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)