Monday, December 01, 2014

The second exodus from Egypt

Marcel Cohen (1 Dec 2014)
This evening I attended a very interesting presentation (entitled "The Second Exodus") by Marcel Cohen. Through a video and question and answer session he described how a life of relative luxury was abruptly ended when his family - along with many thousands of other Jews - were expelled from Egypt in 1956.

Marcel's family were, like most of the Jews who arrived in Egypt from Europe in the 19th century, middle class. They spoke French at home (he and his siblings attended French catholic schools) and also Arabic. With the rise in Egyptian nationalism in 1927 many Egyptian Jews with European heritage obtained European passports - British in his case, although the family spoke no English.  Marcel said that, prior to 1948 (Israel's independence) there was 'little antisemitism' (more on that later). After 1948 Jews were regarded as foreigners but middle class Jews convinced themselves that antisemitism was restricted only to extremists like the Muslim Brotherhood, and that they would be safe staying in Egypt.

However, all this changed with the Suez crisis in 1956 when Britain seized the Suez canal in alliance with Israel and France after Nasser nationalised it. Suddenly their lives were in danger. Thousands of Jews were arrested overnight and Marcel's family- like many others - were given 10 days to leave the country. With British passports they were able to go to London - but not before signing a declaration that they would never return to Egypt** and renouncing any claim for compensation against the State taking their home and possessions. They were allowed to take just £50 per adult out of the country and a single piece of jewellery per person. When Marcel's family landed in the UK without a place to go and with no jobs for his mother and father,  they were sent to a refugee camp in an army base in Salford before a Jewish refugee organisation arranged for them to come to a Jewish refugee centre in Aldgate.

Marcel spoke of how the family eventually settled well in London but he had two bitter memories. One was his father's death at the age of  46 which he felt was largely caused by him becoming a smoker due to the stress of being forced to leave Egypt (although the failure of a doctor here to spot a heart problem also contributed). The other bitter memory was of being refused entry to Hasmonean School because he could not read Hebrew. This is where his story is a little confused, because he said his lack of knowledge of Hebrew was because in Egypt Jews could not display their Judaism openly in any way at all (which seemed to contradict his earlier statement about no antisemitism in Egypt before 1948) and he contrasted this with the UK where he felt that some Jews like to "shove their Judaism up people's noses".

Family apartment that they were forced to  leave in Cairo
As Marcel made clear at the end of his presentation, less than 20 Jews remain in Egypt out of 80,000 when he lived there. He also spoke about the similar fate of Jews in all other Arab countries (800,000 became refugees in 1948 alone - more than the number of Arabs who left Israel to become the 'Palestinian' refugees).

He noted that it is only very recently that the Israeli government is finally raising this Jewish refugee issue (although organisation like Harif have, of course, been raising awareness for many years). He said it had been a political decision by the Israeli Government to keep the whole issue of the Jewish expulsions 'quiet' because any claims of compensation against Arab governments could lead to claims of compensation by Palestinians against Israel. He said, curiously, that he could never claim compensation because of the declaration his family had signed to leave Egypt (in my view that declaration was illegally obtained under clear duress). He is nevertheless correct about the Israeli government's political decision. As I have written before I believe this is one of the worst decisions the Israelis made, since it enabled the Palestinian refugee narrative to take hold, while the far more serious Jewish refugee narrative was ignored. Moreover, the notion that it would avoid compensation claims by the Palestinians has proved nonsensical. Sadly, the Israel government was advised by extreme leftists on this issue - not because it was in the best interests of Israel but because these leftists did not want the Palestinian refugee issue to be removed from centre stage. In recent years these leftists have even tried to silence Jewish refugees from Arab countries talking about their plight.

Marcel ended with a warning that even Jews in Europe now should not be complacent enough to think that what happened to his family in Egypt could not happen here. He said that, right to the end, the Jews of Egypt could no more imagine that they could be expelled, than Jews in the UK could imagine it happening to them now. 

**Marcel spoke about how he did return to Egypt in 2006 as part of an organised tour, and visited his old family apartment, which had changed very little.

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