Monday, August 27, 2007

The Jews of Egypt, through the eyes of an Egyptian

Professor Mohamed Aboulghar is an eminent Egyptian obstetrician whose book Yahood Masr (The Jews of Egypt) - from prosperity to dispersion (2005) was reviewed in the September 2007 issue of the Newsletter of the Association of Jews from Egypt (UK). The review is reproduced below, with the AJE's permission.

"This is a very interesting book written in Arabic by an Egyptian on the subject of Egyptian Jews, their origins and their recent history, from their ascendancy and prosperity in the early part of the twentieth century to their exodus and dispersion in the second half of that century.

"Prof. Aboulghar, 67, is an eminent obstetrician at the University of Cairo specialising in IVF fertility research, and author of many papers in that field. His book on the history of Egyptian Jews, published by Dar El Hilal in 2005, was written after browsing relevant literature and holding discussions and interviews with ex-Egyptian Jews living in Cairo, Paris, Geneva and Florida. He quotes frequently from the works of Joel Beinin, Gudrun Kramer and Shimon Shamir.

"In his book, Prof. Aboulghar gives due credit to the contribution of Egyptian Jewry in the spheres of trade and commerce, finance, education, journalism as well as music and the cinema. He describes the political activities of those Egyptian Jews who became affiliated to communist movements and those who embraced Zionism and emigrated to Israel in 1948. However, he indicates that the majority of Egyptian Jews were apolitical.

"When discussing the position of the community within Egyptian society, Prof. Aboulghar points out that despite the hospitality and generosity accorded to them by the Egyptian people and Government, the Jews, with the exception of the Karaites and the poorer sections living in the Haret-El-Yahoud, never integrated fully. They did not identify with the Egyptian people’s interests and aspirations. They spoke foreign languages at home, mainly French, and did not learn how to read and write Arabic. When the nationality law was passed in the 1940s, many Jews did not apply for Egyptian nationality. They were looking more towards Europe, acquiring its various nationalities instead.

"Moreover, according to Prof. Aboulghar, when the Zionist movement began to establish deeper roots in Palestine and clash with the native Arab population, Egyptian Jews were not sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians, although some of their leaders voiced their opposition to the Zionist movement and its attempt to influence Egyptian Jewry. The Egyptian people, on the other hand, became increasingly involved with events in Palestine and angered by the treatment of Arabs by Jews. Their attitude to their Jewish community began to veer towards the hostile views of the Muslim Brotherhood. The establishment of the State of Israel with its attendant Arab refugee problem exacerbated anti-Zionist feelings to the extent that many Jews felt insecure and emigrated in 1948-51. Operation Suzannah (when Moshe Marzouk and Shmuel Azar were caught and hanged) contributed to the populist perception that Jews constituted a fifth column in Egypt.

"Finally, the book recounts that the Egyptianisation of commerce and industry, the nationalisation laws that Nasser promulgated and the expulsion, during the Suez war, of British and French nationals of all religions, led to the exodus of the entire community from 1956 onwards. Prof. Aboulghar claims that Jews were not targeted in particular, because other foreign communities, e.g. Greeks and Armenians, also left Egypt around that time. Even during the 1967 war with Israel, when the Egyptian authorities imprisoned Jews and other Egyptians
considered a threat to state security, the Jews were treated better than the detained Muslims and Copts.

"It thus becomes clear on reading the book that the author attached no blame to the Egyptian people or Government for the exodus of the entire Jewish community. In fact, he concludes that even if Israel had not been created, the Jews would have emigrated anyway because their livelihood was threatened and they would have been unable to enjoy continued prosperity and affluence. Most of the Jews he met had good things to say about Egypt. Some were critical of Israel.

Since Prof. Aboulghar welcomes comments on his book, James Levy, an AJE (UK) committee member, sent an email to him, making the following points:

· Whilst it is true that Egyptian Jews did not integrate, it was not deliberate. It was the product of years of foreign occupation, of poor standards of education in Government schools and of liberal multiculturalism and tolerance. In any case, the integration of the poorer Jews within the wider Muslim and Coptic communities did not help them when the crunch came, and they also had to leave their country of origin.

· Why should 'Operation Suzannah' be blamed on the Jewish community? It is tantamount to saying that the Muslim community in Britain is to blame for the terrorist acts of July 7th 2005.

· Just as it was natural that Egyptians would sympathise with their Arab brethren in Palestine, why should it not be natural that Jews view Israel with some sympathy? Especially if they are treated unfairly in their country of origin and made to feel insecure?

· The entire Jewish community would not have emigrated because of the new laws and regulations on commerce and industry. After all, there were Jewish communities in Irak and Yemen who only spoke Arabic. Many young Egyptian Jews would have gone on to learn Arabic and continued to live in Egypt - provided, of course, that they would have been treated fairly by a democratic and moderate Government. This was not the case.

· Two examples of unfair treatment were given to Prof. Aboulghar:

1. Why did Jews have to apply for Egyptian nationality, even though they, their parents and grandparents were born in the country? They should have been entitled to that nationality automatically, just like Egyptian Muslims or Copts.

2. Why were Jews imprisoned during the 1967 war even though there were very few left and they presented no security risk to the state? The fact that they were treated in prison better than Muslims or Copts does not take away from the injustice.

Prof. Aboulghar acknowledged receipt of the comments and wished to pursue the dialogue, although there is little likelihood of him visiting the UK in the near future in view of his busy professional schedule. He is nonetheless a voice of moderation, at odds with the extreme views expressed on Egyptian media.


Aimee Kligmanm said...

There are so many Jews at the moment who don't know anything about this because they are too busy contemplating their navel in Israel. They are so self-absorbed that anything having to do with the Forgotten Jews is beyond their comprehension.

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

Prof Aboulghar's history of Egyptian Jews tends towards embellishment and edulcoration of the historical reality, especially since all sufferings of the Egyptian Jews are blamed on them. It's noteworthy that he did not interview a very famous Egyptian Jewess, Bat Ye'or, nor quote from her books nor from the books/articles of Michael Laskier, who has also written on Egyptian Jewish history, or Jacob Landau.

Karsten Niebuhr, a traveler in the service of the Danish king, visited Egypt in the late 18th century and found that Jews were being oppressed at that time. Niebuhr came about 20 years before Napoleon whose officers left records quoted by Bat Ye'or, if I recall rightly. Edward Lane came to Egypt in the early 19th century and found the Jewish condition to be similar to that found by Niebuhr. It seems that Dr Aboulghar sees what he wants to see.

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

I forgot to mention that Anwar Sadat, in his early book of memoirs, Revolt on the Nile [ca. 1956; in French, Revolte sur le Nil], blames Egyptian Jews for the Axis defeat in the 2nd World War. This was because Jews discovered German agents sent to Egypt and turned them in to the British.

Judging from the review, Aboulghar has nothing to say about the pro-Nazi activities and intrigues of Nasser & Sadat's Free Officers faction.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, Professor Abulghar did not paint a complete story of the Egyptian Jews. Even when they applied for an Egyptian nationality and even though they were born in Egypt, the government there was very selective, ensuring that there were at least three generations born in Egypt before a citizenship may be granted. Most Egyptian Jews considered Egypt their fatherland even though the feeling from the Egyptians was not reciprocal. To make the point even clearer, Abulghar never mentioned the detainment camps for the male Jews in 1948, 1956 and the longest of all in 1967 when they were held for three agonizing years. I am shocked that the subject did not come up in his extensive interviews.
If professor abulghar wants an accurate and honest assessment of the life of a family in Egypt, maybe he should pickup a copy of EXODUS II The Promised Land By Henry Mourad.

Sara-of-the-Nile said...

In the late 18th century all Egyptians were oppressed,whether Jewish,Muslim or Christian.Not all the Jews left Egypt.People are not aware of the number of intermarriages between Christans ,Muslims on the one hand and Jews on the other.Being a granddaughter of a Jewish German who came to Egypt in the thirties and living in Alexandria,I know of so many Egyptians who have a Jewish grandmother or mother .Having said this ,I find it really sad that some of my compatriots had to leave and I have to admit that in places like Italy and the States I have also been welcomed into the houses of Egyptian Jews even when they didn't know about my Jewish ancestry