Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Columnist takes nostalgic view of Jews of Egypt

In the unrelenting sea of official hostility and anti-Jewish hatred propagated by the Egyptian media there surfaces the occasional island of reason and proportion. Ahmed Bilal's two articles for Masry al-Youm on the Jews of Egypt are two such islands ( the original Arabic is summarised below). Sadly, one cannot say as much for readers' comments, many of which are contemptuous and hateful (with thanks: Eli; Levana).

Article of 10 March: The rededication of the Maimonides synagogue, lawsuits demanding the restoration of Jewish property, and continuing demands for the restoration of synagogues and the establishment of a Jewish Museum all demonstrate the fact that the Jews of Egypt, despite their limited presence, are seeking immortality.

Masri al-Youm reopens this thorny issue, in a serious attempt to re-discover facts we are about to forget, and to correct misconceptions.

Why open this file, and why now? The answer is that the Jews in Egypt, whether we like it or not, have a long history. Until the Forties of the last century, Muslims and Copts and Jews lived together peacefully. In those days Najib Rihani wrote a play «Hassan, Morcos and Cohen». Later, another play was written: «Fatima and Marika and Rachel».

The Jewish presence in Egypt was not born a century ago, but is as old as the Jewish religion itself. It dates back to when the family of Jacob, son of Isaac, journeyed to Egypt to escape famine. Joseph reached a senior position in the government of Egypt. The Children of Israel lived in Egypt until Moses led their exodus. The Jewish religion continued to exist and be observed in the land of Egypt. There was even a synagogue in the period of the 26th dynasty on the island of Philae in Aswan.

Throughout history figures emerged in the Jewish community played a significant role: Cattaui Pasha was the minister of finance, and transport and communications and remained a member of Parliament until his death. There was Yaqub Sanua, a pioneer playwright, the director Togo Mizrahi, Lillian Levy Cohen, an actress known as Camelia, musician Daoud Hosni, Rachel Abraham Levy, the famous Jewish lawyer Murad Faraj and many others.

Also, there was been considerable debate on the issue of property of the Jewish community in Egypt. About 3,500 lawsuits are being fought to recover sequestered Jewish assets.There is the little matter of Jewish property in Egypt, and they are demanding it back. This campaign relates to another campaign "led by the Zionist lobby in the United States in addition to Israel, to overthrow basic rights and claims to property and usurped Palestinian land, in addition to the right of return in exchange for «the right of return» of Jews and Jewish property seized by the Arabs"!

Both of these factors led us to open a «Jews in Egypt» file, at one time an integral part of the fabric of our society.

The author brings the story of the Jews of Egypt up-to-date: the tiny community of elderly Jews is led by Carmen Weinstein, without whose permission they cannot speak to outsiders. Yusuf Gaon, president of the Alexandria community, refused to talk to him without the written permission of the security services.

He then runs through the history of the community - its division into Rabbinic Jews and Karaites, native 'anti-Zionist' Egyptian Jews, Sephardim, and pro-Zionist Ashkenazim 'who did not bother to learn Arabic'.

He notes that Jews were mostly immigrants from their countries of origin, and this was especially clear in a census in 1948: about 10,000 Jews held Egyptian citizenship; 30,000 foreign nationals, and 40,000 stateless. Rabbi Haim Nahum repeatedly called for stateless Jews in Egypt to apply for Egyptian nationality. (This was not as straightforward as the author makes out -ed) According to Dr «Mohammed Oboualgar's book The Jews in Egypt between Diaspora and prosperity, Jews were indigenous Arabic-speaking Egyptians, living in the land for generations, who like other Egyptians benefited from increased prosperity and educational opportunities.

The last part of the article examines internal community politics. Cairo and Alexandria had separate community leaderships until the recent death of Dr Max Salama. It quotes a Jerusalem Post article in which his 'successor', Yussef Gaon, son of Nasser's tailor Joseph Gaon, says he did not believe his family had been expelled or forced to emigrate from Egypt. A 77-year old Jew, one of the few dozen remaining, complains: "
We prefer to be out of sight here, we do not want all our stories known because our situation is not clear. When you think of Jewish people here, the (Egyptians) always confuse Jews and Israel, and of course this hurts me, because I had nothing to do with politics. »

In his sequel of 13 March Ahmed Bilal says that the doors of some houses abandoned by the Jews had six-pointed stars in iron or carved in stone. The names of their Jewish owners were engraved on some houses, such as «Lisha Moses Lazarus 1922» who lived there when President Gamal Abdel Nasser was five years old.

The Jewish quarter of Cairo was never a ghetto; it was also inhabited by large numbers of Muslims and Christians. It was home to low-income artisans and jewellers who lived near their workshops. As soon as their financial situation improved, the Jews moved to new districts.

The Jewish quarter has 13 synagogues but only three temples are open. The temple of Moses Maimonides was built after the death of Maimonides, the medieval Jewish physician and philosopher, a close confidant of the Sultan Saladin. Inside the temple basement, visitors would come barefoot to the «sacred room», in which lay Maimonides' body for a week before being transferred to Tiberias, Palestine.

A non-Jewish resident, who requested anonymity, told us that "many Jews enjoyed the warm love of Egypt and decided to stay. Our relationship was very good, we all love each other, no one can differentiate between Jewish and Muslim and Christian, we all celebrate the holidays together, and my best friends were Jews." He then describes the Jews he knew.

He says Jews who emigrated did so willingly, and on the day of their departure, "they came and handed over to us and telling us that they were traveling».

One resident, who requested anonymity, says he acted as a 'Shabbat goy', changing lightbulbs, switching on lights or running errands for the Jews. Many were not as parsimonious as their reputation, but used to spend lavishly. One individual could spend all his earnings in the working day.

Everyone there still remembers Soso Levy, watch-maker who immigrated to Israel, and other Jewish neighbours, with affection. «We were dealing with them as neighbours, we did not think about the difference in religion, not never felt any hatred or malice on their part, nor did we feel it for them, we exchanged visits on their social occasions and on ours, and they love Egypt too».

Some came back as tourists to visit their old homes. Fathi Abdul Aziz remembers that in the late Eighties he found someone in front of his house. He was telling his two young sons, « I lived here".

" I looked at him and I asked him, was he Soso?!"
Then we embraced each other, and reminisced about the quarter before the Jews had left ».


Independent Observer said...

How often has Egypt (or any other Muslim country) engaged in self-criticism concerning 1,400 years of treating "their" Jews as second-class citizens?

victor said...

The article quotes a non-Jewish resident as saying that the Jews who left "did so willingly." Not so. That resident (who may really believe that the Jews left "willingly") has had the wool pulled over his/her eyes. My relatives were ethnically cleansed from Egypt. There is no other way to describe it. The husband/father was thrown in jail, their land and all their property was stolen, and they were all later taken to a Greek aircraft along with other dispossessed Jews to be flown out of the country for good. Just before they left, Egyptian authorities instructed the Greek pilot that if the plane ran into engine trouble, that he was NOT permitted to turn around and land again in Egypt. In other words, they were OUT. I guess that's what Arabs call "leaving willingly."

bataween said...

The non-Jewish resident contradicts himself almost in the same sentence: you don't leave willingly if you have to keep your plans secret until the day you leave. You cannot sell your house without attracting suspicion (and in any case it would fetch peanuts) so you abandon it to your neighbours.