The American University of Cairo is today holding a tribute to Eric Rouleau, the prominent Egyptian-born journalist and diplomat. Interestingly, this article in the Cairo Review of Global Affairs about Rouleau by the anti-Zionist Alain Gresh (the natural son of the Jewish Communist Henri Curiel) is rather full of contradictions. He implies it is acceptable to be a francophile; emigration to the ex-colonial France is to 'the real promised land'. (In fact only 10, 000 Egyptian Jews fled to France, fewer than to Israel and to Brazil). It is acceptable to have Marxist leanings. The only thing that Gresh still holds beyond the pale is that 'narrow nationalism' - Zionism. Yet Gresh admits that Egypt was once tolerant of Zionism, supported by Jews who gave alms without intending to make aliya themselves. Gresh blames the Arab-Israeli conflict - not the intolerant reaction to it resulting in Egypt's scapegoating of non-Muslims - for the antisemitism which resulted in the expulsion of Jews like Rouleau.
Eric Rouleau, born Elie Raffoul in Cairo in 1926 , died in February 2015.(Photo: Al-Tanany publishing house )
"Elie Raffoul was not only Egyptian, francophone
and francophile, but he was also Jewish. Yet how can one define a Jew?
Anti-Semites tried in vain by inventing a race whose people they often reduced
to religion. Israel has failed, too, in that regard. After all, how can one use
the same term to describe believers and non-believers and people claiming to
have a more or less vague Jewish culture, and others who reject it? Is a person
Jewish by choice or is it the anti-Semite who makes the Jew, as Jean-Paul
Sartre put it?
" Just like
many young people, Rouleau faced an adolescent crisis and decided to become a
rabbi, but he soon quit and lost his faith. Although the world of Talmudic
studies definitely had a lot to lose, the field of journalism won considerably.
turned atheist, Élie did not abandon his Jewish roots, but tried to
understand their meaning. At the time, incredible as it might seem, Zionists
enjoyed complete freedom of action in Egypt. The Jewish Agency was well-off in
Cairo and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, the Jewish National Fund, established in
1901 and destined to develop land for Jewish settlement in Palestine, welcomed
grants in synagogues. "Most often, the donors had no political incentive
and only wanted to give alms," Rouleau recalled.
later turned to the Hashomer Hatzair movement, the "Youth Guard," an
extreme leftist Zionist movement.
"The hundreds of adolescents who joined
the movement participated in sports competitions, took Jewish history classes,
and engaged in philosophical debates where the labor movement ideologists were
prominently present," he said.
learned about Marxist thought, but he left the movement a year later, as his
beliefs collided with its narrow nationalism and indifference to the conflicts
raging in Egypt, even those against the colonial power. "I could not
believe that all Egyptians were anti-Semitic, and I had no intention to
emigrate," he said.
Jews felt they were Egyptian, and the Zionist siren song never bewitched them. In
his book Un homme à part that was
dedicated to Henri Curiel, Gilles Perrault beautifully wrote, "Apart from
the Zionist minority, no one felt the need for a Jewish state or the urge to
chant “L'an prochain à Jérusalem” when it was enough to take the 9:45 a.m.
train to get there.
Arab-Israeli conflict made the lives of Egyptian Jews impossible. They were the
victims of waves of judeophobia in the Arab World, and of the Israeli
government's attempts to use them as fifth column. As a result, many were
forced to emigrate to France, the real Promised Land.
criticism of Zionism is often equated to hidden anti-Semitism. Nevertheless,
during the first half of the twentieth century, the majority of Jews around the
world were apathetic if not hostile to the Zionist project. Rouleau took
himself for an Egyptian, and he was united with his compatriots beyond
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My Egyptian-Jewish childhood