Forty years have passed since the signing of the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty but the Egyptian government has made no progress in meeting the property claims of Egyptian Jews. Lyn Julius explains the situation, in this extract from her book Uprooted: How 3000 years of Jewish civilisation in the Arab World Vanished Overnight.
The 1979 Camp David Treaty declared:
‘Egypt and Israel will work with each other and with other interested parties
to establish agreed procedures for a prompt implementation of the resolution of
the refugee problem’, without specifying if the refugees were Jewish or Arab.
Under Article VIII of the Treaty, the two sides agreed to establish a Claims
Commission for the mutual return of financial claims. But the Claims Commission
was never established.
In 1980, an Egyptian Jew, Shlomo
Kohen-Tsidon, wrote to Menahem Begin suggesting that, in the absence of a
Claims Commission, the state of Israel was now responsible for meeting
Egyptian-Jewish compensation claims. But Kohen-Tsidon’s interpretation was
rejected by Israel’s foreign ministry.
Why was the Claims Commission never
established? Egypt has never pressed for it. The Egyptians initially realised
that Israeli claims could leave Egypt ‘stripped bare’, as one Israeli source
put it. Israel, for its part, feared that Egypt
might file a massive claim for oil pumped from the Abu Rudeis fields in western
Sinai between 1967 and 1975. In anticipation, Egyptian Jews formally asked the
Israeli government in 1975 not to return the oilfields without claiming
compensation for Jewish property claims.Israel
did not do so, and the Organization of Jews from Egypt sued the state of Israel
before the High Court of Justice in September 1975. They lost the case,
however: the Attorney-General Gabriel Bach concluded that it was too late. The
agreement returning Abu Rudeis to Egypt had just been signed.
Levana Zamir, then head of the
Israel-Egypt Friendship Association, argued that the UN Charter on Wars between
countries stipulates that no natural resources need be returned in peacetime.
Therefore, the oil pumped by Israel from Abu Rudeis should not have been taken
The government of Israel produced a
variety of excuses for not pursuing Egyptian-Jewish claims. In the end they
claimed that, at the time their property was taken from the Jewish refugees,
they were not Israeli citizens. As one Egyptian Jew ruefully remarked, this
argument never stopped Israel from claiming from Germany on behalf of Holocaust
The late Israeli minister of Justice,
Yosef ‘Tommy’ Lapid, declared in 2003 that the failure to resolve
Egyptian-Jewish claims was a severe omission by Israel – and its reticence on
the question of Jewish refugees ‘one of the greatest blunders in the state’s
history’.Meanwhile, Justice for Jews from Arab
Countries has given a renewed impetus to the collection of claims, although
they now declare recognition of refugee rights, not redress, is their top
The Cecil Hotelis the only known
example of property restituted to its Jewish owners. In 1956, the Jewish owners
of Cecil Hotel in Alexandria were expelled from Egypt. They left with one
suitcase. Nationalised five years before the family was expelled, the
eighty-six-room hotel was resold to Egypt after its return.39 In its heyday the Cecil hosted such figures as Winston
Churchill and Al Capone. In 1996, an Egyptian court ruled that the hotel should
be returned to its owners, but the ruling wasn’t implemented for fear it would
establish a precedent for the restitution of nationalised Jewish property.
After a fifty-year struggle, the
Egyptian government agreed to compensate the Metzgers. The hotel’s owner,
Albert Metzger, died in Tanzania in the 1960s and his son Chris continued the
struggle to recover the hotel. In 1996, the Egyptian Supreme Court in Cairo
ruled that the hotel and all revenues accruing over the years belong to the
Metzgers. But only in June 2007 did the Egyptian government propose a deal
whereby the government would agree to implement the court ruling but would
immediately buy back the hotel from the Metzgers.
Now living in Canada, theBigio familyhave been engaged in a long- running battle for justice against the giant
multinational corporation Coca- Cola. The Bigios are among the many Egyptian
Jews from whom the Egyptian authorities under Nasser’s ‘Arab socialist’ regime
expropriated and nationalised land and property. In November 1961, the Beirut
the text of a Nasser decree, which stated that ‘all Jews included in the list
of sequestrations are deprived of their civic rights and cannot serve as
guardians, caretakers or proxies in any business association or club’.
After Nasser’s regime expropriated the
Bigios’ Heliopolis plants, producing Coca-Cola under licence and bottle caps,
the family fled Egypt and the UN classified them as refugees. They made their
way to France, where they were granted asylum. Determined to obtain
compensation for the family’s assets, the Bigios undertook several trips to
Egypt. In 1979, the Egyptian government finally issued an official decree
returning their real estate assets. But when the time came to
The Bigio family, fighting for restitution of their
bottling plant in Egypt (Wikimedia Commons)
assets, a state-owned insurance company, which was holding the property, refused
to return them. The Bigios took their legal fight to the US
when they learnt that their assets had been acquired by Coca-Cola
International. In 2011, in the US federal court, the Bigio family lost their
case for justice against the Coca-Cola Company: the latter had managed to avoid
presenting detailed factual evidence of their direct involvement in the
acquisition of the Bigio family’s real estate assets and factories. Instead,
the US court, upholding (together with the Egyptian government) the family’s
right to compensation, pointed to the liability of a subsidiary of Coca-Cola.
For its part, Egypt has reacted with
paranoia to Jewish property claims. Media hysteria caused a roots trip fromIsraelto be cancelled in 2008on the grounds that
elderly Egyptian-born Jewish tourists were coming back to reclaim their
property. From time to time, the press scaremongers about ‘Jewish documents’44 which it alleges Jews are attempting to steal and
smuggle out of the country to support their claims for property restitution.
But the vultures – unscrupulous lawyers and property developers – are circling:
the Jewish community has untold assets in real estate. Its synagogues may be
crumbling but they stand on prime property in Cairo and Alexandria. The
sprawling Bassatine cemetery, where community leader Carmen Weinstein was
buried and which she fought to salvage from squatters and vandals, used to be
on the outskirts of Cairo; now it occupies precious acreage virtually in the
centre. Then there are the thousands of homes and businesses seized from or
abandoned by Egypt’s 80,000 Jews in their mass exodus. Egypt’s worst nightmare
is that the Jews should return and claim it all back.In
the meantime, property deeds are being forged and false ownership claims made.
In an ironic reversal of roles, an
Egyptian bank is even suing the Israeli government for the return of shares in
the King David Hotel, Jerusalem.
Cheque from the Palestine Hotels Ltd account with
Banque Mosseri. Egyptian Jews held shares in hotels such as the King David in Jerusalem.
The Jewish-run Bank Zilkha, which held
1,000 shares in the hotel, was taken over by the huge Egyptian Banque Misr.
Clearly, the sums owed to Banque Misr would be dwarfed if the Israeli
Administrator General were to sue for the billions owed to Jewish refugees from