The sudden death of Dr Esther Webman has been announced in Tel Aviv.
Egyptian-born Dr. Esther Webman was a senior research fellow at the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Antisemitism and Racism in Tel Aviv University. She was the Principal Investigator for the Program for the Study of Jews in the Middle East and the author, with Meir Litvak, of From Empathy to Denial: Arab responses to the Holocaust.
David Hirsh, lecturer in sociology at Goldsmith’s College, writes:
“Esti was a friend, and a scholar of antisemitism. She was a core colleague in the European Sociological Association Research Network 31 on Ethnic Relations, Racism and Antisemitism, and had given papers at a number of its meetings and conferences over the years.
Esti was a Tel Avivian and an Israeli. She had been born in Egypt and was fluent in Arabic. She was driven out of Egypt with her family, when she was a child, because she was Jewish.
Her work focused on antisemitism in ‘the Arab World’ and Islamist antisemitism. She wrote, with Meir Litvak, ‘From Empathy to Denial: Arab Responses to the Holocaust’ as well as many other articles and papers on related topics.
She worked at the Kantor Centre at Tel Aviv University.
In 1968, in the period following the Six Day War, Esti was the highest ranking woman in Israel intelligence, she told me. She was a pioneer, a glass-ceiling breaker of great courage.”
Levana Zamir, president of the Association of Jews from Egypt in Israel, was one of the participants in a message broadcast by the Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, on the occasion of the state’s 72nd independence celebration.
The president and all the participants wished the country a very Happy Independence Day.’We have no other country’, he said.
Then a 10-year-old child, Mrs Zamir said she could not forget the great joy her family felt on the day of the UN vote on Partition in November 1947. Her father was listening in secret to the radio and the family brimmed with excitement as the votes were announced: Yes -No-Yes-Yes. But as soon as the vote was passed, no Jew could utter the world Israel: their lips were sealed – until they were thrown out of Egypt.
She recalled her enormous excitement on seeing the IDF Independence Day parade, in which women soldiers marched.
When he was growing up, lecturer Haim Netanel took very little interest in his Egyptian roots. Now he is on a journey to rediscover them. Interesting piece in Israel Hayom: ((With thanks: Lily, Boruch, Imre)
“I knew my parents were from Egypt, but I didn’t take pride in it, or hide it. We adhered to ‘Israeli-ness.’ When my father arrived in Israel, he was very successful financially. At the age of 25, he owned an apartment in north Tel Aviv. He integrated immediately into the Ashkenazi bureaucracy that ruled the country. His boss was from Austria, and they’d speak French to each other.
“The Egyptian-ness stayed at home on my mother’s side, too: Arabic movies on TV, and the food. But outside, we were all Israelis. They left Egypt boxed up, within the family. When my dad would listen to [the singer] Umm Kulthum on the radio I’d say, ‘Turn off that wailing.’ It wasn’t Israeli. Later on, after he died, when I fell in love with the subject of Egypt, I was in the car and put on a CD of ‘Enta Omri,‘ [one of Umm Kulthum’s best-known songs], and I started singing in Arabic and I connected to the music. I imagined my father smiling in victory and saying, ‘Wailing, huh?’ The circle was closed as far as I was concerned.
Haim Netanel (Yossi Zeliger)
When his father, Ezra Netanel Wahaba, died 12 years ago, Haim set out on a journey to research the history of the Jewish community in Egypt, both in the Land of the Nile and in Israel. He published his work in his book, Am I an Egyptian?
“I was curious to know where the Egyptian Jews came from, what their lives were like, how they put down roots here in Israel.
Stories about Egypt always interested me, even though I got them in bits and pieces. My mother is still alive. I heard stories from her, too, as well as from uncles and aunts on her side and my father’s side. My dad made aliyah in 1949, when the country was a year old and King Farouk still ruled Egypt,” he says.
“That was a different kind of ‘Exodus’ that what my mother’s family experienced. They left in January 1957, two months after Operation Kadesh, under [Gamal Abdel] Nasser. The position of Jews in Egypt was getting worse. In the public sphere, they were personally attacked, and Jewish shops were nationalized. Their possibilities of making a living were restricted and they felt that time was running out and they had to leave. Jews began to abandon Egypt.
My father and his family were harassed after the War of Independence, but under King Farouk the situation was much better. At that time, envoys of the Jewish Agency were in Egypt and they encouraged the Jews to make aliyah, so the family decided to.”
The story of Egyptian Jewry is different from that of most Jewish communities in Arab countries. It was not a community that could boast ancient roots, like those in Iraq, Syria, Morocco, or Tunisia.
“Egyptian Jewry was made up of immigrants,” Netanel explains. “Only a few of them had roots in Egypt that went back a few generations. Most arrived from different places: Syrian traders from Aleppo, who acclimated into Egyptian society very quickly because they spoke Arabic; Ashkenazi Jews from eastern Europe – there was an Ashkenazi synagogue in Cairo – there were Jews from all around the Mediterranean: Turkey, Greece, Italy, and France; and also Jews who had come from Aden in Yemen, which was a British colony, who were on their way to the Land of Israel and wound up staying a generation or two in Egypt.”
“There were differences not only between these groups, but between the Jewish communities in Cairo and Alexandria. The former, in its songs and customs, was much more similar to that which had arrived from Syria. The latter was mostly made up of Greek and Ashkenazi Jews. What united the community were its leaders. The community enjoyed total religious autonomy. Cultural life centered around the synagogue. In the Jewish neighborhoods of Cairo, there were synagogues for nearly every cultural group.
Each preserved its own heritage.There was something else that distinguished the Jews from the rest of the Egyptians: “When the British controlled Egypt and had control of people’s lifestyles, they allowed the Egyptians to settle the matter of citizenship. The Jews gave up Egyptian citizenship willingly. Most of them held citizenship in other countries and it wasn’t urgent for them to be Egyptian citizens, which would have required them to serve in the military and fulfill other obligations. They preferred to isolate themselves. Later on, when some of them sought citizenship, the Egyptians made it difficult for them. Even those who had been born in Egypt weren’t given Egyptian citizenship.”
“The initial refusal of citizenship was heavily exploited by the authorities later on. Nasser, in particular, used it. The attacks started with riots that targeted Jews during the War of Independence, and the Arabs’ defeat caused the Egyptians to feel immense anger toward their Jewish neighbors. Because the Jews weren’t citizens, anything could be done to them and they could always be portrayed as outsiders. They were called ‘Zionist,’ even though a lot of them weren’t.”
During her November whirlwind tour of the UK, Levana Zamir, head of the Coalition of organisations of Jews from Arab countries in Israel, was interviewed by Sandy Rashty for the Jewish Chronicle. Mrs Zamir used the occasion to reiterate her support for an International Fund to compensate Jewish and Arab refugees as a tool for peace.
An Egyptian-born Jewish activist has called for greater recognition of Jews from Arab countries, saying that compensation for those forced to flee their homes could help bring peace to the region.
Levana Zamir with her family on their recent visit to Egypt
Levana Zamir, who fled her home in Cairo in 1948 aged 10, is now working with Israeli authorities to increase international awareness of the issue.
“I have been working on this for 20 years, going to the Knesset and asking for recognition,” she said.
“And it’s not only me; we are all working together — the Iraqi Jews, the Syrian Jews, the Libyan and Yemenite. Now that we have recognition of [our story] in Israel and all over the world, now we want an international fund to be established for Arab and Jewish refugees.”
She added at first, the government of Israel did not want them to feel like refugees: “They did not want us to ask them for compensation. Even when Egypt and Israel had a peace agreement, Israel did not ask Egypt for our money. It says a lot.”
It was certainly one of the more unusual celebrations of the Jewish New Year: foreign diplomats and other distinguished guests gathered on 29 September in the Adly synagogue, Cairo, to hear ‘prayers’ led by Eden Goldberger, the wife of Thomas, the US Charge d’Affaires.
Mrs Eden Goldberger addressing distinguished guests at the Rosh Hashana celebration in the Adly synagogue, Cairo
The Jewish community in Cairo has not had formal services since the death in 2013 of Carmen Weinstein, former community president. Now led by Magda Haroun, it comprises just five elderly women.
This year, the event was all the more remarkable for the presence of one guest: Levana Zamir, president of the organisation representing Jews from Egypt in Israel, and the Israeli umbrella group representing associations of Jews from Arab and Muslim countries.
Levana Zamir was given a warm welcome as she attended the Adly synagogue with her daughter and grandchildren at the invitation of the Cairo Jewish Community and the Drop of Milk Association, which is currently cataloguing and restoring Jewish artefacts. She was also honoured with a tour of the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria, which is being repaired by the Egyptian authorities at a cost of $5.6 million.
Levana Zamir with Mr Abdel Nabi, General manager of the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue (left) and Roberto Marini, president of the Jewish Community of Alexandria.
In a sense, Levana Zamir’s visit represents a new beginning: Since taking over as head of Cairo’s Jews, Magda Haroun has vowed not to have any dealings with ‘Zionists’. Yet the two women were seen getting along famously.
Cairo-born Levana had not visited Egypt since 2008, when 45 Egyptian Jews from Israel were forced to cut short their ‘roots’ trip and cancel a conference after scaremongering by the Egyptian media that they were coming back to reclaim their property.
Since the signing of the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty, Levana Zamir had made nine trips to her country of birth.
Roughly half the Jews expelled from Egypt now live in Israel.
Levana Zamir with Cairo community leader Magda Haroun: getting along famously?
To see a video made by Keisar Zamir, Levana’s grandson, recording the highlights of their trip, click here
This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.
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