Examining a BBC correspondent’s recommended reading on Egyptian Jews

This is a guest post by the Point of No Return blog. 

Editor’s note: Among the BBC employees who have recently provided reading material for their Twitter followers is Hugh Sykes

Tweet Egyptian Jews

In light of the fact that the subject of Jewish refugees from Arab lands is one with which few people in the West are very familiar, BBC Watch asked one of the foremost experts on that subject – the Point of No Return blog – to comment on the recommended article. 

Khaled Fahmy seems to be the Simon Schama of Egyptian history – a smooth, western- educated history professor at Cairo’s American University. Lately, he seems to be in much demand in the Egyptian media, giving his two piastres-worth on Egypt’s thorny Jewish question in Al-Ahram - approvingly Tweeted by BBC producer Hugh Sykes. But how objective a scholar is Fahmy, asks Point of No Return blog – and has he broken with the Arab tradition where historians are propaganda agents for the regime? PoNR’s comments are interspersed below.

“Since Muslim Brotherhood leader Dr Esam El-Erian issued his call some two weeks ago to Israeli Jews of Egyptian origins to return to Egypt the social and print media have been abuzz with all kinds of speculation about the meaning, purpose and possible repercussions of this call. And while clear answers are yet to be found, the fact remains that this call has triggered public debate about a topic that has been taboo for decades. 

Like many other topics of our modern history, the modern history of Egyptian Jews, as well as the timing of and reasons for their departure, has been tackled from a political and ideological perspective in near complete absence of Arabic scholarly work on this topic.”

PoNR: True enough. Two thousand years of Jewish history in Egypt have been well-nigh erased from Egypt’s history books.

“And while there are many reasons for the scarcity of solid academic research on the history of Egyptian Jews in Arabic (there are a number of good works in English), the fact remains that one of the main reasons for this sad situation is the unavailability of original official documents, a fact that one easily experiences in the Egyptian National Archives (ENA).File:Jewish Temple, Abbasyia, Cairo.JPG

For while one finds ample documentation in the ENA about all aspects of Egyptian Jewish history during, say, the Ottoman period (ie 16th-19th century), one would be hard pressed to find a single document about Jewish life in the 20th century.

This, in turn, has many reasons, chief among them is the paranoid concern of the “security agencies” who are primarily interested in spotting the malicious foreign researcher who claims to be working on the history of charitable foundations when, it is suspected, he is after original title deeds of confiscated Jewish property.”

PoNR: Not just foreigners but greedy Egyptians have sought access to these title deeds. Access even to communal documents  – the state claims these as its property – has been  denied to the rightful Jewish owners, lest Jews use them to try and recover or demand compensation for property lost  - that the Egyptians themselves have estimated worth $30 billion. Egypt is terrified of disclosing historical records which would show the scandalous scale and manner that its 80, 000 Jews were dispossessed and ‘ethnically cleansed’.

“In the absence of authentic historic records, all kinds of questions are raised. Since El-Erian made his bravado statements, I have been receiving a barrage of questions from news channels, the press, friends and family: Is it true that there were Jews in Egypt? If so, were they genuinely Egyptian? Or was their citizenship fake and their loyalty to Egypt tenuous?”

PoNR: After 1948, the penal code made Zionism a crime. The charge of disloyalty could be leveled against any Jew. But talk of disloyalty is a bit rich, when as early as the 1920s, Egypt was practicing a double standard on citizenship.  As a result of Egypt’s 1929 Nationality Law, more than 90% of Egyptian Jews were denied citizenship, regardless of how many generations they had lived in Egypt. In the 1940s, roughly one quarter of Jews held foreign passports, less than one quarter held Egyptian citizenship and the remainder were stateless.

“Have these Jews been living in Egypt for many centuries or were they new arrivals? When did they leave Egypt and why? Where Lingering Signs: Egypt’s Jews were expelled after Israel’s founding but their long presence remains visible in Cairo’s Harat Al-Yahud, or Jewish Quarter, abutting the city’s famous Al-Azhar Mosque.did they go after they left Egypt? Is it true that most of them ended up in Israel? If so, is that not proof of their Zionist beliefs and lack of loyalty to Egypt? And who was behind their exodus from Egypt?

Given the unavailability of reliable original sources, it is difficult to answer any of these questions with any degree of certainty. Thus, the following facts should be accepted as true until someone comes along to refute them with documented information.

There were indeed Egyptian Jews. Before 1948, they numbered between 65,000 and 80,000; in Cairo, a few of them lived in the Jewish Quarter (Harat Al-Yahud) and in Darb El-Barabra, while in Alexandria they lived in Harat El-Lamon; but the majority lived everywhere else in Cairo in the districts of Abbassiya, Gamaliya, Abdeen and Sayeda, and everywhere else in Alexandria and in many cities in the Delta.

A few of these Jews had settled in Egypt since ancient times, sometimes well before the Arab conquest of Egypt, but the majority came to Egypt in the 19th century, fleeing the European pogroms.

Others were lured by the dolce vita that Egypt offered at that time.”

PoNR: Some Jews arrived from Russia fleeing Tsarist pogroms but it is misleading to suggest that the majority of 19th century immigrants came from Europe. Most arrivals came from other parts of the Ottoman Empire – Greece, Turkey, Syria, Iraq (where the Jews had lived 2,500 years). They were not in search of the Dolce Vita, as Fahmy frivolously puts it, but moved to Egypt because the Suez Canal had opened new trading opportunities. 

“Historical evidence suggests that the majority of these Jews were wholeheartedly Egyptian, with strong bonds and compassion to their Muslim and Coptic brethren. Some of them spoke Arabic besides three or four other languages, while others, such as Grand Rabbi Haim Nahum, were so eloquent in Arabic as to be a founding member of the Arab Language Academy (1932).

Some were wealthy and owned fancy department stores and considerable real estate, such as Youssef Cicurel whose family came to Egypt in the 19th century, and was a founding member of Banque Misr. Others were poor skilled workers: every neighbourhood in Cairo had a Jewish electrician, grocer, secretary or seamstress.

Historical evidence also shows that the majority of Egyptian Jews left Egypt after the 1956 war, not the 1948 war, and the majority of them did not go to Israel, but settled in other countries. Thus, it is wrong to accuse the entire Egyptian Jewish community of being Zionists who were sitting on their suitcases anxiously waiting for the first opportunity to relocate to Israel. What is true is that the majority chose to stay in their motherland as long as possible and did not leave Egypt except when their lives had become impossible.”

PoNR: This is broadly true – and Fahmy should be given credit for saying so. 

“Regarding the thorny question of why they left, evidence also shows that Israel had a key role in that. Israel recruited a spy network in 1954 to carry out terrorist attacks in Cairo and Alexandria, known as Operation Susannah. According to most analyses, this covert operation (known in Israel as the Lavon Affair, or the unfortunate affair) aimed to implicate all Egyptian Jews so as to turn public opinion against them and force them to leave to Israel, since Zionism does not believe Jews should remain in “Diaspora.” “

PoNR: It is not worthy of a historian to dredge up the 1954 Lavon affair – the stock propaganda argument blaming the Zionists for the exodus of the Jews. The affair was an embarrassment to Israel but had minimal impact and caused no casualties. There is no causal relationship between the Lavon affair in which three bombs failed to go off and Nasser’s expulsion of 25,000 Jews two years later.

“But this does not eliminate the responsibility of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime which closed in on Egyptian Jews and used Operation Susannah, and later the Suez War, to put limitations on them through Egyptianisation and nationalisation policies that hit wealthy Jews. The Nasserite authorities also did not issue passports to less wealthy Jews and stamped the passports of those who had passports with “final departure — no return” if they left the country, effectively preventing them from returning home.”

PoNR: Nasser did not just target wealthy Jews, but all Jews. He didn’t just target French and British passport-holders because of the Suez crisis. Even Jews of Greek and Italian and Egyptian nationality were expropriated, sacked from their jobs and forced out.

“One of the most heart breaking tales of this Nasserist “policy” is Shehata Haroun’s, a Jewish leftist activist, whose daughter fell ill with leukemia which required her to travel overseas for treatment. When he was preparing to accompany her abroad, the authorities warned him that they would stamp his passport with that obnoxious phrase, but he refused because he wanted to stay in his own country, and tragically he lost his daughter.”

PoNR: A nice story which humanises Jews to Fahmy’s Egyptian readership – an all too rare occurrence. Haroun was a member of a group of Jewish communists. The fact that these were not Zionists but were forced out or prevented from returning, along with the rest of the Jewish population, shows the antisemitic nature of Nasser’s policy.

“The Muslim Brotherhood also had a hand in this exodus since its leaders and thinkers throughout the 1930s and 1940s raised doubts about the loyalty of Jews to Egypt. Muslim Brotherhood publications from the period are replete with articles that did not distinguish between Judaism and Zionism. Theses publications also used the crudest and cruelest anti-Semitic language to turn Muslims and Copts against their Jewish compatriots. Muslim Brotherhood youth also carried out terrorist attacks in the Jewish Quarter in Cairo in 1945 and 1948 which resulted in burning down Jewish property and synagogues, and the death and injury of dozens of Jews.”

PoNR: Copts were also targeted by the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1940s. Elsewhere Fahmy says that the Muslim Brotherhood had ‘more than a hand’. Here he says that ‘much of responsibility’ for the Jewish exodus lay with the Muslim Brotherhood.  Fahmy seems to shift the blame between Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood and Nasser depending on his audience or his mood.

“If available historic evidence enables us to give preliminary answers to some of the questions that El-Erian’s statements stirred, the most bitter question remains: Can this happen again? In 1941, a smash hit play was performed on Emad Eldin Street, Cairo’s Broadway. Titled “Hassan wa Morcos wa Cohen,” it proved to be an instant hit. More than 70 years later, another smash hit was produced, this time a movie titled “Hassan wa Morcos.” Is it conceivable that Morcos leaves as Cohen did before him? And what about Hassan and his brother, Hussien? What if Hussien turns out to be a Shia or a Baha’i? And what if Hassan’s Islam turns out not to be to the liking of the Salafis, who are roaming the country from one end to the other brandishing their swords and accusing people of treason and apostasy wherever they go?”

PoNR: Where has Fahmy been these last years? There has been a steady exodus of Copts over decades. In the last two years, since the Arab Spring brought the Islamists to power, the trickle has swelled to a flood – some 100, 000 are estimated to have left.  Yes, it could well happen to Morcos.

In summary, Fahmy, who obviously has no great love for the Muslim Brotherhood, should be given credit for trying to correct some of the distortions which plague the way the exodus of the Egyptian Jews is presented – but he still has some way to go before he could be considered ‘objective’.

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