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Egyptian Jews Not Welcome In Egypt

The Israel-Egypt Friendship Association is composed of hardy souls, but even they were forced to admit defeat last week when they phoned the Marriott Hotel in Cairo to confirm their reservations ahead of a planned goodwill visit to Egypt by … Read More

By / May 28, 2008

The Israel-Egypt Friendship Association is composed of hardy souls, but even they were forced to admit defeat last week when they phoned the Marriott Hotel in Cairo to confirm their reservations ahead of a planned goodwill visit to Egypt by a delegation of Israelis and Jews of Egyptian descent. Despite having booked and paid for their rooms three months in advance, there was, it seems, no room at the inn. Not just the Marriott, either; two hours later, their travel agent in Cairo was forced to advise them that there was not a single hotel in a metropolis of 8 million that was willing to host them.

Things seemed to be going pretty well initially. All the arrangements had gone smoothly; flights had been booked, visas cleared, diplomats and academics booked to speak to the delegates. Perhaps most importantly, the Egyptian security services — the biggest potential stumbling-block — had been consulted at all stages and given a list of the participants, and seemed to be cool with the whole trip. The trip's organiser, Levana Zamir, would have been justified in assuming that every eventuality had been foreseen. But she hadn't reckoned with Egyptian TV presenter Amr Adib.

Wikipedia informs us that Adib is "a media personality with flair, intelligence, and integrity, as well as a sense of humor" and has "an uncanny insight into what interests his audience." Nothing like a bit of Israel-bashing to keep ratings buoyant, it seems. Adib devoted most of his Wednesday evening show to the visit; it was rich of the Israelis to come to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Israel's founding "in Cairo, of all places." "Why should we bring in Jews born in Egypt", asked Adib, "who preferred to flee to Israel, which has fought us in blood-soaked wars?" Further, he suggested, they were coming to file claims for property that they had "donated" to the government when they left Egypt all those years ago.

Would that the Jews' second Exodus from Egypt had been so willingly undertaken. There were some 75,000 Jews in the country at the end of the Second World War. They had been good citizens during the war years; few Egyptians watched the newsreels footage of German lines advancing and retreating across the desert with quite so much attention. Cairo in those years, like Beirut or Baghdad, was a cosmopolitan city of Arabs, Greeks, Armenians and Jews, but also one that yearned to be free of British occupation. With the 1952 revolution and the coming of Nasser, Egyptians got their wish — but not everyone was invited to the party.

Suez was the perfect pretext: Some 25,000 Jews were expelled from the country without delay, forced to leave with one suitcase and a limited supply of cash, and family members were allegedly taken hostage to ensure that the operation proceeded as smoothly as possible. All those leaving were made to sign documents "donating" their property to the Egyptian government; this was either retained or flipped for a quick sale to the highest bidder. After the Six Day War, most remaining Jewish property was appropriated by the state, and those Jews that had stuck it out decided their time was up. (No real shocker: Nasser's security service was said to be stuffed with ex-Nazis.) What right of return for them, I wonder?

The Jewish community in Egypt is now estimated to be in double figures. Ironically, given last week's events, that tiny community is as well-treated as any in the Arab world. Though typically disgusting antisemitism rages in the government-controlled press, authorities have in recent years co-operated with Cairo's Jews to renovate and rededicate the city's historic Sha'ar Hashamayim synagogue, and those few who remain — elderly now, and fewer with every year — live in peace among the teeming multitudes of modern Cairo.

There are even suggestions that the Jewish community in Egypt played their part in having the visit from their Israeli cousins canceled. Once the TV presenter, Amr Adib, had whipped up sentiment in the popular media, maybe it was more trouble than it was worth to host a visit at this moment in time, however anodyne and harmless it seems to us. Adib is, in strict fairness, not plucking the idea of reparations for the stolen property out of thin air. Israel has been known to use these forced "nationalizations" as bargaining chips in negotiations with the Egyptians; it has even been suggested that these assets might be used to offset Palestinian property claims against Israel itself.

Still, there is no evidence whatever that the Israel-Egypt Friendship Association had anything of the sort in mind. These were just a couple of dozen Egyptian Jews — elderly, too, for the most part — who wanted to visit the great synagogue, and the tombs of their relatives, once more before their time comes. There may not be that many opportunities for them to come back to the country they never wanted to leave in the first place.

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