First Egyptian Jews’ Congress marks second exodus

One Jew was arrested while swimming in the Suez Canal after the 1956 crisis; the next day she and her entire family were expelled. Haaretz reports on the Congress of Egyptian Jews held in Haifa last week. (With thanks Lily, Albert)

Three hundred and twenty of the last Jews born in Egypt arrived from 15 countries last week to attend the first World Congress of Jews from Egypt that was held in Haifa 50 years after “the second exodus from Egypt.” Many of the participants reported having an unusually intense emotional experience: elderly women from Israel, Britain and Brazil who were in the same class at the English Mission school in Cairo’s Heliopolis neighborhood reconnected after more than 60 years, ate traditional Egyptian dishes, and sang the Ladino and French-Arabic chansons they used to sing when they were kids.

Amid all the excitement, a young Egyptian diplomat sent by the Egyptian embassy observed from the sidelines. He said he was very surprised to find that many of the Egyptian-born Jews do not even speak Arabic. The organizer and chairman of the congress, Prof. Ada Aharoni of Haifa, acknowledged that only recently did she start learning Arabic. “My parents didn’t want to speak Arabic at home,” she said. “It was not only due to snobbism, but also to protest the fact that we were treated as foreigners, and didn’t receive Egyptian citizenship.”

Aharoni’s family fled to France in 1949. Soon thereafter, her father died of a heart attack after hearing that the Egyptians had nationalized the family’s entire savings. “We never wanted to talk about our Nakba [catastrophe],” Aharoni said. “It seemed like a blow to our self-esteem.”

The congress devoted a session to personal recollections. Several participants spoke for the first time about the trauma of leaving. One of them was Lilian Abda, who lives in Haifa. Abda, a native of the city of Suez, talked about being arrested in 1956 by Egyptian soldiers, while she was swimming leisurely in the canal. Abda was charged with trying to relay information to Israeli forces advancing across the Sinai Peninsula. “I was brought in my bathing suit to the police station, and I was questioned until they extracted a confession from me,” she said. “The next day they expelled me and my entire family from the country. In the papers, they called me the Mata Hari of the canal.”

The process of eliminating the Jewish community in Egypt began after World War II, and lasted around 20 years. Of the 80,000 Jews who lived there in 1948, 34,000 immigrated to Israel and the rest went to France, Brazil, the United States, Australia, and Canada.

A recent survey of native-born Egyptians in Australia found that each one speaks an average of 4.5 languages, with no distinction between the wealthy and the poor. The survey’s author, Dr. Racheline Barda of the University of Sydney*, believes that knowledge of languages enabled the Egyptian natives to be easily absorbed in the West. But due to their successful integration, their Egyptian identity was lost and not transmitted to their children.

Barda’s research revealed the diverse ethnic mosaic from which the Egyptian community was comprised. Only 15 percent of the survey’s respondents were born to families that had lived in Egypt for several generations. Over 80 percent were children or grandchildren of immigrants who had arrived in Egypt following the economic boom created by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Half of the Jewish immigrants arrived in Egypt from across the Ottoman Empire, and the other half came from Europe. The overwhelming majority of the community underwent a secularization process in the 1930s. Inter-ethnic marriages were widespread. Professor Vivianne Schinasi-Silver of Toronto said that her grandparents had come to Egypt from Turkey, Lebanon, Russia and Spain.

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*For a copy of a 30-page paper given by Racheline Barda at Sydney university in April, please Email me

One Comment

  • I am Vivianne Schinasi-Silver’s cousin, and a professor of art history. I am interested in reading the rest of this article. Could you email it to me at [email protected]? Thank you, Nancy Locke


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