Thursday, May 12, 2005

An Egyptian Jew's story

Here is the edited text of a talk given by Egyptian-born Joseph Abdel Wahed to San Francisco B'nai Brith in 2004. Joe was emeritus president and founder of JIMENA, a group fighting for the rights of nearly one million Jews 'ethnically cleansed' from ten Arab countries.

Who are we? We are the Mizrahim, because we come “from the East”, while the Ashkenazim are from the West. We are the Pessahs, the Hassuns, the Firouz and the Morenos. You won’t find many Goldsteins and Kleins among us, but together we represent one people, one family, under God, united to support each other and Israel.

Mizrahi Jews are among the oldest indigenous people in the Middle East. We are like the American Indian, natives of our country. Our communities---in Baghdad and Cairo---predate the Arab conquest by as much as 2,000 years and our contribution to Arab Societies is immense.

Judaism was born there. Our sacred Torah and great rabbis and philosophers, Maimonides and Philo, took root there.

You know that the Jewish centers on U.S. campuses are called Hillel, after the great Rabbi who lived in Jerusalem. But, do you know where Hillel was born? In Babylon, in Iraq. So, the Jewish centers on American college campuses are named after an Iraqi Jew, a Mizrahi.

Yet, today, there is hardly a trace of us left. Nearly one million Jews, in nine Arab countries, were dispossessed, then expelled simply because we are Jews. The only Jews left are in the cemeteries, dead Jews.

Our homes, businesses, synagogues, schools, hospitals, home for the aged and other community property, are gathering dust in Cairo, Alexandria, Baghdad, Aleppo, Tunis, Aden and Tripoli. This region in effect, is now Judenrein. In the words, of Bernard Lewis, the renowned British Middle East expert, we have become “a shadow of history”.

This is the main reason why, a couple of years ago, we founded JIMENA, “Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa”. We want to tell America’s Jewish and non-Jewish population, our story, that we too were made refugees, that we too, lost our homes and our possessions.

My own Egyptian-Jewish roots go back to biblical times and are intrinsically linked to Israel. The story of the Exodus makes us, in effect, the first Diaspora. And, by a cruel twist of history, we have, once again, been separated from Egypt, a Second Exodus if you wish.

I was born in Heliopolis, a middle class suburb of Cairo. As Egyptians families go, we were comfortable by any measure. My family came from a long line of precious metals dealers and jewelers. We had a car, a refrigerator, went to private schools and spent long vacations in Alexandria or other resorts.

Growing up in Egypt evokes many contradictory emotions. I remember the majestic river Nile, the Pyramids, the street vendors my friends and neighbors, my school and teachers and the aroma of the orange and lemon blossoms in our garden. And how can I forget our vibrant Jewish community-- 80,000 strong-- whose heritage goes back over 3000 years? Every Jewish holiday was a special affair, especially Passover when we would sit around the table, sing and pray together. I still remember those balmy evening days when we would all assemble in the balcony to watch for the first star to appear, signaling for us to start the story of the Haggadah. I was young and these were magical times for my family and me.

I grew up in an Egypt which was a pluralistic and multi-ethnic country. There were Egyptians, Greeks, Syrians, Italians, French, Armenians, British, Circassians, Turks and others, all with different religions and backgrounds. Believe it or not, we got along very well. In this mosaic, I learned tolerance, compassion, understanding and human rights. The years 1900 to 1945 were, indeed, the Golden Age for Egypt’s Jews as well as for all resident foreigners.

We don’t like to boast, but Egyptian and Iraqi Jewry were the wealthiest and most cultured in the Mediterranean. We lived in the East but were exposed to European culture and a first class education system. My British prep school had prominent alumni---King Hussein, Omar Sharif and members of the Saudi Royal family.

French culture was everywhere. France had set up a string of schools in major cities, called Lycee Francais, catering to all Egyptians. Most of us spoke three or four languages, and some, as much as five. Jews were doctors, engineers, professors, bankers, small shopkeepers and civil servants. Many Jews held positions of responsibility in government and business. For example, the retail business was generally a bastion of Jewish families. (So what else is new?).

We were also prominent in other fields, one of which deserves special mention. A Jewish lawyer was among those who drafted the Egyptian constitution for King Fuad in the 1920s. Not many Egyptian Muslims know that a Jew helped draft their constitution. It’s like saying an American Indian was one of the signatories of the American Constitution.

But behind this veneer of security and prosperity was an undercurrent of uncertainty and fear. Although antisemitism was not yet rampant, it was still here and there. I was young and innocent at the time, but understood that Jews were second-class citizens whose future prosperity depended on how we behaved vis a vis our Arab/Muslim rulers.

The brief, 50-year honeymoon between the Arab world and its Jews came to an abrupt and dramatic end in 1945. It was so fundamental it became irreversible. This was when 3,000 years of Jewish history died.

Arab nationalism and xenophobia spread like wildfire, aimed first at their British and French occupiers, then at the Jews. Also behind this paroxysm of hate was the Muslim Brotherhood, a fanatic and fundamentalist organization started in 1927. Its mission was to Islamize Egypt. Its members included Ayman al Zawahiri ( Ben Laden’s right hand man), Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s future president and, I’m sad to say, Anwar El Sadat.

But nothing was more threatening to Arab leaders than the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Harassment and intimidation of Jews became more common and more virulent in all parts of the Arab world. The Imam of the mosque at Al Azhar university declared that all Jews were Zionists, thus making them automatically subject to imprisonment. Martial laws were instituted that curbed our civil and human rights. Jews were insulted and beaten in the streets.


In Iraq, as early as 1941, an alliance between the Mufti of Jerusalem and Iraqi fascists led to a Nazi government. It was immediately followed by one of the worst anti-Jewish riots and massacres in several hundred years, the Farhoud. Nearly two hundred Jews were massacred and thousands injured while Jewish property in Baghdad was looted and burned.

There were other problems. The Egyptian government had earlier on passed the Nationality Law, which made it next to impossible for Jews to get citizenship especially since our religion was clearly identified on our birth certificates. Only 5% of Jews had Egyptian passports.

We were also being strangled economically. In 1947, a Company Law was passed restricting employment of Jews in many businesses. Many Jews found themselves out of work.


As the Palestinian issue heated up, our fears increased. Five Arab armies were getting ready to pounce on the new Jewish state. They were confident of victory. In the U.N. the Secretary General to the Arab League, Azzam Pasha, an Egyptian, made it clear what would happen:

“This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacre and Crusades”.

On May 15, 1948, the New York Times had the following headline on the front page:

“Jews in grave danger in Moslem lands”

So, only two years after the Holocaust of six million Jews, the Arabs are boasting to the world that they will massacre some more.

The war turned into a humiliating defeat for the Arabs. In revenge, Arab leaders began attacking their Jewish citizens. Jewish parts of Cairo, Tripoli, Tunis, Aden and Baghdad were rocked with bombs. Hundreds were killed, maimed, women were raped and Jewish property looted and burned.

In Cairo and other Arab capitals, crowds chanted:

“Al Yahud Kelab el Arab” The Jews are the dogs of the Arabs.
And “Edbah el Yahud”, slaughter the Jews.

It was like hell in Dante’s Inferno.

We were so terrified that we didn’t want to leave our homes. Our kind Egyptian doorman told me to say the following if I were being attacked in the street:

”Ana Muslim Mwahed b’Illah” I am a Muslim and I believe in Allah.

Some Jews fled to the Sudan and to South Africa, others to Europe. Most, however, waited it out thinking things would eventually improve.
It was the wrong decision, for, in July 1952: “there arose a new king over Egypt who knew not Joseph…and they set taskmasters to afflict them with burdens…and their lives were made bitter.”
Who was that new king? Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s new president, the embodiment of evil, megalomania and anti Semitism.

He and his fellow officers systematically began confiscating private properties belonging to Jews, Muslims and Christians. My father’s business was among them. Some Jews were imprisoned, others, turned poor overnight. A few daring families smuggled some money or jewels to safety with the help of airline pilots. Yet others had heart attacks or fell in a state of depression.

This pattern of harassment, imprisonment and expulsion swept the entire Arab world, from Casablanca to Tripoli to Damascus. In Iraq in January 1969, nine Jews were hanged in public to the cheers of the crowd. In Syria, Jews were in deadly fear, some of them fleeing for their lives, among them was Jerry Seinfeld’s mother. In the entire Arab world, this frenzy of killing, rape and torture went unheeded by the world and the United Nations. Are you surprised?

Please understand the backdrop to all this hate. For fourteen centuries, we Jews were under Arabs/Muslims control. We were dhimmis, defined by Muslim law and culture, as a tolerated minority, at their beck and call. Suddenly, the birth of an independent Jewish state turned the Arab world topsy-turvy. We were once their slaves. Now we are were free and strong. It is this defiance that aroused their anger. To many Jews all over the world, it was also the culmination of what God had prophesied:

“Now the Lord said unto Abraham, get thee out of thy country and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee.”
To most Arab leaders, to see the Jews no longer under their control is still, unacceptable. Psychologists call this: Control Deficiency Response, when someone loses control and then reacts violently.

So, when the Arabs expelled their Jewish citizens, they created a refugee problem of immense proportions. An entire people was suddenly made irrelevant, yet, there was a deathly silence in the UN. The injustice of it is reflected in the following fact: the Arabs and Palestinians start a war of extermination in 1948, they lose it and complain that they are the victims.

Unlike the Palestinians, the culture of the Mizrahim teaches us to look forward, not backward. This doesn’t mean we don’t fight for our rights or run away from our responsibilities. Indeed, wherever we went, we rolled our arm sleeves, tightened our belts and got to work for the future of our children. The Palestinians, on the contrary, use their children as weapons of mass destruction, as suicide bombers.

We still maintain a sentimental attachment to our previous homes, but we never let that interfere with building a life for ourselves. We are stoic and pragmatic. We don’t even complain too much about our lost property. Egyptian Jews especially, tend to be easy going and forgiving.

Two thirds of the 900,000 Jewish refugees from the Arab world went to Israel where they forged a new country, strong and democratic. Thanks to the help we got from American Jewry and especially from such organizations like HIAS, we recovered.


Anti-Israelis see Israel as a white colonialist power. They ignore that more than 55% of Israelis are Mizrahi or Sephardi, including the President and the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Defense. They are ignorant of the fact that some Jews are people of color from Ethiopia, Yemen and other countries.

All those who want true peace and justice in the Middle East must also hear our voices, not only that of the Palestinians. If one is truly for human rights one cannot be selective. Human rights abuses are crying for attention in the Sudan, Nigeria, Chad, Chechnya, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and many other places. But only Israel is targeted. Now, it seems, Jews have only one human right, the right to disappear.

14 comments:

Alan Malki said...

As a Jew born in Egypt, I read your account with interest as my family had many of the same experiences

Anonymous said...

i am from egypt and we all miss this plural society, i just wanted to correct gamal abdulnasser and anwar alsadat were never part of muslim brotherhood , they were part of a secular movement called free officers and they opposed muslim brotherhood

massimo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
massimo said...

As an Egyptian American,I don't really know what to say but I wish if I can turn the clock & make it right.
Brother Abdel Wahed,I can't explain to you how bad I feel unfortunately I can't
change anything & I would be dishonest if I said I know how you feel but I can imagin, because I have strong imagination.but You have answered some of the questions that I wanted to know
about our past history but I do have some more questions that I wish to know what really happened back then to some Egyptian Jews and not to others ? why you & your family are not among the Jews who're still living in Egypt today?
Mr. Joseph,no matter what happened back then,THERE'S NO JUSTIFICATION for such act I also know that Egypt was in the middle between two powerful enemies who didn't care much about the Jews ,it's a long story & I am sure you know all about it I hope U're doing well. Thanks,Todah,Salam & Shalom


6:32 PM, July 06, 2008

Anonymous said...

I do wish I could go back and change this dark part of our history, but try not to muddle things by saying Nasser and Sadat were from the Muslim Brotherhood. Nasser was a staunch enemy of theirs. He drove them to the ground during his presidency. But I'm deeply ashamed of his handling of Egyptians Jews and foreigners.

alromano said...

My father always said: never look back just forward. In time, I have come to appreciate the wisdom of his counsel. That idea helped me shed many misgivings< though I had few since I had left Egypt( Cairo and my home in Zamalek) to be exact as a child. It freed me from harboring any noxious views and allowed me to approach life with a positive outlook on most matters.

Much later, I learned more and more about that time , that parenthesis between the creation of the Suez Canal and the subsequent expulsion of Jews that began shortly after the closing of the Canal and the 1957 War with Israel.

Egypt and the region extending all the way to Iraq experienced a vitality in the 1930's that reached all aspects of life in the arts and in particular commerce.It continued through 1950's till the colonels took over the government and began to dream of a pan national union. Naturally, this movement ran into yet another nascent nationalistic movement. The effects of that collision has roiled the region for more than half century.

We are all dispersed now, dhimmis no longer. Who we are matters because it seems that our origins are being both forgotten and in the process eraced from memory and established history.

Egyptianjew.blogspot.com

Teddi Rosenberg said...

do you know if there is any significant jewish population in egypt now??

bataween said...

There are perhaps two dozen Jews in Egypt today.

Teddi Rosenberg said...

are they all in Alexandria? Are there any functionining synogogues?

Teddi Rosenberg said...

are they all in Alexandria? Are there any functionining synogogues?

bataween said...

Only five are in Alex. The Nebi Daniel synagogue used to have High Holiday services, but not since the Arab spring.

nour nader said...

great to know , explain ,understand whats happens to the Egyptian Jews on this days. bless you all...

nour nader said...

we have thousands of half Jews still live in Egypt but they don't know each other , why we don't have a real community , maybe in the future.

bataween said...

Very interesting. How many half Jews do you know personally, Nour? I should imagine that they would be afraid to reveal this in public , and this is what is preventing them from forming a community.