Bigio case emblematic of Jewish dispossession

Ron Grossman’s article in the Chicago Tribune tries to place one Egyptian-Jewish family’s struggle for restitution in the context of the dispossession of almost one million Sephardi refugees:

“A little-noticed U.S. Supreme Court decision has reopened a forgotten chapter in Middle East history with far-reaching implications for the torturous, often violent politics of the region.

“The court recently declined Coca-Cola Co.’s request to review a lower court’s decision allowing a Canadian Jewish family to sue the soft-drink giant for trespass. The case was brought by the heirs of Joshias Bigio, a businessman in Egypt until its government expropriated his enterprises in the 1960s.

“Thirty years later, Bigio’s son, Refael, discovered that Coke was using one of his father’s factories as part of its Egyptian bottling operations and asked for compensation. When that was not forthcoming, he filed a lawsuit — Bigio vs. The Coca-Cola Co. — in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

“The Bigios, who eventually settled in Canada, are Sephardim — Jews whose ancestors lived in Muslim countries for centuries before fleeing a wave of anti-Semitic violence and intimidation that began at the founding of Israel in 1948. Many had to abandon homes, businesses and life savings. The Bigio family hung on longer, heavily invested in factories and other enterprises, hoping to weather the storm.

“You had to leave with only 5 Egyptian pounds per person,” said Refael Bigio. “Our family wound up eating in a soup kitchen in France.”

Now some Jewish organizations see the Bigios’ lawsuit as a way to get the Sephardim case into the court of public opinion.

“Why is it that the issue of Palestinian refugees is always talked about and the issue of Jewish refugees isn’t?” asked Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America.

“Klein’s group is calling for a boycott of Coca-Cola products until the company settles accounts with the Bigio family. Klein says the ZOA, the nation’s oldest pro-Israel group that claims a membership of 30,000, will picket a meeting of Coke shareholders Wednesday in Wilmington, Del.

“The Egyptian government’s actions were part of a campaign of anti-Semitic discrimination and persecution that caused almost a million Jews in Arab/Islamic countries, like the Bigios, to lose their homes, properties, businesses and livelihoods,” the group said in calling for the Coke boycott.

“The Bigios and other Sephardim are the counterparts of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who fled their homes during the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967. Refael Bigio still has a document designating his mother, Bahia, as a refugee according to the United Nations’ criteria. The plight of displaced Palestinians, many still living in refugee camps in nearby countries as well as in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, is well known. Acknowledging their “right of return” has consistently been a precondition of the Arab powers to negotiating a peace treaty with Israel.

“But the story of the Sephardic exodus from Arab lands has gone virtually unnoticed even by many American Jews, the vast majority of whom are of European, not Sephardic, origin.

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