Sunday, August 10, 2014
Egyptian Jews according to Egyptians
“Hassan, Marcos and Cohen” is an Egyptian classical movie produced in 1954 which portrayed the Egyptian society of that time based on the major three Egyptian sects; Muslims, Christians and Jews. Many Jews had left Egypt already by that time, but nearly half of the 80,000 Egyptian Jews remained hoping that relationship between Arabs and Jews will go back to normal and they will continue living by each other again. Nearly 50 years later a new movie was produced titled “Hassan and Marcos”, Cohen is no longer a partner and the world is already worried that soon Hassan may be starring alone. Many of you western readers already know what happened to Cohen; imprisonment, torture, confiscation and finally expulsion. But what I’m writing about here is what Egyptians say that happened to Cohen. The Egyptian official narrative of what happened to Egyptian Jewry is yet another evidence of how Arab governments forger Middle Eastern history in order to corrupt the minds of millions with hatred.
The issue of modern Egyptian Jewish history is one of the most sensitive issues to the Egyptian government. Almost no study or media production passes through the Egyptian censorship unless it is in total compliance with the Egyptian official narrative, a narrative which was adopted by the Nasserite regime in the 50s till today. This narrative claims that Egyptian Jews were never Egyptian; they were always Zionist colonist conspirators who conspired against Egypt in order to create national homeland, and due to these anti-Egyptian activities they had to be imprisoned and expelled.
The first significant work to offer this narrative was the movie “Portsaid the Brave City” which was produced in 1957 just 7 month after the Suez War, this movie showed an Egyptian Jew; Shiko, who conspired with the British invaders to kill as many Egyptians as possible and to occupy Egypt. The movie goes on to describe the glory of the new mighty Nasserite military regime, notable to say that the movie was written and directed by a military officer, a marking of the canonization of this certain point of view by the Egyptian government.
Almost all of the studies published in Egypt detailing modern history of Egyptian Jewry support the idea of Egyptian Jews being more Zionist than Egyptian, on the standard Egyptian assumption that being a Zionist contradicts directly with being an Egyptian. Needless to say, many of those Egyptian studies had a strong nationalist flavor and could be fairly described as anti-Semitic. In a major study first published in 1973 as her PhD thesis then republished in 1980 by Egyptian researcher Siham Nassar titled, “Egyptian Jews between their Zionist Identity and their Egyptian One,” which dealt with 20th century Jewish journalism in Egypt, Nassar stated, “Although Egypt dealt with those Jews with great generosity, they were fanatic anti-Arab Zionists and played a vital role in establishing the Jewish state.”[i] An official academic study with a similar approach published by an Egyptian governmental institution related to Cairo University in 2000 suggested Zionist activities were common in Egypt long before the first the Zionist Congress in 1897 and Egyptian Jews were among the earliest investors in Zionism, which eventually lead to their expulsion of Egypt due to their Zionist anti-Egyptian criminal activities.[ii] This study is particularly worrying since it was published by the main official Egyptian educational institution. Other studies suggest that Jews controlled a big portion of Egyptian economy which they aimed to destroy, thus Egypt had to confiscate their properties and expel them once and for all.
Works of less of an academic appearance and more of an anti-Semite one are more common; “Jews of Egypt” by Professor Nabil Ahmed (1991), “Jews of Egypt; Lords and Miserables” by Arafa Alu (1997) and other studies offer a more demonized portray of Egyptian Jews. Regardless to their poor historical value, these works are hardly challenged in Egypt, counter works are extremely rare. The only one I have in mind is just a translation of Joel Benin’s book on the dispersion of Egyptian Jewry.
Dozens of books, movies and TV shows were made about the story of Egyptian Jews, but almost none of them offer anything different than the official narrative. If you ask any common Egyptian today about what happened to the Egyptian Jews, he will answer quickly that Nasser expelled them, if you asked him why? You will get one of two answers, either “because they were the enemies of Egypt” or simply “because they were Jews.” The story of Egyptian Jewry belongs to both Jews and Egyptians, and it is sad to see Egypt, the birth place of history, to forgers its own.
However, one should never fail to mention that this year an Egyptian documentary by Amir Ramses offered a new narrative. It interviewed and told the stories of some Egyptian Jews and how they were humiliated, imprisoned and expelled from their land of birth just because they were Jew. The documentary was contradicted the Egyptian official narrative to the extent that State Security agencies have banned it from the public, a decision which they had to back from after the news reached the international community. I have no doubt that only brave young Egyptians like Ramases are the only ones able to challenge the old stereotypes in their country and rewrite Egyptian history not according to Egyptians, but according to what really happened.