Point of No Return was asked by BBC Watch to comment on an article written by Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy in Al-Ahram. The article was recommended on Twitter by a BBC producer, Hugh Sykes.
Khaled Fahmy seems to be the Simon
Schama of Egyptian history – a smooth, western- educated history
professor at Cairo’s American University. Lately, he seems to be in much
demand in the Egyptian media, giving his two piastres-worth on Egypt’s
thorny Jewish question in Al-Ahram – approvingly Tweeted by BBC producer Hugh Sykes. But how objective a scholar is Fahmy, asks Point of No Return blog
– and has he broken with the Arab tradition where historians are
propaganda agents for the regime? PoNR’s comments are interspersed
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.
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.”
PoNR: True enough. Two thousand years of Jewish history in Egypt have been well-nigh erased from Egypt’s history books.
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.
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.”
PoNR: Not just
foreigners but greedy Egyptians have sought access to these title deeds.
Access even to communal documents – the state claims these as its
property – has been denied to the rightful Jewish owners, lest Jews use
them to try and recover or demand compensation for property lost –
that the Egyptians themselves have estimated worth $30 billion. Egypt is
terrified of disclosing historical records which would show the
scandalous scale and manner that its 80, 000 Jews were dispossessed and
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
PoNR: After 1948, the
penal code made Zionism a crime. The charge of disloyalty could be
leveled against any Jew. But talk of disloyalty is a bit rich, when as
early as the 1920s, Egypt was practicing a double standard on
citizenship. As a result of Egypt’s 1929 Nationality Law, more than 90%
of Egyptian Jews were denied citizenship, regardless of how many
generations they had lived in Egypt. In the 1940s, roughly one quarter
of Jews held foreign passports, less than one quarter held Egyptian
citizenship and the remainder were stateless.
“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?
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.
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.”
PoNR: Some Jews arrived
from Russia fleeing Tsarist pogroms but it is misleading to suggest
that the majority of 19th century immigrants came from Europe. Most
arrivals came from other parts of the Ottoman Empire – Greece, Turkey,
Syria, Iraq (where the Jews had lived 2,500 years). They were not in
search of the Dolce Vita, as Fahmy frivolously puts it, but moved to Egypt because the Suez Canal had opened new trading opportunities.
“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).
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.
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.”
PoNR: This is broadly true – and Fahmy should be given credit for saying so.
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.” “
PoNR: It is not worthy
of a historian to dredge up the 1954 Lavon affair – the stock propaganda
argument blaming the Zionists for the exodus of the Jews. The affair
was an embarrassment to Israel but had minimal impact and caused no
casualties. There is no causal relationship between the Lavon affair in
which three bombs failed to go off and Nasser’s expulsion of 25,000 Jews
two years later.
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
PoNR: Nasser did not
just target wealthy Jews, but all Jews. He didn’t just target French and
British passport-holders because of the Suez crisis. Even Jews of Greek
and Italian and Egyptian nationality were expropriated, sacked from
their jobs and forced out.
“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
PoNR: A nice story
which humanises Jews to Fahmy’s Egyptian readership – an all too rare
occurrence. Haroun was a member of a group of Jewish communists.
The fact that these were not Zionists but were forced out or prevented
from returning, along with the rest of the Jewish population, shows the
antisemitic nature of Nasser’s policy.
“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.”
PoNR: Copts were also
targeted by the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1940s. Elsewhere Fahmy says
that the Muslim Brotherhood had ‘more than a hand’. Here
he says that ‘much of responsibility’ for the Jewish exodus lay with
the Muslim Brotherhood. Fahmy seems to shift the blame between Israel,
the Muslim Brotherhood and Nasser depending on his audience or his mood.
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?”
PoNR: Where has Fahmy
been these last years? There has been a steady exodus of Copts over
decades. In the last two years, since the Arab Spring brought the
Islamists to power, the trickle has swelled to a flood – some 100, 000
are estimated to have left. Yes, it could well happen to Morcos.
In summary, Fahmy, who obviously has no
great love for the Muslim Brotherhood, should be given credit for trying
to correct some of the distortions which plague the way the exodus of
the Egyptian Jews is presented – but he still has some way to go before
he could be considered ‘objective’.