Monday, October 04, 2010

Egyptians celebrate Communist Jewish convert

Youssef Darwish died in 2006

Communists don't normally believe in God, yet Youssef Darwish, a key figure in Egyptian Communist party - whose life was celebrated, according to Masri al-Youm, at the weekend - considered it necessary to convert from Judaism to Islam. His conversion might have gained him the acceptance he craved, but two generations later, the Jewish roots of his grand-daughter, the actress Basma, were held against her in April this year when she was attacked in the Egyptian press. Once a Jew, always a Jew ?

Dozens of intellectuals and labor activists gathered on Saturday to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the birth of Youssef Darwish, a former Jew who became one of the most influential figures in Egypt's nascent communist movement.

Darwish passed away on 7 June, 2006, at the age of 96.

Darwish, who hailed from an Egyptian family of Karaite Jews, converted to Islam in 1947 after becoming an influential lawyer with leftist affiliations.

Journalist Sayed Mahmoud, who attended the commemorative event, told Al-Masry Al-Youm that Darwish had witnessed much of the 20th century.

Mahmoud, who is also the writer of a documentary movie--"Shepherd of Hope"--about the life of Darwish, said that Darwish's importance stemmed not only from the fact that he was an anti-Zionist Egyptian Jew, but that he had also struggled against the British occupation of Egypt and had been a pioneering advocate of workers' rights.

Before the 1967 war with Israel, Egypt had seen the flourishing of its Jewish community, the representatives of which could be found within government cabinets, newspapers, business circles and the local arts scene. (Not true - the great majority of the community had left Egypt by the 1950s - ed) (..)

Darwish, however, has not been without his detractors.

In April, a journalist at state-owned daily Al-Ahram wrote an editorial in which he attacked well-known actress Basma*, Darwish's granddaughter.

Egyptian actress Basma, Darwish's grand-daughter

"If you have a Jewish grandfather, then cover yourself [for being indecently exposed by a scandal]," he wrote.

The event honoring Darwish was held at the Journalists Syndicate's Cairo headquarters, which is frequently used as a platform from which to air the grievances of Egypt's political opposition.

Women's rights activist Azza Kamel, who also participated in the event, described Darwish as "a champion both of the rights of women and the rights of workers."

"In my long discussions with Darwish, I discovered the ways by which he put the issue of equality between men and women in his agenda for struggle," she added.

Fahmy, for his part, hailed Darwish's efforts to fight Zionism within Egypt's pre-war Jewish community.

"Before converting to Islam, Darwish wrote an article entitled 'you will not pass,' in which he argued that the Zionist movement was a racist phenomena and predicted its inevitable downfall," Fahmy recalled.

Read article in full

*Comment by the Egyptian chronicles blog (with thanks: Roger B)


Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

The Communists in Egypt were against Zionism, which Darwish called "racist", according to a certain Fahmy quoted in the article. Here is the reality of Egypt today, religiously bigoted, led by a relatively "secular" crook who is preferable to the Muslim Brotherhood, now favored by some half-insane policy experts in Washington and London. Darwish became a Muslim. I suppose this is what he can take pride in as a Muslim, unless the conversion was a cynical political maneuver. If he was an atheist Communist, could he take pride in the events described at the link?

Sylvia said...

And in the name of what status could a Jew fight for his Arab/Muslim country, other than as communist or convert? Wouldn't that be rather irrational for a Jew to fight in order to reestablish inequality between Muslims and non-Muslims, and risk his life inorder to regain his inferior status as dhimmi?

bataween said...

I don't doubt that Communism was attractive to Jews and Christians who wanted to escape dhimmi status - after all the ideology stands for the Brotherhood of Man. But to convert to Islam seems a bridge too far....
There must have been a few secular liberals knocking around in Egypt at the time - why couldn't he be one of those?

Sylvia said...

Most people don't convert to Islam because of conviction. It could be that he married a Moslem, it could be that he wanted to be remembered in the Egyptian history books.
Jews don't have the right to write national history in Muslim countries, much less make it.
You have the case more recently of Uri Davis, an anti-Zionist born in Jerusalem who co-founded ICAHD with Jeff Halper. He married his Moslem handler and converted - in his words - to "nominal Islam". He is now actively preaching the one-state solution. One thing flows logically from the other.

It was probably much easier in the case of Darwish, since Karaites pray the same way Muslims do. But regardless, Karaites would have the same problem with Zionism. Many Karaite groups don't consider themselves Jewish. There is a history of antagonism between the two groups (like between shi'as and sunni). They have their own separate Bet Din in Israel (can't be married at the Rabbinate). He, at least, had some reasons not to be Zionist. But one thing he has in common with all the other Jews in other Muslim countries who fought in the wars of independence, he gets the short stick any way he turns.

Sylvia said...

Since you mention the Christians, that's what they are experiencing in their Arab countries at the moment. They have constructed "Arabness" a secular, artificial identity that provided them (they thought) equal status with Muslims - just like Darwish and other Jews' communism.

There were mmany Palestinian Arab Christians too, but since Arafat islamized the conflict (Intifadat Al-Quds) - you see less and less of them. They are slowly disappearing from the region, and from the picture. They outgrew their usefulness.
Christians are also harassed by Muslims in villages inside Israel, but they can't speak out - that would be betraying "the cause".

And look at the Copts in Egypt. Yesterday proud "Arabs", they are toiday massacred and oppressed.

bataween said...

You're right, Sylvia - You didn't need to convert out of conviction (Leyla Murad, Omar Sharif, Ahmed Soussa in Iraq are other examples) but there was this undeniable and irresistible social pressure to do so. Even the Christian Michel Aflak did so, and this was in the heyday of the Arab nationalist movement he had helped to spearhead.
Despite their differences with Rabbinic Judaism, Karaites were still stigmatised as Zionists - there was no escape. And as we can seen from this example, even Basma is tarred with the Jewish brush, two generations removed.
The Christians have indeed been marginalised in Arab politics to the point of invisibility. However I did hear Manuel Hassassian, the PA ambassador to the UK at a debate the other day, and he sounded far more extreme and hostile to Israel than even Mustafa Barghouti, also a participant.

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

there were some Karaites who were Zionists. If you recall the Lavon Affair, several Egyptian Zionists planted small fire bombs in public places like the USIA library in Cairo. One of them was a Karaite.

As to the Lavon Affair, I'm not going to get into it except to say that it was unwise and caused internal political problems in Israel.

Sylvia said...

Of course Karaites who have a sane appreciation of what it means to them to have a democratic Jewish State and who remember what it's like to be a second class citizen elsewhere are going to be committed Zionists. As to those who chose to remember the intra-Jewish wars (Saadia's polemics, Spain, the endless disputes for leadership in the Egyptian community) MOST are not Zionists and I wouldn't hold it against them if they were not.

As I said, in Egypt, Karaites have been considered by the Egyptian authorities as Jews and integral part of the Jewish community.
Just like in Ottoman Palestine, the Samaritans were defined as Jews by Muslims.
So there is little surprise that they would call them Zionists, whether they are or not, to the Egyptiasns Jew and Zionist being one and the same.
As to why his grandaughter is still called Jewish, this has more to do with their perception of "who is a Moslem" and consequently when is a new Moslem a full-fledged Egyptian national.
The Algerian Nationality Act of 1963 for example, which was the instrument for the expulsion of the Jews of Algeria, states that an Algerian is someone whose father and grandfather were Muslims.

As to the Palestinian Christians, I didn't say that they have become Zionists :). They certainly continue to support the Palestinian cause, but here they have been practically invisible since 2002, when the PLO Parliament introduced a draft legislation in its Constitution stating that the future Palestinian State will be Muslim and regulated by Sharia.

Sylvia said...


I agree with you that there are many Karaites who are fiercely Zionists. I've met some of them myself both online and in person here in Israel. See my answer to Bataween on the subject.

Regarding the Lavon affair, I still can't comprehend such level of stupidity. Unfortunately stupidity of this type is still with us.