The President of the Alexandria Jewish Community, Youssef Ben Gaon, has died after a long illness. A question mark hangs over the fate of the Jewish property which Mr Gaon administered.
Ben Youssef Gaon, who died earlier this month, was the last Jewish man in Alexandria (There are several widows or women married to Muslims, but they do not consider themselves part of the community).
As the president of the Jewish community in the city, he was said to control swathes of property, including synagogues, cemeteries and commercial and residential properties, all administered by a large team of Egyptians. A question mark hangs over the future of this property, much of it donated by Jews fleeing after the Suez crisis. Will it go to the Egyptian state?
Even during Ben Gaon’s lifetime, real control was said to have passed to an agent of the Egyptian state, the doorman of the Nebi Daniel synagogue, Abdel Nabi.
In his latter years Ben Gaon argued for urgent repairs to be carried out to Alexandria’s Nebi Daniel synagogue, the largest in the Middle East. The Egyptian government undertook the synagogue’s restoration at a cost of $4 million. The synagogue was re-inaugurated with great fanfare in December 2019. Egyptian Jews held their own inauguration in February 2020.
Ben Gaon was alleged to have converted to Islam, something required on marriage to a Muslim woman in Egypt. However, he divorced her and produced documentation affirming his Jewish faith. He was the nephew of Nessim Gaon, the Sudanese businessman and philanthropist who now lives in Switzerland.
As organisations worldwide prepare to mark 30 November, the date designated to commemorate the exodus of almost a million Jews from Arab countries and Iran, a London event will focus on the expulsion of 25,000 Jews in the wake of the Suez crisis, whose 65th anniversary falls this year. Lyn Julius writes in the Jewish News (Times of Israel blogs):
On 29 October 1956, Lilian Abda was swimming in the Suez Canal when Egyptian soldiers arrested her. Abda was charged with trying to relay information to the enemy. ‘I was brought in my bathing suit to the police station,’ she recalls. ‘The next day they expelled me and my entire family from the country.’
Sixty-five years ago this autumn, Lilian Abda was one of 25,000 Jews kicked out by president Nasser following the Suez crisis. Nasser took his revenge on the 60,000 Jews –a quarter had already fled after 1948 – because Israel had colluded with Britain and France to invade the Sinai peninsula in an effort to stop terrorist raids into its territory.
Invoking emergency laws, Nasser set about expelling British and French subjects including Jews. They were expelled in two waves: the first were given 24 hours to leave. The second were ordered to leave the country within two to seven days with their families. The authorities then branded all Jews as Zionists, arrested them at random and interned them.
Edna Anzarut-Turner, who had a British passport, still has nightmares about her expulsion. Each member of the family was allowed one blanket, one suitcase and one Pound. Her cousin Myra and fiancé Benny were interned and taken in handcuffs from the “criminal Zionist” prison camp of Moascar, near Aboukir, to be married at the Nebi Daniel Synagogue in Alexandria. The rabbi refused to officiate until their handcuffs were removed. A huge argument ensued with the Arab guards. The handcuffs were taken off only during the wedding ceremony ; and Myra and Benny were driven to a ship leaving Egypt.
British and French nationals were not the only ones to be expelled. Clement Soffer recalls: “I was expelled at 24 hours’ notice at the age of 15, forced to give up my Egyptian nationality, falsely accused of being a spy for Israel, put on a plane with $5 in my pocket. They gave me a document stamped “Dangerous to Public Security” and told me that I could never return. I was not allowed to see my family.”
One day in December 1956, a knock on their front door in Heliopolis, Cairo, disturbed the Simsolo household. “Two military officers and two policemen asked my father to follow them,”says Gilbert Simsolo . “For three weeks we heard nothing from my father and did not even know where he was detained. My mother finally found him in a military camp near Cairo. We were advised that he would be released only if he travelled abroad. A few weeks later, we joined my father on a ship sailing to Italy, with no leave to return to Egypt. “
Stories of the ‘Second Exodus’ , as it is known, will be recalled on 30 November, the day designated in Israel to mark the flight, within 30 years, of almost a million Jews from Arab countries and Iran. My organisation Harif, JW3 and Sephardi Voices UK, will be focusing on the post-Suez expulsion. But we will also be celebrating the fact that most refugees found refuge in Israel; the rest were welcomed in the West. Almost no Jews regret their departure, however traumatic, from states where tolerance of the Other is not taken for granted.
It is more important than ever to record the experiences of Jewish refugees from Arab countries because history is being re-written to blame the Jews for their own exit or to downplay their suffering. A case in point is the amateur historian Dr Mohamed Aboulghar, whose revisionist history of the Jews of Egypt is apparently selling like hotcakes.
It is not enough to fight for justice, we must fight for truth, too.
Finding herself during Lockdown with time on her hands, Viviane Bowell (née Chouchan) decided to write a memoir. To Egypt with love is the result, a nostalgic look at the country of her birth. She left Egypt aged 14, her family a victim of Nasser’s post-Suez expulsion of Jews. Here is an extract from a longer piece on the website of the Historical Society of Jews from Egypt, describing the experience of the family’s uprooting to a hostel in Gloucestershire:
Life as we knew it came to a sudden and abrupt end in November 1956, following the Suez crisis. Nasser had declared all Jews enemies of the State and, as such, they were subject to expulsion from Egypt, along with British and French citizens. Soldiers with rifles knocked on our door one evening and delivered the fateful order. It was very frightening and a shock, even though we had been expecting this. I think my father had always hoped against hope that things would get better. How do you suddenly leave the country you were born in, everything you know and own, wondering if you will ever see your family again?
Although stateless, my father was allowed to travel with us. My parents were forced to sign a supposedly ‘voluntary’ form renouncing all claims, property and citizenship in Egypt. The declaration stated that they were ‘donating’ all their property to the Egyptian government. Upon leaving, my mother’s passport and my father’s laissez-passer were stamped with the words ‘ONE WAY NO RETURN’. My father’s ‘laissez-passer’ had the words ‘Apatride’ (stateless) stamped in large letters across one of the pages. I came across this document while I was clearing up his things after he had passed away. It was a stark reminder of my father’s status, or lack of it.
We were given two weeks to leave and only allowed to take clothes with us – a suitcase of maximum 20 kilos for each of us and twenty Egyptian pounds in total for the whole family, worth just under twenty British pounds at the time. No other money, jewellery or anything of value. If we were searched at the airport, these would have been confiscated or worse. Thankfully, we left Egypt unharmed. We had eyed the servants nervously, wondering whether they would turn on us. They and all the local people around us remained very courteous and loyal to the end. They seemed sympathetic to our plight and were upset that we were leaving. On the morning of our departure, they all lined up to say goodbye. Everyone was crying and it was very emotional.
The ride to the airport was sad and even the children understood the sheer magnitude of the moment. At the airport, we had to open all our suitcases for inspection. We knew there was nothing valuable inside them, but it was still a tense moment. Finally, we boarded and the plane took off. My parents must have felt overwhelmed or perhaps it was difficult to take in what was happening. There must have been so many mixed emotions – relief that we had left unharmed and were safe, anxiety about the future and sadness at being uprooted.
We left on 10 December 1956 on a KLM flight which stopped to refuel in Athens. We then flew to Sofia in Bulgaria and then on to Amsterdam, where we spent the night. The next morning we took a plane bound for England and landed in Heathrow on a cold and grey December morning. We were met by a government official, put on a bus and taken straightaway to what was to be our home for the next three months. We had no idea where we were going, but found out later it was Bridgend hostel in Stonehouse in Gloucestershire. It had been previously used during World War II, but not since then. The hostel consisted of pre-fabricated rows of pavilions and each family had their own accommodation. Our rooms were in blocks of eight with two toilets, a bathroom and a kitchenette where you could make yourself a coffee or tea. We had one room for my parents and one room for us girls, with a wardrobe.
There was a big building at the end of the compound, where the dining room was situated. It was more like a canteen and this is where we had our breakfast, lunch and dinner. The meals were adequate, but we found it difficult, as it was food we did not know and were not used to. There was also a TV room with a television set – something we had never seen before – and a games room with table tennis. We did not mix with the other children in the hostel and rarely went to the main building. I think they mixed more; perhaps they had belonged to the same community in Egypt, but for some reason we stayed apart from all the activities.
Breakfast consisted of cornflakes or a cooked one. We had never had cereal before and it tasted strange, more like cardboard. The thought of having something cooked for breakfast was totally alien to us, so we didn’t eat much. It was the same for lunch and dinner, the food was there but it was nothing like what we were used to. We couldn’t stomach the pork sausages, baked beans or boiled cabbage that were on offer on a daily basis and we were hungry most of the time. Nor were we used to drinking tea or instant coffee – in Egypt, tea would have been for medicinal purposes like chamomile and the coffee had been cafe au lait, with lots of milk. In the end, my mother bought some dried pasta and a tube of tomato purée from a local shop, which she managed to prepare on a tiny cooker we had in the room.
We were sent to school, my younger sisters to the local primary and me to the secondary school. To get there, we had to go through muddy fields in the middle of winter. My younger sisters walked together, always hand in hand and I had to walk on my own, as my school was on a separate site. I hated my school and felt completely lost. Cairo had been familiar and safe, and I had been used to the busy streets, the noise and the traffic. The hostel in Bridgend was not far from the school in nearby Stonehouse but, like my sisters, I had to walk through quiet fields and small lanes to get there. What’s more, it was the middle of winter and I was not used to the freezing cold. Once at school, it was another struggle as I didn’t understand a word of what was being said.
The hostel was full of refugees from Egypt like us. There were many Maltese families and other people we had never come across in Cairo. Under normal circumstances, we would not have had much in common with them, but these were different times. We had all experienced the trauma of having to leave Egypt very suddenly and the future was uncertain. We were also trying to cope with the cold weather and a different culture and language. My parents must have been scared and worried, but they never showed it in front of us.
As my father had worked for a British company in Cairo, he was offered a job in their Head Office in London, albeit a much lower position. We left the hostel in spring 1957 to start our new life in London.
While many observers are in uproar about Jewish owners reclaiming their property in Sheikh Jarrah (Shimon Hatsaddik in Jerusalem), all avenues leading to restitution for Jews in Arab countries are closed. Lyn Julius writes in JNS News:
The Cecil Hotel in Alexandria: only example of restitution to its Jewish owners
If you believe most Western media, it all started with Sheikh Jarrah: the neighborhood in Jerusalem that has become the symbol of the “injustice” to Palestinian residents under threat of eviction. The matter has been misrepresented as a bigoted attempt by Israel to evict “hundreds” of Palestinians by Jewish “settlers.”
In fact, it is a long-running private dispute between Jewish landlords and Arab tenants. The tenants are at risk of eviction for not paying the rent.
A mirror image of the Sheikh Jarrah case occurred in Iraq recently. There, a tenant in Baghdad, fearing his home would be bulldozed, appealed to the Jewish owners of the land, now living in Canada, to sue a developer who had falsified the ownership deeds.
But even if they had won a legal case, the Jewish owners would not be able to claim back their property, since they had been de-nationalized—stripped of their rights when they fled the country.
While discussions can take place where Israel has the power, Jonathan Spyer, writing in The Jerusalem Post,points out a fundamental asymmetry: All avenues leading to restitution of Jewish property seized in Arab countries are closed. “Might is right” in dictatorships that persecuted Jewish citizens, scapegoated as Zionists. For Jews, even to entertain the idea of reclaiming their property is considered ludicrous.
Billions of dollars’ worth of property has been seized from Jews evicted from Arab countries. (Some Jews expelled from Egypt after the Suez crisis, British and French citizens, received some compensation from the U.K. and France, but the vast majority got nothing.)
There has only been one example of property restituted to its Jewish owners, the Metzgers—the Cecil Hotel in Alexandria. An Egyptian court ruled in 1996 that the hotel should be restituted to Albert Metzger, but the ruling was not implemented for fear that it would establish a precedent for the restitution of nationalized Jewish property.
It was only in 2007 that the Egyptian government proposed a deal whereby it would implement the ruling, but would immediately buy back the hotel from the Metzgers.
When a Property Claims Commission was set up in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq to deal with claims by Iraqis stripped of their property, the timeline was set at 1968, the year when the Ba’ath regime took power. This excluded the vast majority of potential claimants—the 130,000 Jews who left in 1950-51.
A Claims Commission was due to have been implemented under the terms of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. But it was never established.
Jerusalem is an exception. When the city came under Israeli jurisdiction after 1967, Jews evicted by the Jordanians in 1948 were presented with the opportunity to recover their properties in the Old City and eastern Jerusalem.
A 1970 lawenables Jewish owners to sue for restitution. But there is one important caveat: The law protects tenants who pay rent. In the Sheikh Jarrah case, they refuse to do so.
In Israel itself, a partial exchange of property occurred: Jewish refugees from Arab lands were resettled in abandoned Palestinian homes and villages. Conversely, Palestinians were re-housed in Jewish quarters, social clubs, schools and synagogues in Iraq, Libya, Lebanon and Syria.
The thorny issue of property claims for refugees on both sides awaits a comprehensive peace settlement. The fairest solution might be compensation, rather than restitution. But in light of recent events, that prospect seems some way off.
and here, it misleads on the ethnic cleansing of Jews whose numbers have reduced from 80 -100,000 to fewer than 10, and vaguely blames ‘wars and politics’. In fact, Egyptian Jews were victims of state-sanctioned antisemitism. (With thanks: Tarek)
Egypt is now witnessing what may appear in the eyes of some to a change in the nature of the relationship between the Jews and Egypt, in which tens of thousands of them lived in the first half of the twentieth century before politics and wars interfered and spoiled their lives.
Alex and Jack March, following in the footsteps of their grandfather
This change prompted the numbers of Egyptian Jews who left nearly 70 years ago and their families to return – albeit at least to visit – the motherland.
Among them are descendants of Egyptian Jews visiting Egypt for the first time.
The two Australian brothers, Alex and Jack, went to Egypt for the first time early this year to visit the home of their Egyptian Jewish grandfather, Nissim March, whose family left the country and left after the flare-up of the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948 and none of them ever returned since then.
The March brothers say that they have long heard about Egypt and about Alexandria, in which their grandfather founded a house whose name is still engraved on it until now. Therefore, the visit was postponed until the opening of the “Eliyahu Hanabi” temple on Prophet Daniel Street in central Alexandria after the restoration.
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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Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries
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