In this must-read interview by Veronique Chemla, researcher Bat Ye'or describes her flight from Egypt to England and how she came to coin the concept of dhimmitude to describe the subjugated and fearful condition of Jews and Christians in Muslim lands (With thanks: Eliyahu, Do)
Q: What was your background? Your pen name, Bat Ye'or, means "daughter of the Nile" in Hebrew ...
I was born into a comfortable religious Jewish family in Cairo. My father was Italian and my mother French. My father managed the fortune he had inherited. After the proclamation of the Italian racial laws, my father had asked to be Egyptian: he lost his Italian nationality.
I owe my mother my love of reading because our apartment was filled with books she bought. I soon discovered my vocation as a writer which drew me out of my bourgeois milieu to become an iconoclast.
My parents were open enough to tolerate my refusal to follow the religious practices and prejudices around me.
However, I felt very close to the struggle of Palestinian Jews. We talked among ourselves with great caution for fear of accusations and arrests. Indeed, during the Second World War, the pro-Nazi fascist parties and the Muslim Brotherhood did create an atmosphere of fear and insecurity. We knew that the Arab masses were pro- the Axis forces.
Q: How did the situation of Jews in Egypt develop after 1945?
By 1945 the struggle of Egyptian nationalists and the Muslim Brotherhood against Zionism and the British led to mass street protests. The crowds were shouting anti-Jewish slogans, they ransacked shops, attacked destitute Jewish neighborhoods, robbed, raped and burned schools and community assets.
The situation worsened with Israel's war of Independence, or First Arab-Israeli war in 1948. A wave of violence broke out, accompanied by killings, expulsions, arrests and sequestrations, my father's property included.
With social unrest endemic, the unpopularity of King Farouk and the humiliating defeat of five Arab armies against Israel led to the Free Officers' revolt in July 1952 and the abolition of the monarchy in 1953.
In 1954, Gamal Abd al-Nasser seized power in Egypt and took in many Nazi criminals who became part of the government.
In 1955, my Egyptian passport was not renewed. Despite this, I felt even more Egyptian than Jewish.
Violence, evictions, imprisonment, killings and confiscation of property worsened with the Suez War in 1956.
But such excesses were also linked to the political situation, especially the hateful fanaticism fomented by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Mufti of Jerusalem Amin al-Husseini.
The population in general, were they the lower or educated classes, remained friendly, are were often against these excesses. Jews were saved by Muslims during demonstrations where they could have been killed.
Q: How did your family live through this dramatic time?
As a former French national, my mother was put under house arrest and could not leave the apartment for some time. So was my English brother-in-law, who was later expelled.
Humiliating regulations were proclaimed, banning Jews from certain professions, public places, clubs and cinemas. It was impossible to stay. In a few months a community 3,000 years old disappeared. I felt that I was living through and witnessing an extraordinary event. Many Jews left secretly without saying goodbye for fear of being detained. From 1948 to 1957, approximately 60, 000 Jews out of 75,000 to 80,000 left Egypt.
Our departure had been delayed by my mother's taking a fall.
Then, in 1957, it was our turn to leave secretly with the laissez-passer issued to the stateless, the contents of our two permitted suitcases each were repeatedly emptied on the ground by Egyptian police while they showered us with abuse. We were searched thoroughly, the plaster cast encasing my mother's leg broken and my allowance of 50 Egyptian pounds confiscated. The Dutch airliner was held up for a long time. The crew were waiting, arms folded, shocked by the treatment of two people who could barely walk - my father was disabled - and myself, a young girl.
We had difficulty obtaining a visa to England where my mother wanted to join my sister and her family. As for me, I intended to go to Israel, but with two invalid parents, I had to put off my plan. All four generations of my family were scattered around the world.
The whole community was affected; nuclear families imploded, a lifestyle and social life vanished.
Q: How did you come to England?
In London, we coped with help from a Committee for Jewish refugees. I obtained a scholarship to study at the Institute of Archeology, University of London. There I met David G. Littman in 1959 while studying the archeology of the land of Israel. We were married a few months later.
I found that I came from a world different to that of my fellow students: that of self-censorship and threats. Their carefree attitude and freedom made me aware of a behaviour particular to the dhimmitude that I later described.
Two years later, I found these same attitudes among Jews and Christians during my travels with my husband in Tunisia, Morocco and Lebanon. Because I came from their world, a world of vulnerability and fear, I could read their feelings, but because I had changed myself, I could also now recognize them for what they were.
It was also in London, going through trials of poverty and exile, that I understood and decided that I definitely belonged to the Jewish people.
Q: How did you get interested in dhimmitude, a concept that you coined?
I did not get interested in dhimmitude, I discovered it during my research on Christians from Muslim lands, in my discussions with them, my observations and analysis.
It is a conceptual tool that I coined when I was working on an English translation of an expanded edition of my book The Dhimmi. At the request of my Christian friends, I had inserted a large number of historical documents about them and this concept allowed me to embrace a wide range of related areas. I dared not use it in my writing, considering that some people showed malice against my books and articles that not only openly proclaimed my Zionism, but also introduced a critical analysis of Islamic tolerance.
As one of the founders of WOJAC (World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries) in 1974-75, I campaigned for the almost one million Jewish refugees from Arab world, and was fighting racism toward them.
My stance drew me many enemies, Jewish and non-Jewish. They ridiculed my analysis of the dhimmi and Zionism. Their objections expressed many unconscious prejudices and a paternalistic attitude toward Oriental Jews.
The refusal to accept the Judeophobia of Islam may be explained in the context of the State of Israel's efforts to make peace - the suffering still fresh a few years after the death camps - and the magnitude of the Holocaust, certainly the greatest crime committed against the Jewish people and humanity itself. Christian anti-Semitism had been well documented and studied. The same was not true of the condition of dhimmi, which had been abolished under colonialism. The terrible events of the Holocaust, the stories of survivors, were focusing the interest of the Jewish world.
My husband was much more sensitive than me to criticism and always supported me.
I often talked about dhimmitude with my Christian Lebanese friends, relatives of (the Lebanese president) Bashir Gemayel. We wanted a word to define this particular status and the word dhimmitude seemed the best, but I hesitated to use it.
Only when Bashir Gemayel mentioned it in his last speech before his assassination, did I feel brave enough to use it myself in the sense of an existential condition defined by Islamic theology and jurisdiction.
I thought that Christians would now accept the word. But I was wrong, only a very small minority did and the word made people ostracise me even more.
Read interview in full (French)