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Book review: Egyptian Jews and the Zionist movement in Egypt

Mahmoud El-Wardani , Friday 6 Apr 2018
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Al-Yahood Al-Misryoon wa Al-Haraka Al-Suhyuniyya (“Egyptian Jews and the Zionist Movement”), by Awatef Abdel-Rahman, Cair: Dar Al-Hilal – Al-Hilal book series, 2017. pp. 256.

Abdel-Rahman’s book is effectively two different but related books; the first and second chapters tackle the historical beginnings of the Zionist presence in Egypt, while the next two chapters deal with Nasser’s confrontations with Israel then with Egyptian-Israeli relations during the rule of Sadat and Mubarak.

The book concludes with an especially important chapter concerning normalisation between Egypt and Israel.

The book’s author is the journalism and research methodologies professor at the Faculty of Mass Communication at Cairo University. 

She has published a number of academic works about Zionist journalism in Egypt and the political and cultural role played by the Egyptian Jews in modern history. This epistemological field is her main area of study, and she has had a major influence within it.

This work relies on the author’s research and books over the past nearly forty years of her academic career.

The book points to the world Zionist movement’s infiltration of Egypt to serve its expansionist strategy in Palestine and the Arab world. According to the book, this infiltration has not stopped since Theodor Herzl visited Egypt in 1903 to discuss the Jewish settlements with the Egyptian Jewish community.

The visit resulted in the foundation of the Ben-Zion Society, which succeeded in recruiting a large number of the Alexandrian Jews, according to the book. The author argues that its activity extended after the influx of thousands of Jewish refugees to Palestine and Syria until the Ottoman governor issued a decree forbidding Zionist activity.  

So, from that moment onwards, the incessant Zionist infiltration of Egypt was employed in order to facilitate Jewish immigration to Palestine, the book says.

The author goes back to the period after the Balfour Declaration was issued in 1917, when Jewish capitalists played a decisive role in providing everything related to founding the so-called national homeland for the Jews in Palestine.

This role increased and expanded in the post-World War I era, which was represented in establishing Zionist youth organisations, Abdel-Rahman says.

The year 1918 witnessed the setting-up of the first branch of the World Zionist Organisation and a branch of the Jewish National Fund, which in its turn opened small branches in different governorates.

Abdel-Rahman says that the Fund and its branches used to collect donations from Egyptian Jews to buy land in Palestine, and also formed the Egyptian Society for the Friends of Hebrew Culture among the community members.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Jewish associations benefited from combating fascism, and were even able to attract some Egyptian big names in literature and intellectual figures, including Taha Hussein, who founded the magazine Al-Katib Al-Misri (The Egyptian Writer) financed by the Jewish Harari family.

Despite all this, the leftist groups, especially those formed by Egyptian Jews, took the initiative in 1947 and formed the Anti-Zionist Israelite League and were keen on highlighting the radical differences between these groups and Zionism and their reasons for being hostile towards it.

What’s surprising is that while the security bodies permitted the Zionist activity to expand and infiltrate, they arrested the Egyptian members of the Anti-Zionist Israelite League.

Here, Abdel-Rahman asserts that if the Egyptian authorities, especially the security bodies which were in the hands of the British occupation at the time, hadn’t faciliated the Zionist activity, the infiltration would not have been as successful.

This historical retelling comprises about half of the book’s pages; then she moves to what she calls the second part of the Zionist infiltration.

President Sadat quickly responded to pressure from Israel and the US after the 1973 war and visited Jerusalem. Official Egypt had therefore exited the conflict with nothing in return. He also signed the Camp David Accords in which Egypt acknowledged Israel and reduced its sovereignty over the Sinai Peninsula. 

The period of Mubarak’s rule between 1981 and 2011 witnessed a stage of cold peace, in which Egyptian-Israeli relations didn’t witness any warmth because of the Egyptian people’s and the intellectuals’ fierce resistance.

Finally, Abdel-Rahman ends her book with a chapter of special significance about the attempts to impose normalisation, whether through the state or its different bodies, and the role played by popular organisations and parties against these attempts over the decades of the cold peace.

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