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Since the conclusion of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979, subjects that transverse the border between the two countries have become feasible research agendas as well as new sites of contention in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Egyptian Jewish community is situated in this cross-border zone. This book examines the history of this community after 1948, pursuing three areas of inquiry. Part 1 examines the life of the Jews who remained in Egypt after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War (mainly until the aftermath of the 1956 Suez/Sinai War). Part 2 explores the dynamics of the dispersion and reestablishment of Egyptian Jewish communities at selected sites in Israel, France, and the United States. Part 3 surveys contending revisionings of Jewish life in Egypt since Egyptian President Anwar al Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in 1977 and the subsequent conclusion of an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979.
The best comprehensive work on the history of Egyptian Jewry in the twentieth century, Gudrun Krämer's The Jews in Modern Egypt, 1914-1952, demonstrates that no single experience was shared by all Egyptian Jews because differences of class, ethnic origins, rite, and political outlook all tended to erode Jewish communal solidarity without completely effacing it. Krämer challenges the tendency of Zionist historiography to view the state of Israel as the teleological fulfillment of the history of Egyptian Jewry as well as the traditional Egyptian nationalist argument that all would have been well were it not for Zionism. She concludes that a Jewish question as it emerged in nineteenth-century Europe did not exist intwentieth-century Egypt. Jews were not discriminated against because of their religion or race, but for political reasons. Egyptian Jews experienced neither uninterrupted persecution and terror nor uninterrupted harmony. These judicious assessments are the point of departure for this book.
According to Krämer, some 50,000-55,000 Jews remained in Egypt at the time of the Suez/Sinai War in 1956. Nonetheless, she unwittingly reinforces the prevailing assumption that the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 marked the end of the Egyptian Jewish community because, despite the nominal end date of her book, it contains only a minimal discussion—a mere six pages—of events and issues after 1948. The continued existence of this community in Egypt after 1948 apparently contradicts the Zionist assumption that there could be no normal life for Jews anywhere but Israel, all the more so in an Arab country in a state of war with Israel. The ultimate departure of the great majority of the remaining Jews after 1956 seems to confirm this assumption, albeit belatedly. This book begins on the uncertain terrain delimited by these two moments.
The Jews of Egypt
The Egyptian Jewish community was formed by a distinctive process of historical accretion. At its core were indigenous Arabic-speaking Rabbanites and Karaites with a Judeo-Arabic culture, including some who claimed to trace their residence in the country to the pre-Islamic era. They resided primarily in Cairo's Jewish quarter, in the port district of Alexandria, and in several provincial towns. Indigenes composed perhaps 20,000 of the 75,000-80,000 Jews in Egypt in 1948 (only 65,639 were recorded in the 1947 census, but this is commonly regarded as an undercount).
Because the Karaites are a relatively unknown group, I say a bit more about them in introducing the Egyptian Jewish community than I say about its other component elements. The Karaite Jews of Egypt were part of a small minority within Judaism who reject the validity of the Talmud as a source of Jewish law. Karaites date the beginnings of their community to the late second temple period and identify with non-Pharasaic (Essene and Sadducee) currents of religious thought and practice of that era. The term Karaites (kara im) was first applied to followers of Anan ben David (ca. 754-75), who broke with the leadership of the Jewish community in Mesopotamia and established himself in Jerusalem. By the ninth century, when the Karaite rite was consolidated, the community was well established in Fustat (subsequently incorporated into Cairo). The Karaites have had a difficult and often antagonistic relationship with Rabbinic Judaism since the Egyptian rabbi and scholar Sa adya ben Yosef alFayyumi (882-942) declared their doctrines heretical. However, before the modern era, disputes between the two rites were regarded as internal to the Jewish community. Egypt has long been an important Karaite center. During the medieval Tulunid (868-969) and Fatimid (969-1171) periods, the Karaites were a particularly robust and vibrant community, at times even stronger than the Rabbanites. Subsequently, their numbers dwindled sharply. There were only some 5,000 Karaites in Egypt in 1948.
In the modern era, the estrangement between Karaites and Rabbanites intensified after Lithuania and Crimea, where Karaites had settled since the twelfth century, were conquered by the Russian empire. In 1795, Catherine II exempted the Karaites from the double tax imposed on Jews and allowed the Karaites to own land. In 1827, the Crimean Karaites, like their Tatar neighbors, were exempted from military service. Because the Karaites were not subjected to the discrimination and oppression directed against Rabbanites in imperial Russia, they eventually came to be seen as a separate non-Jewish community.
The distinction between Karaites and Rabbanites sharpened in 1939, when the German Ministry of Interior declared that the Karaites were not Jews after consulting with orthodox Rabbanite authorities, who may have been motivated by the desire to save the Karaites from destruction by the Nazis. Karaite rabbis concurred with this conclusion, and they too may have been seeking to avoid persecution. During the Nazi era, the Karaites of Poland, Lithuania, and Crimea were not treated as Jews.
Despite ambiguities about the Jewish identity of the Eastern European Karaites in the modern era, in Egypt there was never any doubt that the Karaites were Jews. There were certainly tensions between Karaites and Rabbanites over questions of religious law and practice. Traditionally, both communities banned marriages between the two rites. The last Karaite chief rabbi of Egypt, Tuvia Babovitch (r. 1934-56), was personally committed to the view that Karaites who married Rabbanites thereby excluded themselves from the community. He also upheld the ban on conversion to Karaism against the wishes of some members of the community. In contrast, Murad Farag (1866-1956) and his proteges among the young Karaite intelligentsia openly called for intermarriage and closer Karaite-Rabbanite relations. Though they did not succeed in formally changing Karaite religious law, they did influence the Karaites to strengthen their ties to the Rabbanite community.
The general tendency during the twentieth century was toward closer cultural and social relations between the two Jewish communities. The traditional Cairo neighborhoods of the Rabbanites and Karaites—harat al yahud (the Jewish quarter) and harat al yahud alqara in (the Karaite Jewish quarter)—were adjacent to each other. Rabbanites and Karaites worked in some of the same trades in the surrounding neighborhoods. Dr. Musa (Moshe) Marzuq, a Karaite executed for his role in Operation Susannah (see Operation Susannah later in this chapter), worked in the Rabbanite hospital, which many Karaites used because their community did not operate its own medical facility. The Karaite community made an annual contribution to support this hospital. Maurice Shammas, a protege of Murad Farag, wrote for the Rabbanite Arabic newspaper al Shams (The sun) between 1946 and 1948 and then for the Karaite biweekly al Kalim (The spokesperson) before he emigrated to Israel in 1951. Neither the state authorities nor the members of the two Egyptian Jewish communities ever considered the Karaites anything but Jews.
The beginning of the Sephardi (Spanish Jewish) community in Egypt is associated with the arrival in 1165 of Maimonides, who was then fleeing from the intolerant alMuwahhid regime in Spain and Morocco. After their expulsion from Spain in 1492, many Sephardim were welcomed in the Ottoman Empire, and some settled in Egypt. In the modern era, Sephardim made their way to Egypt from the Ottoman cities of Tunis, Aleppo, Damascus, Izmir, Istanbul, Salonika, and even Jerusalem to take advantage of the economic opportunities generated by the cotton boom of the 1860s and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.
Among the Sephardim, there were social distinctions among those who had passed through Corsica, Italy, or the Ottoman territories on their families' journeys from Spain to Egypt. Sephardim were the most prominent elements of the Jewish social and business elite. The largest single section of the Egyptian Jewish community—the confused Jewish masses, as one Israeli historian called them—was composed of Sephardim of the middle strata. They were politically quietist, concerned primarily about the well-being of their families, and generally satisfied with their relatively comfortable lives in Egypt.
The Ashkenazi (Eastern European Jewish) Egyptian community was entirely a product of the modern era and the arrival of Jews fleeing persecution in Europe in the nineteenth century. From 1865 on, the Ashkenazim of Cairo maintained a separate communal organization. They were geographically concentrated in the Darb alBarabira quarter, where Yiddish was spoken in the streets until the 1950s. The community maintained a Yiddish theater group and a Yiddish program on the Egyptian state radio until the 1950s. The more established and generally wealthier Sephardi community looked down on the Ashkenazim as social inferiors.
The multiplicity of religious rites does not exhaust the heterogeneity of the Egyptian Jewish community. In any case, most were not scrupulously observant, though most observed the traditional festivals and the rites of passage. Many Jews were multicultural and multilingual, but some social status was attached to speaking Arabic, Judeo-Spanish, Italian, Yiddish, or French at home. The cosmopolitan character of the Jewish community, especially its commercial middle and upper classes, is captured by the casual remark of a son of an upper-middle-class Sephardi family holding Italian citizenship that emigrated from Anatolia to Alexandria in the nineteenth century in describing the ambience of his family: We spoke French and English in school, Italian at home, Arabic in the street, and cursed in Turkish. Alexandrines were typically more cosmopolitan than Cairenes. However, there were also thousands of indigenous, poor, Arabic-speaking Jews in Alexandria whose existence has generally been ignored because the cosmopolitan and commercial elements of the community were so prominent. Even in Cairo, except in harat alyahud, where the language of the school and the home was Arabic, it was rare to find monolingual Jews. Among cosmopolitan and Europeanized middle- and upper-class Jews, intermarriages with Christians and Muslims were not uncommon.
Authenticity and Cosmopolitanism
This survey of the component elements of the Egyptian Jewish community draws attention to both its internal diversity and its openness to a variety of Egyptian, Middle Eastern, and European cultural influences. The canons of nationalist historiography would direct us to reconstruct from this heterogeneity an originary, authentic Jewish identity separable from an originary, authentic Egyptian identity. We might then engage in an analysis of the extent to which these distinct and self-contained cultural essences interacted—how each influenced the other, what elements of the twentieth-century practices of the Egyptian Jewish community could be identified as having Jewish or Egyptian origins, and whether Egyptian Jews saw themselves and were seen by others as Egyptians or as Jews. We might then try to define the essential characteristics of the Egyptian Jewish community and note how its members adapted to the various sites in which they sought refuge after leaving Egypt. These efforts are meaningful only if the categories of nationalist discourse are already accepted as given.
This book seeks to denaturalize these categories and adopts the view that ethnonational identities are historically and socially constructed. Its title intentionally inverts Zionist imagery by suggesting that Egypt can be considered a center of Jewish life from which a diaspora was generated. But I am not seeking to discover and memorialize an originary, authentic Egyptian Jewish identity. The Jews of Egypt were always already a heterogeneous community of cosmopolitan hybrids. This was both a strength of the community and one of the factors in its ultimate demise.
Heterogeneity is not a characteristic peculiar to Egyptian Jews. Although nationalists take pride in Egypt's long history as an identifiable cultural and political entity, this has been constituted by Semitic and African ethnic elements; pagan, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religious cultures; the Arabo-Islamic high cultural tradition; and lively popular-colloquial forms. Egypt has absorbed Greek, Roman, Christian, Arabo-Muslim, and modern European cultural elements without becoming any less Egyptian as a result.
The heterogeneity of the Egyptian Jewish community was not random. Certain aspects of its cosmopolitan character in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries can be easily historicized: the use of French in the community schools as a result of the proselytization of the Alliance Israelite Universelle; the legal privileges attained through relationships with European merchants, bankers, and diplomatic personnel; kinship and commercial relations with extended family members living throughout the Mediterranean basin. Cosmopolitanism is often regarded as a distinctively Jewish characteristic, an adaptive mechanism for a persecuted people without a homeland or political power who always had to be prepared to uproot themselves and move on to another refuge.
Cosmopolitanism is also deeply rooted in the classical Arabo-Islamic cultural heritage. Egypt's geographical location at the nodal point of Africa, Asia, and Europe has always made it a commercial entrepot and intellectual center traversed by merchants and scholars of many ethnicities and cultural traditions. In the medieval period, Fatimid gold dinars circulated in a geographical range bounded by Muscovy, Scandinavia, Spain, Sudanic Africa, and India; and shari a law was the merchant's law of the Mediterranean basin and beyond. In the last third of the nineteenth century, Cairo emerged as the premier intellectual center of the Arab world (rivalled only by Beirut). Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, and Algerian intellectuals and political leaders have all been headquartered in Cairo; and their presence has contributed to the formation of contemporary Arabo-Egyptian culture. The cosmopolitan ambience and Egypt's deep self-confidence in its historical identity rendered it particularly tolerant of the Jewish presence.
Egyptian Jewish identity was constituted by apparently contradictory and incongruent elements and the changing configuration of those elements over time. Jews were different from Muslim and Christian Egyptians because of their historically established association with a particular set of religious beliefs, cultural symbols, social practices, and institutions commonly identified as aspects of the Jewish tradition. At the same time, Jews were the same as their non-Jewish neighbors in many respects, sharing languages, newspapers, novels, poetry, the nation-state and its political structure, trades, professions, investments, markets, neighborhoods, foods, films, and other forms of popular culture. Egyptian Jewish identity was informed by historical, cultural, and political forces beyond Egypt. Yet Egyptian Jews, for all their diversity, also shared communal structures, historical memories, and contemporary attachments that distinguished them from French or even Syrian Jews with whom they could have communicated relatively easily in French or Arabic. Individuals and groups of Jewish and non-Jewish Egyptians held a wide range of ideas about the diverse elements constituting Egyptian Jewish identity, the priority of their importance, and what they signified. It is also important to remember that most of them probably did not think consciously about such issues at all. Egyptian and Jewish cosmopolitanism complemented and nourished each other until the conditions that supported them were radically altered by the struggle against the British occupation, the establishment of the state of Israel, and the Arab-Zionist conflict.
Interdisciplinary Renegotiation of History, Diaspora, and Memory
The task of representing the heterogeneity of the Egyptian Jewish community has led me to compose this book somewhat unconventionally. It is a self-consciously interdisciplinary text structured not by an overarching linear historical narrative (though several of its chapters are historical narratives), but by the themes of identity, dispersion, and the struggle over retrieval of identity: In what ways were Jews part of yet still a discrete element within Egyptian society? What forces shaped their distinctive culture and identity? What were the forms of Jewish attachments to Egypt? How did those attachments become undone and redone as the community was dispersed and resettled in its several diasporic locations? Why did the Jews of Egypt emerge as a subject of historical knowledge after 1979, and what are the parameters of the contest over that history? I address these questions with a historically informed approach to cultural studies, attentive to critical social and cultural theory without slavishly following its current fashions. The calculated genre mixing in this book seeks to challenge the limits of traditional positivist history while affirming the value of critically informed historical knowledge.
Dipesh Chakrabarty, reflecting the more recent outlook of the Indian subaltern studies school, has argued that history as a category of knowledge is inseparable from the coerced imposition of modernity on non-Europeans in the colonial era:
If the capitalist mode of production and the nation-state were the two institutions that nineteenth-century Europe exported to the rest of the world, then it also exported two forms of knowledge that corresponded to the two institutions. Economics embodies in a distilled form the rationality of the market in its imagination of the human being as homo economicus; history speaks to the figure of the citizen. History is one of the most important ways in which we learn to identify ourselves with the nation and its highest representative, the state.… [P]ositivist historical narratives…are integral to the institutions and practices of power of the modern bureaucracies we are all subject to, particularly those of the state. Just consider how the court of law functions. It wrings positivist historical narratives out of you.
James Clifford makes a similar critique of positivist history in his perceptive investigation of the identity claims of the Mashpee Indians of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In the court case Clifford described, the central issue was whether the residents of the town of Mashpee constituted an Indian tribe. He suggested that the trial can be seen as a struggle between history and anthropology. Just as Chakrabarty would have predicted, the court relied on positivist forms of historical evidence in ruling that the Mashpee community was not a tribe because in the course of its historical evolution, the group did not always possess the attributes legally required to claim tribal identity. Therefore, its claims to land and recognition were denied. The Mashpee community shared a more anthropological sense of culture, one that privileged its common sentiment and shared experience of struggle. These, it felt, merited legal recognition of the community as a tribe and the economic benefits this would entail.
Arguing, like Chakrabarty, that positivist history is aligned with the oppressive power of states, Clifford proposes that a more dynamic, anthropological conception of culture, privileging shared sentiment and experience, would support the rights of the oppressed (the Mashpee community). Or, to stretch the point some at the risk of losing some of Clifford's nuances, social and historical determinants disenfranchised the Mashpee community while their discursively constructed anthropological sense of themselves was a vehicle for empowerment. Clifford offers a sensitive and sympathetic representation of the cultural politics of the Mashpee community that the legal procedures failed to appreciate. I would insist that the historically formed social sources of the court's power are as much a part of Mashpee identity as the community's discursive self-representation.
The movement of postcolonial cultural studies offers another strategy for escaping from the oppressions of history: imaginative literature and cultural criticism, especially that produced by Western-educated émigrés from the former colonies to the metropolitan centers. Salman Rushdie acknowledges that the physical alienation of émigré writers from their places of birth impedes them from reclaiming precisely what was lost and compels them to create imaginary homelands. However, he believes that this confers on them a special advantage enabling them to speak properly and concretely on a subject of universal significance and appeal. Similarly, Edward Said sees diasporic postcolonial intellectuals as occupying a uniquely creative position enabling them to overcome the limits of narrow national culture and history. Paul Gilroy favors expressive culture over writing in his appreciation of the African diaspora, but the thrust of his work is allied with the arguments of Rushdie and Said.
Gilroy's conception of the Black Atlantic and his critique of ethnic absolutism are especially relevant to this book's project of valorizing the Jewish diaspora. Despite the many strengths of Gilroy's work, it also illustrates the limits of discursive analysis detached from historical specificities. Gilroy acknowledges his borrowing of the diaspora concept from Jewish history in order to explore the relationship between blacks and Jews in radical politics. He suggests that modern Zionism provides an organizational and philosophical model for twentieth-century Pan-Africanism. Although Gilroy acknowledges the obvious problems and differences, this does not deter him from seeking the pragmatic gains involved in setting the histories of blacks and Jews within modernity in some sort of mutual relation. He is willing to speak of the zionist aspirations of American blacks and seems amenable to Harold Cruse's call for black intellectuals to practice a cultural nationalism equivalent to that which has made Jewish intellectuals a force to be reckoned with in America.
These arguments detach the abstract ideas of Zionism from the concrete history of the Zionist project's historical alliance with British imperialism in the Middle East from 1917 to 1939 and with U.S. hegemony in the region from the mid-1960s to the present. Among the reasons that American Jewish intellectuals have been able to wield the cultural power that Gilroy admires is that Jews succeeded in defining themselves as white after World War II. Christian Zionism (often concomitant with anti-Semitism, a point Gilroy misses in his discussion of Edward Wilmot Blyden), the consecration of Jews as the quintessential victims of the Nazi era, the demographic and financial weight of Jews in the Democratic Party, and the strategic value of Israel as an ally of the United States—all of which are unavailable to African Americans and other blacks—are major ingredients of the power and prestige that Israel and American Jews have enjoyed in the second half of the twentieth century.
I accept the arguments of Chakrabarty, Clifford, and many postcolonial intellectuals that the category of history is to some degree complicit with modern structures of domination, especially the nation-state. Therefore, in sympathetically representing the experiences, memories, and aspirations of subaltern groups, anthropological and literary techniques can be of great value. There is no single proper way to combine these genres. Assia Djebar's historical novel, Fantasia, deploys archival research into the atrocities of the French colonial conquest of Algeria, oral history interviews with female veterans of the independence struggle, and a complexly structured fictionalized narrative to insert the presence of Algerian women into a history in which they had previously appeared primarily as reified symbols for both the colonizers and the nationalist elites. Yael Zerubavel's Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition examines three central Israeli national historical myths: the mass suicide at Massada (73 CE), the Bar Kokhba Revolt (133-35 CE), and the Battle of Tel Hai (1920) that connect a glorious ancient Jewish past in the land of Israel with the heroic origins of modern Zionist settlement. She draws on canonical literary works, political and historical writing, children's literature, school textbooks, newspaper articles, popular jokes, cartoons, and interviews to document the social construction of the public memory of these events using the techniques of textual analysis, literary history, and historical criticism to challenge the hegemonic version of Israeli national history.
In very different ways, Djebar and Zerubavel ally literary and ethnographic techniques with historical knowledge as a strategy for overcoming the limitations of history. At the same time, they are willing to engage history on its own terrain, gathering empirical evidence and marshalling arguments about causes and effects to challenge hegemonic historical representations. This is a viable strategy not only because, as Chakrabarty declares, to deny now, in the name of cultural relativism, any social group—peasants, aboriginals, Indians—access to the 'post-Renaissance sense of the past' would be to disempower them. History can also temper and refine textualist poststructuralist theorizing by insisting on the relevance of the temporal and social context of ideas and cultural currents.
In its most extreme form, textualist poststructuralism confuses cleverness and anarchy with realizable social projects. For example, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari adopt a similar line of argument as Chakrabarty and Clifford in asserting, History is always written from the sedentary point of view and in the name of a unitary State apparatus, at least a possible one. Their strategy for liberating humanity from history is Nomadology, the opposite of history and a rhizomatic model of identity in which any point connects to any other point.… [T]he rhizome pertains to a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detachable, connectable, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits and its own lines of flight. At a very high level of abstraction, this is an attractive approach celebrating the unlimited potential for liberatory change. But it has little relationship to the social structures of any contemporary societies, hence little capacity to affect them either. This was poignantly expressed by Ines, the mother of the central character of Ronit Matalon's novel recounting an Egyptian Jewish family history, Zeh im ha-panim eleynu (The one facing us): A person does not need roots, he needs a home. Thus, Ines reluctantly abandoned her roots in Egypt to move to Israel in the 1950s, but rhizomatic connections and a life of nomadism were not alternatives she or others in her circumstances could embrace.
In configuring new maps of desire and attachment after their dispersion from Egypt, Jews were constrained by their passports (or lack thereof), wealth, languages, education, the location of relatives and friends, occupational opportunities, and religious or political precommitments. These historically formed social and cultural factors as well as the events and structures of international relations and political economy—the role of the Jewish business elite in Egypt, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the decolonization of Egypt, Arab socialism, pan-Arabism, Egypt's military defeats by Israel in 1948, 1956, and 1967, and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979—were the determinants of the matrix in which the repertoire of possibilities for Egyptian Jewish life after 1948 were played out. I have tried to account for these factors in a nondeterministic way that leaves considerable space for the relative autonomy of culture, politics, and economics while avoiding idealization of exile through textualist utopias like nomadology and rhizomatics.
In the same essay in which he seeks to privilege the insights of emigre writers, Salman Rushdie asserts that description is itself a political act and redescribing a world is the necessary first step towards changing it. I have sought to redescribe the world of Egyptian Jews while remaining cognizant that the great diversity of their life in Egypt and their diasporic trajectories precludes the possibility of establishing a consensus version of Egyptian Jewish social memory, although Zionist historiography has nonetheless attempted to create one. Therefore, I have not aspired to retrieve the collective memory of Egyptian Jews and to constitute it as a coherent countermemory in resistance to the hegemonic forms of collective memory promoted by nationalist historiography in Israel and Egypt. Countermemory can be oppositional and subversive, and I have tried to highlight these possibilities. But countermemory is rarely sustained and nourished by the array of financial support, social institutions, ideological apparatuses, and ultimately coercive power that reinforce hegemonic collective memory. Countermemory tends to be fragmentary, dispersed, and disunited. It usually cannot, in and of itself, constitute a counterhegemonic project.
This is certainly the case for the countermemories I have sought to retrieve in this book, especially in part 2, where I have employed ethnographic vignettes to draw attention to the experiences of individuals and small groups of Egyptian Jews that would inevitably be lost in a grand historical narrative. In parts 1 and 3, I have used imaginative literature as a way to highlight aspirations and understandings that are marginalized by nationalist discourse as well as literary expressions and historical writing complicit with it. But I do not argue that these literary expressions constitute a coherent counterhegemonic project any more than the countermemories of part 2.
Each of the three sections of this book emphasizes a different method of analysis and exposition. Part 1 consists of social, political, and cultural history. Part 2 is based on ethnographic investigation and oral history. Part 3 emphasizes cultural and social history and literary analysis. In addition, autobiographical segments are dispersed throughout the text as they relate to its several topics.
As in much of my previous work, I have made extensive use of oral history. Writing a history of Egypt in the second half of the twentieth century invites the use of oral evidence because archival materials are generally not available for this period. For example, researchers are not permitted to read the papers of the Cairo and Alexandria Jewish community that remain on shelves in the offices of the chief rabbinates of those cities. In May 1993, I spoke to Emile Risso, acting president of Cairo's Jewish community, to inquire about whether I might see these documents. I introduced myself as an American Jewish professor writing a history of the Jews of Egypt, to which he immediately responded, Ma lish da wa bi l-ta rikh (I have nothing to do with history).
In some important sense he was right. His personal safety and the security of the remaining tiny Jewish community in Egypt could very well be undermined by historical investigations that might highlight episodes of the community's past that the Egyptian state authorities or the leaders of the Jewish community would regard as problematic. History had already created difficulties for Egyptian Jews because part of the archive of the Jewish community of Cairo had previously been illegally removed from Egypt. It is currently designated the Jamie Lehmann Memorial Collection: Records of the Jewish Community of Cairo, 1886-1961 and housed at Yeshiva University in New York. This, too, may have influenced Emile Risso to avoid having anything to do with this project.
About the same time that I spoke to Emile Risso, I interviewed an elderly Muslim merchant in Cairo's Suq alHamzawi quarter, a major textile market near harat alyahud, where many members of the Jewish community had shops. Many of his business associates in the textile trade had been Jews, and I wanted to ask him about his memories of the community. He told me that the mukhabarat (security police) had visited him and instructed him not to speak freely about such topics. While we were chatting, one of the three Jewish women who still lived in harat alyahud passed by the shop. After some conversation, she began to tell me about her career as a dancer and actress. My host became agitated, tried to stop her, and rudely contradicted her. I could not decide what to make of the woman's story. She appeared somewhat demented. My host insisted that she exaggerated grossly, but he was very likely motivated, at least to some extent, by concern not to be identified with information about Jews given to a foreigner.
Here were clear instances in which the subaltern could not speak. Although Egyptian Jews have, in many ways, been impeded from narrating their own history because of political considerations in both Egypt and Israel, I did not write this book in order to speak for them as individuals or as a group. Some may appreciate my efforts to examine their past; others may reject it. I assume full responsibility for my role as the interpreter of the memories of my interlocutors and the other evidence I have gathered. I also acknowledge that my intentions in writing this text and offering these interpretations have no capacity to limit the readings they may be subjected to.
The Neo-Lachrymose Conception of Jewish-Arab history
Bat-Ye or (Daughter of the Nile, pseudonym of Giselle Littman) is an Egyptian Jew living in Switzerland since 1956 and a leading exponent of what Mark Cohen has termed the neo-lachrymose conception of Jewish-Arab history: a gloomy representation of Jewish life in the lands of Islam that emphasizes the continuity of oppression and persecution from the time of Muhammad until the demise of most Arab Jewish communities in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Bat Ye or was one of the earliest authors to adopt this perspective as a comprehensive understanding of the history of the Jews of Egypt, which she first presented in a short book, Les juifs en Egypte: Aperçu sur 3000 ans d'histoire. An expanded Hebrew version of the book was published in 1974 by Ma ariv Library and the World Jewish Congress on the initiative of the [Israeli] Ministry of Education and Culture with the participation of the Department for Sephardic Communities of the World Zionist Organization. The imprimatur of major institutions of the state of Israel, the Zionist movement, world Jewry, and the publishing house of a mass circulation newspaper signified the consecration of Bat-Ye or's neo-lachrymose perspective as the normative Zionist interpretation of the history of Jews in Egypt.
Prior to 1948, leading individuals and institutions of the Jewish community, including those who considered themselves Zionists, proudly embraced a more positive view of the long history of the Jews in Egypt. The neo-lachrymose historical perspective of Bat-Ye or and others was expounded as a conscious challenge to this earlier self-image. Drawing its authority from Bat-Ye or's claim to authenticity as an Egyptian Jew, this historical vision has won broad acceptance among both scholars and the general public in Israel and the West. The prominence and credibility of the neo-lachrymose view of Egyptian Jewish history were enabled, at least in part, by the near silence observed by Egyptian Jews about their lives in Egypt from 1948 until the late 1970s.
Building his argument around the role of Bat-Ye or, Mark Cohen argues that the neo-lachrymose thesis was generated by popular works published by Jews living outside Israel. But Cohen minimizes and homogenizes two distinctly Israeli sources of the neo-lachrymose perspective: Zionist concern to counter the claims of the resurgent Palestinian nationalist movement after 1967 and the desire of Middle Eastern Jews to redress the discrimination and mistreatment they suffered as new immigrants in Israel during the 1950s and 1960s.
Palestinian Arab claims of dispossession by Israel, relegated to the bottom of the international agenda since the mid-1950s, began to receive considerable international attention once again after the 1967 war. The neo-lachrymose interpretation of Jewish Arab history distracted attention from Palestinian claims by constructing a narrative focusing on the eternal suffering of Jews under Muslim rule. Some adherents of this approach suggested that even if it were true that the Palestinian Arabs had been dispossessed, a roughly equivalent number of Middle Eastern Jews had fled their homes and lost their property. Consequently, the Palestinians had no valid claim against Israel.
Middle Eastern Jews living in Israel (commonly agglomerated as Mizrahim, or Orientals, sing. Mizrahi) generally shared the objective of reinforcing the Zionist case against the Arab world, but they also had their own agenda. A narrative emphasizing the unrelenting suffering of Jews in the Arab world established the claim of these Jews to a status in Israeli society comparable to the Ashkenazi survivers of the mass murder of European Jewry. Affirming their victimization in the Arab world allowed Mizrahim to distance themselves from any Arab cultural attachments, which are widely regarded in Israel as symptoms of backwardness. Sometimes the transformation of attitudes toward the Arab world was quite self-consciously understood as the price of admission to Israeli society. For example, at a demonstration protesting a racist assault on Palestinian Arabs living in the Ramat Amidar neighborhood of Ramat Gan (colloquially known as Ramat Baghdad because of its high concentration of Iraqi Jews), one woman spontaneously remarked to me, In Baghdad we got along fine with the Arabs. But here we have to fight them.
The neo-lachrymose interpretation of Jewish Arab history also allowed Mizrahim to claim a role as active members of the Zionist movement and thereby assert their full participation in the mainstream of Jewish national history as presented in the Zionist narrative. Until the 1970s, the dominant school in Israeli and Jewish history portrayed Zionism as the achievement of Ashkenazi Jewry. Minimal participation in the Zionist movement was considered yet another expression of the backwardness of Mizrahim. But if Mizrahim had their own long history of diasporic oppression, this could logically be linked to a claim to have independently arrived at the Zionist solution to the Jewish problem. Asserting that Zionism was not merely a narrative about the crisis of European Jews and its resolution and that there had also been an independent Middle Eastern Zionist movement provided Mizrahim in Israel with a lever to reverse the negative evaluations of their history and culture that predominated during the years of MAPAI (Israeli Workers' Party, subsequently the Labor Party) rule and buttressed their claims to equal status with Ashkenazim.
Another important Israeli source for the neo-lachrymose perspective was the work of Yehoshafat Harkabi. Shortly after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, he published a book arguing that the Arabs completely rejected any negotiated resolution to the conflict with Israel (in fact, they rejected resolutions on terms acceptable to the activist current in Israeli politicomilitary thinking promoted by Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion). Although Harkabi addressed only Arab-Israeli relations since 1948, his cataloging of instances of Arab anti-Semitism and his insistence that the Arabs viewed the conflict as a fundamental clash of destinies that allowed for no compromise encouraged his audience to believe that a conflict so intense must have deep historical roots. Although this was not his primary purpose, Harkabi's work inclined Israelis and others to imagine the intense conflict over Palestine as one more instance of Arab and Muslim enmity toward Jews.
The broad political and cultural context for the translation and subsidization of Bat-Ye or's work by the Israeli government in 1974 is the emergence of a new school of Israeli historical writing that integrates the previously marginalized history of Middle Eastern Jews into the Israeli national narrative. The two central themes of that narrative are the relentless oppression and suffering of Jews in the diaspora and the modern secular redemption of Jews by Zionism. When Israeli public culture began to consider accepting Mizrahim as something other than primitives who should assimilate to Ashkenazi and tzabar (native Israeli) norms, the neo-lachrymose conception of Jewish Arab history provided a readily acceptable basis for acknowledging the history and culture of Middle Eastern Jews as a permanent, though not fully equal, element of Israeli society.
Alternatives To Neo-lachrymosity
The mirror image of the neo-lachrymose interpretation of the history of Arab Jews is the common Arab claim that Jews were always well treated in the lands of Islam. Many educated Egyptians are aware of the prominent positions of Ya qub Ibn Killis and other Jews in the Fatimid era, Maimonides's choice of Cairo as a safe haven, the waves of Jewish refugees who were welcomed in Egypt from the Spanish expulsion to the pogroms of Russia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the wealth and economic influence of many Jews from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. In support of its claim that Jews had never experienced mistreatment of any sort in Egypt, an official publication of the Egyptian government maintained, Egypt, throughout its history, has been the shelter of persecuted Jews—no matter where they came from. In recent years, both Arab nationalists and Islamists have asserted with increasing vehemence that despite the warm welcome they received and the wealth they attained, the Jews betrayed Egypt by collaborating with imperialism to undermine the national economy and embracing Zionism. In Chapter 9, I present a critique of this argument and offer an alternative approach.
Despite Bat-Ye or's claims, there is nothing in medieval Jewish Arab history that can reasonably be compared to the expulsion of Jews from Spain. Many scholars would agree that Jews were generally better treated in Muslim lands than in Christian Europe during the medieval era. And nothing in modern Jewish Arab history can reasonably be compared to the Nazi mass murder. But communities and individuals live in specific moments, not broad historical tendencies. Even if we do not judge by the standard of civic equality, which was not an operative ideal in the premodern Muslim world any more than it was in pre-Enlightenment Europe, there have been more than occasional instances of socially structured discrimination against Jews in Egypt. In the twentieth century, they were inextricably linked to the processes of colonization and decolonization, the nationalist struggle to expel the British troops who occupied Egypt from 1882 to 1956, and the intensification of the Arab-Zionist conflict.
During and after the outbreak of the nationalist uprising of 1919, many Jews identified with and supported the Egyptian nationalist movement. Leading members of the Jewish business elite such as Yusuf Cicurel Bey and Yusuf Aslan Qattawi Pasha, like many of their Muslim and Coptic compatriots, were wary of the populism of Sa d Zaghlul and his Wafd Party—the popular leaders of the mass movement. Nonetheless, they regarded themselves as nationalist Egyptians. Decolonization followed a convoluted course, and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow never materialized. Unable to negotiate with the militant Wafd, the British overlords unilaterally granted Egypt nominal independence in 1922, and a constitutional monarchy was established. But the palace and the British Embassy, backed by a very large garrison of imperial troops, retained substantial power in the country. They connived to dismiss each government formed by the Wafd, which won every democratic election from 1923 to 1952 (except the two it boycotted because they were obviously rigged). The scope of Egypt's sovereignty was augmented by the Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936, but many nationalists maintained that as long as British troops remained in the country, independence was a fraud.
Even under the monarchy, there were clear signs pointing to the impending decline in the status of foreign nationals and the mutamassir minorities—permanently resident Greeks, Italians, Armenians, Syrian Christians, and Jews—in postcolonial Egypt. The abolition of the Capitulations in 1937 ended the tax immunities of foreign nationals. The Company Law of 1947 set quotas for the employment of Egyptian nationals in incorporated firms. The abolition of the mixed courts in 1949 established a unified legal system for resident foreign nationals and Egyptian citizens.
On July 23, 1952, a military coup led by Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers overthrew the monarchy. The Free Officers were motivated by humiliation over their ignominious defeat in the 1948 Palestine War, revulsion from the corruption and excesses of privilege flaunted by King Faruq and the large landowning elite, resentment over the grossly unjust distribution of Egyptian national wealth, and a burning desire to end the British occupation. The military regime further eroded the privileges of foreigners and mutamassirun and in practice impinged on the status of non-Muslim citizens as well. The markers of this trajectory were the October 1954 Anglo-Egyptian agreement on the evacuation of British military forces, the abolition of the communal courts in 1955, the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956, the confiscation of the property of British and French nationals and Jews in 1956 and Belgian nationals in 1960, and the nationalization of large sectors of the economy in 1961-62, which affected many mutamassir—owned firms along with enterprises owned by Muslim, Coptic, and Jewish citizens. Listing these measures in chronological succession creates the impression of an inexorable trend, but this was not the perception of most contemporary observers.
The most salient symbol of the transformation of the status of Jews in Egypt was Operation Susannah. In July 1954, Israeli military intelligence ordered an espionage network of Egyptian Jews it had formed three years earlier to launch Operation Susannah—a campaign to firebomb the main Alexandria post office, the United States Information Service library in Cairo, the Cairo train station, and several movie theaters in Cairo and Alexandria. The saboteurs (today they would be called terrorists, especially if they were Arabs or Muslims acting against Israel or the United States) were quickly apprehended and brought to trial in December 1954. The verdicts and sentences delivered in January 1955 spanned the full range of options. Sami (Shmu el) Azar and Musa (Moshe) Marzuq were sentenced to death along with the Israeli handlers of the network—John Darling (Avraham Dar) and Paul Frank (Avraham Seidenwerg)—who were not apprehended and were tried in absentia. Marcelle Ninio and Robert Dassa were condemned to life in prison. Victor Levy and Philip Natanson received fifteen—year prison sentences. Me ir Meyuhas and Me ir Za fran were sentenced to seven years in prison. Caesar Cohen and Eli Na im were acquitted. Max Binnet, a major in Israeli military intelligence apprehended with the network but not directly involved in its operations, committed suicide in jail. Armand Karmona, the lodger of Marcelle Ninio, was interrogated by the Egyptian authorities and, though apparently not involved in Operation Susannah, either committed suicide or was beaten to death by his interrogators.
One possible objective of Operation Susannah was to convince the British government, then engaged in negotiations with Egypt over the withdrawal of the British garrison from the Suez Canal Zone, that Egypt was an unstable, radical, nationalist state and therefore that British forces ought not to be evacuated. It is also possible that the activist elements in the Israeli military and the Ministry of Defense loyal to David Ben-Gurion, who retained great influence despite having temporarily retired as prime minister during 1954, intentionally initiated and then exposed Operation Susannah in order to break up secret Egyptian-Israeli negotiations then going on and eliminate the possibility of a face-to-face meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Moshe Sharett and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, which was under consideration.
Many of the documents pertaining to Operation Susannah have apparently been destroyed by the governments of Israel, the United States, and Britain or are unavailable to researchers. No Egyptian government documents for the 1950s are yet available to researchers. Consequently, it is impossible to construct a traditional political history of the operation addressing the perennial question in Israeli politics: Who gave the order? In 1960, when some of the details of Operation Susannah were revealed in Israel, this question became the focal point of a protracted political scandal labeled the Lavon affair or, in the sanitized discourse of Israeli national security, ha- esek ha-bish (the dirty business), commonly further obscured by English translation as the mishap.
Knowing who gave the order might shed new light on military-civilian relations in Israel and strengthen ongoing revisionist assessments of the possibilities of peace between Israel and Egypt from 1949 to 1956. But the lack of evidence, indeed the high likelihood that important relevant evidence has been intentionally destroyed or falsified, has led me to focus on the discursive aspects of Operation Susannah in Chapters 2 and 4. Although imposed by necessity, this strategy is justifiable in its own right because Operation Susannah has become an important symbolic marker connecting the fate of the Egyptian Jews to the course of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The uncertainty of many of the facts of the case has perhaps even augmented the power of Operation Susannah as a recurrent theme in the popular political culture of Egypt and Israel.
From Pillars of the Community To Compradors
The Jewish community as a whole was identified with the cosmopolitan culture, international business connections, and foreign citizenship of many of its wealthiest and most prominent members. Many Jews, in addition to the business elite, were passive beneficiaries of or active collaborators with colonialism. Insofar as Jews, like other mutamassirun, were identified with foreign interests and culture, their status was undermined by decolonization. In addition, from the late 1930s on, the increasing intensity of the Arab-Zionist clash in Palestine also generated a dynamic that affected the Jewish community specifically. Most members of the mutamassir communities left Egypt after 1956, which suggests that a large proportion of the Jewish community might have left Egypt in the 1950s whether or not there had been an Arab-Israeli conflict and regardless of any specific measures the Egyptian authorities directed against Jews.
Asking if the emigration of the Jews was inevitable or assuming that it was are not particularly fruitful points of departure for a history of the Jews of Egypt. Therefore, I propose a more open-ended, critical approach to the demise of the Egyptian Jewish community rooted in three propositions: (1) Only a small minority of Jews were active Zionists, even after 1948. (2) Most Jews who left Egypt after 1948, especially those with enough resources to have a choice, did not go to Israel. (3) Wherever Egyptian Jews did go, including Israel, many of them reconstructed forms of communal life and collective practices that preserved a link between them and Egypt. This approach contests the Israeli nationalist narrative, which situates the experiences of Egyptian Jews wholly within the trajectory of the Zionist project and insists on their absolute and total alienation from the land of their birth.
Nonetheless, it does not conform to the Egyptian nationalist narrative, which accounts for the demise of the Egyptian Jewish community in terms of Zionist machinations. Any critical account of the emigration of the Jews and other mutamassir communities must take into account the development of the Egyptian political economy and political culture in ways that excluded Jews and other minorities from the political community. For example, the Company Law of 1947 required that 75 percent of all salaried employees, 90 percent of all workers, and 51 percent of the paid-up capital of joint stock companies be Egyptian. To monitor compliance, firms were required to submit lists of their employees stating their nationalities and salaries. They were thus forced to answer the question: Who is an Egyptian? There can be no unequivocal, transhistorical answer to such a question. Both the question and its answer are historically and socially constructed cultural categories, as the fate of the department store chain of Les Grands Magasins Cicurel et Oreco, owned by the prominent Jewish Cicurel family of Cairo, illustrates.
To protest the rearrest and deportation of Sa d Zaghlul to the Seychelles, the Wafd called on Egyptians to purchase only at national stores in 1921-22. The Cicurel department store near Cairo's Opera Square was specified as an approved shop. In a 1948 memorandum submitted to the Ministry of Commerce, the Cicurel firm described itself as one of the pillars of our [Egyptian national] economic independence. Nonetheless, the Cicurel store was firebombed during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, probably by supporters of the Society of Muslim Brothers, and it was burned as a symbol of European influence in the Cairo fire of January 26, 1952. Both times the store was rebuilt with the support of the government. The Cicurel store did have a European cultural character because of its largely Jewish staff, its expensive and largely imported merchandise, and the use of French by employees and customers on the shop floor. Even many of the Egyptian-born Jewish members of the Cicurel staff did not hold citizenship papers and were classified as stateless. Cicurel's contradictions could not be balanced indefinitely. At the outbreak of the 1956 Suez/Sinai War, unlike in 1948, the Cicurel firm was placed under sequestration. The Cicurel family soon ceded its majority holding to a new group headed by Muslims, and in 1957 Salvator Cicurel, who had managed the firm, left Egypt for France. Between 1919 and 1956, the entire Egyptian Jewish community, like the Cicurel firm, was transformed from a national asset into a fifth column.
Middle Eastern Jews (mizrahim) and the Zionist National Narrative
Many Mizrahim in Israel felt excluded and neglected by the labor Zionist governments of the 1950s and 1960s led by MAPAI and its successor, the Labor Party. Labor Zionism was a self-consciously European ideological synthesis that emerged in response to the crisis of Eastern European Jewry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It proposed to normalize the Jewish people by transforming them from a persecuted minority disproportionately composed of economically marginal petty merchants and craftsmen into citizens and productive workers and peasants: the proper subjects of a nation-state and what labor Zionists hoped would become a socialist economy. Secularism, socialism, redemption through physical labor, and a reformation of Jewish identity in nationalpolitical terms were the core elements of the labor Zionist solution to the Jewish problem. This ideology was articulated and implemented through highly centralized political parties—MAPAI, MAPAM (the United Workers' Party), and Le-Ahdut ha- Avodah (Unity of Labor)—that created the institutions that dominated the prestate yishuv (Jewish settlement) and the early state of Israel—the Histadrut, the kibutzim, the Haganah, and the Palmah.
Most Mizrahim shared little of the history in the diaspora or in the yishuv that informed the theory and practice of labor Zionism. Except for the descendents of the pre-Zionist old yishuv and several thousand Yemenis who were brought to mandate Palestine by Zionist authorities seeking Jewish workers who would work for Arab wages, only a small minority participated actively in the Zionist project before 1948. The leadership of the Zionist movement and the early state of Israel was overwhelmingly Ashkenazi.
After open Zionist activity became impossible in Nazi-occupied Europe, all the Zionist parties of the yishuv began to send emissaries to Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia, Morocco, and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa. There had been small Zionist organizations in these countries before World War II. The combination of the emissaries' work, the reception of the news of the mass murder of European Jewry, and the more precarious conditions of Middle Eastern Jews due to the intensification of the Palestinian-Zionist conflict made Zionism a significant, though still a minority, orientation for Middle Eastern Jews after the war.
Some Mizrahim became active in the labor Zionist movement, but most had no links to the labor Zionist establishment and its key institutions. Hence, they had no patrons to ease their way into Israeli society. When they arrived in Israel in large numbers in the 1950s, their customs and lifestyles were commonly discounted as primitive, and they were expected to adopt the modern, healthy, tzabar culture. By a conscious decision of the state and Zionist authorities, large numbers of Mizrahim were settled in development towns, moshavim (cooperative agricultural villages), or in the former homes of recently departed Palestinian refugees in cities such as Jaffa, Jerusalem, Haifa, Acre, and Tiberias. Their role in the Zionist project was to establish a Jewish population in territories and neighborhoods previously inhabited by Palestinian Arabs and to occupy the bottom ranks of the Jewish labor force. The immigration of the Mizrahim was vital for the demographic and economic stabilization of the Jewish state, but they were settled on the margins of Israeli economic, political, and cultural life.
Alienation from the political ideology, cultural and social norms, institutions, and economic benefits of labor Zionism drove many Mizrahim and their children to provide the votes that brought the first Likud government to power in Israel in 1977. The new regime made extensive efforts to find places for its supporters in the official national culture and historical narrative. Dozens of scholarly and popular books, articles, television programs, and public symposia revised the formerly Eurocentric history of Zionism, asserting that there had been a Zionist movement in Middle Eastern Jewish communities and that Mizrahim had contributed substantially to establishing the state of Israel. The inflection of Israeli public culture was transformed as the Middle Eastern origins of about half its Jewish population at last received public and official acknowledgment. Mizrahi Hebrew accents began to be heard on the radio and television news, and Arab-accented Hebrew music found its way to the top of the popular song lists. In response, Labor and other political parties began to promote their Mizrahi figures and to rediscover and revalorize the role of Mizrahim in the history of labor Zionism. The reassertion of Egyptian Jewish identity examined in Chapter 8 is both an expression of this broad movement of Mizrahi self-assertion and a particular phenomenon related to the course of Egyptian-Israeli relations.
In part 2 of this book, I invoke and celebrate the diversity of the Egyptian Jewish community and the rich texture of its identities, practices, and commitments by presenting three case studies of subcommunities of Egyptian Jews who made new lives for themselves outside Egypt after 1948: (1) the graduates of ha-Shomer ha-Tza ir (The Young Guard) who settled in Kibutz Nahshonim and Kibutz Ein-Shemer in Israel, (2) the communist Jewish émigrés in Paris, and (3) the Karaites who settled in the San Francisco Bay Area. They have been chosen not because they are representative of the Egyptian Jewish community as a whole. Two of these subcommunities, the Zionists and the communists, are expressly atypical because of their high level of political consciousness, and the Karaites constituted only a small minority of Egyptian Jews. Nonetheless, I offer these case studies because in addition to their intrinsic interest, they confirm, as I believe any closely researched social hi story or ethnographic study of an Egyptian Jewish subcommunity would, that neither the Israeli nor the Egyptian national narrative offers an adequate framework for comprehending the modern experience of Egyptian Jews.
My choice of these three groups is largely due to accidents of my own life experiences, which have made certain connections and understandings more available to me. Although I am not an Egyptian Jew, I cannot claim to be a disinterested party with respect to the many contentious issues addressed in this book. My personal, political, and intellectual commitments have shaped a specific relationship to the subjects of this book, many of whom I regard as friends and colleagues. Because I will be revealing much about them, it seems fair, and I hope not overly self-indulgent, to reveal something about how and why I came to know them.
Egypt in the summer of 1969 had a grey and forbidding face. The public mood was suspicious and depressed after the crushing military defeat of 1967. Artillery duels over the Suez Canal and deep Israeli bombing raids maintained a wartime tension long after the official cease-fire was signed. The population of Isma iliyya was evacuated to Cairo, where windows were painted blue to maintain a nighttime blackout. Small red brick walls lined the downtown streets, strategically placed in front of each doorway to shield buildings in case a bomb fell in the street. These devices, too flimsy to render effective protection, constantly reminded the public that the country was in a mortal struggle with the Zionist enemy. These unwelcoming external signs severely strained the personal warmth and hospitality so common among Egyptians.
My apprehensive reaction to all of this was magnified by my being a young Jewish American with very limited Arabic skills visiting for the first time a country at war. I had come to Cairo to study Arabic at the American University in Cairo (AUC). After three years of Arabic study at Princeton University, I could not understand the most basic street conversation because my training had consisted entirely of grammar, reading, and translation of standard Arabic texts. Like most students of that era, I had studied Arabic as if it were a dead language, like Latin. I do not recall my teachers explaining clearly the extent to which the language I was learning was unusable for daily affairs. Inability to converse despite years of Arabic study intensified my feeling that Egypt was a difficult and potentially dangerous place.
Before departing, I worried that being Jewish would be a problem in Egypt. My teachers assured me that it would not. The previous year Rabbi Boruch Holman had been a student in the same program, and his religious needs were accommodated by providing him with kosher food. The administrators of the Arabic program considered this evidence of Egypt's profound civilization and tolerance. So I obeyed instructions and wrote Jewish in the space on my visa application asking for my religion, though I have never regarded my Jewishness as a matter of religious faith.
I don't remember how I met Ahmad. It may have been while drinking a soda at a kiosk near AUC on Shaykh Rihan Street. We struck up a conversation, and he was interested in the American student movement, the new left, and other such things I could tell him something about. We met several times and had long discussions about politics, the current situation in Egypt, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. When it felt comfortable, I told him that I was a Zionist, a member of ha-Shomer ha-Tza ir, that I was planning to move to Israel the next year to live on a kibutz, and that I favored reaching an accommodation with the Palestinian Arabs. One day Ahmad did not come to a meeting we had arranged. I tried to find him, but could not. It was close to the end of my stay, and I began to be preoccupied with preparing to return to Princeton to begin my senior year.
A few days before my departure, I was notified that I had been summoned to be questioned in the Mugamma —an ugly and imposing Stalinesque structure in Tahrir Square where many government offices are concentrated. A representative of AUC accompanied me to the meeting, where I was asked by an official whose precise title I do not recall ever being told, Why did you put down that you are Jewish on your visa application?
After some hesitation, I could think of no better answer than Because I am.
Sensing that this encounter might become difficult, my chaperon quickly intervened, It's okay. He is leaving the country in two days.
Oh, I see, said the official with obvious relief in his voice. Then write down on this paper the date you are leaving and the flight you are leaving on.
I am leaving Egypt on whatever day it was in August on whatever TWA flight it was, I wrote.
The official examined my affidavit and made one further request: Put down 'for good.'
I complied and, after completing the formalities, left the office without ever being told what had prompted the inquiry. Everyone seemed satisfied, and I did leave Egypt as scheduled with no further incident. But I wondered if Ahmad had turned me in to the authorities.
Several years later I came across an article Ahmad had written and concluded that this was improbable. The note identifying the author described him as a communist student activist living in France. It is unlikely that someone who belonged to an illegal organization would risk attracting suspicion to himself by turning me in, especially because the Egyptian security apparatus had long promoted the notion that Zionism and communism were part of the same antinational conspiracy. It is more likely that Ahmad was under surveillance by the mukhabarat or that our meetings had been noticed by one of the many street informers in the internal security system who thought it suspicious that an American and an Egyptian were in regular contact. I hope that Ahmad was not arrested because of his association with me.
I came to Egypt convinced that Israel had to reach a rapprochement with the Palestinians. This conviction was reinforced by my meetings with Palestinian students at AUC, though I was still not able to articulate fully how this should happen. The students I met considered themselves members of a national community and supported the Palestine Liberation Organization. They took me to visit the Cairo office of the PLO, where I met people who had been trained in the People's Republic of China. I was convinced that they were sincere and that Israel would have to find a way to accommodate their national aspirations.
When I returned home after my summer in Cairo, I lectured about Egypt to the older members of ha-Shomer ha-Tza ir in New York. Our Israeli emissaries tried to undermine or reinterpret my meaning. I tried to limit myself to reporting my experiences because I did not then know a political language to advocate a program that diverged from the positions of MAPAM, our party in Israel. It seemed to me then that the differences between us were due to my having seen and heard Palestinians firsthand. It did not occur to me that certain facts are political and that most Israelis would not then have allowed themselves to be in a position where they would be exposed to hearing Palestinians express themselves freely.
After completing my degree at Princeton in 1970, I went with about sixty other graduates of ha-Shomer ha-Tza ir to live on Kibutz Lahav in Israel, as I had told Ahmad I intended to do. Soon after arriving I realized that my own trajectory was moving in the opposite direction of the political winds in Israel, including the kibutz and MAPAM. Most Israeli Jews were then convinced that considering Palestinian Arabs as a national collective entity was no more than an anti-Semitic intrigue. The arrogance of victory after the 1967 war made accommodating Arab demands of any sort seem like a ridiculous proposition.
I had come to Israel intending to be politically engaged. Because this was virtually impossible for a new member of a kibutz hours away from a major city, and the kibutz was antagonistic to my views in any case, I soon found my way to the student new left at the Hebrew University. A period of intense activity during which I was jailed several times for doing no more than participating in demonstrations brought me to revise most of what I had believed in since I was a child. With profound emotional pain, I concluded that I was no longer a Zionist and that I could not serve in the Israeli army and enforce the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
I returned to the United States in 1973 with my face turned away from Israel. Having experienced a pervasive fear and disdain for everything Arab in Israel, I was determined to learn to feel comfortable in an Arab environment. My most transformative experiences during the years I devoted to attaining this goal were working in auto plants in the Detroit area and helping to produce and distribute the Arabic section of a workers' newspaper directed at the large Arab community, mostly Lebanese, Yemenis, and Palestinians, in the greater Detroit area. Though the Arabic section of the newspaper was crudely produced, and my translations were often clumsy, we easily sold many copies of the paper and enjoyed a wide network of friends and contacts in the South End of Dearborn and southwest Detroit. The Arab community was pleased to learn that there were Americans who supported both the national rights of Palestinians and the rights of Arab workers in the auto plants. I attended many events sponsored by Palestinian nationalist organizations and sometimes delivered solidarity messages in the name of the newspaper. The Palestinian brothers who owned a grocery store on the corner of the street where I lived in southwest Detroit became my friends and collaborators in translating articles for the newspaper.
These experiences taught me more than anything I had learned previously in a university and at the same time convinced me that I would be more effective in publicly addressing the issues that mattered to me most if I returned to the university. With great ambivalence and feelings of guilt for choosing an easier life, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. and write a doctoral dissertation on the emergence of the Arab working class in Palestine during the British mandate period. Richard P. Mitchell, my mentor at the University of Michigan, agreed that this was an acceptable topic. But he added that if I wrote about Israel or Palestine, I would probably not get a teaching job when I completed my degree. Why not write about Egypt instead? he proposed. I agreed, and I have been engaged with Egypt ever since.
The first Egyptian Jews I met were members of the communist organizations established in the 1940s. I came to know them through researching my doctoral dissertation on the Egyptian labor movement. Both they and I were aware of each other as Jews, but reluctant to examine what that meant, partly because there were more important things to do on our agendas. For better and for worse, those agendas have been superseded. I embarked on this study in the hope that a sympathetic exploration of ways of being Jewish that have been marginalized in both the Zionist and the Egyptian national narratives may suggest alternatives for the future.
Excerpted from The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry by Joel Beinin. Copyright © 1998 by the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|2||Communitarianisms, nationalisms, nostalgias||31|
|3||Citizens, Dhimmis, and subversives||60|
|4||Nazis and spies : the discourse of Operation Susannah||90|
|5||The graduates of ha-Shomer ha-Tza'ir in Israel||121|
|6||The communist emigres in France||142|
|7||The Karaites of the San Francisco Bay area||179|
|8||The recovery of Egyptian Jewish identity||207|
|9||Opposing Camp David and remembering the Jews of Egypt : trends in recent Egyptian historical writing||241|
|App||Interview with Jacques Hassoun : "I am Jewish because I am Egyptian. I am Egyptian because I am Jewish"||269|