Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1130, 10 - 16 January 2013
Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Issue 1130, 10 - 16 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

Commentary: Al-Erian’s Jewish overture

Precisely what the Muslim Brotherhood’s Essam Al-Erian’s proposal that Jews formerly resident in Egypt to return means is anyone’s guess, writes Emad Gad

Al-Ahram Weekly

Egypt is a land of diversity, a place where multiple ethnicities, cultures and religions coexist, if not blend together. The country that was once home to Joseph and Moses gave refuge to the holy family in times of repression. It gave Christianity one of its greatest institutions: monasticism. And it gave Islam its foremost college: Al-Azhar.

In the 19th century, Egypt attracted a cosmopolitan class of entrepreneurs and administrators, artists and artisans, often of European and Levantine extraction, who became integrated into the country’s political and cultural life. And up to the creation of Israel, Egypt had nearly 100,000 Jews, some Egyptian and some holding other nationalities.

When the Zionist movement grew powerful in the early decades of the 20th century, part of Egyptian Jewry joined it. And the general public wasn’t initially worried about Zionism. In fact, Egyptian officials had frequent contacts with institutions affiliated with the Zionist movement. A high-level Egyptian delegation even took part in the inauguration of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1925.

The mood in Egypt began to change in the 1940s, when it became clear that an Arab-Zionist conflict was brewing in Palestine.

Following the 1948 war, things began to change rapidly. Public sympathy with the Palestinian refugees was felt everywhere. And some Jews, especially the non-Egyptian, began leaving for Israel. It was around this time that the Muslim Brotherhood called for jihad in Palestine, and the local Jewry became exposed to certain forms of harassment.

But it wasn’t until after the 1956 War that the big exodus of foreigners, including Jews, began. By the end of the 1950s, only a few hundred Jews were left in Egypt. Those who left went either to Israel or to European countries, especially France.

The Jews who immigrated to Israel obtained the nationality of that country, served in its army, and ended up fighting in wars against Egypt. Their children and grandchildren now remember nothing about Egypt, except what they may have heard their parents talk about. If there is any nostalgia for Egypt, it is among the first generation, of which only few are left.

For the younger ones, the second and third generation, there is no interest in Egypt per se, apart from the wish to receive compensation for any property that their parents and grandparents left behind, or which was confiscated from them. The same is more or less true for the Jews who left Egypt for Europe or America. While they may be less hostile to Egypt than those who went to Israel, they have no interest in going back. But their descendants are certainly interested in compensation.

Which makes one wonder why has Essam Al-Erian called for the return of Egyptian Jewry to Egypt?

For years, the followers of political Islam railed against Israel, denounced the peace treaty, called for nationality to be stripped from Egyptians who went to work in Israel, or who dared to marry Israelis (although some of those Israelis are actually Arabs who refused to leave the country in 1948).

Al-Erian made his call first in a closed meeting with Jewish officials in Washington, and then reiterated it to the media. What exactly is he hoping to accomplish?

Let’s keep in mind that the Muslim Brotherhood has been consistently hostile to Jews. It has even accused Zionist leaders of bombing Jewish shops in Egypt to force the Jews to leave the country, back in the 1950s.

It is hard not to hear a note of opportunism in Al-Erian’s remarks. There are two possible explanations for what he said. One is that the Muslim Brotherhood is so desperate for US support that it is willing to bend over backwards to humour the Israelis. The other is that the Brotherhood, having failed to attract the investment it was hoping for from Qatar and other Gulf states, is flirting with global capital, on which the Jews are said to have a measure of control.

What the statement lacks, however, is any political sense. Al-Erian doesn’t seem to understand the realities of the situation, or the consequences of his remarks. The only thing he has accomplished so far is to get a Paris-based organisation to start demanding $30 billion in compensation for the Jews who once lived in Egypt. Was this the outcome he had hoped for, or was he totally unaware of what his words meant?

Muslim Brotherhood officials, including Al-Erian, are strongly advised to think twice before tackling such sensitive issues. In principle, no one is opposed to the return of Egyptians who left the country, voluntarily or forcibly. But this particular issue is not one to be taken lightly.

As mentioned earlier, few if any Jews are interested in coming back to Egypt. But let’s assume that Israeli Jews would actually take up Al-Erian on his promise. Let’s assume that they come back to live in Egypt and apply for Egyptian passports. Then you’ll end up with a community of dual nationals whose situation would be problematic not only for them but for the country.

The offspring of the Jews who left Egypt to Israel over half a century ago now speak fluent Hebrew, know no other country than Israel, embrace the Zionist dream, and are ready to fight for their country at the drop of a hat. Would these people be really interested in switching sides at this point?

Again, once this topic is broached, it will boil down to claims of compensation. Is this what the Muslim Brotherhood is really interested in addressing, now that is in charge of the presidency, the government and parliament?

As for compensation, this issue has been raised in the past, but only in association with compensation for the Palestinians. What Al-Erian has managed to do is separate the two issues. So now we have to contend with people asking for compensation running into $30 billion for lost or confiscated property. Was this really what Al-Erian intended to do?

The writer is an analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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