Sunday, June 01, 2008

Liberal calls for Egypt to face Jewish property issue

Dina Ezzat's lengthy feature in Al-Ahram tries to cover all the main issues surrounding last week's aborted 'roots trip' by 45 Egyptian Jews. What Tareq Heggy, an Egyptian liberal who is writing a book on the Jews of Egypt, has to say, is most interesting : he thinks it is only fair that Egypt should deal with the matter of sequestrated Jewish properties regardless, an issue which will not go away. In his letter to the editor of Al-Ahram, Yves Fedida backs Heggy, while making the point that the Egyptian authorities have recently become increasingly resistant to visits by Egyptian Jews of whatever nationality.

Dina Ezzat reports:

"This is something from the past. Today, I am an Egyptian Christian who lives peacefully in Cairo with no other interest than looking after my daughter and my grandchildren. I am no longer a Jew. In fact, I cannot say I ever really was one because my father converted to Christianity when I was only a few years old," says Georges, who insists on being identified only by his first name and is not willing to share more on his past as a member of Egypt's Jewish community.

Georges is in his late 50s and lives in Misr Al-Qadima, not very far from the heart of what was once the quarter of the not so economically well- off Egyptian Jews, the better off living in the upscale neighburhoods of Heliopolis, Maadi and Zamalek. He runs a small business and sits in his favourite spot outside his small store, where a painting of the Virgin Mary hangs on the wall opposite one of the area's remaining synagogues. Georges looks across at the synagogue as he speaks.

Georges was born and brought up in the neighbourhood and has always lived there. However, his initial reaction was simply to refuse to answer questions about the lives of the Jews who once lived in the area, or questions about the relations between Jews, Muslims and Christians in this neighbourhood that was once home to some 30,000 to 50,000 of Egypt's then 70,000 Jews. Even those Jews who term their leaving Egypt an experience of "coerced uprooting" never call the area a ghetto, instead insisting that "in Egypt Jews, Christians and Muslims were all best of friends and neighbours."

The censuses of the time were never accurate, especially about the number of Egyptian Jews who did not register themselves as Egyptians following the 1928 citizenship law, in order to enjoy privileges granted to foreigners by the captulation laws. Subsequently, they failed to qualify under the 1945 citizenship act since they could not prove they were Egyptians and not foreigners.

But "this is something from the past," Georges repeats. "There is no point talking about it now. I have nothing to say. I am an Egyptian Christian who was born here and who will die here."

In many ways it is true that Egypt's Jews are something from the past, perhaps in the same way that Egypt's purportedncosmopolitanism is merely a memory of bygone times. Jews lived and flourished in Egypt under the monarchy, as they did in many other Arab states and as they had from the period of the Islamic Middle Ages until the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948 and even afterwards to 1967 and the Israeli invasion and occupation of Arab territories.

However, this week there was an attempt to bring back at least a glimpse of that past, when the "First International Conference of Jews from Egypt" was scheduled to open in Cairo last Sunday. As part of the conference, a group of elderly Jews, mostly those who left Egypt for Israel in 1948, almost one third of the nation's Jewish community, or afterwards up to 1967, along with their children and grandchildren, was planning a four-day visit to Egypt. Organisers, who are members of the World Congress of the Jews from Egypt (WCJE) say that the group consisted of only 45 people, though Egyptian authorities have suggested that it could have reached 200.

According to information posted on the Internet the purpose of the conference was to allow the group to return to places they had once lived in, to visit synagogues in which they had once worshipped, and perhaps even to enjoy the Egyptian recipes they had once cooked on Jewish holidays.

"This was supposed to be a 'roots trip'," said Levana Zamir, chairwoman of the Egyptian- Israeli Friendship Association and an organiser of the visit-conference.

However, the conference was cancelled on Thursday when the five-star hotel that was to host the gathering and some of its meetings "sent its apologies" to the organisers, saying that it would be too difficult to host. Other major hotels in the city also turned down requests to host the group, Zamir told the Weekly in a telephone interview. As a result, "the whole thing was cancelled," she said.

Official sources in Egypt said that the government had not interfered "directly" with the hotel's decision, but said that it had been made clear to the hotel that hosting the conference at this juncture might not be advisable. (..)

The booking had been made for an Israeli group like any other, many of which stay in the hotel during visits to Egypt. Indeed, no "announcement" of a conference was made: only a hall was booked. Ultimately, the hotel's management decided that it would rather cancel the reservation than have its name implicated in an event that could backfire.

According to Zamir the Jewish group has no intention of rescheduling the visit and conference. "No, we are not re-scheduling," she said. "It was already very disappointing for us to have to cancel just days before we were supposed to fly to Egypt and at a time when people had arrived from the US to join us," Zamir said, speaking fluent Arabic with an impeccable Egyptian accent.

Tarek Heggy, a researcher on the history of Egypt's Jews "from an Egyptian perspective" who is currently finishing a book on the Jews of Egypt and who has been in close contact with some of the organisers and participants in the conference during recurrent visits to Israel in the past ten years, also lamented the hotel's 'decision'.

"I am not opposing it as such," he said. "But the point is that if the authorities suspected that having this group of people here would be problematic, they should have said that earlier, rather than wait to the eve of their arrival." Moreover, Heggy added, since Egypt receives dozens of Israelis and other Jews every day as tourists, "why was it difficult to have this group come and pay their respects to Egypt? This was a nostalgia trip. Nothing more and nothing less," he said.

Heggy has participated in previous meetings of Egyptian Jews, both in Israel, the destination of the not so economically well-off, and in Europe -- particularly in Switzerland and Belgium -- the destination of the larger Jewish families, or in the US where most of Egypt's middle-class Jews emigrated.

Heggy, however, argues that it would be wrong to confuse a trip undertaken out of "a group feeling of nostalgia for a homeland from the past" with the issue of compensation for former Jewish property in Egypt. "This group was not after anything," he said, "except perhaps for some families who wished to get compensation for properties [sequestrated in the 1960s], and the cancellation of the present conference will not stop them in this."

Sooner or later, Heggy said, the issue of the sequestrated properties of Egyptian Jews will arise. "We just have to deal with it in the same way that Israel is dealing with seized Palestinian properties. We will have to talk about it," he said.

However, Egyptian officials told the Weekly that the issue of "these properties" was "certainly" on the agenda of the cancelled conference. "The fact that they did not talk about it does not mean that it was not there," one source said. According to this source, many of the areas the members of the group were planning to visit included what they called "sequestrated property."

"Nobody is denying the element of nostalgia, the desire to exchange recipes for Molokheiyah and Keshk, and the desire to return to old houses and villas and lament the fact that many of them have been demolished. However, this is not the only thing that was at stake in the trip. We are well aware of the growing campaign in relation to property," the source said."

Read article in full

Here is the text of Yves Fedida's letter to the Editor of Al-Ahram:

The visiting group led by Mrs Zamir, consisted of Jews born in Egypt, of different nationalities and from across the world. Exactly a year ago, M. Hanson, a Jew born in Egypt and a British subject, had already been denied entrance to Egypt after 27 years of leading visitors to pray there; he intended to pray at the Adly synagogue. One entrance refusal can be construed as a mistake; can two be a coincidence? Security yaani… Well imagine Palestinian Christians or Muslims, holding either Egyptian or, for example, Canadian passports, being similarly, successively denied access to the Church of Nativity or to Al Aqsa… Did you say storm? Has any Jew of any nationality been denied access for any reason to his erstwhile Synagogue anywhere he could freely travel over the last half century?

Claims yaani …M. Amr Adib, whose professionalism evidently does not call for verification of facts, but relies on slander alone, lit the torch wittingly… seemingly on request. Be that as it may, M. Heggy is right. Refusing to face an issue does not make it go away. In addition to which, the so-called claims’ “threat” can be interpreted as brushing aside both native common sense and the Egyptian legal system.

Over the past 25 years, many wealthy families were able to openly retrieve their seized or nationalised property through the Egyptian judicature. Any national, ex Egyptian or previously stateless individual was able to lay his claims before an Egyptian court, certainly up to 1995. Governments, through bi-lateral agreements have previously compensated certain foreign nationals. Even but a year ago, the President of the Cairo JCC was able to claim back Jewish properties (cf.Bassatine News N° 21). However, it should be known, there exists no provision in the Peace agreement with Israel, for compensation of Jews from Egypt who had become Israeli nationals.

Experts will debate the “refugees” question and individual claims for years to come. Yet our essential claim is not material. We left Egypt under various circumstances because of our identity, yet our identity is still under lock in Egypt; our access to it, denied. That is our claim. It carries no cost but facing the past.

Collectively, akin to the Palestinians, Jews from Egypt, brandish a key. It is not that to our respective houses in Alex, Cairo, Tantah or Damanhour; rather it is one to our collective past, in and with Egypt. The lock that fits the key comprises essentially our community archives, our community registers, where our unique, religious and, for the majority, only civil identity rests. A simple copy at our costs would do, thank you. No property titles, no bank account numbers.

The nostalgia we all feel for ayam zaman will finally die with all of us. It is therefore important to allow, immediately and without discrimination both “world culture and the world as one nation”, to remember the names of those who were living in peace alongside their Muslim and Christian brethren. They showed it was possible. All three, together were the actors and true heroes of the only battle that should never be forgotten, that of conviviality in mutual respect and Peace. Only Jewish names remain inaccessible. Discrimination?

So when a girl from Zamalek, Bent el Balad, who prayed at Adly with her parents and grand-parents - what is more, the Chairwoman of the Israel-Egypt Friendship Association- where the operative word is Friendship - is shown so little consideration, in the traditional land of Hospitality, it does nothing but drive to despair all who indeed strive for friendship and understanding. It may unfortunately encourage them, to give credence to the old adage: “G-d protect me from my friends, I can take care of my enemies”.


Yves Fedida
Paris, France

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