term ‘forgotten refugees’ and said the world doesn’t know about us.”
With the help of the David Project, JIMENA went on to make that film, “The Forgotten Refugees,” in 2005. An interview with Wahed is featured prominently in it.
“It’s a compelling story, especially when you compare it to the parallel story of the Palestinians,” Wahed told j. at the time. “We weren’t showered with money from the E.U. or the U.N. We did it on our own. We rolled up our sleeves, tightened our belts and worked very hard wherever we went.”
Wahed was a world traveler, even twice returning to his native Egypt. “He liked the region,” said his son. “He was an Arab at heart and could charm people. He would talk to these hard-core anti-Israel Arabs and blow them away by speaking in Arabic.”
Time and illness took their toll, and last week the man who loved to speak before a crowd finally fell silent.
His friend Pessah remembered that Wahed particularly loved Psalm 121, which reads in part: “The Lord will guard your coming and going now and forever.”
“He loved it because he had been saved many, many times by God,” Pessah said. “God was watching over him and Israel.”
Joseph Wahed is survived by his wife, Kathi Wahed of Moraga; sisters Sylvie Gordon of San Mateo, Simone Mourad and Suzy Cohen, both of Hallandale, Fla.; sons Andrew Ovadya of San Diego and Dan Ovadya of Davis; and four granddaughters.
Contributions in Wahed’s name may be made to JIMENA, 459 Fulton St., Suite 207, San Francisco, 94102 (jimena.org) or Friends of Yemin Orde, 4340 East-West Highway, Suite 202, Bethesda, MD 20814.