Eyal Sagui Bisawe, a lecturer on the Egyptian film industry and maker of ‘Arabic movie’, has a bone to pick with the new schools curriculum in Israel. It now includes a module called ‘The expulsion of Egyptian Jewry’. His article in Haaretz is confused and confusing, but Bisawe’s objections seem to boil down to the following: Persecution should not define us. The Jews made contributions in so many fields worthy of note. Only a minority of Jews were actually expelled. They were not the only minority forced out. We should not use the terminology of others: Jews from Europe or Palestinians. See my comment below. (With thanks: Lily, Tom)
The Jewish-owned Cicurel department store was burnt by rioters in 1952.
I was recently pleased to learn that the Education Ministry has
decided, as part of efforts to redress a historical injustice, to
inaugurate a new curriculum to include 12 “essential concepts” on Jewish
communities from the Islamic world and further afield.
The curriculum implements the advice of a committee convened last year at the request of Education Minister Naftali Bennett
and headed by poet Erez Biton. The panel was tasked with crafting
recommendations on heightening the school curriculum’s attention to the
heritage of Sephardi and Eastern Jewish communities.
The concepts include general (even too general) attention to lots of
things, for example: Persian and Ethiopian Jewry, leading figures
including the late Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the 17th century
Yemenite poet Rabbi Shalom Shabazi, underground Zionist activity in
Iraq, disasters including the forced conversion of Persian Jews in the
city of Mashhad, the 19th-century Damascus blood libel, the death of
North African Jews in the Holocaust and the expulsion of Egyptian Jewry.
If the approach can be summed up, it’s that the Jews in Muslim
countries tended to matters in their own communities, wrote in Hebrew or
Judeo-Arabic, engaged in Zionist activity – and in their spare time
were persecuted. There’s no attention to Jewish involvement in national
or communist politics, literature in the local language or European
languages, the establishment of the Iraqi broadcast-authority orchestra,
the involvement of Jews in the Egyptian film industry, or the Jewish
involvement in the war in Algeria. Not that all these had to be the
basis for an “essential concept,” but at least one of them could have
Actually, you could conclude from the list of 12 concepts that the
only contact that Mizrahi Jews – Jews from the Middle East – had with
their local surroundings came in the form of the next pogrom. The theme
is clear. After all, there’s nothing like some good trauma to bring us
all together around our memory of national tragedy, where we can put the
head of a Persian Jew on the shoulders of a Polish Jew and the head of a
German Jew on
n the shoulders of an Iraqi Jew, wailing together that the
shtetl is burning.
But is it possible in the same context to include “the expulsion of
Egyptian Jewry”? After all, not only did this not influence the lives of
Jews outside Egypt. It’s doubtful it can be viewed as an event that
affected the whole of the Egyptian Jewish community. In addition, like
the 1952 Cairo riots known as the Cairo fire, it’s difficult to state
that it was a clearly anti-Jewish event.
I can already sense the ire of Egyptian Jews as I type these lines.
After all, how is it that “one of our own” would deny the tragedy of the
expulsion and play down the trauma of so many people? Even in Egypt
they’re acknowledging the expulsion, expressing remorse and even making
documentaries and writing investigative pieces on the subject.
So in my defense, let me make things clear. Jews were indeed expelled
from Egypt. As far back as May 1948, when Israel declared its
independence, Jews suspected of Zionist or communist activity were put
in detention camps. Some of the detainees managed to gain their freedom
in the first few months, but those who remained in custody until July
1949 were expelled.
In 1956, following the Sinai Campaign, or at it’s known in Egypt, the
Tripartite Aggression (of Israel, Britain and France), the Egyptian
police resumed detention without trial of hundreds of the heads of
Jewish families, often without relatives knowing anything about the fate
of those taken away. The bank accounts of many were confiscated, their
businesses nationalized, their homes sealed, and many were forced to
sign declarations that they had voluntarily forfeited their property.
Many were also sent directly from transit camps to ships that took them
out of Egypt, never to return. Their passports were stamped “departure
without possible return.”
In addition, many of those who weren’t expelled were compelled in
other ways to leave, whether out of fear or because they wanted to be
with their relatives abroad, because they realized that Jews had no
future in Egypt, or because they were Zionists. For many Egyptian Jews,
it was impossible to remain even if they weren’t expelled. (…)
But when it comes to the expulsion of Egyptian Jewry, I haven’t found
even a single basic study, though I admit that, since I’m not a
historian, it’s entirely possible I’ve missed one. And in all the
studies I’m aware of about Egyptian Jewry, the expulsion doesn’t even
get an entire chapter.
The expulsion is noted in passing at the end of a book by Gudrun
Krämer on the Jewish community in Egypt between 1914 and 1952, as a
topic beyond the study’s purview. In the book “The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry,” Joel Beinin devotes just a few paragraphs to the topic, as do books by Shimon Shamir, Ruth Kimchi, Najat Abdulhaq and others.
In “The Jews of Egypt, 1920-1970,”
the historian Michael Laskier writes that from November 1956 to 1958,
between 23,000 and 25,000 Jews left the country. Laskier doesn’t claim
that all of them were expelled, but let’s take a worst-case scenario.
Even if 25,000 were expelled, of the 60,000 Jews that were in Egypt
after the first wave of aliyah following the establishment of Israel,
that would leave 35,000 not expelled. If it was clear policy to expel
Jews, why not expel them all?
In a new Hebrew-language book “The Five Long Minutes: The Jews of
Egypt, 1967-1970, the Arrests and Uprooting,” Cairo-born Ovadia
Yerushalmi writes about the conditions in which Egypt’s Jews lived
during the Six-Day War and the detention without trial of Jewish males,
“After the Sinai campaign the Egyptian government arrested several
hundred Jews and imprisoned them in detention camps without trial and
for no reason,” he writes. “Most of the Jews lost their livelihood. Many
of them were expelled for being British or French citizens, and others
had to leave due to the confiscation of their property. After the Sinai
Campaign, the feeling also changed among the young people who had to
remain in Egypt. They too understood that their future was outside
Egypt, and they planned to leave at a suitable time for them.”
There is so much in this paragraph. First, we learn from the book’s
title that even in the late ‘60s, there was still a Jewish community in
Egypt – tiny, but not expelled. Second, we learn that many of the Jews
arrested in 1956 were expelled, but not all of them or even a majority.
Third, there were Jews with British or French citizenship. Fourth, there
were young people who not only weren’t expelled but had to stay. They
would leave when it suited them.
Many Jews of Egyptian origin won’t be pleased to read this, to put it
mildly. Over the years, all they wanted was recognition of the trauma
of expulsion. Like me, they’ve sought their personal story in the
collective narrative, but as I see it, they’ve erred in describing their
experience using terminology from others’ experience.
So, for example, they’ve referred to the detention camps as
concentration camps and have spoken of their experiences as “the Nakba
of Jews from Arab countries,” using the Arabic word that refers to the
events during Israel’s War of Independence when Palestinians fled or
were expelled from the country.
In a 1990 book about the Egyptian Jewish community, there’s even an
incident called the Night of the Cinemas; it refers to the day Israel
declared independence, May 14, 1948. The book describes the killing of
hundreds of young Egyptian Jews on that day, but such an event never
“Last night was a second Kristallnacht, this time not in Berlin but
in the heart of serene Cairo!” the story’s female protagonist tells a
Holocaust survivor. After all, what’s the story of Jews from Arab
countries if it can’t be compared to the catastrophe of our brothers in
With all the cynicism in what I’m saying, there’s nothing in the
above description that justifies the arrests and act of expulsion, and I
certainly don’t play down the trauma that expellees from Egypt
underwent. In my own family, some were expelled and much of their
property was nationalized. But I’d like to hear these accounts in the
Egyptian Jews’ own words, without the terminology used by Jews from
Europe, or by Palestinians.
Writing history and teaching both carry responsibilities that go
beyond emotional identification. If that’s the broader context in which
school students will be learning about the “Expulsion of Jews from
Egypt,” so be it. But if you teach it in a way that isolates the Jewish
case from its general context, and again show them that in every
generation some rise up to consume us and the Holy One in Zion is the
one who saves us, don’t bother. Let’s leave matters with the pogroms in
Odessa and Kishinev, or just move on to the next tragedy.
My comment: It is casuistry to say that only 25, 000 Egyptian Jews were actually expelled out of 80,000. Throughout the 1960s, Egyptian Jews were given no choice: if they left the country, they could not return. The fact that a tiny community remained does not negate ‘constructive dismissal’. (Several thousand Algerian and Iraqi Jews also remained after the mass Jewish exodus). While there was generalised xenophobia in Egypt, it is not correct to say that other communities, not just Jews, were expelled. Those of Italian and Greek nationality were not expelled after Suez; only if they were Jewswere they issued with laissez-passers stamped ‘One way – no return’. And Egypt failed to honour its obligations to its native minorities when thousands of stateless and Egyptian Jews were also driven out. Naturally, though, non-Jewish Greeks, Italians, Armenians and Lebanese also felt unwanted and left. It is not correct to say that Jews outside Egypt were left unscarred by the expulsion – many died soon afterwards and some never recovered from the shock. While they should never be exaggerated, persecution and pogroms should not define Jews from the Europe of Mendelssohn, of Rosa Luxemburg, Marx and Kafka.