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Zionism for the Ages - Egypt's Jews, Israel and Zionism

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Introduction by Zionism-Israel Information Center Anti-Zionist Sephardi Jews insist they speak on behalf of all  "Arab Jews," that they are not Zionists, and that Zionism and feelings for Israel and the Jewish people are inventions of European Ashkenazy Jews. They hearken back with nostalgia to a supposedly idyllic existence that they led in Arab countries, and claim that they were duped into leaving their homes by Zionist machinations.  Israel Bonan and Rami Mangoubi examine these claims.  Is it worthwhile longing for the fleshpots of Egypt?

Zionism for the Ages
Egypt's Jews, Israel and Zionism

Israel Bonan and Rami Mangoubi

We are both Jews born in Egypt with a "Personal Exodus Story" to tell. The reason we write these thoughts is simple: We wish to respond to anti-Zionist Jews from Arab lands, who pretend to speak for all Sephardi Jews, much to our consternation.

A favorite claim of anti-Zionists, be they non-Jews, Jews, or even Sephardim, is what we in the US refer to as the "race card”. While it takes different forms and shapes depending on the dispute at hand, it boils down here to the issue of Sephardim versus Ashkenazim.

Portrayed as the underdogs, that is, Sephardim in Israel's Ashkenazy dominated society; narrators with their own agenda endeavor to paint them, as well as Sephardim elsewhere as a solid bloc, in the anti-Zionist corner!!!

Most of the assertions are constructed all too carefully to convey a very basic message. We would not be surprised if we had heard that message in an "Al Jazeera" TV documentary, but coming from misguided Jewish authors; it can only represent an unwelcome demagogic diatribe.

Reading their articles, we are to believe that all the ills that befell us as Jews from Arab countries are born out of the Israeli experience. It is only because of Israel and Zionism, we are told, that our peace of mind, and that of 800,000 Jews from Arab countries, was disturbed. We are taught that all the subsequent events that precipitated our Exodus from our countries of birth were directly related to the Israeli/Zionist experience!

We do recognize the past ills that occurred during Israel's early days. We see them as the early difficulties of birthing a new nation made up of a diverse constituency. There is no doubt that the Sephardim suffered discrimination at the hands of the Ashkenazy elite. However, we categorically refuse to accept the proposition that even today Sephardim are still laboring under similar circumstances, as their articles want us to believe.

To take a lesson from American history, this is akin to being asked to question whether Abe Lincoln ever made a politically incorrect joke about African Americans (referred to as "N...gers" without raising any eyebrows then)? Or what is the significance of Washington, or Jefferson etc. having ever held slaves in their households? Also when we read the original American constitution today, it is bound to leave us perplexed, because it refers to people of color as partial human beings for the purpose of census counting.

Pray tell, what all that has to do with America 200 and some odd years after the constitution was written? We Americans grew and evolved as a nation, amended our Constitution, redressed the ills of the past; but is our work done? Not by a long shot. The perniciousness of bigotry, discrimination, and pure and simple hatred is not going to fade away of its own accord. It is up to each generation to carry the flag and continue the momentum of positive activism.

A generally healthy society, and Israel, like America, is indeed such a society, is always alert to stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination and always seeks redress for such ills through her justice system and healthy democratic traditions.

It is plainly obvious to all that it will not take more than a couple of generations from now, for the distinction between Sephardim and Ashkenazim to be virtually forgotten, given the level of intermarriage that is a positively rampant trend.

Therefore, we ask again, what if the patronizing Europeans saw some of the Sephardic Jews as less developed in the scheme of things while birthing a nation? What if some of their spokesmen made derogatory remarks about Sephardic Jews?

Well, to take another example from America again, it was only 30 plus years ago that a President of ours, Richard M Nixon, was heard making derogatory remarks about Jews and Blacks and others. How did all this affect the African and Jewish American communities in the US? We shrugged it off, exposed it and moved on; and we educated the future generations about what is acceptable discourse and what is not. We may think it, we may joke about it, but it is abhorrent; and so we learned, from the Nixon experience, more about civility and coexistence.

Let us also interject and share with you this true anecdote. Back in Egypt, we used to call Ashkenazim 'Schlecht' (a derogatory expression denoting, bad, ...). One of us found out what the word meant when he innocently asked an Ashkenazy "friend" of his if they were a "Schlecht", and the friend answered “No, you are”!! That is a poignant example of the effects of bigotry perpetuated through the generations, on both sides.

Through the diatribes of demagogues, we read that Israel and her Ashkenazim are evil incarnate, a situation that cannot be transcended, ever. They wish to reset the clock on Israel, because, as they see it, she commits wrongs towards the Sephardim, and they see their brand of activism as a cause that we all as Sephardim should adopt!

All their tactics amount to divisiveness for its own sake. One can only witness today the political landscape in Israel, which is dotted with Sephardim and Ashkenazim that are appointed for their ability and not their background or where they were born.

Today in Israel, the President, the foreign minister, the defense minister, and the attorney general, are all Jews from Moslem countries. No historian in his right mind would claim that these leaders would have attained a fraction of such success had they stayed in their country of origin.

Another outrageous claim of anti-Zionists, is their insistence that if only Israel was not created we would still be living happily ever after in the land of our "cultural heritage", be it Egypt, Syria etc... As what, one asks, "Dhimmi"? We do not know what basis of reference they choose for their hypothesis; but if it was Egypt let us educate all in a few sentences about our status as Jews in that country throughout the last 150 years.

Jews contributed, beyond their proportion in the Egyptian population, to all aspects of life in Egypt. We were visible in politics, the arts, economy, industry, crafts, banking.

However, as early as the 1869, long before Zionism came into the picture, the Egyptian government enacted "Nationality Decrees" that were interpreted by bureaucrats so as to exclude Jews, even those residing in Egypt for centuries, from obtaining citizenship. Successive decrees culminated in Egypt’s 1929 Nationality Laws. As a result, the great majority of Egyptian Jews, including those in Egypt prior to the start of Arab rule in the 7th Century, were declared non-Egyptians, or “Stateless” (gheir mo’ayan lel’gensseyah).

The Jews were now at best guests, but soon the guests were to be given the boot. Shortly after the Nationality Laws were enacted, employment laws were drafted restricting the hiring of “non-Egyptians” even in the private sector. The creeping employment laws led to the 1947 “Company Law”, which mandated Egyptian citizenship for 90% of employees in privately and publicly held companies. The Company Law, in one full swoop, denied most Jews, as well Armenians, Greeks, and other ethnic groups, of their livelihood. Political circles had an ethnocentric view of Egypt, and these laws were effective tools of ethnic cleansing.

Often forgotten as well is the Egyptian fascination with Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany. Political movements like “Misr el Fitat”, the Free Officers, and the fundamentalist Brotherhood rooted for Nazi Germany during the battle of El Alamein, admittedly out of anti-British sentiment, knowing full well that such a victory would mean the extermination of fellow Egyptian Jews. As they saw it, the lives of Egypt’s Jews, even those who lived in Egypt for many centuries, were a trivial price to pay.

The fascination with Nazism in these political circles survived even Nazi Germany itself. In the 1950’s, the Egyptian government gave refuge to notorious war criminals like Johannes Von Leers, Goebel’s assistant and author of “The Evil Nature of the Jews”, and Dr. Scheer, a war criminal wanted for mass murder.

Von Himmel was even offered a private house in the fashionable neighborhood of Giza, all the while Jews were seeing their property confiscated, and was honored with Egyptian citizenship. Yes, the same citizenship denied to Jews residing in Egypt for centuries was offered to a Nazi war criminal!

The main reason for treating these criminals so respectfully had nothing to do with Israel and Zionism, nor did it have any other intricate political reasoning. It was in part a result of the overwhelming anti-Semitism that was shared among those in Egypt’s political elite who ended up grabbing power in the fifties.

This escalation of repressive and insulting measures culminated in the "Nationalization Laws" and at different intervals we saw our total count forcibly shrunk from 80,000 to less than 20 today. Not a pretty picture!

However, we never hear from Sephardi anti-Zionists about anything other than their supposedly idyllic circumstances in the lands of their cultural heritage. Is that truth or revisionism? One can only judge based on the final outcomes, and where we stood in the land of our birth; we were, for most centuries, Dhimmi, and later “foreigners”.

So how can anyone with a modicum of logic accept that people, who were denied citizenship of their country of birth, deprived of livelihood, persecuted, and squeezed out of such countries, will ascribe to Arab Nationalism instead of accepting the open arms of their brethren in Israel and of Zionism as a source of hope? Only a warped mind would accept such a premise.

Mind you, and we repeat it again, that while Egypt denied citizenship and employment to Jews who drank from the Nile for centuries, Israel offered them both upon arrival.

Don't get us wrong. We are not suggesting we hate the Egyptians or Syrians or any one else for that matter. Like the other citizens of these countries, we too are bitter at their successive governments. Besides what these Arab governments did to their citizens and to us, they still keep our former neighbors and friends from knowing the truth about the Jewish communities that once lived in their countries, and we are bitter at those who echo the same demagogic spouting of the apologists who are always blaming Israel and demonizing Zionism. What is being advocated here is telling the truth, because we, as a community, cannot move forward in any conciliatory scenario without having the truth aired and acknowledged.

We too, at times, question the policy of Israel’s government, but at least it is a government that recognizes our right to do so. We too are activists. However, true activists do not only point out flaws and assess blame, they stand for something and they advocate for the changes they wish to see and the direction they wish to take. Let us be constructive rather than continually dwell on any real or imaginary flaws of our common enterprise. Let us not forget the eternal source of opportunity and hope for the Jewish people: Israel.

Israel Bonan and Rami Mangoubi

Click here to discuss this article

More about Egyptian Jews by Israel Bonan:

My Personal Exodus 

Why I am so Angry- The forgotten Refugees


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