Saturday, November 08, 2008

...And you shall tell your children about Egypt

The Israeli town of Bat-Yam, where many Egyptian Jews live, was the setting for a conference organised by the International Association of Jews from Egypt (headed by Levana Zamir) on 3 November, to highlight the multiculturalism of the Second Exodus. Successful though the conference was, however, Israeli schoolbooks still do not mention the ethnic cleansing of Egyptian Jews. A summary report follows:

Days before the conference it had already sold out. Some 200 participants of Egyptian origin attended, not only from Bat-Yam, Holon, Rishon, but also Haifa, Yokneam, Kiryat Ata in the north, and Beersheba, Ashdod and Ashkelon in the south. For the first time, the conference was attended by quite a few younger members born in Israel to Egyptian parents. Mr Uri Bouskila, deputy Mayor of Bat-Yam, and Mrs Ester Peron, Council member for Education at the Bat-Yam Municipality, welcomed the fact that a significant percentage of Bat-Yam citizens were of Egyptian origin. Multiculturalism and tradition being a priority in Bat-Yam, the town this year won the national prize for Education.

Multiculturalism, the main characteristic of the Jewish refugees of Egypt and their contribution to the Mediterranean Union: "After 50 years of aliyah," said Levana Zamir, the conference chairwoman and organiser, "the Jewish refugees from Egypt are finally being labelled a multicultural Aliya, and Jacqueline Kahanof – an Israeli writer born in Egypt - recognized as the precursor of the Mediterranean Option, now becoming a regional trend for the Mediterranean and the Middle East Union. Egyptian Jewry was heterogeneous, but those born in Egypt from non-Egyptian parents naturally absorbed that multiculturalism, its tolerance and the loving acceptance of the Other, a characteristic of Egyptian Jews around the world.

The Academic Session on the Multiculturalism of the Jews of Egypt was chaired by Moshe Zafarani - the National Supervisor for Communities Heritage at the Ministry of Education. Participating was Mrs Miryam Frenkel – Vice-Chairman of Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem, Prof. Nahem Ilan – from the Lander Institute Jerusalem, and Levana Zamir – President of the International Association of Jews from Egypt.

Mr Moshe Zafarani urged the Egyptian Jews to tell their story to researchers and students at school, so as to preserve their heritage. Prof Nahem Ilan presented the series of books edited in Hebrew by the Ben-Zvi Institute about Oriental Jewish Communities in the 19th and the 20th centuries, and his last volume about Egypt. Miryam Frenkel outlined Egyptian multiculturalism over centuries before it became known as Levantine. "Jacqueline Kahanof, an Egyptian Jew writer who made aliya in the Fifties, after winning prestigious literature prizes in the United States, was a courageous warrior," said Frenkel. "She managed to transform the negative meaning of Levantine into a positive." The Ben-Zvi Institute is now translating her autobiographical book Soulam Yaacov (Jacob's ladder) from English to Hebrew. It describes her childhood and adolescence in Egypt.

Political Aspects between the Palestinian Refugees and the Jewish-Arab Refugees was presented by Yossi Ben-Aharon from his research on the subject. Mr. Ben-Aharon, born in Egypt, was Ambassador of Israel and Director-General of the Prime Minister's Office under Itzhak Shamir. "After the 29 November 1947 UN Partition resolution, "defenseless Jewish communities throughout the Arab world were victims of pogroms, seizure of property and persecution, he said. Palestinian Arabs began to flee from their homes much later, when Jewish militias began to respond to Arab attacks on them. The responsibility for the creation of the Arab refugee problem rests primarily on the shoulders of the Arab governments and on the Palestinian leadership," concluded Ben-Aharon.

After a buffet break, where delicious Egyptian Kobeba, Pasteles etc. were served, as well as the succulent Bassboussa and Menenas, the audience watched the beautiful and poignant movie:
And you shall tell your children – The Second Exodus of the Jews of Egypt, produced in Israel by Levana Zamir, with the help of the Ministry of Justice: this professionally-made 30-minute film, shining with truth, reported without exaggeration the trials and tribulation of the Second Exodus, starting with glorious pictures of the Community before 1948, when most enjoyed financial security and joie de vivre, only to end as "hounded Jews". Pogroms in the Jewish Quarter in Cairo, bombs killing entire families, persecutions, mass arrests, abuse, riots, discrimination, prison, forced exile in a matter of days, sometimes hours, emptied Egypt of its Jews, who were 'ethnically cleansed', leaving their assets behind.

The more one talks about the Second Exodus of Egypt, the better - translated from Hebrew "Kol Hamarbeh Lessaper 'al Yetssiyat Mitzrayim Hasheniya, Harei Ze Meshoubah" (from the Hagada): The leaders of various Associations of Jews from Egypt, participated in this round table: Arieh Ohanna (Tel-Aviv), Dr. Ada Aharoni (WCJE), Lucy Kalamaro and Baroukh Zamir (Bat-Yam) - chaired by Levana Zamir.

Arieh Ohanna deplored the fact that the mass expulsion of the Jews from Egypt, their painful ethnic cleansing and their becoming refugees, are not documented in Hebrew school books in Israel, not even the latest.

Benoit Belbel, today known as Barukh Zamir, brought his own testimony as Assir-Tzion in Egypt (Prisoner of Zion ) following the Suez War in 1956. For the first time, an Assir-Tzion from Egypt testified LIVE in front of a large audience about the tortures he suffered at the El-Al'aa prison in Cairo, leaving physical signs on his back until today. He had been expelled in 1957, and in spite of his French nationality he choose to make aliya. This testimony is encouraging others to testify too, because our parents, who saw their whole life collapsing overnight, are not here to testify anymore, and we are the Last of the Mohicans to do so.

Lucy Kalamaro, who left Egypt with her family in 1964, preferred not to talk about her good and bad days in Egypt on this occasion, but about her own Zionist feelings, aroused in Egypt out fear of Gamal Abdel Nasser's policy towards the Jews. She understood then that the only place to live for her and for her family is Eretz Israel. She choose to make aliya, although she had other choices.

Dr. Ada Aharoni stressed the importance of the Second Exodus narrative for the advancement of peace. She reported how astonished a group of young Palestinians were when she told them about the expulsion of the Jews of Egypt – "We are quits, then," they exclaimed.

The multicultural contribution of the Jews of Egypt to the Egyptian movie industry: To end the conference on a happier note, Eyal Sagui-Bizawi – born in Bat-Yam to Egyptian parents, and working today on his thesis on the Jews of Egypt at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem - gave a fascinating presentation about the contribution of the Jews of Egypt to the Egyptian movie industry until the mid-twentieth century. He drew us back to nostalgia while screening some lovely clips of Egyptian movies, produced by Togo Mizrahi and others with Egyptian Jewish artists Layla Mourad, Rakya Ibrahim, Nagua Salem, Camelia, Elias Mouhadab etc., showing the multiculturalism of this bygone cosmopolitan Golden Era.

The liberal but still traditional religious attitude of the Jews of Egypt was wonderfully presented by Rabbi Shay Peron, born in Israel to Egyptian-Jewish parents. This liberal but still traditional attitude was no doubt influenced by the bygone cosmopolitan atmosphere in Egypt.

Closing the event with live songs in Arabic, French and Hebrew, the famous singer Varda, a second generation Egyptian, closed this enjoyable, historic and most successful event, with songs in Egyptian Arabic, French and Hebrew.

Top photo left to right: Esther Peron of the Bat Yam Council, Uri Bouskila, Bat Yam deputy mayor, and Levana Zamir, conference chairwoman and organiser. Bottom: menenas and kahk b'semsem, typical delicacies served in the conference break


Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

Arieh Ohanna is right to deplore the failure of the Israeli school curriculum to present the history of the 2nd Exodus. Indeed, the Ministry of Education has failed in many areas.

by the way, the Ben Zvi Institute [or Yad Ben Zvi?] has recently published a book on Egyptian Jewry. There are also books in the same series on Iran, Tunisia, Yemen, etc.

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

Arieh Ohanna is right about the failure to teach about the 2nd Exodus. However, what is needed even more is teaching about the status and history of Jews in Arab lands and Muslim lands generally. That is, What is dhimma? What is the Farhud? What happened to Libyan and Tunisian Jews during WW2?

Anonymous said...

Thank you Eliahu for your comment. Sadly enough, the new book on Egyptian Jewry as you mention, published recently by Ben Zvi Institute, is not talking at all about the Mass expulsion of Jews from Egypt, nor about the explosions in Cairo killing many Jews, etc. It is this new hebrew book, dedicated to schools, that Arieh Ohanna was deploring.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am a ph.d candidate in History at the European University Institute (Florence-Italy), working on a research on "Family, education and the making of Egyptian Jewish bourgeoisie 1882-1952".

I have been studying Egyptian Jews and Levantine literature (Kahanoff and others writers of Egyptian origin) for my MA thesis.

I would love to get in contact with Israelis of Egyptian descent. So if anyone reads this comment and wants to help me with my research,I would very much appreciate it.

I am leaving my email:

Lehitraot, Dario.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dario,
Congratulations for chosing this subject for your PhD.
I will gather for you everything you need, and will send you by email.
Good luck.

Anonymous said...

My grand mother told me stories of how the society in EGY used to be. I do acknowledge that there must have been some injustices but making the story that it was Nasers fault and the other Egyptians fault is not fair. I really would like to hear about how those who lived the time felt towards those involved in the Lavon affair? Do u think as an Egyptian it was ok to serve Zionist ends @ the expense of ur own country? Do you think that Naser would have had any grounds if it wasnt that some members of the Jewish Egyptian community were involved in acts against their own country Egypt?! I would have luved to live in a multi-cultured society like my grand mother did, I dnt like it that the amazing fabric of most of the Arab countries (Muslims, Jews & Christians) was torn apart but I also find it unfair for Arab Jews to nt see how the creation of Israeil brought unneeded agony & destruction to the entire region, and made the ppl of the region pay for wt happened during wwII to Western Jews, something they were nt responsible for. Also, Palis were killed & forced out of their villages so, u cant say they were also made to leave bec of mistreatment, they were either killed or expelled in most cases the same is nt true for EGY jews. Finally, EGY courts did find in favor of originally EGY jews in some claims, as long as the merits & justice allowed such finding, my dad even had a client who now lives in the US. So, the courts are open for those who have ligitimate claims, but is the same true for Palestinians and others w property in the occupied land?!

bataween said...

Thank you for your comment but whatever the rights and wrongs of the Lavon affair, conditions for Egyptian Jews deteriorated several years before. Dozens of Egyptian Jews were killed in 1948 riots - the state could or would not protect them. The Lavon affair does not explain or excuse the expulsion and dispossession of 25,000 Egyptian Jews in 1956, two years later, for which they have never been compensated. Yes, Jews have brought legal cases against the Egyptian govt but I have yet to hear of any compensation being paid. Whatever you might think of Israel, Jews in Egypt had nothing to do with Zionism or Palestine. They were productive, loyal and law-abiding citizens. Why were they interned in 1948 as spies? Moreover, I can't see how you can exonerate Nasser from any blame, if it were not for his nationalisation policy scapegoating Jews and other non-Egyptians as agents of foreign powers Egypt might still today be the multicultural paradise your grandmother remembers.

Fouad GM said...

Thank you for a wonderful article on a very sentimental topic. Egypt's bygone cosmopolitanism, its multiculturalism and those who left it shall remain in the hearts of our likes until Egypt, Cairo and Alexandria regain their legacies.

Anonymous said...

I am an Egyptian Muslim who now lives abroad. I am 54 years old and I grew up in a multicultural society of Jews, Armenians, Greek,Italians, Maronites and Copts. We lived together in harmony. My first and best friend was Jewish and I was appalled as an 11 year old when I heard that her father and older brother were arrested in 67. She then left Egypt and we corresponded for a while and then we lost touch. I lament the fact that Egypt is no longer the tolerant society it was. I sometimes long for the Egypt of my childhood. The establishment of Israel has forever changed the face of the Middle East to the worst. Now we have the loud voices of intolerance from all sides. I wish religion and politics would be separate, and that there is a respect for all in all societies. What will make that true is by having moderate voices who see the possibility of all human beings living together in peace not divided by race, creed, or ethnicity. Jewish people contributed to Egyptian society as did others of other religions and that's a fact.

bataween said...

Thank you for your touching comment. It is not the establishment of Israel which has changed the face of the Middle East for the worst: the seeds of intolerance were sown well before. It is Arab nationalism's inability to share the Middle East with other indigenous peoples which is to blame. If Israel was the problem, why were the Greeks and Maronites of your youth driven out? Why are the Copts persecuted?