Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1129, 3 - 9 January 2013
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1129, 3 - 9 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

Back to Egypt?

The recent remarks by the Freedom and Justice Party vice president wanting Egyptian Jews to return have triggered outrage, writes Amany Maged

Al-Ahram Weekly

Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) Vice President Essam Al-Erian’s recent call to Egyptian Jews who had emigrated to Israel to return to Egypt have sparked angry reactions in various political quarters, Islamist above all, stirring speculation as to whether the FJP or even the Egyptian government has adopted a new policy on the Palestinian cause.
In an interview on Dream TV last Thursday, Al-Erian, an advisor to President Mohamed Morsi, said that Egyptian Jews had the “right to return to Egypt” and that their presence in Palestine contributed to the Zionist occupation of Arab lands.
He stressed that religious freedoms were guaranteed under Islamic Sharia law, as were women’s rights. “We are a people the majority of whom are Muslim. But the whole of this people’s culture, including Muslims, Christians and Jews, shared in Arab Islamic civilisation. I hope that the [Egyptian] Jews will return to us, so as to make room for the Palestinians [to return to their homeland],” he said.
Relatively few Jews were still in Egypt when Gamal Abdel-Nasser became president in the mid-1950s. Most Egyptian Jews had been encouraged to leave during World War II and afterwards by the Zionist Jewish Agency, whose activities also included negotiations with Russian and Ethiopian leaders to promote the emigration of Jews to Israel from those countries.
Most of the Jews still in Egypt following the 1952 Revolution fled because of terrorist acts against them. Their stores and homes were attacked in order to drive them into emigrating to Israel, depriving the Nasserist regime of the investment of Jewish businessmen. The emigration also increased the Jewish presence in Palestine at the expense of the Arabs.
Egyptian Jews once formed the largest and most influential Jewish community in the Arab world, and in the first half of the 20th century they participated in all fields of public and social life in the country.
However, the Egyptian Jews also formed the oldest Jewish community in the region, as is testified to in the biblical stories of Jacob, the son of Isaac, and the prophet Joseph, who was elevated to an important office under the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh, bringing his family to Egypt at a time when famine ravaged the rest of the Middle East.
In the modern period, the Egyptian Jewish community consisted of three categories of people: indigenous Egyptian Jews who numbered in the tens of thousands at the time of the creation of Israel in 1948; Egyptianised Jews who had come to Egypt from various quarters of the former Ottoman Empire and adopted Egyptian nationality; and foreign Jews, or those who lived in Egypt but retained their original nationalities.
Following the Egyptian victory in the October 1973 War, some Egyptian Jewish families tried to repatriate to Egypt. However, under the Egyptian constitution they had been stripped of their Egyptian nationality by virtue of their having acquired Israeli nationality and therefore their applications were refused.
According to the last census in 2003, there were no more than 5,680 Jews in Egypt, residing primarily in Cairo, Alexandria and the Fayoum. These were all that remained of a community that at the time of the creation of Israel had exceeded tens of thousands.
These Jews had once been active members of Egyptian society, living in harmony with the rest of Egypt’s communities, although following 1948 some members of the Egyptian Jewish community began to feel more affiliated with Israel than with their Egyptian homeland.
It was the Israeli factor in Al-Erian’s remarks that caused liberals and Islamists to chime in unison, perhaps for the first time, in a joint outcry against them. Spokespersons for the liberal camp suspected that the FJP official’s statements hinted at secret talks, or perhaps even agreements, to resolve the Palestinian question at Egypt’s expense.
Some described the remarks as irresponsible, careless, or insincere, or as little more than another Muslim Brotherhood bid to flirt with the West and Washington and to paint itself as being tolerant of religious differences.
In a press statement, former presidential candidate Abul-Ezz Al-Hariri accused the Brotherhood of seeking to implement a US project for a solution to the Palestinian question at Egypt’s expense.
Al-Hariri said that the timing of the remarks, in the aftermath of the constitutional referendum, was not a coincidence. Article 145 of the newly adopted constitution grants the president the right to conclude treaties relating to sovereign rights. These could include alterations to national boundaries, which, if approved by two-thirds of the legislature, could promote the American scheme for a “New Middle East,” he said.
Al-Hariri added that Al-Erian’s remarks, coming at the time that they had, betrayed the Brotherhood’s intentions to cater to the US and Israel’s desire for a solution to the Palestinian cause that would come at the expense of Egyptian territory.
The implication was that armed with the above-mentioned constitutional provision and a majority in the Shura Council, the Brotherhood would feel confident in its ability to implement such a policy.
On the other side of the political spectrum, leading Islamist figures also urged Al-Erian to clarify his remarks, so as to forestall misinterpretations or misconstructions, especially since political rivals were “on the lookout for slip-ups and mistakes by the Islamists”.
 On the invitation to Egyptian Jews to return to Egypt the Islamists appear to be divided. Some have said that the Egyptian people would never agree to the return of the Jews, whose “hands were stained with Palestinian blood.” Others agreed that their return to Egypt could help make way for the return of the Palestinians to their homeland.
The controversy over Al-Erian’s remarks flared through the social media sites. The “Ikhwan Kazeboon” (The Muslim Brothers are Liars) Facebook page condemned the FJP vice president’s remarks as “lies, distortion and fabrication”.
The page cited David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, as saying that “we would never have dreamed that the Jews of Egypt would emigrate to Israel, which they had long refused to do. Had it not been for the Muslim Brotherhood’s bombings of their stores and buildings, they would never have fled to Israel, and had it not been for the money they brought with them, the Israeli economy would never have flourished.”
The “Ikhwan Kazeboon” page said that the Cairo neighbourhood known as Haret Al-Yahoud (The Alley of the Jews) was bombed twice, the first on 20 June 1948 and the second on 23 September 1948. The Banzayoun and Ads stores were bombed on 13 August, and the Oriental Advertisement Company was bombed on 12 November 1948.
Bombs also went off in Cinema Metro on the anniversary of the crowning of former king Farouk on 6 May 1946 and in the Metro, Cosmo and Metropol cinemas a year later on 6 May 1947.
In a statement to Al-Ahram Weekly, an FJP official stressed that “Al-Erian spoke in a personal capacity and did not express the views of the ruling party,” and the same message was confirmed by sources in the president’s office.
As for the FJP vice president himself, he has yet to defend or clarify his remarks. As one observer put it, this looks like just another of the fractious Brotherhood official’s habitual media bombshells.           

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