Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Conference gathers 300 testimonies from Egypt

Levana Zamir reports on a successful one-day conference organised by the Association for the Rights of the Jews of Egypt in Tel Aviv earlier this year:


"The extremely well-attended conference - there were 320 participants - took place on 7 February 2007, in the Hall of Beth Ha'Hayal in Tel Aviv. Once again, it marks the need, felt recently by our community of Egyptian Jews, to delve into our past.

"The goal this time was to gather the painful testimonies of our Exodus from Egypt as experienced by each participant, and to bring into focus the fact that there is not only one group of refugees - the Palestinians - but also a second group: almost one million Jews from Arab lands, among them the Jews from Egypt.

"It is true that in Israel we have found a second homeland, and that the second generation has finally managed to establish itself in a country where Oriental Jews have never been the favourites. But it is still a fact that our parents' world had collapsed overnight, that we all became refugees and many among us were thrown into jail just because we were Jews.

"Despite the seriousness of the subject, Egyptian good humour prevailed. The reunion was cheerful. The Hall of Beth Ha'hayal was filled to capacity and we had to turn away about 70 people who had not registered in time. To them we promised a wholehearted "next time."

"Stanley Urman of the US, Director of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, gave a summary of the goals of this important organization. Among its aims is the demand that the US Senate and the UN, whenever there is mention of the Palestinian Refugees, take into consideration the "million Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries." Mr. Urman added that JJAC is already in contact with the authorities in a number of Arab countries. The lawyer, Jean-Claude Niddam, head of the Department for the Rights of Jews from Arab Lands at the Ministry of Justice, succinctly expressed the importance of our testimonies, not only in memory of our parents who were subjected to this trauma, but also in memory of the glorious and flourishing community of Jews from Egypt, which practically no longer exists.

"The highlight of this gathering was a professional documentary, 30 minutes in length, produced by Levana Zamir. The screening premièred at this event. The film told of the trials and tribulations of our Exodus. It started with glorious pictures of the community before 1948 when most of us enjoyed financial security and joie de vivre - only to end up as 'hounded Jews'. There were pogroms in the Jewish Quarter in Cairo, explosions which killed a whole family, persecutions, mass arrests, insults, riots, discrimination, prison, forced exile in a matter of days, sometimes hours, leaving our assets behind and emptying Egypt of its Jews.

"The tragic demise of this glorious community that once was the Jews of Egypt, is not only our history, but that of the Jewish people in its entirety.

"The million Oriental Jews paid a heavy price for the beneficient, if not Messianic, establishment of the State of Israel, which most of the Arab countries still do not want to accept. As Bat Ye'or so eloquently stated in her book Yehoudei Misrayim, the Arab countries would
have liked to keep their Jews as 'dhimmi' (citizens paying for the privilege of being protected by the state), so that they could continue to develop their respective countries.

"After having viewed this film, in all its simplicity, with no exaggeration, and shining with truth, the participants identified themselves and testified in their own way to their experiences leaving Egypt.

"Demonstrating that a testimony, however painful, could be presented orally in two minutes, the following participants stepped up to the mike: Samuel Cohen, Lucie Calamaro (née Belbel), Ernest Abada, Esther Bar-David (née Galanti) and Levana Zamir (née Vidal). The participants continued, either in written form or orally, to testify to the atrocities they had been subjected to - the riots, the persecutions, the sudden arrests and imprisonment without reason and trial, the deportations, sequestrations, discrimination and the Human Rights violations marking their departure from Egypt. Even those who thought they had left Egypt voluntarily, finally understood that their parents had left because of the hostile and discriminatory climate vis-à-vis Jews, as well as the lack of a future for their children in that country.

"Moreover, those who thought they had left nothing behind in Egypt, understood that they had been uprooted and that their parents had been forced to leave a relatively comfortable life to become refugees and live in exile somewhere in the world. Even those who received some compensation after the Suez war as citizens of France and GreatBritain, obtained only a minimal sum for their properties. Nobody was compensated for his world collapsing overnight. We would not have liked to live in the Egypt of today, but we are equally aware that our roots are over there, in that Egypt that no longer exists, except in our hearts and memory.

"The 300 testimonies gathered will be the subject of a book which will be published in a few months' time and will be distributed to schools and university libraries. Those testimonies where each participant states his father's profession in Egypt will be used in a research study to disprove the oft-quoted, but incorrect fact that the Jews from Egypt who had settled in Israel were, for the most part, financially badly-off.

"The documentary on the 20th century Exodus from Egypt will be shown in primary and secondary schools in Israel by a group of volunteers from our Society.

"After lunch, Cecilia Cohen-Hemsi-Niza presented the book Notre combat, edited by her father, Joseph Cohen-Hemsi, in Alexandria in 1948. This book was banned by the Egyptian government upon publication and Joseph Cohen-Hemsi was jailed at the Aboukir Camp in September 1948 because of it.

"The book contains articles written by Joseph Cohen-Hemsi and published in various Egyptian newspapers between 1942 and 1947 at a time when the Egyptian authorities had no objection to them. Those same articles published again in 1948 dwelling on the anti-Semitism prevailing in
Europe--as opposed to the fraternal links between Jews and Muslims in Egypt emphasized by Azzam Pasha, Secretary of the Arab League in 1947 - were banned in 1948.

"Sharon Nizza of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, presented her thesis on the Zionist debate in Egypt in the '40s, based in part on the book Notre combat.

"At the end of the day, we slipped back into nostalgia for the Jews from Egypt - as incomparable as it is incomprehensible - with the songs of Leila Mourad in her movie "Yehia el-Hob," collected by Joseph Hakim of Jerusalem. Also shown was a 20-minute film on the last Jews from Alexandria, produced in 2001.

"Israeli TV Channel 1 , which had come to film the event and interview some of the participants, produced an excellent report broadcast in Arabic on 17 February 2007 between 7:00 PM and 7:30 PM. This channel is important as it is viewed by several leaders of Arab countries.

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