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Inconvenient History: tales of lesser discussed history of Egypt & Israel

As Egypt's relationship with Israel takes central stage for both countries, a look at some interesting little known historical facts ...

Monday, August 29, 2011

Inconvenient History: tales of lesser discussed history of Egypt & Israel

As Egypt's relationship with Israel takes central stage for both countries, a look at some interesting little known historical facts may be beneficial for Egyptians and Israelis to explore. While I am in no position to offer ironclad guarantees of the accuracy of the various events and I lack the skill and knowledge necessary to offer various citations and references, I do however believe that the events cited here have indeed occurred largely as described. Oftentimes there are layers of fog surrounding events of the type covered here; less so with those here, most have just tended to get buried or be ignored, with the hope, that they fade away completely.


Egyptian popular mission representing the leading Muslim & Christian families traveled to Palestine to congratulate the Jews of Palestine following the Balfour declaration:

Contrary to the wide spread belief, the Balfour Declaration of 1917, was not, at the time, seen by most Egyptian intellectuals as a sentence against the Palestinians. Interestingly enough some Egyptian Muslim and Christian families held parties to celebrate the Declaration, the Muslim Governor of Alexandria sent a telegram of appreciation to Lord Balfour. A delegation of Egyptian Muslims and Christians led by another Egyptian Muslim, whose paper strongly advocated the then minority position of Arab Nationalism, traveled to congratulate the Jews of Palestine. Majority of Egyptians leaders didn't consider an Arab affiliation for Egypt at the time. The people who participated in that retrospectively misguided delegation were not received back as traitors or sellouts when they returned to Egypt. The majority of Egyptians who held more Egyptian nationalist views also saw the declaration as positive news. Perhaps those Egyptian intellectuals focused on the Decleration's guarantees of the rights of the native population of Palestine or saw certain positive aspects in Jewish nationalism the way Americans do today! This topic will be examined later.

As New York turned back Jews fleeing Nazi Europe, Alexandria welcomed them to Egypt, one of , just, four ports globally open to take in Jews escaping from Nazi atrocities

Sadly few highlight this historical fact. Yad Vashem, other memorials and Holocaust history in general offer no special recognition of the role that independent Egypt played saving Jewish lives. A disgusting byproduct of the recent rise of anti-Semitism in Egypt with the wide circulation of books of Holocaust deniers, few Egyptians are actually aware of this important generosity that Egypt and all Egyptians should be proud of.

Amazingly as large numbers of European Jews arrived in Egypt escaping Nazi Europe few wealthy Egyptian Sephardic Jews worried about backlash

While this was by no means wide spread, it is important to note the disproportionate attention certain Jew haters such as the marginal figure of Hussieni the Mufti of Jerusalem receives who some groups even absurdly suggest that his influence reached Egypt. Could a non Jew argue that the memory of the Holocaust should not be used for short term propaganda gains?

In reading about World War II and the horrors faced by the Jews at the hands of advancing Nazi armies, nationalist partisans be them Russian, Ukrainian, Serbian or just the local populations; it is amazing that Alexandria, the city with the largest Jewish population in Egypt, did not record attacks on Jewish property and lives when Hitler’s army was only 70 miles to the west.

As Alexandria’s western suburbs were being bombed, Alexandrians wanting to rid themselves of the British occupation attacked British soldiers but no real signs of hate or anger against Jews surfaced. The Jews of Alexandria worried about the advancing Nazi army but did not fear their Egyptian neighbors. This is strange when so much of the hate propaganda would have us believe that Egyptians and Jews are natural enemies.

While the then non peaceful Muslim Brotherhood had indeed started to attack Jews in graffiti around 1939 in certain cities, there appears to have been no such attacks at all during the time of impending entry of Hitler’s army into Alexandria.

Israeli Mossad Operation Susannah widely known as the Lavon affair: Six years after the establishment of the State of Israel, Egyptian Jews largely stayed put and minimal immigration to Israel occurred. Israeli Intelligence, in order to spur their immigration, as well as attempting to derail Egyptian American relationship, carried out a number of terrorist attacks in Cairo in 1954. The Mossad agents were caught, tried and imprisoned in Egypt. Following the defeat of Egypt in the 1967 war, the imprisoned Mossad agents were exchanged for Egyptian POWs and later, were treated to official welcomes by the Israeli Government and more honors as recent as 2005.

Many Egyptians would now be shocked to read the text of the speech of Zakriyah Mohieddean, Egypt's vice-president at the time talking of Egypt’s Jewish sons. The language of monkeys and pigs was hardly heard before the Mubarak era.

Various attempts to rewrite the history of the Lavon affair continued even into the twenty-first century. Israelis will at some point need to come to terms with the bloody history of their nation. Egyptians will need to learn that anti-Semitism plays to the hands of the Israel’s right wing which consistently advocates exclusivity as the only way to defend Jews from ever hateful enemies.


UK and France admitted conspiracy in 1956 Suez War, yet Israel continue to label it “war of self defense”. It is truly absurd that while the British and French have come clean about this trilateral aggression on Egypt and numerous books and archieves have now been made available for over two decades, Israel’s official version remains that the invasion of Egypt in 1956 was a war of self defense or just totally omitted from history.

This is probably one of the most blatant examples that show the need for Israel to come clean with its history. The Jewish and Israeli people will be more willing to make the concessions necessary for peace when they are more aware of facts. There are many disputed facts in the history of the various Israeli conflicts, perhaps the lies associated with the 1956 Suez war would allow more Israel supporters to look beyond state propaganda. We often hear of school books in Palestine and elsewhere teaching hate of Israel, this shows that history books need changing on all sides.

Not one Egyptian Jew lost his or her citizenship for being Jewish, yet many native Egyptian Jews left because of bigotry and distrust.

Egyptian citizenship laws were first introduced in 1929. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire residents had choices to make to become Egyptian, Turk or other nationality. Left over from the days of overt British & French domination following the invasion of Egypt in 1882, was a strange justice system that saw locals facing Egyptian Law, while foreign European minorities subject to their own laws and consular courts. Many of the affluent Jews living in Egypt for two or even three generations regarded themselves above the locals and pursued European citizenships; the Ladinos with more recent roots in Turkey or the Levant generally opted for Turkish or Egyptian citizenship. Following the Suez War citizens of France & UK were evicted from Egypt. Some Jewish families were divided as many held different European citizenships. The second wave of expulsions happened after the 1961 introduction of socialist nationalization laws which targeted foreign and Egyptian capitalists; its biggest exodus was actually for Greek and Italian Christians and included wealthy Egyptian Jewish, Christian and Muslim families.

Through the forties and fifties of the 20th century it appears that the Jews in Egypt who faced problems with the state were for reasons of communist affiliations, British or French nationality or anti capitalist laws. This would be entirely consistent with Nasser’s policies who viewed the exit of Egyptian Jews as a victory for Zionism and hence the earlier appeals for Egypt’s Jewish sons. It took few years after the Suez war for real animosity at the national level to start building up in the middle and late sixties.

Over the years I met many American Jews who told me of their Egyptian friends who were expelled from Egypt for being Jewish and it never failed that upon questioning it became clear that the friends in question never held the Egyptian nationality to start with, through their own choice, and had rejected the Egyptian citizenship for other opions and eventually left Egypt as part of a bigger story.

Yet for the ethnic Egyptian Jews, mostly “Karaite” whose mother tongue was Egyptian Arabic, were Egyptian citizens and were in all aspects part of the fabric of the “locals” ,rather than the world of the superior minorities. Egypt lost a great deal by losing its Greeks, Italians and its “foreign” Jews who were part of its cultural, industrial and merchant classes for generations. Yet Egypt's biggest loss will always be its native Jews who, those who trace their roots back thousands of years, those who wore the galabeya or tarboush, listened to Om Kalthoum music, ate mehshi and molokhiya. Ultimately it was bigotry, racism, mistrust of their fellow Egyptians that led to their gradual isolation and eventual sad departure from Egypt. Egypts’ Karaite Jews of Egypt left because of dwindling opportunity, increasing suspicion and obvious inducement for a better life. Sadly one hears of similar stories of discrimination and bigotry towards Coptic Christians nowadays.

Egyptians use Zionist as a non racist insult, Jews hear an offensive racist slur. This is not so much historical fact as an observation of current discourse, particularly post the January 25, 2011 Egyptian Revolution. The internet savvy Egyptians are trying to choose their words in Arabic and English carefully, they are forward thinking revolutionaries driven by values of freedom and justice. Egyptians use “Zionist” mostly to mean Jews who support the oppression of the people of Palestine. Yet many Egyptians proceed to use the common bigoted racist anti-Semitic slurs with the word Zionist, so we hear of Zionist monkeys and pigs and the like. The forward looking Egyptians are willing to live with Jews and make peace with Jews but not Zionists, the Salafi minority and their elk reject all other and worse of all Jews.

Yet to many Jews, Zionism is an identity, it is more about their pride as people, it has a lot to do with their affection for Israel but to most Jews and Israelis, Zionism does not equal oppression of Palestine or usurping their rights. So while some Egyptians want to use a non racist language, virtually most Jews and Israelis hear nothing but racist language. Some Egyptians have taken to hone their criticism against Israelis rather than Jews failing to note that often times, there is far more advocacy for Palestinian rights amongst Israeli Jews than non Israeli Jews.

The Mubarak era saw massive increase of media criticism of Israel and of all things Jewish including the shameful serialization of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion on Mubarak’s own State TV, the rise of anti-Semitism in Egypt was a product of the state encouragement as a sanctioned channel for venting and activism and it also served the purpose of showing the US and the west the crucial need for Mubarak and his regime for ongoing stability. Long gone were the Sadat days of actively seeking reconciliation, Mubarak’s was the cold peace at the people to people level.

But this, clearly, is not the whole story, at a time of shocking images of live round the clock news coverage and citizen journalism; Israel is seen to be seriously out of step with its continued suppression of the rights of the people of Palestine, massive reprisals and collective punishment on a population occupied for generations. Israelis cannot stay silent on what is being committed in their name, day in and day out, and expect not to be hated. The continued right wing supremacist policies of colonial settlements, house demolitions, road blocks and “facts on the ground” are eroding the possibilities of peace and with Israel being a “democracy” are coloring all of its people with one big ugly brush in the eyes of many Egyptians.

Most Egyptians today are unaware of the deep roots of Zionism in Egypt and how most Egyptian political leaders and intellectuals looked admirably on Zionism even into the early 1930’s. In 1925 ardent Egyptian Nationalist Ahmed Lutfi el-Sayed represented Egypt in the opening ceremony of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Some of the leaders of the Wafed Party in 1919 Revolution were also well known leaders of Zionist Associations in Cairo & Alexandria. Back then Jews, indeed Zionist Jews and Egyptians never viewed one another as enemies but friends. The Wafed Governments did not tolerate what they termed “Palestinian propaganda” from the one lone anti Zionist paper warning against evictions of Palestinians, they shut it down, while several Zionist papers were published in Egypt. The word “Zionism” did not have the abhorrent connotation it conjures today in the mind of the average Egyptian. Yet to Jews it still has the same lofty values that colleagues of Saad Zaghloul and Ahmed Lutfi el-Sayed advocated.

The current events offer hope for change for the better but also offer a huge amount of uncertainty and fear. Perhaps looking at history we can see that the natural order is friendship between Jews and Egyptians or at the very least absence of animosity, perhaps Egyptians can learn to criticize actions and situations rather than labels and Jews and Israelis can revisit the history to see why a people who supported and welcomed them for many years have become so hateful towards them.

Ayman Ashour
August 29, 2011


Recommended Readings and Sources


I received a number of requests for sources and some readers wanted to read more on the various topics.

For political history and general views of Egyptians intellectuals and political leaders, I relied on readings in Arabic and English including The Question of Palestine by Edward Said and several of his other works. Leila Ahmed's outstanding memoir Border Passage, more than any other work helped me clear my views on issues of Egyptian identity and the more recent Arab identification. Other works that stayed with me included the controversial Enemy in the Promised Land by Sanaa Hassan and works in Arabic by Abed el Rahman el Refa'ay and others. Material I have encountered along the way but think had less influence on me were works by Bernard Lewis in English, Redwa Ashour and several others in Arabic.

For the Jewish experience in Egypt, I relied on Cairo, City Victorious which extensively used rabbinical records from Egyptian synagogues. The excellent Andre Aciman's Out of Egypt touched me deeply and I have also read  few other stories of  Jewish exits from Egypt.

Joel Beinin outstanding Stanford University research titled: Egyptian Jewish identities: communitarianisms, nationalisms, nostalgias, offers a concise review of material covered in more detail elsewhere. The paper is available on the internet and I have read several critical reviews of it as well but honestly have not been moved by them, perhaps Beinin just said what I wanted to hear.

I have also, through nearly 10 years as a co-moderator of an Arab Jewish internet dialogue group, and as member of in-person dialogue group in Boston, have heard directly of Egyptian Jewish experiences and was refered to countless articles and materials. Egyptian Jewish groups on the Internet continue to offer fascinating insight too.


My attempts to understand what the Holocaust meant for Jews come primarily from accounts of children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors in dialogue; also readings of Primo Levy touched me deeply and on the use of the memory of Holocaust for political or monetary gains on The Holocaust Industry by Norman Finkelestin. I have suffered through several books in Arabic including those translated from French that deny the Holocaust or at least its full extent as well as theories on Jewish collusion with Nazi.


Reading on what I term “applied Zionism” or rather what actually happened on the ground in Palestine includes limited readings of Benny Morris and the amazing Hannah Arendt and closer to my own perspective was the outstanding work of Fay Afaf Kenafani: Nadia, Captive of hope and In Search of Fatima by Ghada Karami.

For the Lavon Affair I have primarily relied on Internet searches, one or two articles in Arabic and the also writings by Joel Beinin of Stanford referenced above. I have read minimal amounts of similar operations carried out in Iraq for the purpose of inducing fear in the Jewish communities to emigrate to Israel.

For the Suez 1956, I read few books by British politicians of the time including Descent to Suez and relied on the website of the Jewish Agency which until few years ago described the war as “campaign of self defense” but as of yesterday appear to have deleted all reference to it, or I may have looked it elsewhere.

I have reviewed  many of the books referenced above and the reviews are on " myAmazon reviews". 

Finally, I am neither a historian nor a researcher; I just happen to be an avid reader and also have a relatively good memory. The topics have been of great interest to me and I view the reconciliation between Egypt and Israel as critical for achieving peace in the whole region, I am also deeply moved by the historic and on-going suffering of both Jews and Palestinians.

7 comments:

FP said...

very thoughtful piece. some sources for further reading might be interesting?

http://haltglobalterrorism.com/ said...

Right on the money.Can personally cofirm a lot.

Anonymous said...

Can you please elaborate on what you termed "the lofty values of zionism"?

bacci40 said...

has the author ever met an egyptian jew?

this entire article is filled with half truths and outright lies

ez to do, as there is not a single citation

zulu said...

Very good essay ya Ayman.I can understand the effort behind it. I read about many aspects raised in it myself. I also read about how the Arab world and indeed Egypt was a safe haven for Jews fleeing Spain at the time of the Inquisitions’. In the late fifties we lived in Maadi where we had nice Jewish neighbors treated as normal friends. I also read the biography “The Man with the white sharkskin suit” telling the story of eviction of Jews from Egypt in the sixties. Egyptians always had cordial relations with their fellow Egyptian Jews.
Things went wrong when the vicious extremists from both sides took over in Palestine.

It all started with the Balfour Declaration which had a mysterious language that could be understood in different ways. Hussain, the Sharif of Mecca actually welcomed the Balfour Declaration as a sign of Arab hospitality!

A home in Palestine did not necessarily mean taking over the whole of Palestine and could mean a state where Jews, Muslims and Christians live together. Unfortunately the extremist Zionists wanted the whole lot and the extremist Arabs did not want them at all.

That was the beginning of a series of vicious excesses by both sides .The Zionists driven by greed and real power on the ground and the Arabs driven by moral values , a sense of injustice coupled with political stupidity and no power on the ground.

Blood and tears tend to change the nature of relationships and that is what happened in Palestine.

We know from history that being right or wrong does not really matter in shaping world borders. The Arabs foolishly thought that just by being right they would have the upper hand and went into armed conflicts with the Zionists who were practically supported by the world powers. Reason was never given a chance until Sadat came to power and after the 1973 war which gave the Arabs a needed sense of pride and showed the Zionists that after all they are not so invincible


I personally think that the atmosphere after the Camp David agreements and the Oslo Accords and as recent as the Clinton sponsored discussions in Camp David 2000 could have put the relationship between the peoples of the middle east in a right track that might have brought back the spirits of earlier periods.

Unfortunately the ill minded extremists from both sides sabotaged the process.

As bitter as it may be, the realities on the ground now are far far away from the spirits of older times.

Anonymous said...

Ayman Ashour, you must be pretty young, and probably never met an Egyptian Jew in general and a Karaite in particular ...How come you never mention - the nationalization of the interests of Jews in 1956 and after the 67 war Jews were imprisoned, all males 16 to 70 years old in the Torah and Abou Za3bal concentration camp ... and torturing some of them for more than 3 years, then expelled from the country penniless and with no return?...JUST FOR BEING JEWS.... here is a documentation one of dozens that you may read.
http://www.farhi.org/Documents/Marc_Khedr_Memories.htm

Amr said...

Dear Ayman, is there any evidence that Lutfi El Sayed's attended the Hebrew University's opening in support of Zionism!?
Zionism movement and youth movements were indeed free to act for a good while, however this was ended early enough and it was fought against by most Egyptian politicians including some of the leading Jewish personalities in Egypt such as Katawy Pasha and others