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“My house is your house”

This is a guest post by Lyn Julius

A daughter of the wealthy Jewish Castro family from Egypt once attended a lecture by Anwar Sadat’s widow Jehan in New York City.  Congratulating her afterwards on her excellent speech, the Egyptian Jewess exchanged pleasantries with Mrs Sadat. “But you must come back to visit (Egypt) and to show it to your children”, Mrs Sadat said, adding the traditional Egyptian courtesy, beti betak – ” My house is your house”.

Little did she appreciate the irony, but the presidential villa Jehan Sadat lived in had literally belonged to the Castro family expelled by Nasser in 1956. Observers of the Middle East conflict frequently talk of trampled Palestinian rights, but suffer a blindspot when it comes to the  mass dispossession of a greater number of Jews across 10 Arab countries. Few Jews lived as opulently as the Castros, but all over the Middle East and North Africa, Jewish homes, shops and businesses were seized or sold for well under market value as fearful Jews left in haste. Schools, synagogues and hospitals were abandoned as some 850,000 Jews were scapegoated as Zionists after 1948.  A ghostly Jewish presence, a reminder of a more pluralistic, tolerant age, still haunts the Arab world today like a severed limb.

So reports last week that President Mubarak, paying his first visit to Washington since 2004, might have discussed with President Obama a plan for  Palestinian refugees to be compensated, in exchange for a waiver of their ‘right of return’, has left Jews exiled from the Arab world gasping: “what about us?”

The US-based Historical Society of Jews from Egypt fired off an open letter to President Mubarak seething with indignation:

“If Nasser had not persecuted us, stolen all our property, and expelled us ignominiously with only the shirts on our backs, we would still be living in Egypt and contributing to its greatness as we always have. Indeed, we care about our heritage and cherish it openly. It will be a good day when Egypt finally recognizes our many positive contributions to its history. Sadly, it does not appear this day is near. We wish to bring to your attention, again, as we have many times in the past, a number of grievances. So far, not only have they not been satisfied, but they have not even been addressed.The Egyptian establishment believes that if they just ignore us, we will simply go away.”

Clauses in the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty allowing for the settlement of Jewish claims have never been implemented, perhaps because the Israeli government did not want to be blamed for sinking an already-floundering Egyptian economy. But Egypt is haunted that some day the Jews – once a community of 80,000 – will demand  their property back. In May 2008 a group of elderly Jews from Israel had their planned ‘roots’ visit to Cairo and Alexandria cancelled after just such scaremongering.

The fate of Egypt’s priceless Jewish heritage is effectively being determined by some few dozen elderly Jewish ladies, mostly widowed or married to non-Jews. Decisions are postponed as the tiny and timorous local community and the authorities engage in endless buck-passing. Most recently, Jews outside Egypt were alarmed by reports in the Egyptian press that developers were fighting over the extremely valuable site of a derelict synagogue-cum-religious school in the old Jewish quarter of Cairo. Although some 10 synagogues  and a mausoleum in Cairo and Alexandria are under preservation order and  the Egyptian government is paying for the restoration of major Jewish tourist sites such as the Rambam synagogue, images in the press of a mural of the great 12th century rabbi Maimonides and prayer books strewn amid the rubble have suggested that the Egyptian Jewish community’s decaying heritage may not be in such safe hands. The Egyptians, however, have been quick to deny such charges of neglect.

On the other hand, documents, treasures and Torah scrolls are classified as antiquities as ‘Egyptian’ as the Sphinx or the Pyramids. They are being left to deteriorate in storage, and may not be restored to their rightful Jewish owners.

A major grievance is that Egyptian Jews in exile are denied access to their communal archives.   Jews of Egyptian descent in Israel, Europe, the Americas and Australia requiring their ancestors’ certificates of birth, marriage or death cannot even obtain photocopies. Appeals by associations of Egyptian Jews abroad for UNESCO to take over these precious records have so far gone unheeded.

To add insult to injury, the next UNESCO director-general, to be elected in September, is likely to be the Egyptian culture minister Farouk Hosni. Although he has since apologised and retracted his statement as ‘hyperbole’, Mr Hosni is on record as saying that ‘Israeli’ books in Egyptian libraries should be burned:

In 1997, at the height of the Oslo accords, he told the newspaper Ruz Al Yusef: “the Jews steal our history and our civilisation ; they haven’t any civilisation of their own; they haven’t a country of their own and don’t deserve to have one. So they tried to create one by force.”

No compensation in sight for seized property, no access to their history, and the prospect of a known antisemite in charge of their heritage: for the Jews from Egypt, these grievances compound the original injustice of their uprooting. The rights of Jews forced out from Arab countries continue to be denied. Even if talk of compensation for Palestinian refugees at the highest level turns out to be rumour, the framing of such discussions to exclude Jewish refugees is iniquitous. Without justice for all parties, there can be no lasting peace.