Jews Were Expelled From Egypt. But Can We Talk About 'The Expulsion of The Jews?'

The new Israeli curriculum on Jewish communities in the Muslim world is welcome, but it highlights only the persecution. And in the case of Egypt, it’s not even clear a full-fledged expulsion happened

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View of the remains of the burnt out 'Cicurel', Cairo's biggest department store, in Cairo, Egypt, Jan. 26, 1952, after it was burnt out the previous day by rioters. The building is on Cairo's Fouad First Avenue.
View of the remains of the burnt out 'Cicurel', Cairo's biggest department store, in Cairo, Egypt, Jan. 26, 1952.Credit: AP
Eyal Sagui Bizawe
Eyal Sagui Bizawe
Eyal Sagui Bizawe
Eyal Sagui Bizawe

I was recently pleased to learn that the Education Ministry has decided, as part of efforts to redress a historical injustice, to inaugurate a new curriculum to include 12 “essential concepts” on Jewish communities from the Islamic world and further afield.

The curriculum implements the advice of a committee convened last year at the request of Education Minister Naftali Bennett and headed by poet Erez Biton. The panel was tasked with crafting recommendations on heightening the school curriculum’s attention to the heritage of Sephardi and Eastern Jewish communities.

The concepts include general (even too general) attention to lots of things, for example: Persian and Ethiopian Jewry, leading figures including the late Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the 17th century Yemenite poet Rabbi Shalom Shabazi, underground Zionist activity in Iraq, disasters including the forced conversion of Persian Jews in the city of Mashhad, the 19th-century Damascus blood libel, the death of North African Jews in the Holocaust and the expulsion of Egyptian Jewry.

If the approach can be summed up, it’s that the Jews in Muslim countries tended to matters in their own communities, wrote in Hebrew or Judeo-Arabic, engaged in Zionist activity – and in their spare time were persecuted. There’s no attention to Jewish involvement in national or communist politics, literature in the local language or European languages, the establishment of the Iraqi broadcast-authority orchestra, the involvement of Jews in the Egyptian film industry, or the Jewish involvement in the war in Algeria. Not that all these had to be the basis for an “essential concept,” but at least one of them could have been highlighted.

Arson at the Rivoli Cinema in Cairo, 1952.Credit: AP

Actually, you could conclude from the list of 12 concepts that the only contact that Mizrahi Jews – Jews from the Middle East – had with their local surroundings came in the form of the next pogrom. The theme is clear. After all, there’s nothing like some good trauma to bring us all together around our memory of national tragedy, where we can put the head of a Persian Jew on the shoulders of a Polish Jew and the head of a German Jew on the shoulders of an Iraqi Jew, wailing together that the shtetl is burning.

But is it possible in the same context to include “the expulsion of Egyptian Jewry”? After all, not only did this not influence the lives of Jews outside Egypt. It’s doubtful it can be viewed as an event that affected the whole of the Egyptian Jewish community. In addition, like the 1952 Cairo riots known as the Cairo fire, it’s difficult to state that it was a clearly anti-Jewish event.

I can already sense the ire of Egyptian Jews as I type these lines. After all, how is it that “one of our own” would deny the tragedy of the expulsion and play down the trauma of so many people? Even in Egypt they’re acknowledging the expulsion, expressing remorse and even making documentaries and writing investigative pieces on the subject.

So in my defense, let me make things clear. Jews were indeed expelled from Egypt. As far back as May 1948, when Israel declared its independence, Jews suspected of Zionist or communist activity were put in detention camps. Some of the detainees managed to gain their freedom in the first few months, but those who remained in custody until July 1949 were expelled.

In 1956, following the Sinai Campaign, or at it’s known in Egypt, the Tripartite Aggression (of Israel, Britain and France), the Egyptian police resumed detention without trial of hundreds of the heads of Jewish families, often without relatives knowing anything about the fate of those taken away. The bank accounts of many were confiscated, their businesses nationalized, their homes sealed, and many were forced to sign declarations that they had voluntarily forfeited their property. Many were also sent directly from transit camps to ships that took them out of Egypt, never to return. Their passports were stamped “departure without possible return.”

In addition, many of those who weren’t expelled were compelled in other ways to leave, whether out of fear or because they wanted to be with their relatives abroad, because they realized that Jews had no future in Egypt, or because they were Zionists. For many Egyptian Jews, it was impossible to remain even if they weren’t expelled.

Persecution obsession

But it’s indisputable that most of Egypt’s Jews were not expelled. In addition, with all my deep identification with members of my people, they were also not the only ones expelled. Unlike in 1948, in 1956 it was not only Jews who were evicted from the country but also members of other communities.

So again, you’’ll rightly ask, is this what I’m making a fuss about? After all, it’s possible that it was a typographical error by the Education Ministry or the reporter who wrote about the list of “essential concepts.” If all this is over the addition of a minor change in wording, we can call it “the expulsion of Jews from Egypt” instead of “the expulsion of Egyptian Jewry” and that’s that.

But I’m not convinced this case involves a typographical error rather than a persecution obsession, which in fact many people believe is the foundation of our existence as a people. After all, when we say “the expulsion of Egyptian Jewry,” it resonates in our mind and in the collective memory that includes a central traumatic event in the history of the Jewish people, “the expulsion of Spanish Jewry.” We can imagine rows of hooded soldiers gathering Egyptian Jews in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and giving them two options: convert to Islam or be expelled. Or even not giving them the choice but expelling them all. But such an event simply never occurred.

If this had been a central event that was appropriate for the list of 12 essential concepts, the Education Ministry might be so kind as to produce a list of research done on the expulsion of Egyptian Jewry. The activities of the Zionist underground in Iraq have been written about and researched, as has the Damascus blood libel. And there’s an endless number of studies on the expulsion of Spanish Jewry.

Elusive expulsion

But when it comes to the expulsion of Egyptian Jewry, I haven’t found even a single basic study, though I admit that, since I’m not a historian, it’s entirely possible I’ve missed one. And in all the studies I’m aware of about Egyptian Jewry, the expulsion doesn’t even get an entire chapter.

The expulsion is noted in passing at the end of a book by Gudrun Krämer on the Jewish community in Egypt between 1914 and 1952, as a topic beyond the study’s purview. In the book “The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry,” Joel Beinin devotes just a few paragraphs to the topic, as do books by Shimon Shamir, Ruth Kimchi, Najat Abdulhaq and others.

In “The Jews of Egypt, 1920-1970,” the historian Michael Laskier writes that from November 1956 to 1958, between 23,000 and 25,000 Jews left the country. Laskier doesn’t claim that all of them were expelled, but let’s take a worst-case scenario. Even if 25,000 were expelled, of the 60,000 Jews that were in Egypt after the first wave of aliyah following the establishment of Israel, that would leave 35,000 not expelled. If it was clear policy to expel Jews, why not expel them all?

In a new Hebrew-language book “The Five Long Minutes: The Jews of Egypt, 1967-1970, the Arrests and Uprooting,” Cairo-born Ovadia Yerushalmi writes about the conditions in which Egypt’s Jews lived during the Six-Day War and the detention without trial of Jewish males, including himself.

“After the Sinai campaign the Egyptian government arrested several hundred Jews and imprisoned them in detention camps without trial and for no reason,” he writes. “Most of the Jews lost their livelihood. Many of them were expelled for being British or French citizens, and others had to leave due to the confiscation of their property. After the Sinai Campaign, the feeling also changed among the young people who had to remain in Egypt. They too understood that their future was outside Egypt, and they planned to leave at a suitable time for them.”

There is so much in this paragraph. First, we learn from the book’s title that even in the late ‘60s, there was still a Jewish community in Egypt – tiny, but not expelled. Second, we learn that many of the Jews arrested in 1956 were expelled, but not all of them or even a majority. Third, there were Jews with British or French citizenship. Fourth, there were young people who not only weren’t expelled but had to stay. They would leave when it suited them.

Many Jews of Egyptian origin won’t be pleased to read this, to put it mildly. Over the years, all they wanted was recognition of the trauma of expulsion. Like me, they've sought their personal story in the collective narrative, but as I see it, they’ve erred in describing their experience using terminology from others’ experience.

So, for example, they’ve referred to the detention camps as concentration camps and have spoken of their experiences as “the Nakba of Jews from Arab countries,” using the Arabic word that refers to the events during Israel’s War of Independence when Palestinians fled or were expelled from the country.

In a 1990 book about the Egyptian Jewish community, there’s even an incident called the Night of the Cinemas; it refers to the day Israel declared independence, May 14, 1948. The book describes the killing of hundreds of young Egyptian Jews on that day, but such an event never took place.

“Last night was a second Kristallnacht, this time not in Berlin but in the heart of serene Cairo!” the story’s female protagonist tells a Holocaust survivor. After all, what’s the story of Jews from Arab countries if it can’t be compared to the catastrophe of our brothers in Europe?

With all the cynicism in what I’m saying, there’s nothing in the above description that justifies the arrests and act of expulsion, and I certainly don’t play down the trauma that expellees from Egypt underwent. In my own family, some were expelled and much of their property was nationalized. But I’d like to hear these accounts in the Egyptian Jews’ own words, without the terminology used by Jews from Europe, or by Palestinians.

Writing history and teaching both carry responsibilities that go beyond emotional identification. If that’s the broader context in which school students will be learning about the “Expulsion of Jews from Egypt,” so be it. But if you teach it in a way that isolates the Jewish case from its general context, and again show them that in every generation some rise up to consume us and the Holy One in Zion is the one who saves us, don’t bother. Let’s leave matters with the pogroms in Odessa and Kishinev, or just move on to the next tragedy.

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