Thursday, October 30, 2008

Egyptian Jews did not leave of their own free will

The Meretz USA blog has posted a further article (here and here) - first published in The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies in 2005 - by the Australian academic Philip Mendes, this time about the Jews of Egypt. He begins by asking: did they leave freely or were they pushed? but offers precious little evidence of the former. Was their expulsion inevitable? Probably, in view of the Nasser regime's lack of respect for minority rights.

In 1945, there were approximately 900,000 Jews living in Arab countries. But by the time of the 1967 Six Day War only a small number remained (Shulewitz & Israeli 1999:139).

Two dichotomous perspectives - both linked to contemporary political agendas and propaganda - have traditionally been used to explain this modern Jewish exodus.

On the one hand, there is what has been termed the pro-Zionist or alternatively “neo-lachrymose conception of Jewish-Arab history” (Cohen 1991:55) which interprets the exodus as a response to a long history of Arab persecution. This perspective tends to assume that all Arabs at all times persecuted Jews in a manner commensurate to the persecution of Jews under Christian regimes, and that this vicarious persecution culminated in the widespread and uniform expulsion of Jews following the establishment of the State of Israel (Schechtman 1961; Katz 1973:32-37; Peters 1984; Meron 1995; Meron 1999; Levin 2001:xiii-xiv; Ye’or 2002). The political purpose of this agenda is at least in part to counter contemporary Palestinian refugee demands, and also to reinforce the claims of Oriental or Mizrahi Jews within an Israeli society founded primarily around a narrative of European Jewish suffering and persecution (Beinin 1998:15-16).

The “neo-lachrymose conception” has its obvious historical and political limitations. Any evidence-based analysis would confirm that Jews generally enjoyed greater tolerance under Islamic rule than that of Christianity (Cohen 1991:58-59). Equally, the modern Jewish exodus from the Arab world followed different paths in different countries. Whilst the overwhelming majority of Iraqi Jews were expelled in 1951, a sizeable number of Jews remained in Egypt till and beyond the 1956 Suez War (Beinin 1998:2). And the Lebanese Jewish community remained relatively secure until the 1975 civil war (Schulze 2001). (Schulze is incorrect - 5,000 Jews out of 6,000 left Lebanon after the 1967 war - ed)

On the other hand, the anti-Zionist perspective portrays a harmonious historical relationship between Jews and Muslims that was destroyed only by modern Zionist intervention. According to this perspective, the Jewish exodus was mainly voluntary. Jews were manipulated and persuaded to leave by a combination of Zionist and colonialist conspiracies. Anti-Jewish feeling played little or no part (Abu Shakrah 2001; Qumsiyeh 2004:51; Rose 2004:174-189). The political purpose of this perspective is to contest the legitimacy of the State of Israel which is based at least in part on its self-defined role as a refuge for all Jewish victims of persecution, whether from Europe or the Middle East.

This perspective also has obvious limitations. The historical relationship between Jews and Islam was often marred by institutional anti-Jewish oppression and discrimination including examples of violent persecution (Memmi 1975:20-24 & 31-34; Lewis 1984:168-170; Halevi 1987:199; Cohen 1991:59; Stillman 1991a:63; Beinin 1998:17). There is also little doubt that exclusivist Arab nationalism played a key role in defining the limits of modern Arab citizenship (Said 2001:208-209). In most cases Jews were excluded irrespective of their attitude to Zionism and Israel (Beinin 1998:21).

This paper aims to move beyond these polarized and inadequate perspectives to identify the complex push and pull factors that contributed to the Jewish exodus from modern Egypt. In particular, attention is drawn to the key historical events: the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the 1952 Egyptian Revolution, the 1956 Suez War, and the 1967 Six Day War that shaped the context which determined the nature of the exodus. It is argued that the exodus was a direct (and perhaps inevitable) by-product of the Arab-Israeli conflict given the progressive targeting of Jews as the enemy of Arab nationalism.

During the interwar years, it has been estimated that 75-80,000 Jews resided in Egypt. They were a culturally heterogeneous community including about 20,000 indigenous Jews, and immigrants from Italy, Greece, North Africa, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Yemen. There was a significant gulf between the Sephardic Jews and the Ashkenazic Jews, and also between the Rabbanite Jews and the smaller community of Karaite Jews. About 30 % of the community held Egyptian citizenship, but the rest were either foreign nationals or stateless.

Economically, most Egyptian Jews belonged to the middle, lower middle, and lower classes with at least 25 % living in significant poverty and dependent on charity. However, about 5 to 10 % of the community formed an affluent upper middle class. This group included professionals such as lawyers and doctors, bankers, owners of a number of large department stores such as the Cicurel family, and a high proportion of registered stockbrokers. As late as 1954, Jews still comprised about 15 % of the Egyptian economic elite. Most Jews spoke European languages, and few (except for the poorer communities) conversed in street Arabic (Landshut 1950:28; Beinin 1995: 103-106; Beinin 1998:260; Levin 2001:89; Oppenheim 2003:412-422).

Many Egyptian Jews (as per most Jews in the Arab world) identified with and benefited from ties with European culture and values (Golan 1978:4-5). This identification reflected not only self-interest, but in many cases a genuine fear of the ethnocentric intolerance of the indigenous population. Conversely, many Muslims resented this Jewish link with what they saw as colonialist interference in their traditions and culture. The gradual introduction of decolonisation undermined Jewish well-being and prosperity (Stillman 1991:63; Alcalay 1993:45; Tessler 1994:310; Beinin 1998:20-21).

Nevertheless, some Jews found acceptance within what was primarily a liberal and secular Egyptian nationalist movement. A number of Jews were active in the anti-British independence movement, and some were elected to Parliament (Beinin 1995:96; Beinin 1998:18; Oppenheim 2003:423-424). Jews were also prominent in the emerging Communist movement which would follow the Soviet Union in supporting the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. As a result, some conservative Egyptian leaders sought to link Zionism and Communism in an attempt to discredit both movements (Beinin 1998:142-148).

Zionism attracted little interest from Jews in the Arab world (Landshut 1950:23-24; Lewis 1984:189-190), and was actively opposed by the communal leadership in Egypt. Only about 4000 Jews – many of whom were recent immigrants to Egypt - departed for Palestine. There was some revival of the Zionist movement during World War Two, and Egyptian delegates even participated in the World Zionist Congresses of 1946 and 1947 although only 10 % of Egyptian Jews bought shekels. The movement then was suppressed as a result of the 1948 war, but continued to operate underground (Beinin 1998:121; Oppenheim 2003:426-427).

Anti-Semitism does not appear to have been a major factor in Egypt prior to 1948. To be sure, Egyptian ultra-nationalist and Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood emerged in the late 1930s, and began to target Jews and Jewish institutions. But these early attacks were condemned by the Wafd Party and other influential liberal and secular groups which actively distinguished between Jews and Zionists (Beinin 1998:61-64; Oppenheim 2003:425).

However, the 1945 Balfour Day riots provided a sign of things to come. Massive anti-Zionist demonstrations led by Islamic and nationalist groups resulted in the destruction of the Ashkenazic synagogue in Cairo, and attacks upon nearby Jewish shops and private homes. The Egyptian Prime Minister placed joint blame on the “mob”, and the Zionists who had allegedly provoked the attacks. Nevertheless, King Faruq and the Secretary General of the Arab League publicly regretted the incidents, most of the media condemned the riots, and the Egyptian Government offered to pay compensation for the destroyed synagogue (Kramer 1989:162-163; Laskier 1992:84-87; Beinin 1998:64-66; Oppenheim 2003:424-425).

A further source of concern was the passing of the 1947 Company Law which required the majority of Board members of Egyptian joint stock companies to be Egyptian nationals. Although the law was not specifically directed against Jews it did result in many Jews losing their jobs, and there was widespread concern that minority groups were being removed from public economic life (Kramer 1989:206-207). There were also some media campaigns against Jews, and significant anti-Jewish riots associated with the passage of the 1947 United Nations Partition resolution. However, in general, the government continued to defend Jewish life and property (Kramer 1989:208-211).


During the 1948 War, the government imposed martial law, and approximately 800 Jews were placed in internment camps.(Some estimates put it as high as 1300 - ed). Most were alleged to be either Zionists or Communists reflecting the government’s apparent belief that the two groups were acting in collusion. In addition, Zionism was declared illegal, Jewish organizations were required to provide the names and addresses of their members, and a significant number of Jewish families were expelled from their homes.

The property of about 70 Jewish individuals and firms was placed under state administration. This included a number of major Jewish-owned department stores, and other well-known businesses. But the anti-Jewish measures were characterized both by their excessiveness, and by their inconsistency. Some of the owners of these corporations were known to be Zionists, but others were not. Some leading Zionists were not affected at all.

Government actions were accompanied by a press campaign against local Jews. For example, a Wafdist newspaper published blacklists of Jewish businessmen (Kramer 1989:214). There were also a number of examples of popular violence directed against Jews. In June 1948, a bomb killed 22 Jews and wounded 41 in the Karaite section of Cairo. The Egyptian Government absurdly blamed the explosion on fireworks stored in Jewish homes, and conflict between Karaite and Rabbanite Jews. Later following an Israeli air attack on Cairo in July 1948, a number of Jewish-owned department stores and cinemas were bombed. A further explosion in the Rabbanite Jewish section of Cairo in September 1948 killed 19 Jews and wounded 62. A subsequent bomb in November 1948 destroyed a prominent Jewish publishing house.

The government was relatively inactive in protecting the Jewish community from these attacks which appear to have mainly been perpetrated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Some of the factors which may have contributed to government policy included their fear of the political strength of the Brotherhood, the Prime Minister’s personal anti-Semitism, and a general incompetence. However, no specifically anti-Jewish legislation was passed, and there is little evidence that the above events were linked to a deep-seated anti-Jewish campaign or public ferment (Landshut 1950:33-40; Kramer 1989:215-217; Laskier 1992:126-139; Beinin 1995:96; Beinin 1998:66-70 & 92-94).

The key question that remains to be answered is whether the Arab-Israeli War necessarily precluded a continuing role for Jews either in Egypt or the Arab world in general. On the one hand, a state based on genuinely secular liberal principles could reasonably be expected to maintain the rights of a minority population even whilst being in a state of war with that population’s neighbouring nation state. (My emphasis - ed). This was particularly the case given that the leaders of the Egyptian Jewish community persistently affirmed their loyalty to Egypt, and made significant (albeit almost certainly coerced) donations to the Palestine War fund (Kramer 1989:213-214; Beinin 1998:60).

On the other hand, the increasing threats towards Jews in Egypt and other Arab countries suggested that the distinction between Jews and Zionists was no longer maintained. The Jewish minority would inevitably be regarded as a potential fifth column, and hence excluded from the Arab nation. From 1944 to 1947, a number of threats were made by Arab leaders concerning the likely fate of Arab Jews as a result of events in Palestine (Meir-Glitzenstein 2004:21).

In November 1947, for example, the Egyptian Delegate to the United Nations Muhammad Husayn Haykal (known to be a relative liberal in Egyptian politics) warned that the Palestine Partition Resolution could lead to reprisals against Jews in Arab countries. According to Haykal: “Partition of Palestine might create in those countries an anti-Semitism even more difficult to root out than the anti-Semitism which the Allies were trying to eradicate in Germany…If the United Nations decides to partition Palestine, it might be responsible for very grave disorders and for the massacre of a large number of Jews” (Meron 1995:47; See also Beinin 1998:60-62).

Haykal’s warning was followed by specific resolutions of the Arab League in February 1948 dealing with the Jews of Arab countries. The resolutions implied concern for “the welfare and property of Jewish citizens”, and urged Jews to maintain their loyalty to their homelands, and to eschew any involvement in Zionist activity. But they also threatened that “any act of Zionist terrorism is liable to bring a holocaust upon the entire Jewish community”. It was unclear whether this clause referred to terrorist activities by Palestinian Jews, or alternatively by local Jews sympathetic to Zionism (Meir-Glitzenstein 2004:22; see also Landshut 1950:26).

Between 1948 and 1950 about 20,000 Jews left Egypt including over 14,000 who migrated to Israel. Many were lower middle-class Jews who found their economic prospects destroyed by widespread unemployment, and the ongoing campaign to Egyptianize business ownership and administration. Much of this exodus was openly organized by emissaries of the Mossad l’Aliya, the Israeli Institute for Immigration, which established a number of travel agencies inside Egypt in order to coordinate the process (Kramer 1989:217-218; Beinin 1995:96). (But Levana Zamir in her essay 'The Golden Era of the Jews of Egypt' points out that Aliya from Egypt was limited to a quota of a few hundred per month - ed)

Nevertheless for those Jews who remained there was some evidence that life was returning to normal. Between July 1949 and February 1950, most of the Jews who had been interned were released, and their property restored by the government. Many Jews continued to practice their professions in areas such as journalism, publishing, law, medicine and finance. Jewish sporting teams continued to operate as did communal institutions such as hospitals and schools although most Jewish newspapers ceased publication. In addition, King Faruq resumed his traditionally friendly relations with the Jewish community including the awarding of royal decorations to leading Jews.

Following the 1952 Free Officers Revolution, the new Prime Minister General Muhammad Naguib worked particularly hard to establish good relations with the Jewish community, and publicly assured Jews that they continued to be part of the Egyptian nation. Naguib visited a number of Jewish institutions including the Cairo synagogue on Yom Kippur, and the Egyptian Chief Rabbi was invited to attend national celebrations (Schechtman 1961:192-194; Golan 1978:40; Kramer 1989:215 & 220; Stillman 1991b: 168; Laskier 1992:139-141, 146 & 201; Beinin 1998:79-81).

Naguib’s replacement by General Gamal Abdel Nasser in March 1954 seems to have halted this trend towards better relations, and was followed by the unfortunate Operation Susannah episode. In July 1954, Egyptian authorities arrested an Israeli spy ring consisting of 13 operatives including an Israeli officer and a dozen local Jews. They had carried out a number of acts of sabotage including setting fire to the United States Information Service Library in Cairo, the Alexandria Post Office, and a number of cinemas. Little damage was done, and no fatalities had occurred. The two leaders of the group were sentenced to death, and the other defendants were sentenced to long prison terms.

The espionage operation – which later became known in Israel as the Lavon Affair due to a political scandal over who was responsible for ordering the bungled action – seems to have been intended to undermine western confidence in the stability of the Egyptian regime. In particular, it was hoped to prevent the planned withdrawal of British forces from the Suez Canal (Golan 1978:48-49; Woolfson 1980:201-207; Laskier 1992:216-219; Morris 1993:316-320; Beinin 1998:19-20; Shlaim 2000:111-112).

During the trial period, the Egyptian authorities and media were careful to distinguish between the minority of Zionist spies and Egyptian Jews, and emphasized that the majority of Egyptian Jews were loyal citizens (Beinin 1995:93-94). However, Operation Susannah does appear to have further undermined the rights and standing of Egyptian Jews (Kramer 1989:220-221; Stillman 1991b:169; Beinin 1998:86-87 & 95; Hirst 2003:294; Rose 2004:189).

The Second Wave of Repression: the 1956 and 1967 Wars:The second Arab-Israeli war was accompanied by harsh government measures against the Egyptian Jewish community. About 1000 Jews – both Zionist and non-Zionist - were detained, most Jews were placed under surveillance, many Jews were directly expelled from the country, and over 500 Jewish businesses were placed under state control. Significant measures were taken to exclude Jews from economic life. In addition, Zionism was declared a criminal offence, and Zionists were deprived of the right to hold citizenship. However, in contrast to 1948 there were few instances of popular violence directed against Jews.

Following the conclusion of the war, Jews were directly pressured to leave Egypt either by formal deportation orders, or via more covert methods of intimidation and harassment. Between November 1956 and March 1957 over 14,000 Jews departed Egypt mainly for Israel, including most of the key community leaders.

From mid-1957 to mid-1967 a further 17-19,000 Jews departed Egypt. Most of the key Jewish institutions including the school system were taken over by the Egyptian Government. In addition, the nationalization decrees of 1960-62 destroyed the livelihood of many Jews (Schechtman 1961:196-205; Golan 1978:242-243; Kramer 1989:221; Laskier 1992: 253-263; Beinin 1998:87-89, 107 & 185; Levin 2001:103-109; Oppenheim 2003:428-429).

At the time of the Six Day War about 7,000 Jews remained in Egypt (Beinin 1998:88). These Jews appear to have experienced a final wave of persecution including mass arrests and subsequent expulsion. The organized Egyptian Jewish community had come to an end (Peters 1984:106; Khedr 2003).

Summary and Conclusion: The Egyptian body politic appears to have been relatively more liberal and tolerant towards Jews than other Arab countries such as Iraq and Syria. Until the 1956 Suez War a sizeable Jewish community remained in Egypt, and active government or popular violence against Jews had been relatively restrained. Nevertheless by 1967 the formal existence of Egyptian Jewry had also come to an end.

The factors which led to the demise of Egyptian Jewry are complex, but nonetheless closely related to the onset of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Most Jews did not leave Egypt voluntarily, although it is true that some were active Zionists and positively attracted to the idea of living in Israel. However, more often than not support for Zionism seems to have been a defensive response to perceived insecurity and/or active persecution (Segre 1971:125; Lewis 1984:190).

Another factor was the general post-colonialist resentment of foreigners which led to their gradual exclusion from Egyptian social and economic life. Hence many Jews appear to have left Egypt because of economic factors such as loss of jobs and livelihood, rather than specific anti-Jewish persecution. Similarly a number of authors have noted that other foreign minorities such as the Italians and Greeks also experienced hostility, and left Egypt in significant numbers (Kramer 1989:234-235; Laskier 1992:299-301; Beinin 1998:18-21). But it was arguably the conflict over Palestine which specifically motivated ethnocentric groups and the government to target and scapegoat Jews.

A considerable number of Jews – perhaps the majority – seem to have departed as a result of systematic harassment or direct expulsion. It was perhaps inevitable that the Jews would experience some backlash as a result of being seen as holding potential dual loyalties to both their homeland, and the nation with whom that country was at war. But their wholesale departure suggests that the threats first uttered by Arab leaders in the mid-late 1940s ultimately came to fruition: that Jews in the Arab world were driven out as a direct and unapologetic retaliation for Jewish actions in Israel/Palestine.

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CONFERENCE 3 November: 'The Multiculture of the Jews of Egypt'
And you shall tell your children - the Second Exodus film

The Association of Jews from Egypt in Israel is holding a conference at Bat Yam auditorium on 3 November 2008. Speakers include Prof. Nahem Ilan, from the Lander Institute Jerusalem; Miryam Frenkel, Deputy Director of the Ben Zvi Institute;Levana Zamir, President of the Association of Jews from Egypt; Yossi Ben Aharon, Jerusalem; Dr. Ada Aharoni, WCJE Haifa; Eyal Sagui-Bizawi. Email levanazamir@gmail.com

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