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