Wednesday, April 03, 2013

'Jews of Egypt' film hits mainstream media


The youngest Jews still living in Egypt are two sisters, Nadia and Magda Haroun. Both were interviewed in the French TV channel ARTE's report on Amir Ramses' film 'Jews of Egypt'. Antisemitism has been officially encouraged, and falls on fertile ground, one says. Egypt should do more to preserve its Jewish heritage. Even the cemeteries have been wrecked. (With thanks: Suzy)

Perhaps because its release was temporarily blocked by the Egyptian security services, the launch of the film 'Jews of Egypt' by native film-maker Amir Ramses has gained considerable exposure in the mainstream press and media.  The Independent on Sunday and Haaretz are among two of the international newspapers which carried the story. (with thanks: Michelle; Ralph; Suzy)

From the Independent, by Cairo correspondent Alastair Beach:

From its peak in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the Jews in Egypt numbered around 80,000, the community collapsed. Today there are no more than a few dozen remaining. All are over 50 years old. Most are women who married Muslims or Christians, meaning their children have been raised as non-Jews and that the community will probably die out within a generation.

Now a documentary chronicling their experiences has been released in Egyptian cinemas. Billed as the first film of this kind to be allowed out on general release, Jews of Egypt presents an account of a community whose 20th-century fortunes, once so buoyant, suddenly came crashing down.

In the early years of Nasser's nationalist revolution, the Jewish presence in Egypt disintegrated. Rabbi Andrew Baker, an American trying to establish a fund to preserve Egypt's Jewish monuments, said it is possible to question whether there was any future left for Jews in Egypt. He added that the remnants are possessed by a "schizophrenic" outlook on their position in society.

On one hand they are proud of a legacy that stretches back 3,000 years to the time of Ramses II, but on the other they live a precarious existence in a country weaned on decades of antipathy towards Israel – which has fought four wars with Egypt since 1948. "They know that Jews are associated with Israel," he said. "My sense is they feel it might encourage popular anger if they are too open about their religion."

It was not always like this. The great Jewish scholar Maimonides was once physician to Saladin, the medieval foe of King Richard the Lionheart. More recently, in the early 20th century, King Fouad recruited two Jewish scions of the famous Qattawi family to be his finance minister and speech writer. His playboy son, Farouk, meanwhile, employed them in a rather less august context; his mistress and his card-table chums were Jewish.

Anti-Semitic sentiment had been fuelled at times by the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood and a rising tide of nationalism. But after the creation of Israel in 1948, the mood started turning very sour. Following the Suez crisis of 1956, when Israel helped Britain and France invade Egypt to reclaim the Suez Canal and topple Nasser, the government ordered a wave of expulsions. The nation's wealthier Jews had often been implacably opposed to Israel, but about a fifth of the country's Jewry – more than 15,000 refugees – eventually emigrated east to the new Jewish state (in fact, a total of 37,000 Jews fled to Israel - ed)

Today the Jews of Egypt live in a climate of anti-Zionism which often boils over into outright anti-Semitism. "When Israel came to existence, people didn't feel comfortable dealing with Jews," said Egyptian author Ahmed Towfik. "Many mixed the concept of Zionism and Judaism."

The government has carried out high-profile restoration projects on Egypt's synagogues over the years, yet some among the Egyptian diaspora complain of official ambivalence. Cairo's famous Bassatine cemetery, allotted to Jews in the 9th century, is now partially submerged by sewage.

Yves Fedida (of Nebi Daniel, the Europe-based body which seeks to preserve Egypt's Jewish heritage - ed)  was among the tens of thousands of Egyptian Jews compelled to leave the country during the wave of anti-Zionism that followed the creation of Israel in 1948 (Not strictly accurate - the disturbances preceded the creation of Israel. There were riots in 1945, quelled by the authorities - ed).  As a Jewish schoolboy in Hendon, north London, he sat down at his bedroom desk in the spring of 1959 and began writing a letter. He did not expect a reply – his missive, after all, was addressed to Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egyptian demagogue, Britain's arch-nemesis in the Middle East, and the man responsible for expelling the 14-year-old from his homeland. "I think I addressed it to the Presidential Palace," Mr Fedida told The Independent on Sunday. "Nowadays it would have to go through national security and would take about five years to get there."

Mr Fedida received a reply from Nasser after just a month. The Egyptian President wrote that with "great pleasure" he was granting him temporary permission to return to Alexandria and see his mother, who had been allowed to stay.

Read article in full

Similar article in The Daily Beast by Alastair Beach: here Beach interviews another Nebi Daniel activist, Roger Bilboul.

Let my people be shown: Khaled Diab in Haaretz (subscription required)

More about 'Jews of Egypt' by Amir Ramses 

Journalist Sylvie Braibant, whose father was an Egyptian Jew, is interviewed in this clip from French TV5 Monde. The film breaks the taboo on the Jews (with thanks: Suzy)


Silke said...

One of the easiest ways to set Rifat off on a tirade is to remark that Abdel Nasser expelled Egypt’s Jewish community. According to Rifat, the Jews left because they wanted to leave.

just in case you missed it - Silke

bataween said...

Thanks, yes that's the conventional wisdom which Ramses has disputed in his film

Sylvia said...

Hello Silke
Hello Bataween

Those Egyptians are merely deleting from history the facts of the expulsion of Jews from Arab countries.

It becomes a lot more serious when Jews from Arab countries are deleted from discourse, consciousness and existence by Jewish radicals.

The former are liers, the latter are criminals.

Silke said...

Hi Sylvia, hi bataween

I recentlly heard a long sympathetic report on Thessaloniki on German radio - and it said that at one time 40 % of the city's population were Jewish, I was told that all the port workers (Schauerleute) were Jewish - thus it must have a good claim to having been the most Jewish major city of the world.

I never see it acclaimed for that ... Did those who survived not have any "culture"?

For me from far away (if I hadn't gotten "hooked" when still almost a child) Israel would always have a predominantly middle European aka German aka Prussian face.

bataween said...

Hi Silke
Yes, Salonica is known as Little Jerusalem and with Baghdad had the greatest population of Jews under Ottoman rule. These were mainly working class - many worked as dockers, as the programme said. It's the 70th anniversary of the deportations from Salonica this year - 98 percent of the Jews were wiped out - I suppose that's why German radio did the programme. Sadly there is very little left of the Jewish presence, the Greeks have not been very interested in commemorating it either.

Sylvia said...

Yes Silke, they mostly spoke judeo-Spanish among themselves, Greek and had their education provided by the Alliance school system in French just like we had in Arab countries with exactly the same curriculum.

They actually had a very vibrant culture at the turn of the 20th century, with a Jewish press and their own publications.

Silke said...

They had several snippets of an apparently long interview with the mayor and he wants to give the remaining Jewish heritage its proper place - he sounded honest when he said that who doesn't know one's past can't plan for the future or something to that effect - even though since he sounded like an intelligent man I "suspect" that he will have hopes that'll increase tourism to his city ... which I don't blame him for - the money must come from somewhere and better for it to be spent on the little that remains than on more ugly concrete.

But with all these good news here comes the spoiler today I heard something about that Greek national party which amongst all its other idiocies glorifies the Military Junta (Obristen they are called in German) (in 1976 shortly after they were gone I was told that one of their preferred methods of killing people was to put them in a sackcloth together with some young or not so young cats and throw them into the sea.

And this party who wants them back finds followers?

incroyable! and at the end of the piece these idiots kept shouting something in Greek that sounded very much like Sieg Heil.

People will never learn ...

PS: but how come the French had schools in Greece?- I never heard that they managed to get any kind of foothold there. Do you know anything how that came about? After all the Greeks got themselves a German king (and it showed for example in their post office - it was just like a German one) - and if there was a time when German and French were friendly to eachother once Napoleon was gone and after Greek independence it can't have lasted very long. Or was this Alliance a creation going back to Napoleon????

bataween said...
This post will tell you about the Alliance Israelite, set up by French Jews in 1860 as a response to antisemitism. Nothing to do with Napoleon!
The new right-wing antisemitism in Greece is scary, but not new.

Silke said...

thanks bataween - that was really news to me - years and years ago I had read an article on the Alliance presenting it all as one of the good things colonialists had done for those colonized - no mention of it having been a Jewish project.

As to the Greeks - I don't know - on "my" island (Patmos, the holy one) in 1976 I encountered the first ever people who spoke of the murder of Jews with genuine compassion and horror (ships' furnaces).

Their way of telling the story was totally free from that sugar coated dutiful compassion I am used to from Germans.

But then they were sailors and fishermen by profession and they seemed to me like a breed apart anyway, tough and compassionate and anarchic and trustworthy all at the same time.