Reviewing the article The Jews of Egypt yesterday and today Rami Mangoubi, a Jewish refugee from Egypt, laments the absence of honesty when the fate of Jews living in Arab countries is discussed.
In “The Jews of Egypt” (Elaph, December 22, 2005) author Nabil Sharaf el Deen is respectful of Egyptian Jews, and even acknowledges that they suffered injustices, including expulsion, during the Nasser era. The reader will also be pleasantly surprised to see that Egyptian Jews who fled to Israel are not described as traitors, a common accusation, but as a community that is “bound by profound longing for the motherland, Egypt”.
Jews who fled persecution in Egypt are “full blooded Egyptians”, declares Sharaf Al Deen. The article describes at length their active role in Egyptian cultural and artistic life. By emphasizing the cultural contributions, the author helps dispel the commonly held belief among many Egyptians that Jews were rich foreigners (khawagat) whose only contributions to Egypt was limited to the economic sphere at best.
The article, however, contains serious historical errors. It wrongly asserts, or at least implies, that prior to the Nasser era, Jews lived in total harmony. While Jews in the twentieth centuries had cordial, warm and unforgettable relations with many other Egyptians, they still experienced suffering and exclusion long before the Nasser era, even long before Israel and Zionism.
Historically and through the middle of the nineteenth century, they, along with Christians, were tolerated as Ahl el Zemma, or Dhimmi. To be precise, they were shown condescending mercy provided they did not contest the inferior social and legal status imposed on them. The Dhimmi status implied the prohibition from testifying against Muslims in court, the prohibition from bearing arms or joining the army, and dress restrictions. Jews and Christians were also required to pay an extra poll tax, the guizyeh.
Shortly after Khedewi Said ordered the emancipation of Jews and Christians from the Dhimmi status in the middle of the nineteenth century, and cancelled the guizyeh, new and increasingly dangerous forms of marginalization and exclusion started to appear. As far back as 1869, long before political Zionism was born, nationality decrees were interpreted so as to deny Jews Egyptian citizenship. These decrees were consolidated into Egypt’s 1929 Nationality Law. As a result, more than 90 percent of Egyptian Jews were denied citizenship, regardless of how many centuries they resided in Egypt. The majority, or 60 percent, remained stateless (apatride or gheir mo’ayan lel genseyah), while others were able to obtain foreign documents. Despite the enormous Jewish contribution to Egypt’s economy, employment laws implemented during the 1930’s and 40’s thought to deny Jews opportunities even in the private sector. The most notorious of these laws was the 1947 Company Law, as a result of which a huge number of Jews, because they lacked citizenship, lost their livelihood.
Few Egyptians are aware that, while Egypt’s government denied employment and citizenship to Jews living in the country for centuries, Israel offered them both upon arrival. The largest percentage of Egyptian Jews, roughly 40 to 45 percent, fled to the Jewish state, while most of the other sixty percent or so spread to various English- or French-speaking countries, mainly the United States and France. We therefore are grateful, and indeed morally indebted, to Israel, and to the other countries that support her and took us.
The absence of any honest discussion of taboo subjects like Israel or the fate of Egyptian Jewry only reflects poorly on the country. Regrettably, in today’s Egypt, it is more common to hear Holocaust denial by high profile personalities like Mohamed Mahdi Akef, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. And such criminal bigotry is not limited to fundamentalist circles. William Fisher, who for a long time managed for the state department economic development project in Egypt and in the Middle East, despairs that even graduates of the American University in Cairo whom he considers Egypt’s future leaders, consider the Holocaust “an idea that's been pushed by the Jewish lobby in America.
The sad irony is that such mindset constitutes an injustice not only to Jews who fled the country, but also to non-Jewish Egyptians who were tolerant to Jews.During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, accusations of ritual murders were also common in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world. Nor was the article’s author made aware of the destruction of the Jewish synagogue in Cairo’s Darb el Barabra quarter on November 2, 1945, or the two massacres of Egyptian Jews that occurred during the Summer and Fall of 1948, shortly after the Egyptian army invaded Israel. As many as 42 Jews were murdered, and many more wounded during these massacres No serious trial took place.
Also unbeknown to the well meaning author are the incarceration and torture between 1967 and 1970 of nearly all Egyptian Jewish males, in the notorious detention camps of Abu Za’abal and Tura. Nearly all were freed only on condition they leave the country, never to return; they were taken from prison to the airport without being allowed to see their homes, families, and neighbors.
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