Despite claims to the contrary, it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows when Jewish Egyptians reflect on Egypt.
Joseph Massad is Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University.
Last Modified: 07 Jan 2013 05:31
“The statements made by Issam al-Aryan, a senior leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, calling on Egyptian Jews in Israel to return home, are hardly novel,” writes author [AFP]
The current propaganda war in Egypt about the Palestinians and about Egyptian Jews, which was provoked by the recent pronouncements of Issam al-Aryan, a senior leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, is nothing but a distraction from the real problems that the country faces with the increasing incompetence of the Morsi government and the opportunism of his vocal opposition.
Levana Zamir with mother on the balcony of their house in Egypt -1949
If this propaganda war did not have major implications with regards to Israel and US plans to undermine the Egyptian uprising and to control its outcome so as to serve US and Israeli interests, it would be nothing but a storm in a teacup. That it has many regional and international implications is what produces the ongoing media frenzy in the country and internationally.
The statements made by al-Aryan calling on Egyptian Jews in Israel to return home, however, are hardly novel. Indeed Egypt had already done so under Anwar Sadat’s rule back in 1975 at the urging of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
In 1975, and based on its understanding that the departure of Arab Jews to go to Israel under the Arab anciens regimes was a boon to the Zionist colonisation of Palestine, the PLO undertook to call for the repatriation of Arab Jews and demanded that the current Arab leaders (none of whom had been in power when Arab Jews left their countries in the 1950s and 1960s) issue an open invitation to them.
Morocco, Yemen, Libya, Sudan, Iraq and Egypt responded to the PLO call and issued an open invitation to Arab Jews to return home. Despite these efforts, neither Israel nor its Arab Jewish communities heeded the call.
Discriminating against Arab Jews
Indeed, it would not be until the last couple of decades that Israel began to exploit the question of Arab Jewry as a counterweight to Palestinian demands for their internationally supported right of return to Palestine from which the Zionists had expelled them.
The same Ashkenazi Jewish leadership that discriminated and discriminates against Arab Jews in Israel began to lead the effort of demanding compensation for Arab Jewish property losses while liberal Zionist commentators and their supporters in the West began to issue statements which summarised what happened in 1948 and after as an equitable “population exchange” between “Arabs” and “Jews” (often compared to the situation of India and Pakistan), and calling on the Palestinians to relinquish all their demands for return and compensation.
That the Palestinians were massacred and forcibly expelled from their homeland while Arab Jews left the Arab world in their majority due to Zionist harassment and endangerment of their lives is often forgotten by such propaganda.
Zionists and Israeli propagandists saw in this comparison another venue to prove how civilised Israel is and how barbaric the Arabs are. The argument goes as follows: The Arab countries mistreated the Palestinian refugees and refused to grant them nationalities and settle them in their new homes and kept them languishing in refugee camps while civilised Israel gave Arab Jews Israeli nationality, and indeed settled them outside refugee camps.
Synagogue in Cairo
The Zionist contradiction on this question is a bit scandalous. On the one hand, Israel claims that it is the homeland of all Jews, and on the other it argues that Arab Jews came as refugees to the country, rather than “returned” to it.
The Israeli claim about the Palestinian refugees is only partly true, as many Palestinians have been given nationality in some Arab countries (notably Jordan), but unlike Israel, which gave the stolen land and property of the Palestinians it expelled to its Jewish colonial settler population, including to Arab Jews (though the latter received the less valuable lands and property in accordance with Israel’s European Ashkenazi racism against Arab Jews), Arab countries did not settle the Palestinians on Jewish property or in Jewish homes.
Thus, the Israeli crime of stealing Palestinian property and giving it to Jews, which is prohibited by international law, is trotted out as the actions of the civilised Jewish settler-colony compared to the barbaric Arabs. In this context, it is important to affirm that it is the Palestinians who are owed compensation for their stolen property by all the Jewish colonial settlers who have been living on it for some six decades, including Arab Jews.
The fact that Arab Jews were not expelled from any Arab country, even from those where some of them suffered from harassment by the authorities or even from segments of society at large is central to this narrative. In Yemen and Iraq, Israel undertook to remove the Jewish communities through various criminal means, most notably through Mossad bombings of Jewish locations in Iraq, and secret deals with varying Arab regimes, including that of Yemen.
In Algeria, Israel recruited members of the 100,000-strong Jewish community (all of whom carried since 1870 French nationality by virtue of the Crémieux decree issued by France, keeping in mind that a good percentage of them by then were European settlers) to spy on the National Liberation Front revolutionaries and report back to the French authorities.
Indeed, Israeli military forces would carry out military training on occupied Algerian soil with the French occupation authorities in the 1950s. This hardly endeared Algerian Jews to Algerian Muslims, who were suffering under one of the most brutal European occupations in Africa. This situation was of course brought about by French colonial policy of divide and rule, as Algerian Jews had fought in the resistance to the French in the mid-19th century with Emir Abd al-Qadir and Muslim Algerians.
Anger against Egyptian Jews
In Egypt, Egyptian Jewish interests would be attacked in 1948 by members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the non-Islamist Young Egypt Party (Misr al-Fatah), which led to the departure of a small number of Jews (especially those with foreign nationality). Israel would later recruit Egyptian Jews as spies who would undertake a bombing campaign in 1954 to undermine Nasser’s standing in the West. Israel would also invade the country in 1956 along with the French and British and occupy Egyptian territory.
At the time, the Egyptian government expelled all French and British nationals in the country (about 17,000), including the Jews among them, as enemy citizens. When Nasser undertook a policy of nationalisation, families who owned big businesses, which were slated for nationalisation, began to leave the country. This included rich Egyptian Muslims, Christians and Jews (many of whom held foreign nationalities), and it also included Syrian Christians, Armenians, Greeks and Italians.
In the wake of the Lavon Affair (in Arabic, it is significantly called the “Lavon Scandal”) in 1954, much popular anger ensued against Egyptian Jews, which was hardly surprising, even though the government discourse tried to maintain the distinction between the community and the terrorist recruits during the ensuing trials of the terrorists.
This should be contrasted with American anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism, which, as As’ad Abukhalil recently noted, continues to target Arab Americans and Muslim Americans eleven years after 9/11, even though not a single one of the terrorists who committed the crimes of that day was an Arab American or a Muslim American.
Indeed just a few weeks ago, a racist New Yorker pushed a young Indian man (who was Hindu) in front of a subway train to his death. “I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims ever since 2001 when they put down the twin towers,” the suspect told prosecutors. This was the latest victim of American racist violence against Arab and Muslim Americans and of Indian Hindus and Sikhs mistaken for them.
We must also keep in mind that a substantial percentage of the Jews in Egypt were not legally Egyptian, as they did not carry Egyptian nationality and many did not even speak Arabic and carried European passports (Italian, Russian, British and French), a fact that intensified the perception in some popular quarters that they were not loyal to the country. This of course was not the case with the old Egyptian Arab Jewish community (especially the Qarra’in Jews) whose lives were eclipsed by the large and powerful Ashkenazi and Sephardi families who arrived in Egypt in the 19th and early 20th century.
That the Nasser regime did not do enough to safeguard members of the Jewish community from harassment by its own agencies and to shield it from popular anger is true enough and should be subject to much blame, but this is not the same as expelling a population, or deporting it.
This situation also coincided with the ongoing Israeli campaign to bring Arab Jews to Palestine through various criminal means and secret deals, which were successful in Iraq and Yemen and were ongoing in Morocco and which resulted in the destruction of these communities altogether. Israel’s direct efforts to bring about the departure of half of Egypt’s small Jewish community of some 60,000 to Israel (the rest went to France and the Americas) is still not fully known but should not be ignored in analysing the situation.
That most of the terrorist attacks against Jewish interests in Egypt took place under the rule of the Egyptian King Farouk in the 1940s and early 1950s seems irrelevant to the few Egyptian Zionist propagandists today, who appeared this week on Egyptian television and wrote articles in the Egyptian press, insinuating that all that went wrong with Egyptian Jews should be blamed on Nasser and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Indeed, such propagandists completely factor out Israeli actions from bringing about the departure of Egyptian Jews. One propagandist referred to the departure of Egyptian Jews as “nuzuh” or “flight”, and agreed with al-Aryan, whom he opposes otherwise, that Jews were indeed “expelled” from Egypt.
We are even treated to the strange claims by the same propagandist that Egyptian Jews he met in the US and France continue to love Egypt, Arabs and Muslims. While there is no doubt that many Egyptian Jews, wherever they may be, harbour positive feelings towards Egypt, many of those prominent among them in the West have expressed much hatred towards Egypt and the Arab world.
Indeed, many among the latter have become prominent because of their hateful views of Egypt while those Egyptian Jews who love Egypt are ignored and given less prominence in the West and Israel.
‘Silent’ about the country of origin
Propagandists on behalf of Zionism often cite the Sephardi Cicurel family, which held British citizenship (a fact they forget to mention), as an asset to Egypt. What is forgotten often is that Moreno Cicurel who immigrated to Egypt from Smyrna (Izmir) and started the major family business, Les Grands Magasins Cicurel, was the maker of the first Zionist flag which flew over Jerusalem in December 1917 for 20 minutes before being taken down by the British.
His granddaughter Lili would marry future French Prime Minister Pierre Mendes-France, whose socialist government fell in 1955, though he would serve as foreign minister in the Guy Mollet government (of the Radical Socialist Party to which Mendes-France belonged) until May 1956.
It was during Mendes-France’s term as prime minister in 1955 that Israeli nuclear scientists were invited to participate in France’s nuclear programme. Israel’s later deal with the French in 1956 to participate in the tripartite invasion of Egypt was concluded with one of the rewards being that France would build Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor where Israel’s nuclear bombs would be manufactured.
It was Israel’s current president Shimon Peres, who supervised the deal then, who tells us:
Before the final signing [of the Sevres Protocol where the plan was hatched to invade Egypt], I asked Ben-Gurion for a brief adjournment, during which I met Mollet and Bourges-Maunoury alone. It was here that I finalised with these two leaders an agreement for the building of a nuclear reactor at Dimona, in southern Israel… and the supply of natural uranium to fuel it. I put forward a series of detailed proposals and, after discussion, they accepted them.
In 1973, Golda Meir would threaten to nuke Egypt using these bombs. Throughout this period, Lili Cicurel, to my knowledge, not once made a public statement, either opposing the French invasion of Egypt or its alliance and nuclear assistance to Israel (she died in 1967).
Indeed, the Cicurel business was not even nationalised. Lili’s uncle Salvator, whose assets were all already outside Egypt, sold the business to the Muslim Gabri family before leaving the country in 1957. The Cicurel business, which was by then owned by the Gabris, would be nationalised by Nasser in 1961.
What next for Egypt and its neighbours?
As for the propaganda that the Cicurels were harassed by the Nasserist government, it is just that: propaganda. As for Mendes-France, he would become a sponsor of Palestinian-Israeli “peace dialogues” in the 1970s in his own home.
Not only did many prominent Egyptian Jews in the West remain silent about their country of origin, many of them are part and parcel of the Western campaigns against Egypt, the Arabs, and Muslims more generally.
Today, the Alexandria-born Haim Saban, the American Likudnik billionaire, is hardly a friend of anything Arab and is a major supporter of extreme Israeli racist and colonial policies.
The Cairo-born Nadav Safran, the former Harvard professor on the CIA payroll, propagandised against Arabs and Muslims and was an early Zionist since before 1948 and was already a colonial settler living in a kibbutz in 1946. He fought in the 1948 Zionist war for the conquest of Palestine.
As for Egyptian Jews in the US who have written memoirs about their time in Egypt, one of them complains in his memoirs about the disgusting smells of Egyptians who “smell” of fenugreek.
Of course, there are other Egyptian Jews who are not as prominent and who continue to love Egypt, but propagandistic generalisations of the sort being pushed by the few non-Jewish Egyptian Zionists today that “all Egyptian Jews” in the US and France, at least, if not those in Israel as well, love Egypt and the Arabs, are hardly apt when so many prominent Egyptian Jews expressly manifest their anti-Egyptian and anti-Arab attitudes in the West, let alone in Israel.
Another major commentator in the US on Egyptian Jews is one Lucette Lagnado, who along with her Jewish parents left Egypt in 1963. She would come back to visit after 2005 and published a memoir. She had a book-reading in Zamalek at the Diwan Bookstore where she befriended one of the owners, Hind Wasef, who welcomed her to Cairo and introduced her to Diwan’s customers who welcomed her in turn.
In the meantime, however, Lagnado propagandises like many other Zionists, about the “population exchange” formula, among other Zionist myths. She tells us, towing the Israeli line, of how Jews were “forced out” of their homes in the Arab world while Palestinians simply “fled” Israel.
Since the revolution, however, and despite the hospitality shown to her by Egyptians when she visited, Lagnado has been propagandising against the new order and tells her Wall Street Journal readers that she will not go back to the country given that the new government is led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Who knows, maybe after al-Aryan’s invitation she will, even though his invitation seems to include only Egyptian Jews in Israel.
As for half of the Egyptian Jewish community who ended up in Israel, many of them would fight in the wars against Egypt and the Arabs, and some became military spokespersons for the Israelis, who often appear on Al Jazeera and speak Egyptian Arabic. It is unclear if those too are being invited back to Egypt.
That all of this was provoked by al-Aryan is not coincidental. In the last few months, the Egyptian remnants of the Mubarak regime and anti-Muslim Brotherhood liberals have continued to market Mubarak’s anti-Palestinian campaigns in the country by claiming that President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are planning to give Sinai to Gaza Palestinians. Even such illustrious figures as the economist, Galal Amin, participated in spreading these false rumours.
That many of these people (Amin excepted) who fulminate about Sinai and the Palestinians have been silent for three decades on the fact that Sinai remains outside Egyptian sovereignty as a result of the Camp David Accords, and who do not give a hoot about Sinai’s Egyptian population is quite telling of their suspicious agenda. That they have suddenly sprung to attention defending Sinai against a fictional propaganda story that Sinai would be given to the Palestinians is reprehensible at best. Other rumours about the Palestinians abound, such as Morsi’s alleged depriving Egyptians of electricity, which he is allegedly giving for free to Gaza Palestinians.
Concomitant with these rumours is the Egyptian government’s and the opposition’s race to please the United States and its Zionist lobby. While the very same Issam al-Aryan spoke about the tragedy of the Jewish holocaust while in the US on a Muslim Brotherhood promotional trip in May 2011, the naïve and charisma-less Mohamed el-Baradei upped the ante by telling a German newspaper that elected Salafi and Brotherhood members of parliament should not be trusted to draft the Egyptian constitution because they allegedly deny the holocaust!
Al-Aryan’s recent pronouncements on Egyptian Jews are part of this campaign of who can prove to the Americans and the Zionists that they can better serve US and Zionist interests.
This unfortunate level which the post-revolutionary Egyptian protagonists have reached tells us how successful counter-revolutionary forces in Egypt have become, and how they are undermining revolutionary gains and distracting Egyptians from the real economic, social and political challenges facing the country.
Joseph Massad is author of The Persistence of the Palestinian Question published by Routledge. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.
Yousef bin Gaon, the head of the Jewish community in Alexandria, condemned statements made by Essam al-Erian, vice president of the Freedom and Justice Party, in which he accused the regime of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser of expelling Egyptian Jews from Egypt.
Bin Gaon claimed that Nasser only expelled some Jews who had other nationalities and who were proven to have not been loyal to Egypt.
“We lived in Egypt and grew up in it, and our properties remain as they are. We use them to support the elderly members of the community, such as the revenues from the real estate surrounding the Nabi Daniel Synagogue, which dates back to 1910,”
Bin Gaon, 50, told London-based Asharq al-Awsat on Monday
Erian, who is the majority leader of the FJP’s parliamentary bloc in the Shura Council, sparked controversy last month when he issued a call for the Egyptian Jews who live in Israel to return to Egypt.
Bin Gaon dismissed claims that Jews in Egypt are determining their properties’ values to request compensation. He added that Jews who currently live in Egypt will not give any help to the Jews who left Egypt, alleging that they chose to leave Egypt and to sell their possessions or leave them to the Egyptians who worked with them.
He added that the statements made by Erian did not evoke the interest of any member of the Jewish community in Egypt because none of them was stripped of his or her possessions. He also said that he has the Egyptian nationality certificate of his grandfather’s grandfather and the Egyptian nationality certificate of his father, which was signed by King Farouk.
“I have a national identity card, and my passport has not had the name of any country for dozens of years. I used to live in the Immobilia building in Cairo. All members of the Jewish community have Egyptian IDs”.
He added that few Egyptian Jews have remained in Egypt, and that all of them have Egyptian fathers and grandfathers, and that is why they did not leave Egypt.
“My father was Nasser’s tailor and he made him all his formal suits,” he said, adding that he still has pictures of Nasser and his father together.