Tag: Jews of Egypt

President Herzog marks 30 November

A reception at the presidential residence on 30 November will have personal significance for Israel’s new President, Isaac Herzog. His mother Aura was a refugee from Egypt.

Invitation from President Isaac Herzog to the 30 November 2021 reception (Courtesy Levana Z.)

This year, Israel President Isaac Herzog will mark 30th November, the date designated to commemorate the exodus of 850,000 Jews from Arab lands and Iran with a reception, live-streamed to a global audience and hosted jointly with Merav Cohen, minister for Social Equality,  at the President’s residence in Jerusalem. After the formalities, organisations representing the different communities have been invited to join him for a tour of the residence, which was home to the President when his father Chaim Herzog was himself President.

The commemoration has a personal significance for President Isaac Herzog, as his mother Aura (nee Ambache) was a Jew from Egypt, born in Ismailia.  Her sister Suzy married the great diplomat Abba Eban. The President has often mentioned that his mother’s family had fled Egypt in 1948, leaving all their possessions behind.

The Ambache family was among 11,000 Ashkenazi Jews driven out from Palestine during World War I by the Ottoman Turks, mostly because they were identified with the Turkish enemy Russia. The Palestinian Jews found refuge in Egypt. They were helped to resettle by the local Sephardi community. They joined other Ashkenazi refugees fleeing the Tsarist pogroms at the turn of the 20th century. Egypt was the only Arab country to host a Jewish community composed of both Sephardim and Ashkenazim.

The forgotten refugees of 1917

Exodus commemoration is antidote to denial

Jews have rightfully welcomed the Abraham Accords, but enthusiasm must not be allowed to obscure the more unpleasant aspects of Jewish history in Arab countries, argues Lyn Julius in JNS News. That’s why commemorations like the 3o November  events are so essential:

The Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries: Panel 10
Young Jewish refugees in a ma’abara in Israel

Professor Mohamed Aboulghar is a busy man—an obstetrician, politician and amateur historian who has published two books on the Jews of Egypt. Apparently, they are selling like hotcakes. At a recent Zoom meeting, however, his assertion that few Jews had been driven out after the 1956 Suez crisis, and that the rest had left of their own free will, provoked outrage.

Some 25,000 Jews were forced out: Dozens of Egyptian Jews could testify to having been expelled at 24 hours’ notice, or interned for months and put on a ship leaving Egypt, their property sequestered without compensation.

As the saying goes, “denial is a river in Egypt”—but denial is not confined to the Arab world. Plenty of academics and opinion-makers in the West believe that Jews and Muslims coexisted peacefully before Israel was established. Executions in Iraq? Torture in Egyptian prisons? Deadly riots in Libya? If all this was not a figment of the Jewish imagination, they say, it was “understandable backlash” for which the Zionists are ultimately to blame. (The Farhud massacre in Iraq seven years before the establishment of Israel, and the Tritl in Fez, Morocco, in 1912, are harder to explain.)

Jews who look back to their idyllic childhoods in Arab countries have themselves contributed to Exodus denial. Their golden age only lasted as long as the colonial era in the Middle East and North Africa. Arab nationalism soon marginalized and oppressed minorities. Other Jews suppress negative memories because they suffer from a kind of dhimmi syndrome, a survival strategy developed more than 14 centuries of “coexistence” that entails silence and submission.

Jews have rightfully welcomed the Abraham Accords. But in our eagerness to embrace them, it is tempting to dwell solely on the positive points of connection between Isaac and Ishmael. Bridge-building, some think, entails glossing over unpleasant aspects of the past.

Organizations and Israeli embassies across the Jewish world are preparing to observe Nov. 30, the date designated by the Israeli Knesset to mark annually the departure and exodus of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran. It’s a necessary reminder that a healthy relationship ought to be grounded in an honest and balanced assessment of the past, not lies and revisionism.

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Alexandria ‘community’ president Ben Gaon dies

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.

Youssef Ben Gaon z”l

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.


Remembering the ‘Second Exodus’ on 30 November

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):

Jewish refugees boarding a ship out of Egypt

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.

To attend the 30 November memorial evening or watch online, see JW3 website or visit www.harif.org.

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Bringing back Claudia Roden’s past through food

The Cairo-born daughter of the Egyptian-Jewish Douek family, exiled after 1956, Claudia Roden has made her name as a writer of cookery books both scholarly and personal. Launching her latest book, Claudia Roden’s Mediterranean, she can be credited for having introduced Middle Eastern food to Britain. Major feature by Melissa Clark in The New York Times :

Claudia Roden preparing a spread in her London cottage

LONDON — If you’ve ever swiped a supple piece of pita bread through a plate of garlicky hummus and your family roots aren’t in the Middle East, you may have Claudia Roden to thank.

In 1968, in the modestly titled “A Book of Middle Eastern Food,” the 32-year-old Egyptian exile gave the non-Arabic-speaking world one of its first detailed looks at this rich cuisine. Through hundreds of traditional, comprehensive and carefully tested recipes, like herb-flecked Lebanese tabbouleh and Syrian lamb kibbe, she introduced western home cooks to the subtle, extensive art of Middle Eastern cooking.

Before her book, she could find no volume of recipes like this published in English or in any European language. If you wanted to make baba ghanouj, you might persuade a Turkish or Egyptian cook to share family secrets passed down through generations. But let’s face it, before 1968, if you were living in Britain, chances were good you’d never tasted baba ghanouj.

Over the course of her 50-year career, Ms. Roden, 85, has helped revolutionize the way the British cook and eat. She taught them how to blend cucumbers with yogurt and garlic into a creamy salad, how to simmer lentils with cumin to make a warming soup, and how to fold phyllo stuffed with cheese and herbs into flaky bite-size pastries.

Paul Levy, chairman emeritus of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, of which Ms. Roden was a founding member, said her scholarship on food was part of a growing cultural trend.

Along with culinary writers like Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and Sri Owen and even Julia Child, he said, she deepened the conversation around food to address questions of culture, context, history and identity.

Her dozen cookbooks, particularly “The Book of Jewish Food,” produced a genre of works that is at once literary and deeply researched while still being, at heart, practical manuals on how to make delicious meals.

When Ms. Roden started writing “A Book of Middle Eastern Food,” Ms. David had already published a handful of Middle Eastern recipes — notably, hummus bi tahina — in her far-ranging “A Book of Mediterranean Food in 1950. But it was Ms. Roden’s work that took on the entire cuisine of the Middle East in depth, in ways both scholarly and highly personal.

Yotam Ottolenghi, the chef, cookbook author and New York Times food columnist,credits Ms. Roden with laying the foundation for chefs like him.

“‘A Book of Middle Eastern Food’ has been around for so long it feels like prehistory,” he said, adding, “it was really revelatory for its time.”

Although it’s hard to imagine, in the midst of Britain’s current love affair with Middle Eastern flavors, that the cuisine was considered outlandish and unappealing in the 1960s. Ms. Roden’s book was all but ignored when it came out, on the heels of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, in which Britain supported Israel.

“At that moment, no one was interested in the food of the enemy culture,” said Ms. Roden, who identifies as a Sephardi/Mizrahi Jew (Mizrahi is the Israeli term for Jews from the Middle East and North Africa). “When the book came out, people would always ask me if all the recipes were for testicles and eyeballs.”

She worked on those two canonical books for a combined total of 25 years. But she wasn’t done. When her children grew up and left home, she left, too, traveling across the world to research her books “The Food of Italy,” “The Food of Spain” and “Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, & Lebanon.”

On these trips, she delighted in talking to anyone about food and culture: people on trains and buses, waiters in cafes and maids in hotels. She’d ask them what they liked to eat and if they had any recipes. Traveling alone, Ms. Roden had a knack for getting herself invited by strangers to try a local specialty, like the octopus-and-potato salad from the Greek island of Skopelos in her most recent cookbook.

“As I was walking by a family eating on their terrace, they invited me in to share their octopus salad and a bottle of wine,” she wrote. “It was heaven.”

Mr. Levy, of the Oxford Symposium, calls Ms. Roden a culinary anthropologist.

“She’s gone around and done what is the equivalent of field work, then dealt with it in a sophisticated, analytical way,” he said. “She’s a serious thinker.”

Of all her books, “Claudia Roden’s Mediterranean,” is the most poetic, the most lyrical (with photos by Susan Bell), and perhaps the one that most unites all of her many facets.

Containing 100 recipes and spare but warm prose, it has an intimacy that shows these are the dishes she’d cook if you came to her house, gathered from her lifelong travels. But instead of striving to faithfully record someone’s recipe, as she does in other books, she has taken the creative license to tweak them to suit herself. There’s an emphasis on vegetables and grains, and in many cases, simplified, streamlined techniques (and even an occasional one-pot meal).

The food writer Nigella Lawson, a friend of Ms. Roden since Ms. Lawson was 19, calls this book a distillation of Ms. Roden’s joyful, generous spirit. Reading it is like talking with her in her garden, Ms. Lawson said.

“All of a sudden, there are all these exquisite little plates in front of you, and she’s telling you to dip something in olive oil. And you have this sense of what it would be like at her house in Cairo, sitting on her terrace, watching the sunset.”

Which is, of course, exactly what Ms. Roden has set out to do.

“Writing this book was a way of bringing back my past,” Ms. Roden said as the light cast a warm glow over her garden, “and enjoying all of my memories.”

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