Cairo: A Memoir

Posted on The Cairo Review of Global Affairs August 29, 2012 Eric Rouleau Raised in France from early childhood and educated in the republic’s public schools, including the Alliance Israelite Universelle, my father naturally supported the country’s concept of “laïcité,” (secularism), the complete integration of Jewish citizens into their homeland, and was therefore opposed to all forms of Jewish nationalism. Although he was an atheist, or perhaps a deist—I never knew precisely—he nonetheless remained committed to the traditions of Judaism. He celebrated all the major holidays—Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—despite allowing generous portions of liturgical prayers to be skipped. He didn’t object, except to taunt me playfully, when during my teenage identity crisis I decided to take evening courses at a synagogue to study the sacred texts like the Talmud as the precursor to a rabbinical career. Then I lost my faith. Nor did he object to my decision to join Hashomer Hatzair (literally, “The Young Guard”), the Zionist youth movement with Marxist influences. I suspect that like me, my father was ignorant of nearly everything about Zionism and Marxism, two ideologies completely absent from his intellectual universe. I left the movement a year later, disappointed by its attempt to reconcile Jewish nationalism with international Marxism. Every five years, my father would save up enough money for us to take vacations in Lebanon where to our delight, the abundance of water, the exuberance of its flora, and the bounty of its orchards contrasted with arid and dry Egypt. From Cairo, a ramshackle train from a bygone era, with deafening clatter of iron, would slowly bring us across the Sinai. A bus then drove us to Tel Aviv where we visited my brother who’d emigrated to Palestine before World War II, less by idealism than a taste for adventure. Nothing else drew me to the Holy Land, where we spent only two or three days before taking three months of vacation in Lebanon. We were well integrated into Egyptian society where Jews held a privileged position. In the center of Cairo, the business districts would fall into a deep lethargy on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Many of the department stores, boutiques, banks, companies as well as the Stock Exchange stayed closed. Cafes, restaurants and cinemas operated at a slower pace. All one needed to do was walk down the main streets of the capital to see the glittering names of the upscale department stores like Cicurel, Chemla, Gattegno, Orosdi Back, Adès, Oreco, Le Salon Vert, La Petite Reine—all belonging to rich Sephardic families. There was only one other department store comparable to them, Sednaoui, which was owned by Christians of the same name who’d emigrated from Syria. Leading the Jewish community was Haim Nahum Effendi, Egypt’s chief rabbi, from 1925 to 1960. He was a senator and member of the royal academy, a position that was worth his exceptional erudition. An accomplished polyglot, he spoke as well in literary Arabic as he did in Hebrew, Turkish, French and English. Thanks to diplomatic missions he undertook for the sultan of the Ottoman Empire until 1920, at a time when he occupied the functions of chief rabbi for the entire empire, he maintained close relations with European political circles—an advantage he used while serving the Egyptian authorities and the Jewish community. A product of the Alliance Israelite Universelle in Paris where he spent his early years, he shared with most Egyptian Jews “integrationist” or assimilationist convictions, and with them, their reticence over emigration (Aliyah) to Palestine. For a long time, Egyptian Jews confused Zionism with philanthropy, believing that their small donations helped Jews fleeing European persecution, much to the chagrin of Zionist movement leaders. Furthermore, the notable figures of the community, led by the chief rabbi, began to slowly become aware that the Palestine conflict could have serious consequences for Jews in a country where the majority of the population could only be hostile to the Zionist project. Thus their constant need to proclaim themselves loud and clear as “both Jews and patriotic Egyptians.” It was a declaration of faith that earned them the support and protection of the palace and the government and even the goodwill of the Muslim elite, before the escalation of the Judeo-Palestinian conflict. Egyptians naturally felt a unique sympathy toward Palestinians, their neighbors who had been stripped of a part of their territory by a minority of foreign colonialists. Interviewing Hassan El-Banna Before his assassination on February 12, 1949, I had the opportunity to interview Hassan El-Banna for the Egyptian Gazette, an English-language daily newspaper where I worked as a journalist. The supreme leader of the Muslim Brotherhood had led the campaign against the creation of a Jewish state and provoked in me a feeling of indescribable anxiety. Stocky and wearing a loose red tunic for the occasion rather than a suit, his face framed by a messy black necklace of a beard, he received his guest with a clerical smoothness, staring at him with a piercing gaze. He was clearly trying to seduce his interlocutor using a playful sort of cunning as well as flowery language and well-structured analyses supported with a host of quotes and apparently inexhaustible anecdotes. He seemed indifferent to the fact that I was Jewish. A brilliant and passionate orator, his demagoguery, with its prophetic overtones, made large crowds go wild with enthusiasm. He believed that only Islam could cure the ills that the people suffered from. His main targets were, aside from Zionism, British colonialism, the “moral turpitude” of Westerners, “infidels” who held all the economic power along with the wealthy, who he denounced for their selfishness and greed. He unforgivingly condemned socialism and communism as foreign doctrines that were incompatible with the message of the Prophet. He attracted admirers and supporters thanks to the many networks he controlled around the country and the social, athletic and charitable associations, as well as the free clinics and schools that he had built—thus overcoming the failures of the state while at the same time using them as a cover for plots and terrorist operations. Two years after our interview, government agents killed El-Banna as revenge for the assassination of Prime Minister Mahmoud Fahmy Nokrashy Pasha by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the years that followed the second World War, the national movement’s priority wasn’t the fight against Zionism, but rather resistance to British occupation, against which activists from the leftist Wafd party, along with Communists, organized public meetings, sit-ins and protests. I participated in one of them in February 1946, the largest ever organized by the National Committee of Workers and Students. It led to a bloodbath. Faced with a sea of tightly packed and boisterous protesters rushing onto the Ismailia Square (which became Tahrir Square after the Nasserist Revolution) where the British military barracks were, security forces opened fire on the crowd, killing some twenty people and wounded hundreds more. A bullet ended the life of a young student marching beside me. The scene of this massacre would burn itself into my memory. The prime minister, Ismail Sedki Pasha, who also happened to be a major figure in the business world, had dozens of Wafdist and communist figures arrested and banned from the clubs and publications they led. However, the event gave powerful momentum to the national movement, which, six years later, brought about the fall of the monarchy— a prelude to the evacuation of the British bases in the Suez Canal Zone. Zionists and Communists The political climate further deteriorated beginning in November 1947 when the United Nations General Assembly decreed the partition of Palestine into two states—one Jewish, the other Palestinian Arab. The decision would cause a surge in anger and mark the beginning of a Judeophobic campaign. The press, which until then had exercised restraint, began attacking Jews, accusing them of being both “Zionists” and “communists.” The creation of the State of Israel signaled the divorce between Jews and their compatriots around the Arab world. Zionist officials saw it as confirmation of their argument that non-Muslim minorities had no future in Islamic countries. Emigration to Israel surged once again. And yet my family like many others decided not to leave the country, still holding out hope for a return to normal. The government of King Farouk exploited the situation to discredit the Marxists, calling them “Zionists in disguise.” Beyond the Jewish background of many communist leaders, their decision to support the partition of Palestine made them highly suspect; they had thus implicitly endorsed the objective of the Zionist movement, whereas for years they had considered it “reactionary” and “racist.” In fact, Egyptian communists, like most of their comrades around the Arab world, supported the decision of the Soviet Union to vote in the United Nations General Assembly in favor of partition and thus the creation of a Jewish state. This blind conformity would cost them for years, despite remaining deeply hostile to Zionist ideology. The Jewish Anti-Zionist League, for example, was dissolved by Egyptian Authorities, its leaders arrested and its publications seized. An offshoot of a communist organization, the league also had defended the creation of a Jewish state. The reaction by authorities was even more brutal during the invasion of Israel by the Arab armies. On May 15, 1948, hundreds of supposed “communists,” and “Zionists” were held in two separate internment camps near Cairo. Many among the communist leadership, both foreigners and Egyptian citizens, were expelled from the country. They had more luck than their Iraqi counterparts, though, where three were hanged in Baghdad on the pretense that they supported the partition of Palestine. Eventually, I too was arrested, and subject to intense questioning about my political positions before being released on bail a month later while the pre-trial investigation continued. Given that martial law was in place, my imprisonment could have lasted indefinitely. Under threat of a double conviction for Zionism and communism, unemployed and without financial resources, I decided to leave Egypt. The police did not prevent my departure, but would only issue me an “exit without return” visa. Unwanted by my native land, deprived of my family, my friends and acquaintances, I left with two feelings: the sadness of emigrating and the joy at moving to France, the country so loved by my father. There a second life awaited me, one full of so many surprises. Several months later, on July 23, 1952, the “Free Officers” led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, seized power and one year after that, founded the republic. Return to Cairo Threatened with prosecution for “Zionist and communist activities” and expelled from Egypt, my exile lasted twelve years, and was the source of the surreal aspect of the welcome reserved for me upon my arrival at the Cairo airport. Accompanied by my wife Rosy, a news photographer, we were received by a senior official from the Information Ministry with unusual consideration, driven in an official limousine to a grand Cairo hotel where a suite had been reserved for us. A large flower arrangement was there, with a card indicating that “the president of the republic” welcomed us. All these honors were certainly enough to surprise this former persona non grata. The genesis of these events took place in Paris several months earlier, in the spring of 1963. I was the editor of the Middle East section for Le Monde newspaper, a position that had been bestowed on me in the face of all logic, since at the time all Arab states refused to issue entry visas to Jews. The newspaper’s management trusted me no doubt due to my previous reporting in sub-Saharan Africa, at a time when it was not easy to work there since the decolonization movement was in full swing. Certainly my knowledge of Arabic and English could also have explained their odd choice, but that wasn’t enough to open the doors to me in most of the countries of the region. My investigations in Israel, Iran and Turkey may have suggested an ability to knock down walls of the “Arab fortress,” but I had no illusions, given the serious hostility that Israel provoked in the region. I even thought of resigning from the position to devote myself to another region where my background would be of no consequence. A ray of hope would shine three years later when an Egyptian journalist visiting Paris asked to meet with me. I knew Loutfi El-Kholy by reputation—he was a talented columnist at the daily paper Al-Ahram, an essayist, playwright, and leftist. Over the course of the lunch I had invited him to, he made me a proposition that would lead to a major turning point in my professional life. He told me that he had been given the task by Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram and friend and confidante of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, of extending an invitation to me to visit Egypt. All of its amenities would be at my disposal, he assured me, to carry out an investigation, and I would be free to travel wherever I wished and speak to whomever I wished, even members of the opposition, and free to publish my writings with no censorship of any kind. An entry visa would be immediately issued to me for whatever length of time I needed—the very privileges that the Nasserist Egypt of the time virtually never granted to foreign journalists. Made aware of the offer, the management of Le Monde, authorized me to accept the invitation on one condition: all costs of the trip would be paid for by Le Monde, and not the Egyptian paper. Several decades passed before I was able to penetrate the mystery around the odd invitation from the editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram. Speaking with several confidantes of Nasser after his death, in particularly his chief of staff Sami Charaf, I discovered that political calculation had led to the decision to open Egypt to a special correspondent from Le Monde. With Algeria having gained independence the previous year, Egypt and France had renewed diplomatic relations; Nasser wanted to end the years of quarreling and confrontation by inaugurating a relationship built on trust with the government of President Charles de Gaulle, who he greatly admired, something that would prove reciprocal. And all the more so because he believed, not without reason, that Paris was offering newly sovereign countries a third way, allowing for an escape from Soviet-American binary system. The persistent hostility between the two countries had to be cleared up as much as possible using various means, including French media. Only Le Monde, considered at the time to be pro-Gaullist and a supporter of the Third World, whose authority and influence went well beyond France’s borders, had the potential to contribute to the rapprochement between the two nations. Nasser’s advisers, in particular the director of Al-Ahram, no doubt inspired by Loutfi El-Kholy, believed that a first step in that direction would be to establish a relationship between the person who led the Middle East section at Le Monde. It wasn’t a completely crazy bet: I was regarded in both political circles as a “progressive,” likely to be supportive of certain accomplishments of the Nasser regime. The tenor of my articles had caught the attention of Egyptian officials. During the Belgian-Congolese crisis in 1960, I had clearly taken a position in the confrontation between Brussels and Léopoldville (the former name of the Congo-Zaire capital) in favor of the independence movement and its leader Patrice Lumumba, the victim of a large international conspiracy (to which the United States was no stranger) that led to his assassination and replacement by Mobutu. I was one of the only journalists in the French press to reveal the underside of the secession of the Katanga province directed by the Union Minière du Haut Katanga (UMHK), the Belgian holding company that exploiting the rich copper mines. Like all major companies during the colonial period, it feared that independence would infringe on its excessive privileges. Two years later, in 1962, in a series of articles, I defended the Yemen Arab Republic after the overthrow of the monarchy. My sustained criticism of the Shah of Iran (who was considered in the West to be a “major reformer”), his human rights violations and his submission to the will of the United States, caught the attention of Egyptian political circles that broadly shared my politics. My relative sympathy for Nasser’s Egypt contrasted with the open hostility of nearly the entire press toward the “dictator” in Cairo; my paper wasn’t the only one to criticize the Egyptian president, to compare him to Hitler and Stalin, to accuse him successively or simultaneously of being a fascist, communist, or worse—an agent of the Kremlin. As far as I was concerned, I wasn’t fooled by the familiar insults in the West used to demonize Third World leaders who defied the established order. The leader of the Egyptian revolution hadn’t merely overthrown a monarchy, dispossessed the major landowners, dismantled the British, French and domestic industrial and financial oligarchies, as well as nationalized the Suez Canal—the flagship and symbol of foreign takeover in the Nile Valley—he had also established cordial relations with the USSR and its satellite nations as a counterbalance to Western influence, in particular that of the United States. The fourth French republic criticized first and foremost his support for the Algerian people’s uprising, virtually declaring Nasser the instigator of that independence movement. Since all is fair in love and war, the campaign against Nasser had a decidedly moral tone, to better conceal the hidden interests of these major powers. I felt that it was entirely legitimate for Nasser to support the Algerian revolution, to want to erect the Aswan Dam as a way to expand and streamline the irrigation of a country that was largely desert, as a way to increase its energy capacity and in the process, that of its industrial potential. I considered it rather petty on the part of Washington in 1956 to deprive the project of its financial and technological support as a way of “punishing” Nasser for its arms deal with Russia which after all was justified by the United States’ refusal to sell Egypt those very means for self-defense. Resisting Imperialism It wasn’t difficult to share the enthusiasm of the Egyptian people, as well as all people of the Third World when the Suez Canal Company was nationalized on July 26, 1956, an initiative of unprecedented temerity for the time. It was a revolutionary act, the second in the region after the aborted nationalization of Iranian petroleum four years earlier by the moderate nationalist prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh. His defiance led him to be vilified and denounced as an agent of Moscow, then finally overthrown in the 1953 coup d’état fomented by the CIA. In both cases, however, the reacquisition of national resources was consistent with the rights of sovereignty and did not violate the interests of shareholders who were lawfully expropriated and fairly compensated. The retaliation against Nasser, compared to what Mossadegh experienced, seemed to me even more brutal and just as unjustified. Barely three months after the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company, Israeli tanks entered the Sinai while French and British forces landed at Port Said in order to, it was claimed, separate the warring factions. In reality, the common objective of the allies was to bring down Nasser’s republic, as well as the Jewish state’s desire for free access to the Suez Canal, and above all, take over the Sinai. The victory of the invaders appeared certain, despite the robust Egyptian resistance, until the day that U.S. President Eisenhower put an end to it, demanding and obtaining the withdrawal of all foreign troops. The Soviet premier, Marshall Bulganin, had himself threatened to intervene militarily, no doubt a symbolic gesture of support from Moscow to a developing nation. The one-of-a-kind American president wasn’t without his own interests either. He had taken umbrage at the collusion between London, Paris and Jerusalem behind his back, with their obvious goal of having dominion over Egypt. Eisenhower was right, though; his intervention brought the popularity and influence of the United States in Egypt and across the Middle East to new heights while the failure of this “tripartite aggression” sounded the death knell for the Franco-British presence in Egypt and marked the beginning of the decline of these two powers in the region. The damage done to Israel was no less: the Jewish state was seen more than ever as an expansionist state in the service of Western imperialism. In spite of all this, I went back to Egypt with strong reservations regarding the Nasser regime. The overthrow of the monarchy followed by major economic and social reforms, as well as the restoration of national sovereignty after the permanent eviction of the British occupying forces, admittedly satisfied the convictions of my youth. But the military aspect of the regime established by the junta that seized power on July 23, 1952, remained from my point of view an indelible stain. In the conflict two years later that would pit Nasser against General Mohammed Naguib, the leader and icon of the revolution, I believed that the latter, in wanting to legalize all political parties, from the Muslim Brotherhood to the communists and to restore parliament, was right. Paradoxically, I wasn’t unsympathetic to the arguments made by General Naguib’s adversaries: that such democratization would merely reestablish the influence of big business, which still had the means to dominate the political scene. The single-party system was in place in most of the countries that had achieved independence since World War II, and it seemed that it was the price to pay to insure progress and well-being of people in developing nations. Torn between these two diametrically opposed arguments, I thought I’d found the right position in the belief that single party system or not, nothing justified depriving public freedoms, the violation of what we would later call human rights. The brutal repression in Egypt of all of the opposition—liberal Wafdists, communists and the Muslim Brotherhood—was intolerable to me, especially since abuse of all kinds was not uncommon in internment camps. Le Monde reported, at the beginning of the 1960s, the death under torture of two prominent intellectuals who I had known personally in Cairo in my youth, two men I admired: Farid Haddad, the “doctor to the poor,” who was one of my high school classmates, and Shouhdi Attya El-Chafei, who I had known when he was editor-in-chief of the weekly Al Gamahir (The Masses). Shouhdi, an adjunct English professor whose charisma and intelligence seduced more than a few people, played a major role in the communist movement. The bitter irony was that the two men had been beaten to death by their jailers even though neither was fundamentally anti-Nasser. I had their memories in mind when Mohamed Hassanein Heikal welcomed me the day after my return to Cairo in June 1963. Over the course of the dinner in my honor on the terrace of the Semiramis, a hotel on the banks of the Nile, I wanted to immediately dispel any ambiguity that could have colored our budding friendship. I thanked him for the invitation and for giving me the opportunity to once again set foot in my native land, this time under quite different conditions than those that led to my exile. I was also grateful to him for obtaining the agreement in principle from President Nasser for an interview with Le Monde, a privilege that the leader rarely granted. While incidentally revealing my ethical boundaries, which I strictly adhered to, I made it clear that my friendship would never be unconditional and that I would be publishing a series of articles upon my return to Paris that he most likely would not like, but which would honestly reflect my own views, views that were certainly not his own nor those of the Egyptian leadership. Heikal, a very understated man, accepted the message with a surprised grimace, and then, it seemed to me, a barely-disguised look of satisfaction. Loutfi El-Kholy, who was present for the discussion, later told me that the Al-Ahram editor preferred by far to deal with a man of convictions, as he was himself, even if our opinions diverged. He felt that good faith criticism coming from a credible observer better served the Nasser regime than praises from a servile journalist. As an experienced journalist himself quite familiar with the Western press, my intransigence surely did not shock him. I then brought up the most taboo question of all, that of the persecution of political prisoners, saying I was planning to pose it to the president during the interview. Knowing that Heikal would of course warn Nasser about it, I added that in world opinion, or at least France’s for the purpose of our newspaper, the internment camps eclipsed the positive aspects of Egyptian government policy. The implicit warning was not lost on Heikal, who in response merely flashed an enigmatic smile. Several years later I would learn that he secretly shared my opinion. My meeting with Gamal Abdel Nasser several days later would be decisive in more than one way. First, I was pleasantly surprised by the cordial simplicity of how he received me. Dressed in canvas pants and a light cotton shirt with an open collar, he welcomed us, Rosy and me, in a relatively modest home in the Cairo suburb of Manshiet El-Bakry, where he had lived as a young military officer—lodgings he preferred to the palaces provided by the republic. The living room where the interview took place was furnished in the tradition of the Egyptian middle class—imitation Louis XV couches and armchairs—far from reflecting the status of a head of state. The grayish-green wall was decorated with signed portraits of Third World leaders: Tito, Nehru, Zhou Enlai, Nkrumah and Sukarno. The room did not have air conditioning, and a fan made the June Cairo heat just bearable. Our interview—which alternated between English and the Egyptian colloquial Arabic—lasted more than two hours. Heikal was present, but out of respect to the president he never said a word during the conversation. Tall, with the massive shoulders of a slightly stooped boxer and an intense but kind look, our host spoke first to put us at ease. The ice was quickly broken: he was lonely, he complained, ever since his family, wife and children, left for Alexandria for their summer vacation. The house, where we saw no aides or domestic help (except the one who served us lemonade and Turkish coffee), felt desperately vacant to him. Fortunately, he added, he worked a lot, too much for his taste, in his home office. Despite his schedule, he forced himself to take time to indulge in his favorite sports, swimming and tennis. Didn’t he have a hobby to pass the time? Nasser wouldn’t go so far as to confide his affection—which his friends knew about—for movie Westerns, nor his passion for chess which he played as often as possible with General Abdel Hakim Amer, his closest friend among the officers who seized power in July 1952. He would go on to fire him with a heavy heart after the 1967 military debacle in which Amer, then military chief-of-staff, was held responsible. Nasser displayed an insatiable curiosity and an extraordinary ability to listen. Before I could formulate the first of my questions, he asked me at length about my professional life, the way French media worked, the freedoms they had, and, most surprisingly, about my personal life. How many children did we have? Where did we live? How was I able to purchase our apartment in the center of Paris with payments on an installment plan? What are the interests included in a French bank loan? What percentage of our household income went to paying back those loans? My astonished look caused him to excuse himself for his indiscretion, explaining that he trying to figure out a way to provide Egyptians with low-cost housing that they would own, and he was asking the question to know if such a project was a utopian one in a developing country where the income of the vast majority of citizens was barely enough to survive. And as if his office hadn’t provided him with all relevant information about me, he asked me about my origins, the life I had led in Egypt in my youth, all while carefully avoiding the reasons that led to my exile. We were “neighbors” since my birthplace, Heliopolis, was near his home in Manshiet El-Bakry where the interview was taking place. He was clearly engaged in a game of seduction for which men gifted in communication have the secret. Read MoreAugust 29, 2012 No Comments

The Cairo Review of Global Affairs August 29, 2012 Eric Rouleau Raised in France from early childhood and educated in the republic’s public schools, including the Alliance Israelite Universelle, my father naturally supported the country’s concept of “laïcité,” (secularism), the complete integration of Jewish citizens into their homeland, and was therefore opposed to all forms […]

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Communities: Remnants of a Jewish past

Posted on Egypt Independent June 28th, 2012 By: Jake Meth A taxi pulls up to the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue on Adly Street in downtown Cairo. The driver has to wait for the manic traffic to calm down before he can unload a wheelchair from his trunk, unfold it, and help a frail, elderly woman into its seat. The occasion is the Jewish holiday of Passover, and the woman is one the few remaining Egyptian Jews. The driver wheels the woman past some 20 security guards stationed in front of the synagogue. Entrants, with some exceptions, need to be on a list before being allowed into the seder, the ritual dinner that celebrates the holiday. According to two of the seder’s opening lines: “All who are hungry, let them enter and eat. All who are in need, let them come celebrate Passover with us.” But here, security concerns appear to take precedence. The seder is held in a multipurpose room adjacent to the synagogue’s impressive, high-walled central courtyard. Almost all of the Egyptian Jews present are elderly women, sitting at two small, round tables at the back of the room. A long, white-clothed table runs down the center, at the head of which sits Rabbi Mark El Fassi, the president of Les Enfants d’Abraham (the Children of Abraham) organization in France, who has been imported to lead the seder. Fassi conducts a short and not overtly religious service, reciting only a few Hebrew prayers — which at one point compete with the Arabic call to prayer echoing through the downtown streets outside. He cycles through Arabic, Hebrew, French and English in an attempt to accommodate the language capabilities of everyone in the room. He tells a few jokes. The food is plentiful and the conversation friendly. And there is wine. The primary force behind this seder, and the continued relevance of Egypt’s Jewish community, is the woman seated to Fassi’s left, Carmen Weinstein. As president of the Egyptian Jewish community, Weinstein has presided over the restoration of the Bassatine Cemetery — the second oldest Jewish cemetery in the world — and the synagogue at which the seder is held, among other projects. She maintains a website, Bassatine News, which bills itself as “the ONLY Jewish newsletter reporting directly from Egypt.” That United States Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson attends the seder is a further testament to Weinstein’s clout. But Weinstein’s efforts have only put off an inevitable reality: Egypt’s Jewish community — some 80,000 strong in the early twentieth century and now consisting of a few dozen elderly women — is dying out. “There’s not much of a community,” says Joel Beinin, a professor of Middle East history at Stanford University who wrote “The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry.” “I mean we’re talking about a few people here.” Israel declared itself a sovereign state in 1948, immediately setting off a war with neighboring Arab states, including Egypt. In the middle of that year in Egypt, bombs and rioting in Cairo’s Jewish neighborhoods left 70 Egyptian Jews killed and hundreds wounded. The situation worsened during the 1956 Suez Crisis, when Israel, France and Great Britain attacked Egypt after former President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. As Beinin puts it in his book, “Between 1919 and 1956, the entire Egyptian Jewish community ... was transformed from a national asset into a fifth column.” Most of Egypt’s remaining Jews left after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Isaac Cohen, a Jew born in Cairo who now lives in Chicago, was attending university in Montpellier, France in 1956 when he learned that war had broken out back home. “I didn’t know whether my parents were dead or alive. France was an enemy country for Egypt so there were no communications,” he recalls. “And I was scared to death. Then one day I got a mail from Italy that they had left and they were expelled.” Cohen, a retired professor of cell and molecular biology at Northwestern University, says in a phone interview: “It is important for Egyptians to know about the population of Egypt that practically disappeared from Egypt. After all, this is part of their heritage.” Despite what happened to his family, Cohen betrays no ill-will toward the country of his birth. “I had a beautiful life, a beautiful youth in Egypt,” he says On the guestbook of the website Historical Society of Jews from Egypt, other expatriate Egyptian Jews like Cohen can be found trying to reconnect with their homeland. Egyptian Jews living in Mexico City, Malta, Bristol, Montreal, New York and Jerusalem, to name a few places, post messages in hopes of finding long-lost friends, trading memories and telling personal stories of when (almost all in the 1950s and 60s) and under what conditions they left. While few of the posts seem bitter at the Egypt of today, some do hint at lingering resentment over the treatment of Egyptian Jews under the 1952 military regime. “Egypt was a beautiful country before 1952,” writes one poster. Other websites and organizations run by expatriate Egyptian Jews, such as Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA), Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, Harif (Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa) and the blog “Point of no return,” aggressively highlight what they describe as a history of Jewish persecution in the region. The sites exhaustively compile media stories and other reports documenting Jewish expulsions and continued expressions of anti-Semitism. They emphasize that Middle Eastern and North African Jews were made refugees, often hinting that Palestinian refugees have been given disproportionately more attention than Jewish ones. The JIMENA mission statement reads, in part: “JIMENA seeks to address the existing gap in the historical narrative of the Middle East and North Africa by sharing the Mizrahi and Sephardi story of oppression, plight and displacement.” Joseph Wahed, JIMENA’s founder and an Egyptian Jew, says Egypt’s Jews were “all ethnically cleansed between 1948 and 1970.” Wahed and many expatriate Egyptian Jews, in their focus on preserving the past, want the Jewish antiquities that remain in Egypt to be moved to the United States, but have been met with resistance by both Weinstein and the Egyptian government. “The government is a major obstacle because it considers these as ‘Egyptian Antiquities’ and belonging to Egypt. The Egyptians will do anything to hurt us,” he writes in an email message. The voices of the remaining Egyptian Jews remain silent on the issue of their dwindling community. Despite this journalist’s repeated attempts to contact members of the community, all refused to speak on or even off the record. Speaking in a telephone interview, Beinin says that the community today has found itself in a complicated position, which is why its members are reluctant to speak to the media. “There’s nothing they can say that can be safe for them,” he says. “They are under the intense scrutiny of the Egyptian government and Egyptian intelligentsia. They themselves are not Zionists, that’s why they’re still in Egypt. But they’re not sufficiently anti-Israel for some Egyptian intellectuals.” Despite the difficulties inherent to the task, Weinstein appears set on maintaining the Egyptian Jewish community. She declined to be interviewed for this story. “There is a very long history of Jewish life in Egypt; it goes all the way back to Abraham and Joseph, and permanent settlement as old as Jeremiah,” says Beinin. “So if someone is actually thinking about the past and future of this community, you don’t so easily say it’s done.” Cohen has recently seen some encouraging signs. He says he is inspired by Egypt’s young generation, which not only toppled dictatorial President Hosni Mubarak but has also gone on to question state-propagated narratives about the country’s history. Cohen says that through Facebook, he has been able to connect with a few young Egyptians who are interested in the history of the country’s indigenous Jewish community, though he says most are afraid to speak about it publicly. Cohen says he may return to Cairo for a visit next spring to meet these young Egyptians in person. He hasn’t been here for over 50 years. “The light at the end of the tunnel are my new friends in Egypt,” he says. “I consider them as heroes. I want to visit Cairo, the land of my birth, and I want to honor them.” *Correction: This article previously stated that Isaac Cohen was obtaining his PhD in Paris, France when the Suez Crisis Read More...June 28, 2012 No Comments

Egypt Independent June 28th, 2012 By: Jake Meth A taxi pulls up to the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue on Adly Street in downtown Cairo. The driver has to wait for the manic traffic to calm down before he can unload a wheelchair from his trunk, unfold it, and help a frail, elderly woman into its seat. […]

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My Mom’s American Liberation

Posted on The Wall Street Journal May 11, 2012 By Lucette Lagnado No one who knew my mother Edith ever thought of her as an icon of American feminism. Yet with the passage of years I have become convinced that this is exactly what she was, though she never attended a protest or held a placard. Small, shy, seemingly passive, she was for decades a "stay-at-home Mom," that now-searing term used to describe what women have done for generations: look after a husband and children and a household. Unlike most American women, though—including those who figured in the recent contretemps between Democrats and Republicans over the choices Ann Romney made—my immigrant mother never had a choice. Not a hint of one. For a young girl coming of age in Cairo of the 1930s and '40s, whether you were Muslim, Jewish or Christian, rich or poor, society didn't allow any options. Marriage was the only possible goal. It was what a friend of mine, an elderly Egyptian woman, calls the "yallah phenomenon." Yallah is an Arabic expression used to mean, "hurry up, come on, what are you waiting for?" A young single woman in Egypt could expect to be constantly harangued by her parents saying, "Yallah, get married already." In my mother's case, she escaped for a time the tyranny of yallah. Her own mother, my grandmother, allowed her to stay in school till she was 15—a feat in those days and in that culture—and there she earned a diploma issued from Paris. That brownish piece of paper, known as a brevet, enabled her to be a career woman. She was licensed to work as a schoolteacher and got a job almost immediately at a prestigious Jewish private school. It was a heady period. Friends from that time still recall how proudly my mother walked to her job every day, dressed in a fitted skirt and blouse and carrying a briefcase. She was such a standout that she became the protégé of the wife of a pasha, one of the loftiest titles in the land. Madame Alice Cattaui Pasha, one of the most powerful women in Egypt, chief lady-in-waiting to the queen, was also the school's benefactress. An elegant, distinguished woman, she devoted herself to various do-good causes, including volunteering at Jewish communal institutions. A substantial number of Cairo's Jews were poor and lived in decrepit conditions in the old Jewish ghetto. Wealthy Jewish individuals led by Youssef Cattaui Pasha and his wife Alice took the place of a welfare system. My pretty, diligent mother caught the eye of the pasha's wife and an unforgettable friendship began—unforgettable at least from my mother's standpoint. Under the aegis of Madame Cattaui Pasha, as Mom always called her, my mother broadened her responsibilities to include acquiring books so the school would have a library and then added the role of school librarian alongside her teaching duties. It was a blissful time, as my mother told it, when her whole life was lived among books. Then it was over. In 1943, Mom became engaged to my father, a man some 22 years her senior, and was expected to stop working. Immediately. It wasn't possible for a married woman to have a job. That would mean that her husband couldn't support her. Edith threw herself into her new role. She had her first child, my older sister Suzette, barely a year after the wedding, then four more children. One baby, a girl, died in infancy, then I came along. In those intervening years a king fell and a group of military officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser rose to power. Suddenly life in Egypt was over for the country's 80,000 Jews. They left for anywhere that would take them—Israel, England, France, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Australia, Canada and, in our case, Brooklyn, N.Y. Yet the American dream seemed elusive for my family. Back in Cairo, at least my Mom had a maid. Here she was forced to do all the housework herself, and tend to me, my siblings and my now-debilitated father, who was in his 60s. Dad, who had been a businessman, went to work selling ties on the subways, struggling with a heavy limp. At 18, my brother took a job to support the family. It was barely enough, and one month we missed paying the rent. Mom began to voice a very American desire. Like other women in our New World, she wanted to get a job. It seemed so preposterous. She didn't know the language and didn't have any skills—though she proudly unrolled the aging brown diploma, the brevet, that she had carefully carted from Egypt to New York. Dad didn't take her seriously; none of us did. But it was the '60s, and even women from my small, sheltered community were breaking out, emulating other American women. Mom's dearest friend, an immigrant from Morocco, got a job in one of the small factories that lined 20th Avenue in Bensonhurst, sewing children's clothes. Mom had never learned to sew, so that wasn't an option. Then she had an idea. She sent a letter to Grolier, a famous educational publisher, asking for employment in her impeccable schoolteacher's handwriting. She was offered a meeting, but when the day came she had a quandary: What to do with me? She had never left me with a babysitter—not once. And so, off we went, hand-in-hand, to Mom's first American job interview. I can still remember the look of the Grolier staffer when she spotted me. She told Mom she hoped I would behave. I sat there in my chair as they talked, too frightened to breathe. Some days later, to all our amazement, an offer was made. I don't remember the exact salary amount, only that it seemed munificent. My father still balked—whoever thought of a woman working? After much agonizing, my mother turned down the job. It took a few more years for Mom's personal liberation. In 1969, when I started high school, revolution was in the air. I had a scholarship to a private girl's school in the Prospect Park area. Without breathing a word to any of us, Mom went out one morning and applied for a job at Grand Army Plaza, the Brooklyn Public Library's flagship branch. Her only credential was her brevet from 1930s Egypt. Without even consulting Dad this time, my mother said "yes" to a part-time position. She would only be a catalog clerk, typing up those beige cards that went into those narrow brown wooden drawers. Yet I have come to believe that this single act took more courage and bravado than the speeches and signs and epithets mouthed by generations of feminists. By going back to work, Mom had gone up against centuries of deeply ingrained traditions about a woman's place. In my mother's case, her rebellion was to take up where she'd left off some 25 years earlier when she had bid goodbye to the pasha's wife. She found like-minded women in the catalog department. It was staffed by émigrés and exiles, men and women with proud pasts who had been humbled by their life in exile and bonded over the experience. Each day, Mom courageously made her way to work, taking two and three subways, dropping me off at school, then running, running across that small expanse of park that leads to Grand Army Plaza and the big bronze doors of the library. There are photos of her later standing by her new cubicle: It has her name on it. How proud she looks—as if she realizes that in her own way, she has become an emblem of women's liberation. Ms. Lagnado, a reporter for the Journal, is author of "The Arrogant Years," a memoir about her mother that was released in paperback in April by Ecco/HarperCollins. A version of this article appeared May 12, 2012, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: My Mom's American Liberation. Read More...May 11, 2012 No Comments

The Wall Street Journal May 11, 2012 By Lucette Lagnado No one who knew my mother Edith ever thought of her as an icon of American feminism. Yet with the passage of years I have become convinced that this is exactly what she was, though she never attended a protest or held a placard. Small, […]

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Jewish refugee rights is an unsolved human rights issue

Posted on Haaretz April 27, 2012 By Lyn Julius Refael Bigio remembers the moment in 1962 that the regime of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser seized his family's property. Police had cordoned off the Bigio bottling plant at 14 Aswan Street in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. A policeman barked at Bigio and his father: "Hand over the keys!" The nightmare of dispossession that was destined to afflict some 870,000 Jews across the Arab world - forced out or expelled with just the shirts on their backs - had caught up with the Bigio family. Ever since, the Bigios have been engaged in a long-running battle for restitution. Believing they could not get justice in an Egyptian court, their fight has pitted them against the mighty Coca-Cola corporation in the U.S. courts. This week, the family is girding its loins for the next legal round. Not only have few Jewish refugees ever received compensation, but their plight has never been internationally recognized. Yet, between 1948 and 1972, more Jews in the region became refugees than Palestinians (who numbered 711,000 ), and they lost some 50 percent more in assets, according to economist Sidney Zabludoff. Some 200,000 sought sanctuary in the West, but the majority found refuge in Israel. The Bigios must have felt alone in a David-versus-Goliath fight for justice - until just before Passover. That's when Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon announced a sea change in Israeli foreign policy. Henceforth, the Jewish refugee issue would be raised in every peace-based negotiation with Arab states and Palestinians. Israeli embassies will lobby parliaments to adopt resolutions recognizing the refugee status of Jews from Arab countries. Israel is proposing that both sets of refugees be compensated, based on the value of their assets at the time they became refugees, from an international fund. Many will wonder - with Israeli-Palestinian peace talks going nowhere fast - why throw another spanner in the works? When he was justice minister in 2000, Yossi Beilin of the Meretz party dismissed the subject of Jewish refugees as a distraction from the land-for-peace Oslo agenda, and closed down the unit that collected data on Jewish property in Arab countries. In any case, he reasoned, refugees were a final-status issue, to be resolved far into the future. Why, after years of neglect, has Israel now decided to dust off the cobwebs? No doubt successive governments saw Jews from the Muslim world as Zionist immigrants, not refugees. Singling out Jews from Arab countries would have obstructed their successful assimilation out of the transit camps into the great Israeli melting pot. A public fuss might also have impeded quiet efforts to get hostage remnants out of Arab countries (the rescue of Syrian Jews was still going on until the 1990s ). The primary reason why the Foreign Ministry has balked at raising the topic of Jewish refugees, however, is that the government feared bringing the Palestinian refugee issue to the fore. But even as Israel has remained silent, the Arab side has never ceased raising the Palestinian refugee issue. Some believe the Palestinians cannot be held responsible for what happened to the Jewish refugees. But Ayalon argues that the Arab League states, which instigated the 1948 war against Israel, were responsible for creating both sets of refugees. But when all's said and done, if Israel were to concede an independent Palestinian state, and if agreement were reached on borders, settlements and even Jerusalem, peace negotiations would still founder on the immovable rock of the Palestinian "right of return." Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reaffirmed the "right of return" in a Jordanian newspaper interview in September 2011. Even Fatah "moderates" will not give up their "right" to Arabize Israel by flooding it with the four million descendants of Palestinians, who, under the aegis of the UN Works and Relief Agency, are uniquely permitted to pass on their refugee status from generation to generation. This is how Ayalon's Jewish refugees initiative will promote peace - by making both sides recognize that a permanent exchange of roughly equal numbers of refugees took place. One might argue that no linkage is possible - one refugee problem has been resolved, the other has not. But the non-resettlement of Palestinian refugees is an abuse of human rights. Palestinians need to follow the model of successful Jewish refugee resettlement by being allowed to acquire full citizenship in a Palestinian state or in their host Arab countries, instead of being fed the vain hope of a "right of return" to Israel, a country that most "refugees" have never seen. The international fund would also be used to finance the rehabilitation of refugees in host countries. True, the situation is not symmetrical. Jewish refugees do not wish to return to a hostile and unsafe environment in Arab states. But alone of all refugees, Palestinians in the Arab world have been denied the humanitarian solution they deserve. Jordan has been turning away Palestinian refugees fleeing the current turmoil in Syria - in only the latest example of a cruel and cynical policy. The issue of Jewish refugee rights is not a spanner in the works. It remains a key, unresolved human rights issue. Since February 2010, governments of all political stripes have been bound by a Knesset law committing them to secure compensation for Jewish refugees in any peace deal. The 52 percent of Israel's Jews who descend from refugees forced out by Arab and Muslim persecution will not back a peace deal that ignores their painful history. And there's another reason why Ayalon's initiative is encouraging: An appreciation of Jewish suffering is demonstrably more, not less, likely to achieve reconciliation, when Palestinians realize they are not the only wronged party. Lyn Julius cofounded Harif, a U.K. association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. Read More...April 27, 2012 No Comments

Haaretz April 27, 2012 By Lyn Julius Refael Bigio remembers the moment in 1962 that the regime of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser seized his family’s property. Police had cordoned off the Bigio bottling plant at 14 Aswan Street in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. A policeman barked at Bigio and his father: “Hand over […]

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Don’t Worry About Egyptian Bigotry

Posted on The Jewish Daily Forward March 2, 2012 By Lisa Goldman The Arab Spring presents a conundrum for many liberal Jews. As liberals they feel compelled to advocate self-determination over tyranny and democracy over dictatorship. But as Jews they worry that the Arab dictators, particularly Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, held down the lid on a seething Pandora’s Box of popular anti-Semitism. On the contrary, though, I would posit that anti-Semitism festered in Egypt as a result of Mubarak’s policies, and that it will naturally fade away if Egypt succeeds in making the transition to a more transparent, democratic society. When anti-regime activists attacked and burned the Israeli embassy in Cairo in September, the violent images seemed to underline Jewish fears. It is also true that one hears quite a lot of old-fashioned anti-Semitic talk in Egypt — conspiracy theories about Jewish lobbies, Jewish bankers and Jews in the media. Amongst the secondhand books for sale by a sidewalk vendor at Tahrir Square last spring, I saw an Arabic translation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And an exhibition of political cartoons in downtown Cairo included some with caricatures of Israeli soldiers identified by their hooked noses, fang-like teeth and long, curly sidelocks. But Mohamed Abla, the artist and political activist who curated the exhibition said, in answer to my question, “We show cartoons that we disagree with, too.” Those anti-Semitic caricatures, he explained, were published in pro-Mubarak newspapers that presented the Egyptian revolution as an anti-Egypt conspiracy cooked up between the unlikely allies of Israel, Hezbollah and the United States. Amr El-Zant, an Egyptian physicist and a columnist for Al Masry Al Youm, Egypt’s best-known independent daily newspaper, describes Mubarak as an old-fashioned anti-Semite who thought that by having a close relationship with the Jews, some of their power would rub off on him. “He couldn’t understand why Israel failed to save him from the revolutionaries at Tahrir Square,” said Elzant, a former diplomat’s son who was once a postdoctoral fellow at Haifa’s Technion Institute. The deposed dictator played sly games to maintain his grip on power. He cultivated his relationship with the Israeli elite — the politicians, the army and the business tycoons — while manipulating popular opinion at home by blaming opposition to his rule on “the Jews.” He convinced Israelis that he was all that stood between them and a howling, bloodthirsty mob, but he only visited Israel once in all the 30 years he ruled Egypt — to give a eulogy at Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral. He prevented normal contact by having his dreaded state security service investigate, harass and even arrest Egyptians who applied for a visa to Israel or maintained contact with Israelis. This is why young Egyptians are careful to differentiate between opposition to the State of Israel, which is widely reviled, and anti-Semitism. They saw how the regime used anti-Semitism to stir up conspiracy theories and manipulate public opinion in order to maintain its grip on power. I did not meet any Egyptians who had read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But I did meet many who had read Andre Aciman’s Out of Egypt, and Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit — memoirs by Egyptian Jews who were forced out of the country during the Nasser era. Both titles were prominently displayed at several bookshops I visited in Cairo and Alexandria. Amongst the politicians elected in Egypt’s first democratic elections, one still hears the occasional anti-Semitic remark. Fayza Abul Naga, a secular 61 year-old woman who is a holdover from the Mubarak regime, recently claimed that Freedom House, an American NGO that conducts research into democracy advocacy, was ‘a tool of the ‘Jewish lobby.”’ This is ugly and regrettable, but not, I think, insidious — and not because there are almost no Jews left in Egypt, but rather because Jew hatred is a relatively new, imported phenomenon that has little history in Egypt and does not seem to run very deep. Take, for example, Cairo’s Shaare Shamayim Synagogue. It is a big, imposing building on Adly Street, in the heart of downtown, about five minutes’ walk from Tahrir Square. It is one of only two synagogues in Cairo still in use — I attended a seder there last spring. Under Mubarak, Shaare Shamayim was heavily guarded: Men in uniform checked the identity cards of visitors before passing them through a metal detector, while plainclothes officers stopped passersby from taking photographs. The message was clear: Without a strong security presence, the synagogue was vulnerable to attack. But there were no police on the streets for 15 days during the January 25 uprising. The synagogue was left completely unprotected. While the headquarters of the NDP, Mubarak’s political party, was set alight by protesters, as were other edifices associated with the regime, it never occurred to the protesters to attack the synagogue. The Israeli embassy, meanwhile, is halfway across town — but it was attacked, albeit several months after Mubarak resigned. So does this mean that average Egyptians wants to cancel the peace treaty with Israel and go to war? No, not that either. They don’t like Israel and they would probably like to downgrade the diplomatic relationship, but no one wants war. Poll after poll shows that the average Egyptian wants stability. And war is the opposite of stability. Hisham Kassem, a prominent Egyptian journalist and editor who founded Al Masry Al Youm, put it succinctly when he told me, “Ask the average Egyptian taxi driver what he thinks about Israel and he’ll probably say he hates it. Then ask him if he is willing to send his son to fight Israel, and he will shout ‘no way.’” Lisa Goldman is a contributing editor at +972 Magazine. She spent two months in Egypt last spring, writing a series of articles about the revolution. Read More... March 2, 2012 No Comments

The Jewish Daily Forward March 2, 2012 By Lisa Goldman The Arab Spring presents a conundrum for many liberal Jews. As liberals they feel compelled to advocate self-determination over tyranny and democracy over dictatorship. But as Jews they worry that the Arab dictators, particularly Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, held down the lid on a seething Pandora’s […]

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Synagogue president recalls his Egyptian youth

Posted on New Jersey Jewish News February 22, 2012 By Elaine Durbach When the adult education group of the Summit Jewish Community Center turns its attention to the Middle East, the discussion is enriched with a very personal perspective. Congregation president Maurice de Picciotto grew up in Alexandria, Egypt, as a member of the city’s Sephardi Jewish community. He left in 1961 when he went to study in Europe, but he returned many times over the next few decades, as the community — between 25,000 and 40,000 strong in his childhood — dwindled away. With his native country in upheaval following the Arab Spring and the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, de Picciotto’s impressions about the region and its future are being sought more frequently. It’s been 21 years now since his last visit, but one aspect stood out then and is a dominant factor in the turmoil in Egypt today — the army. “There were one million people in the army in a country with eight million people,” de Picciotto told NJ Jewish News in a phone interview from his home in Chatham. Then, as now, it had massive financial power, owning all kinds of businesses and manufacturing facilities. It is, he said, the kind of power the army’s leaders are unlikely to yield willingly. Only the Islamic Brotherhood appears organized enough to present any kind of alternative to the military, de Picciotto believes. After 50 years without real political choice or freedom of expression, no other movement has enough strength. Asked if that could mean one kind of repression being replaced with another, he was guardedly optimistic. “The average Egyptian is a bon vivant,” he said. “They like to drink alcohol and to eat well, and I don’t see the women accepting the strict segregation” that the Islamic Brotherhood would try to enact. De Picciotto’s wife, Sarine, is also from Egypt. She grew up in Cairo, and they met when, like many Jewish families, hers visited Alexandria for the summer months. They married in Europe, and came to the United States in 1971. They settled in Chatham in 1985, and immediately joined the Conservative SJCC, just in time for the second of their three sons to have his bar mitzva there. The couple now has three grandchildren. De Picciotto, a retired intellectual property attorney with degrees in electronic engineering and law, went on to serve as men’s club president and chair of the High Holy Days committee, before taking on the presidency last summer. He likes to describe himself as the synagogue’s first “African-American president.” The family speaks French as their first language. In Jewish day school, de Picciotto also learned Hebrew, Arabic, and English and knew Ladino and Italian. His family can be traced back 11 generations to 17th-century Italy. In his youth, family members still held Italian citizenship, despite a proud record of having lived — and having achieved high diplomatic status — in other countries in the Mediterranean region. ‘No friction’ De Picciotto recalls life in Egypt as rich and full — and interwoven with insecurity. The Jews lived with a perpetual fear of the tide turning against them, and there were waves of departure — in 1948 after the establishment of the State of Israel, after the Suez War in 1956, and after the Six-Day War in 1967. Jewish businesses were abruptly taken over by the military authorities — but often the owners were then asked to run them again, because the soldiers didn’t know how to keep them profitable. On the other hand, de Picciotto said, the community was extremely affluent and lived in harmony with the groups around them. “There was no sense of friction based on religion,” he said. “We got on well.” He recalled that the melodies in religious services in Egyptian synagogues reflected the influence of the surrounding culture, and the cuisine of the High Holy Days was an amalgam of traditional and Middle Eastern flavors. For their family, it still is, de Picciotto said, with an additional French aspect. “We go often to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn to shop for ingredients, or to the Greek store in Kenilworth.” His father, Isaac, served for a while as president of the coordinating body that led the Jewish community in Alexandria, managing and controlling its synagogues, schools, a hospital, three cemeteries, an old-age home, a summer camp, and a number of prime real estate holdings. He died in 1990, at Overlook Hospital in Summit, having come to the United States for a visit 10 years after his wife’s death. De Picciotto went to Egypt a couple of years later with a group of other Jewish Egyptians, in an effort to bring out the community’s Torah scrolls. They were not permitted to remove them. “The government tried to take the sifrei Torah and place them under the control of the Ministry of Antiquities — they said they were national treasures,” he said, “but the community managed to keep possession of them.” All 56 Torah scrolls that were used by the 12 to 14 synagogues in Alexandria are now stored at one synagogue. “I should have tried to bring them out while my father was still in charge,” he said. These days in Cairo, de Picciotto said, the Jewish cemetery is in shambles. But in Alexandria — though there are only about 10 aging Jews still taking care of things — the community’s three cemeteries and numerous real estate holdings are still in good shape. While outside observers make dire predictions for Egypt, de Picciotto is not entirely gloomy about his birth country. He agrees that after the long years of political oppression, it might take decades for democracy to take root, but the lingering civility of the relationship between the Jews and the city authorities in Alexandria still gives him faith in what might be achieved. Read More...February 22, 2012 No Comments

New Jersey Jewish News February 22, 2012 By Elaine Durbach When the adult education group of the Summit Jewish Community Center turns its attention to the Middle East, the discussion is enriched with a very personal perspective. Congregation president Maurice de Picciotto grew up in Alexandria, Egypt, as a member of the city’s Sephardi Jewish […]

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Egypt tells Israel: Pilgrimage to tomb of Jewish holy man ‘impossible’ this year

Posted on By The Associated Press Published 12:54 11.01.12 Egyptian activists have rallied against the pilgrimage every year for most of the last decade. Egypt's daily Al-Ahram newspaper reported Tuesday that 31 parties and groups had joined this year's campaign. Egypt's Foreign Ministry said Wednesday it had told Israel that it would not be "appropriate" for Israeli pilgrims to make an annual visit to the tomb of a 19th-century Jewish holy man in the Nile Delta, as activists mobilized to block the pilgrimage route. Ceremonies at the tomb of Rabbi Yaakov Abu Hatzira have triggered yearly political sparring in Egypt throughout most of the last decade, with Islamists, nationalists, and others claiming that the government by allowing the pilgrimage is pursuing an unpopular policy of normalization with the country's former enemy. Egypt notified Israel two months ago that it would be "impossible to hold the annual ceremony because of the political and security situation in the country," the official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. An Islamist politician involved in organizing protests against the march meanwhile said that visiting Abu Hatzira's gravesite in the village of Daymouta, 180 kilometers (112 miles) north of Cairo would be a "suicide mission" for Israelis, because of popular opposition to their presence in Egypt. "Normalization (of relations) with Israel is forced on the people, and the visits too come against the will of the people and despite popular rejection," said Gamal Heshmat of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's best organized political group. Heshmat said that activists planned to stage sit-ins and other protests to block the route as soon as they hear the pilgrims are on their way. Egypt's daily Al-Ahram newspaper reported Tuesday that 31 parties and groups had joined this year's campaign. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization based in Los Angeles, denounced the attempts to block the pilgrimage. In a Tuesday statement, the center's Abraham Cooper accused the Brotherhood of trying to "curb religious freedom of Jews." "In their worldview, there is no respect for the traditions for Jews, dead or alive," he said. A son to a chief rabbi of Morocco, Abu Hatzira was revered by some Jews as a mystic renowned for his piety and for performing miracles. The elderly rabbi was making his way from his native Morocco to the Holy Land in 1879 when he fell ill and died in the Egyptian city of Damanhour near Alexandria. According to tradition, his followers tried to move his tomb three times, and three times heavy storms prevented them. After Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979, Jewish devotees … mostly of Moroccan origin … have traveled annually to the site. But Egypt has limited the numbers of pilgrims. In 2001 and 2004, two court orders banned the ceremony after opponents filed legal challenges. Since then, both Delta residents and activist groups have denounced the ceremony. The residents complain of harassment by security forces deployed to protect the pilgrims. Activists oppose the normalization of relations with a country that Egypt fought in four wars between 1948 and 1973, and also see the defiance of the court order as part of the Mubarak regime's general trampling of the rule of law. In 2009, Egypt officially denied the pilgrims entry because the anniversary fell while Israel was conducting an offensive in Gaza. A year later, the Israeli press reported that Mubarak accepted a request from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to lift the limits on the number of pilgrims. The tomb is a vestige of Egypt's once-prosperous Jewish community, which at the time of the first war with Israel in 1948 numbered about 80,000 people. But the Arab-Israeli wars, and the resentment and expulsions that they engendered, have reduced the number of Egypt's Jews to about 60 individuals, according to the Israeli embassy. January 13, 2012 No Comments

By The Associated Press Published 12:54 11.01.12 Egyptian activists have rallied against the pilgrimage every year for most of the last decade. Egypt’s daily Al-Ahram newspaper reported Tuesday that 31 parties and groups had joined this year’s campaign. Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said Wednesday it had told Israel that it would not be “appropriate” for Israeli […]

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Islamist Winds in Egypt? ‘No Jews Allowed’ at Holy Site

Posted on Arutz Sheva 7 10/09/2011 By Maayana Miskin Arab Winter: Egypt has completely barred Jews from visiting the tomb of Rabbi Abuhatzeira, grandfather of the “Baba Sali.” The Arab Spring is turning into an Arab Winter for Israeli and Diaspora Jews. For the first time in recent history, Egypt has decided to completely bar Jews from visiting the tomb of Rabbi Yaakov Abuhatzeira, head of the dynasty that included Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, the famed “Baba Sali.” The decision, issued by regional ruler Mukhtar el-Hamlawi, was reported by the Palestinian Authority news agency Wafa. El-Hamlawi reported that a Cairo court had ruled that celebrations are forbidden at the tomb, and Jewish visitors would be barred for that reason. In addition, he said, “We prohibit Jews from visiting the tomb because we identify with the Palestinian people, and because we do not want to offend the Egyptian public’s sensitivities.” Egyptian opposition parties, led by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, attempted to prevent Israeli Jews from visiting the rabbi’s tomb in 2009. While then-President Hosni Mubarak agreed to allow the visits, the pilgrimage was cancelled for the first time as opposition parties vowed to prevent Jews from visiting. Mubarak continued to allow Israelis to visit, and even announced in 2010 that he would grant an unlimited number of permits. Since Mubarak’s ouster in early 2011, Salafi Islam has been on the rise, while the Jew-hating Muslim Brotherhood has been gaining political power. The changes have led to security anarchy in Sinai, an extremely high terror alert for Israeli visitors, and persecution of religious minorities in Egypt, primarily Coptic Christians. View article here October 24, 2011 No Comments

Arutz Sheva 7 10/09/2011 By Maayana Miskin Arab Winter: Egypt has completely barred Jews from visiting the tomb of Rabbi Abuhatzeira, grandfather of the “Baba Sali.” The Arab Spring is turning into an Arab Winter for Israeli and Diaspora Jews. For the first time in recent history, Egypt has decided to completely bar Jews from […]

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Sunday Book Review: Leaving Egypt, Finding Brooklyn

Posted on New York Times By DEB OLIN UNFERTH Published: September 9, 2011 The coming-of-age memoir is centered on a premise that anyone would grant: growing up is hard. The genre’s challenges lie in how to articulate memory and the passage of time, how to express what’s forgotten as well as what’s recalled, how to capture the shifting self — challenges to which we have a short history of solutions. Memoir writers are enticingly free to forge innovations. Lucette Lagnado, an award- winning investigative reporter at The Wall Street Journal, doesn’t stand the form on its head in her enchanting new memoir, “The Arrogant Years.” But she does break new ground. The fact that this memoir exists is interesting. It is the second of two. The first was the brilliant “Man in the White Sharkskin Suit,” published in 2007. Both books cover roughly the same era, and both tell the moving story of how Lagnado’s Jewish parents, Edith and Leon, grew up, met and married in old-world Cairo at the end of the Farouk monarchy, when Jews and Muslims lived peaceably together. After the founding of Israel and the revolution of 1952, Jews were forced to leave Egypt in droves. The Lagnado family was among the last to leave. Both books describe their sad journey, first to Paris, then to Brooklyn, where Lagnado’s parents fought to find their footing and made myriad hopeless attempts to “rebuild the hearth.” They watched in horror as their children swiftly assimilated and moved on: “That was America for you — a land where children went away and parents were left behind.” It’s risky to write a second memoir about the same time period, but in Lagnado’s hands, the result feels natural and right. She skillfully reminds us that a single human life is infinitely complex, that there are as many sides to a story as times it is told. In places you can see her struggling not to repeat herself, and mostly she succeeds. She does it by making the books different in scope and style. The first memoir reads like a character study, with the lens trained on Leon — his charm and popularity (he played cards with the king!), his exile from his homeland (“Take us back to Cairo,” he cries), his innumerable losses, his retreat into solitude and prayer, and his slow demise in a nursing home. The second memoir is about Edith and “Loulou” (as Lagnado was called), both of them battling their fates and growing up in times of social change, when feminism — first in Egypt, later in America — was new and loud and romantic. It’s about the beauty and arrogance of youthful self- determination, and the forces that conspire to knock that determination to the ground. The cautionary tale that haunts Loulou concerns Edith, a beautiful, lonely girl raised penniless and fatherless in 1930s Cairo. Through intelligence, patience and drive, she rises far above her station and becomes the head librarian at the prestigious École Cattaui after being taken under the wing of the pasha’s wife, who “became her patron saint and guardian angel and surrogate mother all at once.” From that pinnacle, at age 20, she makes the “terrible mistake” of marrying Leon, a much older man she barely knows. Within weeks she loses everything — her beloved job, her hard-won independence, her formidable mentor — and becomes an ill- equipped housewife, goaded by her mother-in-law and ignored by her husband (though she does bear him child after child, the last of whom is Loulou). In 1960s Brooklyn, a young, spirited Loulou will not have this fate. She sits with Edith each Saturday behind a tall decorative wooden divider that separates the women from the men at the Shield of Young David synagogue. Loulou doesn’t see why the women must hide. Inspired by her hero, Emma Peel of “The Avengers,” she wants to hack the divider to pieces and take her deserved seat in “the world beyond.” She leads a mini-rebellion of girls who try to sneak their seats into the men’s section, and soon the divider takes on multiple significances. She is lodged between many worlds: old and new, Arab and American, immigrant and native, Jewish and secular, traditional and modern, patriarchal and feminist, ascetic and flirtatious. Edith’s and Loulou’s lives continue to run parallel. Loulou, at the height of her youthful accomplishment, having been admitted to Vassar at right about the same age that Edith became a head librarian in Egypt, is struck down, not by marriage, but by Hodgkin’s disease. She recovers, but her confidence is shaken (once at Vassar, she feels “invisible,” “inferior to every woman I saw”), and her “arrogant” years are over. “Suddenly, I felt fearful — so fearful that I stayed silent,” she writes. “I worried about sounding foolish, no longer sure of my ideas. The self- confidence and drive that had propelled me since I was a child were gone.” At first, the word “arrogant” struck me as odd. Lagnado defines it as “that period in a young woman’s life when she feels — and is — on top of the world.” True, one always cringes at one’s younger self. But Lagnado’s women are not arrogant. They are courageous and questing, taking joy in discovering themselves. Soon, how ever, her use of the word becomes clear. In Edith and Loulou’s milieu, confidence in a woman is arrogance. And later, as Edith grows old and navigates medical beds, wheelchairs and nursing homes, we under stand that any confidence is arrogance in a world where families come apart, monarchies end and death conquers. It’s no coincidence that the teenage years dominate so many memoirs. They’re a good deal more interesting than those dull early- childhood years favored by Freud. In our teens, we are suddenly in charge of our own becoming, which is thrilling, but we pay for it with hard lessons that resonate deeply. Later we look back to that time and ask questions that are as philosophical as they are psychological. Who was that person? Why did she do that? Would I like her? At one point Lagnado was on scholarship at a private high school. To pay the extra expenses, Edith took a job at the Brooklyn Public Library, her first employment since she had worked for the pasha’s wife. Finally, she found herself back among stacks of books, rediscovering her early passions with pride and poise. Lagnado observes that Edith “emerged as a small, unlikely, thoroughly unheralded emblem of women’s liberation” — and, as the reader can see by the end, her mother is always a mirror of Lagnado herself. Deb Olin Unferth is the author, most recently, of the memoir “Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War.” Read article hereOctober 24, 2011 No Comments

New York Times By DEB OLIN UNFERTH Published: September 9, 2011 The coming-of-age memoir is centered on a premise that anyone would grant: growing up is hard. The genre’s challenges lie in how to articulate memory and the passage of time, how to express what’s forgotten as well as what’s recalled, how to capture the […]

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An everyday tale of anti-Semitism in Cairo

Posted on BBC News Magazine September 15, 2011 By Thomas Dinham Relations between Israel and Egypt have become increasingly strained in recent weeks, and in the Egyptian capital there is a mounting sense of tension, including incidents of anti-Semitism. Suspicion is a feature of everyday life in Egypt, and a fondness for conspiracy theories is as much a part of the landscape here as the constant traffic jams and their accompanying symphony of blaring car horns. With the democratic certainties that greeted the immediate aftermath of January's revolution having faded, however, the climate of mistrust and unease about the hard-won gains of the revolution is becoming increasingly palpable. As disquiet sets in, so does the fear of foul play, backroom deals and, increasingly, malign foreign influences. I noticed this tendency towards cynicism while enjoying some of the incredible food on offer in Cairo. The streets here are dotted with makeshift, roadside restaurants where in the mornings you can pick up a veritable feast of quintessential Egyptian dishes that, thanks to a weak Egyptian pound, will only cost you around $0.80 (50p). As dishes of seasoned aubergine, heavily spiced beans, salad, fermented cheese, chips, tamea [falafel] and gorgeous wholegrain Egyptian bread were laid out before me, I realised I was beginning to attract attention, and not just because of my appetite. A group of old men slurping tea mixed with incredible quantities of sugar was studying me. Eventually one of the men struck up a conversation, revolving primarily around what exactly I was doing in Egypt at a time when most foreigners had left. My answers met with furrowed brows and clearly dissatisfied shakes of the head, when suddenly, raising his hand in front of his mouth in a conspiratorial gesture one man shot, "I bet he's from Israel" into the ear of his friend so quickly as to be barely discernable. I was shocked. In nearly six months of living in Syria, where orchestrated hysteria about Israel is integral to the very identity of the state, I had never heard the accusation surreptitiously levelled against me. Neither am I from Israel, nor am I Jewish, but as someone of unmistakably European appearance, I have found myself constantly associated with Israel in Egyptian eyes. 'Conspiracy theorists' A few days later, while sitting with the same group of men in the cafe, a bridge in a nearby neighbourhood collapsed with an incredible "boom". State media reported five people killed. My new friends exchanged knowing glances, apparently linking my appearance in the neighbourhood a few days earlier to an otherwise inexplicable calamity nearby. Israel is just one of a panoply of worries that exercise the conspiracy theorists that frequent Egypt's cafes. The standard fare of political gossip tends to revolve around the trial of [former President Hosni] Mubarak, internal corruption, and the causes behind the dire economic woes Egypt is currently experiencing. A prosecuting lawyer at Mr Mubarak's trial even introduced the novel idea that the ex-president had died years ago, and that the man on trial was none other than an impostor. I would hazard a guess that Israel struggles to make it into the top-five political issues discussed in Egypt. Israel has probably been less of a concern than the rising power of Shia Iran in the region, which apparently worries many in this overwhelmingly Sunni country, partly thanks to a constant stream of stridently sectarian rhetoric broadcast from Saudi Arabia. In the Byzantine politics of the region, hearing strident opposition to Israel and its greatest regional foe, from the same person, almost in the same breath, is commonplace. Nevertheless, a strong and sometimes violent dislike of Israel is a fact of Egyptian life, something I was unfortunate enough to discover after a cross-border raid by Israel killed several Egyptian security personnel. The Israelis had been chasing a group of gunmen who had attacked an Israeli bus close to the border between the two countries. While walking in the street someone pushed me from behind with such force that I nearly fell over. Turning around, I found myself surrounded by five men, one of whom tried to punch me in the face. I stopped the attack by pointing out how shameful it was for a Muslim to assault a guest in his country, especially during Ramadan. Relieved that a seemingly random assault was over, I was appalled by the apology offered by one of my assailants. "Sorry," he said contritely, offering his hand, "we thought you were a Jew." Shaking his head in disbelief on hearing the news, an Egyptian friend sympathised: "That's stupid, you are obviously not a Jew." The chilling implication I was left with was that, had I been Jewish, the assault would have apparently been justified. Read article here October 24, 2011 No Comments

BBC News Magazine September 15, 2011 By Thomas Dinham Relations between Israel and Egypt have become increasingly strained in recent weeks, and in the Egyptian capital there is a mounting sense of tension, including incidents of anti-Semitism. Suspicion is a feature of everyday life in Egypt, and a fondness for conspiracy theories is as much […]

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