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.
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).
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.
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? Have these Jews been living in Egypt for many centuries or were they new arrivals? When did they leave Egypt and why? Where 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?