Friday, October 10, 2014

Al-Ahram carries 'Jews of Egypt' piece

Magda Haroun, the last community leader, will not be returning communal registers to exiled Jews from Egypt, according to this very interesting feature article on the last Jews of Egypt by Dina Darwich in Al-Ahram Hebdo (French). Otherwise, Darwich  pulls no punches:  Jews, even those who converted to other religions, were oppressed in Egypt simply for being Jews, or of Jewish origin, in a society that cannot conceive of equal rights for minority religions. Some of these abuse victims have already told their stories in Amir Ramses's controversial film, Jews of Egypt. (With thanks: Yves)

Magda is one of nine Egyptian Jews still alive. This community has experienced its heyday in the early twentieth century. According to the census conducted in 1947- one year before the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli conflict broke out there were 64,165 Jews in Egypt. This community has contributed to the development of modern Egypt. It is thanks to the great Jewish families as Mosseiri, Quatawi, Rolo and Sawar├Ęs that  the first Egyptian banks (Egyptian Land Bank, Egyptian National Bank, Egyptian Commercial Bank)  emerged. This community  left a significant footprint in areas such as fashion, design, etc. We must not forget that the Jews were a fundamental pillar of the film industry and have contributed to the prosperity of cultural life in Egypt in the early twentieth century.  

However, between 1949 and 1951, about 15,000 to 20,000 Jews left Egypt, according to a study entitled "The Jews in Modern Egypt from 1914 to 1951)," performed by Gordon Kraemer (sic - Gudrun Kramer - ed), a political scientist at the University of Berlin which states that the animosity towards Jews was not a general trend. The proof is that the Egyptian press  tried in the 1940s to distinguish between Jews and Zionists and not fall into the trap of considering all Jews as Zionists.
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Amir Ramses, director of The Jews of Egypt, wanted to present the model of coexistence that existed in Egypt in the late nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth century. The director says that the human stories that inspired his work have really moved him. 

"These people have really struggled to be able to stay in their homeland," suggests Ramses, who suffered during the presentation of his film security pressures that threatened to prohibit its distribution. "Magda, the daughter of lawyer and activist leftist Chehata Haroun, had leukemia, and doctors had advised her to go to France for treatment. However, Egyptian authorities announced that if Haroun wanted to save the life of his daughter by a move abroad, he would risk of being stripped of his Egyptian citizenship and not be able to return. All the Jews who left Egypt after the tripartite aggression in 1956 were stripped of their Egyptian nationality. And whatever the reason for their departure, they no longer had the right to return to Egypt. Chehata Haroun refused to leave and his daughter died because of her illness, "suggests Amir, who was also very touched by the case of Gerard de Botton who left Egypt when he was 10 years old and lived his entire life dreaming of returning to his country. 

 When he went to Alexandria for the first time in 2006, he recognised the city through its smell, but everything had changed. "The old city has remained etched in his memory. He left the Egypt that he loved so much and carried in his heart, "said Ramses.  

An opinion shared by Albert Arie, 85, who ran into big trouble for travelling abroad. "I converted to Islam after my release from prison and I'm married to a Muslim. However, the Egyptian authorities enacted a law that every citizen of the Jewish faith before 15 May 1947 had to retain his (original) religion. One thing that is against  law and religion. They then played this card to annoy me and prevent me from going abroad to visit the rest of my family. It was a headache because I had to ask permission to leave, every time. What's more, I've waited a long time to get a passport, "suggests Arie, a businessman whose family lives abroad and is composed of people of different faiths.

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The Arie family who lived in Egypt in the 1930s.
Intolerance towards Jews: In a society bubbling over with unrest the margin of tolerance has continued to shrink, and media discourse has mixed politics and religion. Being Jewish was not an easy thing.

  "Chehata Haroun and Youssef Darwich" were the first in Egypt to form anti-Zionist associations in 1947. Some did not even dare to speak of their faith in order to be left in peace.  

"We have been deprived of learning our religion in schools. All I know about my religion are stories and comments I collected from my mother and my grandmother, "says Magda Haroun. And that's not all. The Jewish community was also  deprived of the right to celebrate its festivals and happy occasions, fearing that someone would come and attack it. 

  "This year, the Jewish New Year coincides with September 25. The synagogue in Adli will open its doors so that no one will go there to pray, "said Magda, remembering the funeral of her grandfather, whose coffin  came out of the synagogue and was driven through the city centre.
Ester, another Jew, confirms that Kosher foods are no longer available. "Before, there were ovens to make Matza, bread without yeast, which we eat on Passover.  The last bakery preparing this bread at Mit Ghamr in Daqahliya governorate, closed its doors because of the reduced number of Jews, "suggests Ester, adding that the last  bar mitzvah she attended, the ceremony for children who have reached the age of puberty, was 60 years ago.
Other Jews were victims of real abuse. This is the case of L., age 90, from a large and wealthy Jewish family (she will not give her  full name). She lived in a villa in an exclusive area. The porter and his son who were guarding her house forced her to withdraw a large sum of money to buy for them an apartment in Cairo and a cottage for the holidays. The old lady had to comply because she knew no others. "Despite the threats I received from this band of vermin, I insisted she did not return to live with them. She now lives peacefully , "says Magda Haroun.

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Magda Haroun could be the last leader of the Egyptian Jewish community. (Photo: Adel Anis)

 And that's not all.
 Even the converts were not spared: Even the Jews who   tried to form a family and converted to Islam or Christianity to survive were sometimes victims of their Jewish origins. The star Basma, whose grandfather was the leftist activist Youssef Darwish, was attacked by a journalist. "She did not hesitate to humiliate Basma because of  her origins, saying that when you have a Jewish grandfather, you must hide. The glorious past of my father and his struggle for the rights of Egyptian workers did not change things, "says Basma's mother, Nawla Darwish, a famous feminist who keeps close ties with her Jewish brother who lives in Switzerland and cousins ​​of the same faith who live in the United States. 

Albert Arie agrees. "In 1968, a co-worker filed a lawsuit against my wife, because she was having problems with him. He exploited the fact that she is married to a Jew to pressure her. Fortunately, my wife won the case "recalls Arie.
A pluralistic Egypt: But who benefits from a one-dimensional, monochromatic Egypt ? asks Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher and head of records of religion and freedom of belief at the Egyptian Initiative for private rights.  

"In our Eastern societies, peoples and the State consider it their responsibility to protect the religious identity of citizens, unaware that the relationship between the individual and God is private and concerns only the person himself . This explains why society gets confused when other religious ideas arise. We do not understand that the Other, who does not share the same faith, has the same rights. Thus, he is forbidden to practise rituals, to found religious institutions, to express a set of opinions  etc. The issue is more serious for the Jews, since politics come into play", says Ibrahim.

However, some believe that Egypt is not to blame for what it did to the Jews, because at the time, it was a matter of national security. 

  "Nasser took some tough measures against them, but the political conditions demanded it. We must not forget that some Jews living in Egypt were spies. Although the 1952 Revolution had shown at the beginning of good intentions towards Jews, Mohamad Naguib visited the rabbi of the community. Young Egyptian Jews blew up the American media offices to sow discord between Egypt and the West. This was the famous Lavon Affair, "says political analyst Ahmed Yehia, a professor of political sociology at the University of Suez. 

Even nationalization  was justified, especially since the Jews had a great influence on the Egyptian economy. "It is something that takes place all over the world. During World War II, the United States imprisoned Japanese Americans. "
But what matters is people's lives. This is why the Jews of Egypt were silent for a long time. Today it is the end of a long story. Magda Haroun tries to make it more cheerful. She tries to erase the satanic image of the Jew in the Egyptian street, and is trying to integrate more into society. 
" Last Ramadan, we prepared a feast for the synagogue in Adli Street to share iftar with minorities in Egypt: Bedouin, Amazigh, Coptic, etc.," says Magda Haroun, who is under heavy pressure from abroad to return the records of Jewish families and all documents relating to the heritage of the Jews from Egypt in exchange for financial help to benefit the community. "But I refuse to do that because the registers and writings are part of Egyptian heritage. I will store them at the Library of Alexandria as testimony. This will demonstrate that Jews have lived on this earth, "says Haroun.

 Read article in full (French)

 Yves Fedida of the Nebi Daniel Association left the following (as yet unpublished) comment:

 Who owns the house and its contents? To those who through their efforts and sacrifices have built the community - and their descendants, or to those who are the last to  close the door and extinguish the light? 

 We applaud the work of Ms Haroun, who like all the presidents of Jewish communities worldwide provides assistance and care for the elderly or incapacitated. This is also the case for Mr. Gaon in Alexandria.

 We believe that management by Ms Haroun of community assets will be beyond reproach, unlike in the past. However is it up to her alone to decide the future, under the pretext that she will turn off the light?  

 It is understandable that community assets are under Wakf control, or under the responsibility of the Department of Antiquities; the Torah could even be falsely characterized as Ancient Egyptian heritage, but by what right has Ms Haroun, like Mr. Gaon, control over my civil and religious status - exclusively the domain of the rabbis - as well as the marital and religious status of my parents and grandparents, who lived, like the 170, 000 other Jewish names in 19th and 20th century in Egypt which appear in community registers

 They had to leave Egypt, compelled to do so because of their identity;  justice would be to make these (registers) become their identity, even in the form of a photocopy. Can we talk about pushing for a single photocopy, just as Catholic or Protestant records were freely copied? Did you say 'discrimination'?

  Associations of Egyptian Jews around the world are eager to revive, without recrimination, the memory of their parents in Egypt, where they experienced tolerance and generosity. That is in the interests of Egypt.

If community registers are left to rot in the archives of the Library of Alexandria without a copy being sent abroad,  the memory of our community will not be maintained in a sustainable way. Far from turning out the light on our community, Ms Haroun, like Mr. Gaon, will seal the stone on its grave.

1 comment:

Sylvia said...

There is nothing to do about the buildings and the private real estate because sooner or later they will start crashing and falling apart, if they haven't already, thus constituting a danger for the locals. Yes, people have been living in them but when there is no title occupants don't tend to take care of the place.

In which case I believe the State should take them over if there are no claimants prepared to foot the bill for the repairs.

But I wholeheartedly agree with Yves Fedida that the registers should be digitalized or at least certifiably photocopied. They can take everything but they can't take your identity.