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Remembering Their Flight from Egypt

Lela Gilbert

“All I can remember… is the element of fear,” Joseph Abdel Wahed writes, reflecting on the events of his 12th year. “People in the streets would mock us with the famous Arab insult, Ya yahudi ya ibn el kalb [Jewish son of a dog], or even more ominously Idbah el-Yahud [slit the throats of the Jews].

“This really scared us because there was nowhere to hide. Many of us did not have travel papers and even if we did, the Egyptian authorities wanted to keep us as hostages and not let us out. After the revolution of July 1952, their attitude changed and they were only too glad to kick us out, but not before confiscating everything we owned – our businesses, farms, hospitals and homes and bank accounts.”

From 1948 to 1968, between 850,000 and 1 million Jews fled or were expelled from their homes in Arab countries, including Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. Some Jewish refugees refer to the shattering events as their Nakba, borrowing the oft-repeated Arabic word for “catastrophe.” Others, particularly those who once lived in Egypt, call it the “second exodus,” relating their experiences to the biblical Israelites’ miraculous flight from Egypt. Most of these refugees, now in their sunset years, feel blessed to have escaped Egypt and grateful to have made their way to Israel with little more than the shirt on their back and – if they were fortunate – one suitcase.

Joseph Abdel Wahed and Levana Zamir, also from Egypt, now live at opposite ends of the world. But for both of them, the events of May 14, 1948 were, indeed, catastrophic. That was, of course, the day when Israel proclaimed its independence and declared itself a nation, on its own land as bestowed by the UN partition. To put it mildly, the response across the Arab world was anything but congratulatory. Wahed was 12 years old; Zamir was 10. Although they weren’t acquainted at the time, they both lived in or near Cairo.

These days, Zamir speaks of her experiences in her breezy, sunlit Tel Aviv apartment, surrounded by colorful décor and a collection of fine art. In a quiet voice she explains that she, her parents and her six brothers were once part of an affluent community that, for generations, had enjoyed an elegant lifestyle that she describes in her book, The Golden Era of the Jews of Egypt, published in cooperation with the University of Haifa.

Then the “catastrophe” struck.

“On May 14, 1948,” Zamir recalls, “we were sleeping. All of a sudden, exactly at midnight, people were knocking very, very hard on our door. We woke up and I saw 10 Egyptian officers in their black uniforms. I wasn’t afraid because my parents were there and my mother was smiling to comfort me. But the soldiers opened everything. They went through everything. They were searching for something, but we never knew what.

“The next day I went to school [she attended a Catholic elementary school]. The headmaster of the nuns came to me and said, ‘They took your uncle to prison!’ My uncle lived in a big villa. He, my father and another brother owned one of the largest printing businesses in Cairo. I rushed home and asked my mother, ‘Is it true? Is he a criminal?’ My mother told me, ‘He’s not a criminal. It’s only because we are Jews.’ So then it was even more a trauma for me. I thought to myself, ‘I am also a Jew! I too could go to prison!’”

Eighteen months later, when her uncle was released from prison like many others – on the condition of permanent expulsion – Levana and her family fled Egypt, leaving behind their sequestered assets and possessions.

Zamir describes her childhood world – before those terrible events – in nostalgic vignettes, illustrated with fading photographs. It was a way of life cherished by her parents, an epoch of almost fairy-tale quality. The affluent Jews of Egypt, like those of Iraq, Iran and some other cosmopolitan Muslim lands, were well connected with royalty. They enjoyed beautiful villas, social prestige and the best of food and education, so much so that they were able to overlook their dhimmi status vis-à-vis their Muslim friends and neighbors. Today, serving as president of the Israel-Egypt Friendship Association, Zamir works tirelessly to fulfill her dream of restoring warm ties between Egyptians and Jews.

Today, Wahed lives in California, in a small town called Moraga, east of San Francisco. He keeps in touch with scores of other Jews from Arab lands and works with the Jimena organization he founded (www.jimena.org), seeking to provide recognition to those Jewish refugees and their families.

“I was 12 years old in May 1948,” Wahed says, “living in Heliopolis [a Cairo suburb]. I remember the words of Azzam Pasha, the head of the newly formed Arab League, talking about the founding of Israel. He said, ‘This will be a war of extermination that will be likened to the Mongolian massacre and the Crusades.’ The very next day, the Egyptian army [and four other Arab armies] headed toward the new State of Israel to ‘throw the Jews into the sea.’ It was supposed to be a slam dunk, but they lost.

“By then everything had begun to unravel and our previously secure lives in Egypt had fallen apart. The Jewish section of Cairo, the Haret el-Yahud, was bombed [frequently] until 1949, killing and wounding many innocent Jews. Accompanying this were the usual assaults on our synagogues and on Jewish individuals. The authorities sometimes played a part in these assaults, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, which began in the late 1920s under the leadership of Hassan el-Banna. In 1967, about 400 Egyptian Jews, including my uncle and other relatives were thrown in concentration camps. They were treated harshly and forced to commit sexual acts. They were released in 1970.”

Another man whose family fled Egypt, Yossi Ben-Aharon, now lives in Jerusalem. A career diplomat, Ben-Aharon served as director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office under premier Yitzhak Shamir and represented the Foreign Ministry for nearly a decade in the United States. In a recent interview, Ben-Aharon made it abundantly clear that the explosive violence against Jews in the Arab world following May 14, 1948 was no coincidence. He has collected a number of statements of lethal intent made by Arab leaders, calling for the death and destruction of Jews in their Arab homelands in case of the UN partition of Palestine.

For example, addressing the Political Committee of the UN General Assembly on November 24, 1947, Heykal Pasha, an Egyptian delegate, said that “the proposed solution [partition] might endanger a million Jews living in Moslem countries… if the UN decides to partition Palestine, it might be responsible for very grave disorders and for the massacre of a large number of Jews.”

“Immediately after the UN approved the partition resolution on November 29, 1947,” Ben-Aharon says, “Arabs attacked the Jews throughout the Middle East, including Palestine. Yet, since 1949, the Arab states, together with Palestinian organizations, have mounted an intensive propaganda campaign, based on a rewriting of history, in an attempt to shift responsibility for the Palestinian refugee issue onto Israel. They describe the events of 1948 – and the estimated 762,000 Arab refuges – as an ‘ethnic cleansing’ by Israel.

“The facts of history point to the opposite: ethnic cleansing was perpetrated by Arab governments against their Jews, as witnessed by the fact that 850,000 Jews were forced to leave the Arab countries, while more than 4 million Arabs continue to live in geographic Palestine, including more than a million in Israel. Now, 60 years after the events, the time has come for the historical facts to be recognized and for justice to be done.”

“We Jews who were ethnically cleansed from the Arab world did not get one penny from the UN,” Wahed adds, “while the Palestinians have received over $50 billion [including funds from the European Union] since 1950. They still are receiving financial assistance.”

THE JEWS who once lived in Muslim lands, like Zamir, Wahed and Ben-Aharon, have established new lives for themselves in Israel and elsewhere. But they have not forgotten. Hundreds of thousands of them were eyewitnesses to violent persecutions, deadly pogroms and forced expulsions that erupted instantaneously – as planned by Arab leadership – following the UN decision for the partition of Palestine and the founding of Israel.

In 1948, the number of Jews living in Egypt was estimated between 85,000 and 100,000. Today fewer than 50 Jews live in Egypt.

In 1948, there were nearly 900,000 Jews in Arab Muslim lands. Today only around 6,500 remain in all of Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Qatar, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen combined.

There were not only Palestinian Arab refugees in the wake of Israel’s founding and the ensuing battle for survival. There were two sets of refugees: Arabs and Jews.

Ben-Aharon concludes, “Responsibility for the resettlement of the Arab refugees from Palestine should be shouldered by the Arab governments and the Palestinian leadership. The rights and claims of Jews from Arab countries, both personal and communal, must be recognized and addressed properly and equitably. Only then can a climate conducive to mutual understanding and coexistence be fostered.”

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