Egyptian Jews fight to reclaim seized property

In 1948, 100,000 Jews lives in Egypt; today, only 20 to 100 are estimated to remain.

egypt 88 (photo credit: )
egypt 88
(photo credit: )
An organization representing Egyptian Jews is seeking to increase awareness of their culture and history, and to mark Egyptian Jewry's own nakba, or catastrophe, their exile resulting from the Arab-Israeli wars. In a conference in Haifa on Wednesday, the World Congress of the Jews from Egypt will also focus on recent initiatives to reclaim property taken from Egyptian Jews since 1948. An estimated 100,000 Jews lived in Egypt in 1948. Today, estimates of the country's Jewish population run the short distance from 20 to 100. Hundreds were killed and tens of thousands expelled in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948-49, 1956 and 1967. Often the expulsions were performed "politely. They just took your work permit away. [After that] my father, an export-import merchant, just decided we would leave," said Prof. Ada Aharoni, head of the World Congress of the Jews from Egypt. The congress lobbies for the restitution of property and recognition of the historic tragedy of Egyptian Jewry, and seeks to add their story to Jewish education curricula around the world. Earlier this month, the Cecil Hotel, a four-star hotel in Alexandria that belonged to the Metzger family until it was nationalized in 1952, was returned to the family. Nationalized five years before the family was expelled, the 86-room hotel was resold to Egypt after its return, according to Agence-France Presse. 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 nationalized Jewish property. The study of the dissolution of Egyptian Jewry - and of a culture and literature that were abruptly ended by the wars - could help heal the troubled relationship between Arabs and Jews, according to members of the World Congress of the Jews from Egypt. "The Jews of Egypt were always a bridge between culture and created bridges," said Aharoni. "Philo in the first century created a bridge between Hellenism and the Jews. Saadia Gaon translated the Bible into Arabic, and this Bible is still used in schools and libraries around the Arab world, and the Rambam, thought to be the greatest philosopher in Judaism, lived in Egypt. Now we're asking many communities, from England to Australia, to add the culture and literature of the Jews of Egypt into Jewish schools and Sunday schools." Jewish children "only learn about the Holocaust, and [while] it is the greatest tragedy in Jewish history, it doesn't have to wipe out all other tragedies," Aharoni said. This is especially true since, she insists, "Our tragedy is more important to ending the conflict in the Middle East. When we tell [Palestinians] we were in the Middle East before Islam, and the Arabs threw us out, not the Europeans, then we've already paid for the sulha [reconciliation], which is much more than peace. It's the deep wiping away of the venom and hatred, and you have to pay for it. So we've paid." Furthermore, she says, "we reestablished ourselves, and didn't make war on anyone. We want to show the Palestinians that you can remake your life. Misfortune in war falls on all sides, not just one side." Egyptian Jews - the largest number live in Israel, and communities of some 10,000 exist in Brazil, the US, France and Argentina - are putting together a history of Egyptian Jewry since 1948. The World Congress of the Jews from Egypt also works to restore cultural treasures damaged or lost since the community's forced departure. These include synagogues - "the synagogue where the Rambam prayed is full of water," Aharoni said - and museums. There are plans to establish a museum of Egyptian Jewry in Nesher, near Haifa, that will have a branch at the Library of Alexandria. Why rehabilitate synagogues where there are no Jews? "They are part of our national identity and culture. Many Jews would still like to visit where they prayed, where the Rambam prayed," Aharoni said. The property reclamation effort is well under way. Israel's Justice Ministry has registered Egyptian Jews' property claims and sent them to Egypt and the US Senate. The Senate has since recognized Egyptian Jews as refugees. Of Alexandria's Cecil Hotel, Aharoni says, "We hope it's a beginning." The "Conference on Conserving the History, Culture and Literature of the Jews from Egypt" will be in Haifa University's Hecht Hall. The one-day meeting will include a musical performance, readings from the works of Egyptian Jewish writers and poets, discussions on the community's history, and a panel on journalism among Egyptian Jews. JTA contributed to this report.