The Jews Were Expelled from Egypt

This article is a rebuttal of Mr. Eyal Sagui Bizawe’s recently published article in Haaretz, “Were Egypt’s Jews Really Expelled?”

An edited and abridged version of this article was published in Haaretz newspaper, on October 8, 2017:

Our Passports Were Stamped "Exit With No Return":
The Real Story of How Egypt Expelled Its Jews

By Israel Bonan
submitted September 2017

My name is Israel Bonan, and I currently reside in the United States. I was born in Egypt, and so were both my parents. In 1967, while the Six-Day War was raging between Israel and Egypt, I was jailed for being a Jew, and deported—that is, expelled with a passport stamped “Exit with No Return.”

In response to Mr. Bizawe’s request to hear firsthand accounts, I’d like to offer the narrative of my experience, “A Personal Exodus Story,” a copy of which is archived with the Department for the Rights of Jews from Arab Countries, along with many narratives from Mizrahi Jews (Jews from Arab lands) who chose to recount their personal traumatic experiences.

http://www.hsje.org/mystory/IsraelBonan/A_Perosnal_Exodus_Story.html

If Mr. Bizawe had troubled himself to search the internet, he would have stumbled on these accounts unaided and discovered a few more on the website of the Historical Society of Jews from Egypt (HSJE.org).

The author instead found it more convenient to confess to not being a historian while deciding to posit and theorize with a minimum amount of research, accept his own postulations as true, and reach unsupported conclusions. And I asked myself why. It did not take long to figure it out. Mr. Bizawe has a couple of bones to pick: first with his own kith and kin, whom he wishes to chastise for exaggerations and slanting the Mizrahi narrative with borrowed terminology, just to gain acceptance to the collective narrative of Jewish persecution; second with the newly initiated Mizrahi history curriculum as it stands, which he asserts is full of unsubstantiated claims and possible propaganda!

A pretty cynical perspective, and one I wish to counter.

I will answer his probing mind with factual and firsthand information on most of the issues he raised that I find myself in disagreement with.

To summarize Mr. Bizawe’s salient arguments:

  •  Jews in Egypt were not expelled because they were Jews.
  •  In 1948, they were expelled for being Zionists or Communists.
  •  In 1956, they were expelled for being French or British citizens.
  •  There were still Jews in Egypt in the 1960s, and Jews who wished to leave left at their own convenience.
  •  There is no reason to suggest there was an expulsion of “Egyptian Jewry,” in historical terms, when members of other communities were expelled as well.

“[I]t’s indisputable that most of Egypt’s Jews were not expelled...they were also not the only ones expelled.”

So, according to Mr. Bizawe, the “expulsion of Egyptian Jewry” is simply a manifestation of Egyptian Jews’ desire to be included in the collective narrative of Jewish persecution.

“[A]ll they wanted was recognition of the trauma of expulsion. Like me, they've sought their personal story in the collective narrative...”

Rebuttal

The author takes issue with the fact that the persecution aspects of the Mizrahi Jews are suddenly peppered with descriptive terms that are reminiscent of the Holocaust and the Palestinian narratives (e.g., pogroms, concentration camps, Nakba).

What have we, as Jews, learned from the Holocaust trauma? I am sure we’ve heard the “never again” slogan. What does it really mean, beside the obvious, that Jews will not let such an experience repeat again?

The slogan’s call to action, for me, means one thing of crucial import: we, as Jews, do not need to wait for another six million to die before we call out injustice and evil.

The campaign the Mizrahi Jews undertook—the Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC) International Rights and Redress Campaign (justiceforjews.com)—was intended to call out what happened to us as injustice and evil, and to bring attention to it. It needed to be accounted for in the historical narrative of the period.

I have also, since the start of the Mizrahi JJAC campaign, taken to public speaking, expressing my own experience embodied in the overall Mizrahi narrative, to a variety audiences (more than three dozen lectures, so far).

I remember myself, at one point, having to labor over how I should refer to organized riots targeted against the Jewish community. Lo and behold, that is the definition of pogrom. So, I compromised and added both designations, with the term pogrom being much more readily understood by the audience in this context.

But the author does not only mock the use of the word pogrom, he goes a step further—he questions whether these pogroms were directed at Jews at all, and he cites the 1952 Cairo riots.

“[T]he 1952 Cairo riots known as the Cairo fire, it’s difficult to state that it was a clearly anti-Jewish event.”

My dear sir, the 1952 Cairo riots had nothing to do with the Jews of Egypt, though the rioters still didn’t miss a beat and burned and looted many Jewish department stores that day (to wit, the Cicurel department store, pictured burned in your article). You needed to look elsewhere—e.g., the Cairo and Alexandria riots from 1945 (on the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration) to 1948 (the creation of the State of Israel). Was it too inconvenient for you to further research the topic? Was it easier, instead, to reach conclusions based on faulty information?

During the period from 1945 to 1948, in Cairo and Alexandria, riots and targeted bombings of the Jewish community and Jewish businesses resulted in 108 unprosecuted deaths, injuries in the hundreds, and the looting and razing of over 200 Jewish businesses.

The author also takes issue with the use of the term concentration camps to refer to detention camps, which is his preferred “non-European” terminology. Such a genteel and civilized, and a truly Mizrahi, terminology. “Detention camps”: three meals a day, a private bathroom and shower accommodations, a fluffy bed and a nice pillow, with conjugal visits...

Mr. Bizawe, these were jails, and some of these jails were hard-labor jails, where some four dozen Jewish inmates to a cell slept and spent their days (for their first six months of incarceration), sleeping head to toe.

Hard-labor jails, where “exercising” was mandatory: running in circles while being whipped and chanting anti-Israel slogans. Jails, where in front of the collective group of Jewish inmates, a brother was ordered to undress and sodomize his own brother, in front of their father, who almost died of a heart attack on the spot. Jails where fathers, brothers, and sons denied each other, so they would not suffer similar consequences.

(http://hsje.org/mystory/marc_kheder/mylife.html).

Call them what you will (concentration camps, detention camps...), and complain if you must; after all, what’s in a name?

Next, the author takes issue when Mizrahi Jews from Egypt refer to their ordeal as Nakba, an Arabic word denoting a calamity.

While I can understand that the use of the term is more for the benefit of the Arab world, and the Palestinians in particular, to convey that we too, as Mizrahi Jews, were visited with a calamity, I personally cringe whenever I hear the term in conjunction with the Mizrahi experience.

A calamity is only a calamity when your response to it is to accept victimhood; we, the Mizrahi Jews, did not accept passive victimhood. We survived the trauma and prospered, with the help of many; and YES, with the help of Israel too, no propaganda forthcoming, I am afraid—just the facts. Our expulsion, which I’ll get to shortly, was an emancipating moment for us.

Does it come as a surprise to you, sir, that Mizrahi Jews can have different opinions about any topic? You ought to consider that a strength, not a weakness.

Finally, we address the conclusion reached in Mr. Bizawe’s article: that in the case of the Jewish community of Egypt, it is not “...a full-fledged expulsion...”

Sure, the author opines, some were expelled, some suffered, but was it expulsion in the same vein as the “expulsion of Spanish Jewry,” the author asks. Then he proceeded, with a vulgar lack of empathy, to ridicule the issue and show a venom unworthy even of himself; and here I’d like to insert his paragraph, in its entirety:

“We can imagine rows of hooded soldiers gathering Egyptian Jews in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and giving them two options: convert to Islam or be expelled. Or even not giving them the choice but expelling them all. But such an event simply never occurred.”

What is the definition of the word expulsion? According to Google’s Dictionary, it is this: “The process of forcing someone to leave a place, especially a country.”

A process usually entails more than one step to accomplish a purpose. So, let me start with the “expulsion of Spanish Jewry.”

King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella issued the Alhambra Decree. The edict gave the Jewish community in Spain four months to choose between three basic choices:

  1. Convert to Christianity to keep all your assets and remain in Spain.
  2. Leave Spain with your possessions, less any precious metals.
  3. Remain and be executed.

So the Jews of Spain were offered a choice to convert, leave, or die. Mr. Bizawe would have us think, according to his logic, that the Jews of Spain chose to leave of their own volition, simply because they could have chosen to convert (which some did) or die!

Don’t we also know that after the Muslims lost their last stronghold in Spain, they were also given three choices a few years later? The first two choices were identical to the ones already covered, with third choice being enslavement in lieu of death.

So, there we have it, more than just Jews were dispossessed and expelled from Spain around the same time frame!

Mr. Bizawe would have us believe that for an event to be considered a genuine Jewish persecution experience, it could not be experienced by anyone else.

Will he then also debunk the expulsion of the Spanish Jewry? Would the Spanish expulsion also be part of the collective Jewish “persecution obsession” that kept the “myth” of the Jewish expulsion alive for 500 years?

Something tells me he wouldn’t. I call that a double standard.

So, what was the process used to expel the Jews and other minorities from Egypt? These steps spanned many years, promoted by successive governments all marching to the tune of an “Egypt is for the Egyptians” dictum.

The process follows the same pattern of Nazi Germany. I suppose all forms of fascisms behave alike—as to who borrowed from whom, it’s irrelevant. The templates are one and the same, give or take: loss of citizenship rights and protection, loss of jobs in the private and public sectors, no prospect for future employment, dispossession of assets, death, and expatriation/expulsion.

In 1929 Egypt enacted a nationality law that stripped the great majority of Egyptian Jews, who’d lived in Egypt for centuries, of their nationality and their citizenship rights and protection. This law forced the Jews of Egypt to outright seek such protection from foreign governments by proving plausible lineage to those countries, or to remain stateless.

In case Mr. Bizawe misses the significance of that law, it implied that the majority of the Jews were not to be considered Egyptians, because of their religion.

In 1947 they enacted the Company Law, which mandated Egyptian citizenship for 90% of employees and 70% of management in any private or public company. The Company Law, in one fell swoop, denied most Jews, as well as Armenians, Greeks, and other ethnic minorities, of their livelihood.

This one-two punch is a true example of economic ethnic cleansing; first you declare they are non-Egyptians, and then you restrict work in the public and private sectors to Egyptians only! After that, a Jew who did not have a job quickly learned that he would never find one. 

Once again, in case Mr. Bizawe misses the significance of that law: Greeks and Armenians were targeted for their nationality, but Jews for their religion.

In 1954 Egypt enacted the Nationalization Law, stripping Jews and even well-to-do Egyptians of their businesses, and nationalizing their assets.

With the rise of Arab nationalism and the onset of the UN partition debate over Palestine, the political environment in Egypt grew progressively more hostile toward the Jewish community.

So far, I tried to highlight not only the effects of these laws on the Jewish communities but also the effects on other minorities and even Egyptian nationals.

As to the post-1948 events, Mr. Bizawe seems to put his arms around the issues from 1948 to 1970, after having reviewed a few books written on the subject (very commendable), accepting what he wishes to accept, ignoring facts as his argument dictates.

Since I have begun public speaking about the Mizrahi and my own personal experience, I found the need to address two basic issues:

  1. For more than 70 years, the Middle East narrative was one-sided. There was only one Refugee narrative; our Mizrahi experience has never been acknowledged and needed to be asserted fully
  2.  Did the Mizrahi Jews leave of their own volition?
  3.  

After our successful JJAC campaign, even the U.S. Congress now acknowledges, through enacted legislation, that there is more than one refugee population in the Middle East since 1948.

As to the second issue, I go the extra mile, in the case of my own experience, by delineating the fact that my sister left Egypt first, to be betrothed; my brother followed a year later, after he finished his engineering studies; and I had one month left before I could earn my own engineering degree and, together with my elderly parents, join my siblings.

After delivering the statement, I ask my audience whether I was affirming that we “left of our own volition.” Then I explain that history is about cause and effect, which is pretty basic stuff. I describe the causes that got us to that point, and I expand on the laws and measures taken that left us with no option but to leave.

It is worth noting that our plans for leaving were interrupted, because I was jailed, together with all Jewish males of roughly 18 to 55 years of age; to a person, we were expelled, after having spent anywhere from a few days to more than three years in jail—from jail to ship or plane.

This is an event that Mr. Bizawe chose to totally ignore, because it did not fit the template for his “expulsion of Egyptian Jewry” denial.

Did the remainder of the Jews of Egypt who were not expelled outright but left from 1948 to 1967 “leave of their own volition,” with less than ten dollars per person in their pockets!

Expulsion, whether it is active expulsion (gun to head) or passive expulsion (squeezed out), is still expulsion by any other name. Did they “leave of their own volition”?

Given the chance, Mr. Bizawe would have us believe that Albert Einstein also left Germany in 1940 of his own volition (after having resisted the impulse for quite some time).

The Jews of Egypt saw the writing on the wall. Having no jobs, no money, no prospects, with the rest of their extended families expelled or still in jail, would they still wish to stay, and were they allowed to?

Unfortunately, in certain cases (elderly Jews who did not rate imprisonment), yes on both accounts; some stayed and died in their “homes” in Egypt, because the trauma of being displaced, and of leaving the known for the unknown, was too much for them to bear, especially in their old age.

“Home” is where you find the light switch in the dark, without having to grope for it. My mother, rest her soul, never found the light switch in the dark, in the United States, yet she had a choice: finding the switch or being with her children! She chose the latter, like most of the other mothers and fathers when their husbands or sons were expelled from jail to ship. They all left with their passports stamped “Exit with No Return.”

Nowadays, the Jewish community is but a handful of women over 80 years of age; and now, finally, Egypt is rid of her Jews.

And yet you dare to ask whether they were expelled?

Did the knowledge that other minorities were expelled in 1956 and 1967 negate the fact that Jews were also expelled, just for being Jews? I’ll leave it to Mr. Bizawe, at this point, to answer such a simple question, as it suits his need for personal identification with his people: “...with all my deep identification with members of my people...”

One more parting comment, before I wrap up: these other minorities who were also expelled never had to stay a day in a “detention camp” or hard-labor jail, or do any forced “calisthenics”; that was reserved exclusively for the Jews of Egypt.

Finally, Mr. Bizawe, I assume you never experienced torture, jail, or abuse; you earn your own living, nobody took your assets away when you reached 50 or 60 years of age, thus forcing you to start a new life, in a new country, with less than ten dollars in your pocket while leaving of “your own volition”; you never had to worry, as a refugee would, about your children’s future... This list is too long and, yes, depressing to enumerate; I just wanted to tell you, I don’t wish any of it on you. No one deserves to see their parents age 10 years in one day; no one should have to be humiliated and persecuted for who they are: in this case, a Jew.

Make no mistake, sir: We, the Mizrahi Jews, are not victims. We are survivors. Our stories need to be told, and we most certainly don’t need a reason or a lie to seek admission to any collective Jewish suffering club.

I’d like to take this opportunity to personally thank the government of Israel for undertaking this Mizrahi curriculum initiative; I would also like to encourage them to include the impact of the Mizrahi Jewish communities’ contributions (e.g., on arts, commerce, politics, economics) on the respective countries they lived in, because of its historical relevance.