Opinion |

Our Passports Were Stamped 'Exit, With No Return': The Real Story of How Egypt Expelled Its Jews

Eyal Sagui Bizawe’s article accused Mizrahi Jews of exaggerating their suffering to buy their way into the 'Jewish persecution narrative'. Putting his ridicule and venom aside, he is simply and factually wrong. Here's my story

Israel Bonan
Israel Bonan
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Israel Bonan and his family on vacation in Alexandria, Egypt, 1950s
Israel Bonan and his family on vacation in Alexandria, Egypt, 1950sCredit: Israel Bonan
Israel Bonan
Israel Bonan

My name is Israel Bonan, and I live in the United States. I was born in Egypt, and so were both my parents. In 1967, while the Six Day War was raging between Israel and Egypt, I was jailed for being a Jew, and deported - rather, expelled, with a passport stamped "Exit with No Return."

According to Eyal Sagui Bizawe (Can we Talk about 'The Expulsion of the Jews'?) there's something illegitimate, even suspect, about my biography, and that of many other Egyptian Jews. In his words, "It’s not even clear a full-fledged expulsion happened."

Even as a self-declared non-historian, Mr. Bizawe has a curiously cynical perspective on events that are well within living memory.

He charges his own kith and kin of deliberate exaggerations; of slanting the Mizrahi narrative with borrowed terminology, just to gain acceptance to the collective narrative of Jewish persecution.

His central claim is that "it’s indisputable that most of Egypt’s Jews were not expelled." More claims: Jews in Egypt were not expelled because they were Jews. In 1948, they were expelled for being Zionists or Communists. In 1956, they were expelled for being French or British citizens. There were still Jews in Egypt in the 1960s, and Jews who wished to leave left at their own convenience. Don’t suggest there was a targeted expulsion of "Egyptian Jewry," when members of other communities were expelled as well.

In response to Mr. Bizawe’s request to hear firsthand accounts, and to set the historical record straight, I’d like to offer my own narrative.

Let’s start with the terms we use.

Bizawe is vexed by what he claims is the co-option of the language of the Holocaust and of Palestinian narratives (pogroms, concentration camps, Nakba) to describe the persecution of Mizrahi Jews.

When I started speaking out about this issue, I labored over how I should refer to organized riots targeted against the Jewish community. Lo and behold, that is the definition of pogrom. I used both designations, riots and pogroms, though pogrom was much more readily understood by most audiences.

But Bizawe's beef isn't only linguistic. Apart from mocking the use of the word pogrom, he goes a step further - he questions whether these pogroms were directed at Jews at all, and he cites the 1952 Cairo riots. "[Regarding T]he 1952 Cairo riots known as the Cairo fire, it’s difficult to state that it was a clearly anti-Jewish event."

View of the remains of the burnt out 'Cicurel', Cairo's biggest department store, in Cairo, Egypt, Jan. 26, 1952.Credit: AP

Indeed, the 1952 Cairo riots had nothing specifically to do with the Jews of Egypt, though the rioters still didn’t miss a beat and burned and looted many Jewish department stores that day (to wit, the Cicurel department store, pictured burned in Bizawe's article). Bizawe needed to look elsewhere - the Cairo and Alexandria riots from 1945 (on the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration) to 1948 (the establishment of the State of Israel).

Between those years, riots and targeted bombings of the Jewish community and Jewish businesses resulted in 108 unprosecuted deaths, injuries in the hundreds, and the looting and razing of over 200 Jewish businesses.

The author also takes issue with the use of the term "concentration camps" to refer to detention camps, which is his preferred "non-European" terminology. "Detention camps": three meals a day, a private bathroom and shower, a fluffy bed and pillow, conjugal visits...

Mr. Bizawe, these were jails, and some of these jails were hard-labor jails, where some four dozen Jewish inmates slept in a single cell head-to-toe.

Hard-labor jails, where "exercising" was mandatory: running in circles while being whipped and chanting anti-Israel slogans. Jails where, in front of the Jewish inmate collective, a brother was ordered to undress and sodomize his own brother in front of their father, who almost died of a heart attack on the spot. Jails where fathers, brothers, and sons denied their relationship to each other, lest they suffer similar consequences.

Next, the author takes issue when Mizrahi Jews from Egypt refer to their ordeal as Nakba, an Arabic word denoting a calamity.

While I can understand using the term to convey the point of Mizrahi Jews' suffering to a possible audience in the Arab world, and Palestinians in particular, I personally cringe whenever I hear the term in conjunction with the Mizrahi experience.

A calamity is only a calamity when your response to it is to accept victimhood; we, the Mizrahi Jews, did not accept passive victimhood. We survived the trauma and prospered, with the help of many, including the help of Israel, too. Our expulsion was an emancipating moment for us.

Israel Bonan and his siblings as children in Cairo, 1950sCredit: Israel Bonan

Finally, Mr. Bizawe’s denouement: that in the case of the Jewish community of Egypt, it was not "a full-fledged expulsion."

Sure, the author opines, some were expelled, some suffered, but was it really the same kind of expulsion as that of Spanish Jewry, the author asks?

"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."

Putting aside the vulgar and unworthy lack of empathy, the ridicule and venom, what is the definition of the word expulsion? A common definition would be: “The process of forcing someone to leave a place, especially a country.”

A process usually entails more than one step to accomplish a purpose.

So, what was the process used to expel the Jews and other minorities from Egypt? These steps spanned many years, promoted by successive governments all marching to the same tune: "Egypt for the Egyptians".

The process follows the same template of Nazi Germany, and of all forms of fascism. Loss of citizenship rights and protection, loss of jobs in the private and public sectors, no prospect for future employment, dispossession of assets, death, and expatriation/expulsion.

Jewish girls seen in an undated photo during a bat mitzvah ceremony in Alexandria, Egypt.Credit: Wikipedia

In 1929 Egypt enacted a nationality law that stripped the great majority of Egyptian Jews, who’d lived in Egypt for centuries, of their nationality and their citizenship rights and protection. This law forced the Jews of Egypt to outright seek such protection from foreign governments by proving plausible lineage to those countries, or to remain stateless.

In case Mr. Bizawe misses the significance of that law, it implied that the majority of the Jews were not to be considered Egyptians, because of their religion.

In 1947 Egypt enacted the Company Law, which mandated Egyptian citizenship for 90% of employees and 70% of management in any private or public company. The Company Law, in one fell swoop, denied most Jews, as well as Armenians, Greeks, and other ethnic minorities, of their livelihood.

This one-two punch is a true example of economic ethnic cleansing; first you declare they are non-Egyptians, and then you restrict work in the public and private sectors to Egyptians only. After that, Jews quickly learned they would never find a job.

Once again, in case Mr. Bizawe misses the significance of that law: Greeks and Armenians were targeted for their nationality, but Jews for their religion.

In 1954 Egypt enacted the Nationalization Law, stripping Jews and even well-to-do Egyptians of their businesses, and nationalizing their assets.

With the rise of Arab nationalism and the onset of the UN partition debate over Palestine, the political environment in Egypt grew progressively more hostile toward the Jewish community. Mr. Bizawe ignores the significance of the final incarceration and expulsion of Jewish adult males in 1967.

Israel Bonan and his siblings as teenagers in Cairo in the early 1960sCredit: Israel Bonan

Did the Mizrahi Jews "leave of their own volition"? My sister left Egypt first, to be betrothed; my brother followed a year later, after he finished his engineering studies; and I had one month left before I could earn my own engineering degree and, together with my elderly parents, join my siblings.

What is "of our own volition?” History is about cause and effect: the laws and measures taken left us with no option but to leave.

It is worth noting that our plans for leaving were interrupted, because I was jailed, together with all Jewish males of roughly 18 to 55 years of age; to a person, we were expelled, after having spent anywhere from a few days to more than three years in jail - straight from jail to ship or plane.

Mr. Bizawe makes much ado of the fact that Jews "were also not the only ones expelled." Shortly after the Jews of Spain were forced to choose between conversion/expulsion or death, Muslims also shared a similar fate, by having to choose between conversion/expulsion or enslavement. Does that negate the "expulsion of Spanish Jewry" in his estimation?

Beside Jews, the other minorities who were also expelled never had to stay a day in a "detention camp" or hard-labor jail, or do any forced "calisthenics"; that was reserved exclusively for the Jews of Egypt.

Did the remainder of the Jews of Egypt who were not expelled outright but left from 1948 to 1967 "leave of their own volition", with less than ten dollars per person in their pockets?

Expulsion, whether it is active expulsion (gun to head) or passive expulsion (squeezed out), is still expulsion by any other name. Did they "leave of their own volition"?

Cairo's Maimonides Synagogue in 2006: Finally, Egypt is 'rid' of its JewsCredit: Roland Unger, Wikimedia

The Jews of Egypt saw the writing on the wall. Having no jobs, no money, no prospects, with the rest of their extended families expelled or still in jail, would they still wish to stay, and were they allowed to?

Unfortunately, in certain cases (elderly Jews who did not rate imprisonment), yes on both accounts; some stayed and died in their "homes" in Egypt, because the trauma of being displaced, and of leaving the known for the unknown, was too much for them to bear, especially in their old age.

Nowadays, the Jewish community is but a handful of women over 80 years of age; finally, Egypt is rid of her Jews.

Mr. Bizawe, I assume you never experienced torture, jail, or abuse; you earn your own living, nobody took your assets away when you reached middle age, forcing you to start a new life, in a new country, with a few dollars in your possession, while leaving of "your own volition"; you never had to worry, as a refugee would, about your children’s future...This list is too long and, yes, depressing to enumerate.

I don’t wish any of it on you. No one deserves to see their parents age ten years in one day; no one should have to be humiliated and persecuted for who they are: a Jew.

Make no mistake: We, the Mizrahi Jews, are not victims. We are survivors. Our stories need to be told, and we most certainly don’t need a reason or a lie to seek admission to any collective Jewish suffering club.

Israel Bonan, born in Egypt and expelled in 1967, lives in the U.S. and worked in computer design and database application consulting and until retirement, as an adjunct professor at Simmons College.

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