Feature: Try to Remember
In Australia, Brazil and France, Israel, England and the United States, a generation of Jews who once lived in Egypt is coming together to tell its stories.
In a hall in Haifa on December 31, 2006, 130 people rang in the New Year. Dressed in their finery, the celebrants slow-danced and did the Charleston. They drank champagne, enjoyed the Moroccan delicacies at the buffet dinner and ogled the belly dancers hired for the occasion.
The party-goers were all Egyptian Jews living in Israel. The event they were enjoying, the annual Egyptian New Year’s Ball, is a tribute to the community’s sense of fun and a nod to secular culture. It is also one of many organized efforts to gather together scattered members of what once was the oldest and most prosperous Jewish community in Arab lands.
In the mid-20th century, about 80,000 Jews left Egypt, at first because of political and religious discrimination and then, ultimately, they were expelled. “We went through the second exodus,” said Ada Aharoni, a retired University of Haifa professor who has become a leader in the Egyptian Jewish community. “Once again, Egypt was emptied of its Jews.”
And much like the ancient Israelites, these former Egyptians have created new homes for themselves. Most relocated to Israel, primarily to Tel Aviv and Haifa. Others moved to Australia, Italy and Brazil and the cities of London, Paris and Marseille.
Egyptian Jews are spread throughout the United States. A close-knit, observant community lives in Brooklyn, New York, and a sizable population of Egyptian Jews and Karaites (considered Jews by much of Egyptian Jewry) make their home in California’s Bay Area.
Everywhere they have dispersed, Egyptian Jews integrated comfortably, earning impressive educations and reaching high socioeconomic levels, and today, around the world, they are disproportionately represented in academia, business and medicine. Now, as those who left Egypt 50 years ago as teens and young adults enter retirement, many of them are turning their attention to preserving memories of their life in Egypt before it soured.
Over the past decade, they have formed national and international organizations in several countries, among them the Association des Juifs Originaires d’Egypte (www. ajoe.org) in France and the Historical Society of Jews from Egypt in New York (www.hsje.org). Others have joined Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (www.jimena.org), an education and advocacy group that seeks reparations for Jews expelled from Arab countries.
“If you go to a bar mitzva school and ask the students where Abraham and Sara were from, they would say Europe,” said Joseph Abdel Wahed, founder of JIMENA. “These children…don’t know that half of Israel is made up of Mizrahi Jews with a history going back 3,000 years. We wanted to tell American Jews that we also exist and have a rich cultural heritage.”
There are also institutions that seek to preserve physical culture, such as the Paris-based Association Internationale Nebi Daniel (www.nebidaniel.org). The group raises money to maintain Jewish cemeteries and ancient synagogues, including Old Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue, where Maimonides once worshiped.
Many individuals have begun their own research: Victor D. Sanua, Ph.D., 86, an Egyptian Jewish scholar who lives in New York, has spent his retirement documenting Egyptian Jewish life. He has gathered 1,000 photographs, which he has included in several of his books. “I wanted to start [organizing] 25 years ago, but I was a professor, I couldn’t devote my time,” said Sanua, who founded the International Association of Jews from Egypt (www.iajegypt.org). “Ten or twelve years ago, I retired from teaching, so I had more time and decided to use it constructively.”
Aharoni has also written extensively about Jewish life in Egypt, including the self-published From the Nile to the Jordan, about a young woman who travels from Egypt to Israel. She has also written the biography Thea: to Alexandria, Jerusalem and Freedom (Dorrance Publishing) with Thea Wolf. Wolf was a nurse at the New Jewish Hospital in Alexandria in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
There are also several online Yahoo discussion groups, such ashttps://groups.yahoo.com/group/Egyptian_Jews, where over a thousand members have shared their memories of the old days. And a small French Hebrew magazine titled Goshen on subjects of interest to the community is published twice a year.
In July 2006, about 300 people representing 12 different organizations came together in Israel to discuss and celebrate the surge of interest and activity at the first World Congress of the Jews from Egypt (www.wcje.net).
Despite the range of efforts involved in retelling the story of the second exodus, the Egyptian exiles have not been able to parallel one aspect of the Passover holiday: “And you shall tell your children.” It is the generation with memories of life in Egypt who are the main forces behind the communal renaissance.
“My own children are totally uninterested,” said Sanua. “Sometimes they say I talk too much about Egypt, but I forgive them. Egypt doesn’t mean anything to them. Only to the people who lived there.” At the Haifa New Year’s Ball, almost all the celebrants were over 50. The only young faces in the room were members of the band and two preteen girls named Amy and Jasmine—sisters brought to the occasion by their father.
“When people leave their country under duress, they keep their souvenirs in their minds,” explained Yves Fedida, 61, the head of Nebi Daniel. “But the children adapt to their new countries, and the new country is what they are all about. Similarly, when our parents came [to Egypt] from Turkey or Greece, they kept their food and language, perhaps, but they became Jews of Egypt.”
Nevertheless, the older generation is determined to move forward. With the help of donors from Australia, Aharoni is trying to establish a chair at the University of Haifa for the study of the history and literature of Jews from Egypt. She contacted Israel’s Ministry of Education about including the expulsion of Egyptian Jews in Israeli textbooks, though the response so far has been lukewarm at best. She has also approached the government about establishing a small museum on Egyptian Jewry to house the personal and religious artifacts that people managed to take out of the country with them.
“The [representative of] the Education Ministry in charge of the culture of Jews from different countries said ‘If you have no representatives in Knesset, you can’t get money to keep your heritage,’” Aharoni reported. “He said, ‘the Jews from Egypt are too polite.’ I said, ‘Because we are polite, our culture has to die?’ He said, ‘Yes.’
“Think about it,” she added, “the Iraqis had 17 MK’s and 4 ministers in the first Knesset, and from the beginning they had a museum, professors and a magazine 4 times a year.”
This lack of interest is particularly frustrating to the former Egyptians. Many see themselves as a bridge between Jewish and Arab culture—if only the Israeli government would recognize their potential. The community doesn’t seem to harbor anger or hatred toward Arabs. “The Egyptians were very nice people,” said Dalia Rahav, seceretary of the World Congress of the Jews from Egypt. “It was the government that incited them.”
A resolution was passed at the congress to promote peace between Israel and its neighbors: “The WCJE calls upon Arab nations and the Palestinian Authority to eliminate the hatred of Jews from education programs. The past experience of the Jews from Egypt, who in general had harmonious relations with their Arab neighbors, can indeed be of help in promoting understanding, reconciliation and peace in the region.”
Aharoni is involved in many peace organizations, but the work about which she is most passionate is her role as founder of the International Forum for the Literature and Culture of Peace (www. iflac.com).
“There was a time when Jews and Arabs lived in harmony,” she said. “Our story can give Jewish children hope. And we can show Arabs that it is possible to be uprooted and build your lives.
“The Palestinian [refugees] can take a lesson from us,” Aharoni continued. “We had nothing, but we had the force and power to rebuild and to work. We didn’t do a jihad. And now we are giving out a hand to them, to have peace.”
Jews have lived in Egypt since before the time of the Second Temple. The country was home to scholars such as Maimonides and Saadiah Gaon.
In modern times, Egyptian Jewry encompassed several distinct communities: There were Arabic-speaking Jews who had been in the country for hundreds of years; European Jews of Sefardic origin who had arrived from Turkey, Greece, Syria and other areas in the 1800’s after the construction of the Suez Canal; Ashkenazim who had fled the pogroms of Russia; and Karaites. All four groups lived mainly in the cities of Cairo and Alexandria. Highly educated and largely secular, the Egyptian Jews had enjoyed a vibrant cultural life, comfortable relations with their Arab neighbors and economic success.
But with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the rise of Arab nationalism and the development of the Zionist movement, the underlying tensions bubbled over. Many of the Jews considered themselves European rather than Egyptian—about a third held foreign passports—and anti-colonialism combined with anti-Semitism proved a caustic mix.
In 1948, from June through November, more than 70 Jews were killed by bombs in the Jewish quarter of Cairo. A turning point came in 1952 when King Farouk, whose administration had been relatively tolerant, was overthrown by General Gamal Abdel Nasser. The anti-Jewish feeling exploded into the open. Denied employment and frightened for their physical safety, some fled the country while others were arrested and interned.
The final blow came in 1956 with the Sinai campaign; that year, the government ordered the expulsion of the entire Jewish community, declaring that “all Jews are Zionists and enemies of the state.” By the time the Camp David peace accords were signed in 1978, only a few hundred Jews remained in Egypt to benefit from the agreement. Today, about 80 to 100 Jews remain, most elderly women who have outlived their husbands and whose children have moved on to more welcoming countries.
“I remember as a child during Passover with my family waiting to see the first star appear in the sky so we could start the Haggada together, and pray and sing,” said Joseph Abdel Wahed, who was born in Cairo and left Egypt in the 1950’s. “These were magical moments for me and my family…because we celebrated our liberation from slavery under Pharaoh. But little did we know that, in a few years, we would celebrate our second exodus, which was our liberation from Nasser. If you know your Bible, it says, ‘There arose a king in Egypt who knew not Joseph.’ That was Nasser. He was very brutal.”
Because of the great diversity among the Jews of Egypt, “there is no such thing as [one] Egyptian Jewish culture,” explained Yves Fedida. “It is a multicultural culture.” So the goal of their nascent movement is not about preserving a unique way of life, but the memories of a successful, vibrant and multifaceted Jewish community. In short, for the world to remember that, at one time, there were Jews in Egypt. And, if possible, for the fading memories of peaceful times to inspire Arabs to re-create that tolerance, multiculturalism and freedom.
And they want the world to know, especially in light of Palestinian demands for the “right of return,” that almost the entire Egyptian Jewish community was chased out only a generation ago—and that they have reconciled themselves to this fact and moved on. “In Egypt there are only a handful of Jews left,” said Aharoni. “The Arabs tell us to go back to Europe. But half of Israelis are from Arab countries.”
Egyptian authorities confiscated most of the Jews’ property at the ports, going so far as to tear apart clothes and smash toys in search of hidden jewels and cash. In most cases, the contrast between the Jews’ bourgeois lifestyle in Egypt and their hand-to-mouth refugee existence in Paris or other cities where they fled was a painful shock. But their sophisticated educations and multilingualism helped them adjust.
Aharoni, whose family traveled from Paris to Israel after leaving Egypt, related a telling story: Four busloads of new Egyptian immigrants to Israel were taken to the developing town of Yeruham, deep in the Negev Desert, where they were being settled by the Israeli government.
Wearing their hats, suits and ties, they looked out the bus windows at the “town” and, pointing to the rows of tents, asked, “Where are the houses?” Realizing that they were about to be abandoned in the desert, they refused to exit the buses.
For four hours, Aharoni recalled, they sat on the buses, insisting on being taken back to Tel Aviv, saying “we don’t need help from the government, we’ll find jobs ourselves,” until finally the drivers relented and turned around.
“So they went to the banks and universities,” Aharoni said. “They each spoke four or five languages. They got jobs. They were not about to live in tents.”
Aharoni’s brother, Edwin Diday of the University of Paris, recalled waving goodbye to his grandmother from a boat when he left Egypt as a child. In an interview at his vacation home in Haifa, he recounted his family’s arrival in France. “We lived in a room,” he said. “We had no light. We would light a lantern to see.
“The children in France teased me because I spoke with an Egyptian accent,” he said tearfully. “In Egypt, we were foreign because we were French. In France, I was foreign because I was Egyptian.”
There are multiple opinions about why the Egyptian Jewish political and social awakening has only been a recent phenomenon. Perhaps it is because the community was not politically savvy enough, or too full of pride, to push themselves to the forefront. Also, their problems might have seemed unimportant in the face of the devastation experienced by Holocaust survivors. Diday remembered transferring to a Jewish school at the age of 10 or 11. “In this Jewish school were children coming from the camps in Germany, without family,” he said. “Their needs were more important than mine…. They had numbers tattooed on their arms and I didn’t….”
Or perhaps the community was following the Arabic saying that “what has gone, is dead.”
According to Egyptian émigré Viviane Acker Levy, 62, of Westfield, New Jersey, the reason that the community has only recently begun recording their stories is simple. “Like anybody else, when you reach your fifties and sixties, you start reminiscing,” she said. “Especially with the Internet, things are more accessible. A lot of people renewed friendships. When you reach a certain age, you try to find your roots.”