By Ada Aharoni, Ph.D.
Presented at the Conference on
The Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva
Dept of Education
5.5.2002 - 7.5.2002
By Ada Aharoni, Ph.D.
Technion, Haifa, Dept. of General Studies
I would like to begin my presentation with a poem I dedicated to the memory of my late father, Nessim Yadid, who was born and lived in Cairo.
The poem is entitled “A Green Week,” - “Gometek Khadra" (have a green week), which is a beautiful Jewish -Egyptian blessing. I wrote the poem when my father died of a heart attack, after all his possessions had been sequestered by the Egyptian government in 1949.
A GREEN WEEK
A week like fresh mint
a green week spreading its fragrance
to the roots of being
“Gometek Khadra!” Have a green week!
My father used to bless us
on Saturday nights in Cairo
after the ‘Havdala’,
when he came back
from “Shaar Hashamayim,”
the Gates of Heaven -
the grand synagogue in Adli Street
Have a green week he beamed
brandishing a fragrant mint branch
over our keen heads -
but don’t keep it only for yourself
and your family -
give that green week
back to the world,
Who will give me a green week
now that he’s gone?
Now that the “Gates of Heaven”
Only peace -
only a really fresh
1. A Tradition of Bridges Between Cultures
Jews have lived in Egypt almost continuously for two millennia.
After the destruction of the First Temple, the Prophet Jeremiah came to Egypt with a following, and since then, until 1967, there had always been a Jewish community in Egypt. On examination of major historical periods and events in the history of the Jews in Egypt, from ancient times to the modern era, it is interesting to note that the Jews of Egypt have traditionally and for long periods, contributed to the creation of bridges between cultures.
In the first century, when the philosopher, Philo from Alexandria translated the Bible into Greek (the Septuaginta),he introduced Jewish cultural elements into Hellenic culture and contributed to the bridging of the two cultures. In the tenth century, when Saadia Hagaon translated the Bible into Arabic, it introduced Jewish values into Islamic culture, and promoted intercultural Jewish -Islamic symbiotic relations and traditions.
In the eleventh century, when the great Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides, came to Egypt from Spain as a young man, he wrote all his important philosophical and creative works in Egypt. His writings were influential not only among the Jews but also among the Moslems. He wrote both in Hebrew and Arabic, and even sometimes in Hebrew using Arabic letters, or in Arabic using Hebrew letters. He was revered by both Jews and Moslems, under his Hebrew name: Moshe Ben Maimon, and his Arabic name: Abu Amran Obeid Illah Moussa Ibn Maimoon El Cortobi. He is today considered as a major leading figure in Judaism, and he is also highly esteemed by Moslems as an outstanding contributor to Islamic philosophy.
In modern Egypt, the intercultural traditions developed in various new directions. Generally, the Jews in Egypt were taught and had a good knowledge of at least four languages: French, which become the mother tongue of most of the Jews, Hebrew, Arabic, and English.
Moreover, more than one third of the Jews of Egypt spoke Ladino, the Judeo –Spanish language. The Spanish Jews exiled by the Inquisition at the end of the fifteenth century found a safe haven in Turkey, mostly in Istanbul or in Izmir, and many of them later emigrated to Egypt and to other Middle Eastern countries. They retained the Judeo-Spanish language, as well as its rich cultural traditions.
Though they lived in the East, the Jews of Egypt in the twentieth century, were exposed to various aspects of the cultures of both the East and West.
The Jewish education system was diverse and four languages were taught: French, English, Hebrew and Arabic, in the Jewish Schools. There were Jewish Communal schools for the poor, "La Goutte de Lait" for the orphans, and Secondary Schools for the middle class. All the children, even the orphans and the poor, received a good education provided by the Jewish Community, and they got free books and the opportunity to later enter the various high schools and Lycees, and receive a Diploma. The teachers were dedicated, and generously worked overtime mostly with little pay, so that the pupils could acquire high marks. After World War I, the middle and upper classes preferred foreign private schools, mostly French or English. and in 1945 - 46, 59 percent of Jews sent their children to foreign schools.
The Jewish children were not sent to the Arabic State Schools, as they were considered having a low standard. The Alliance School, helped to spread the French culture at the beginning of the century. It served the Jewish middle class until 1919, when the Alexandria and Cairo Jews were considered too prosperous to require outside help. The Jewish community then had to rely on itself, and it set up good Jewish secondary schools of its own, such as "Le College Francais" in Cairo, and "Maimonides" in Alexandria. In the 1940's there were six yeshivot (religious schools), in the whole of Egypt. Yet most Jews kept the basic rules of Jewish law, the feasts and the traditions.
Almost all the Zionist movements that were in Eretz Israel, were also in Egypt, such as the Maccabi: Hehalutz, the Hashomer Hatsair and the B'nai Brit. A considerable portion of Zionist work was devoted to educational purposes with a strong emphasis on the cultural rather than on the political aspects of Zionism. Its principal objective was "to develop within the community the sense of Jewish national consciousness."
The Jewish community had the opportunity to be exposed both to Oriental and European music, songs, dance and theatre. At the Opera in Cairo for instance, which was regularly frequented by Jews, the cultural programs offered included not only the well-known Egyptian singers Om Kulthum and Abd El Wahab, and the Jewish singer Leila Mourad, but also the peaks of European culture, such as: the Philharmonic from Palestine, conducted by the famous Toscanini, the Shakespeare Company from Stratford on Avon, the Comedie Francaise from Paris, the Royal Ballet from London, and the Comedia del Arte from Milano.
In addition to this rich multicultural array of East and West, Jewish culture and traditions and Jewish feasts, as well as Zionist events and activities, were part and parcel of the daily life of the Jewish community. At the beautiful synagogues in Cairo, Alexandria and Port Said, Jews duly conducted their services, feasted their various feasts, celebrations and weddings in great gusto and great numbers. At the various Zionist movements, some which were surprisingly founded in Egypt from the beginning of the twentieth century, like the "Moriah" and "Bar Kokhba" movements, Jewish youngsters learnt Hebrew songs and dances and Jewish and Israeli culture, and dreamt about the day they would become members of a kibbutz in Israel.
2. The "Second Exodus" of the Jews from Egypt
Though many of the Jews had been in Egypt for generations, they were in general not given Egyptian citizenship. Despite their increasing demands to become citizens, it is estimated that merely less than five percent succeeded to obtain the Egyptian citizenship. The rest were either “apatride,” meaning with no citizenship at all, though they were born in Egypt, or they succeeded to retain a foreign citizenship from one of their ancestors. The great majority, that were "apatride," had no identity cards, and if they wanted to travel they could obtain a “laissez passer,” but no passport. The fact that they were not allowed to become Egyptian citizens, was an additional element which promoted their multicultural and Zionist tendencies and inclinations.
In modern times, from the late 1800’s until 1948, when the State of Israel was established, the Jewish community in Egypt was vibrant, prosperous, and a dynamic element of the Egyptian society and economy. They were considered "welcomed guests." One of the people I interviewed for this research commented: "It was alright to be welcomed guests - but not for 2000 years - I wanted to be home by now!"
Towards the end of World War II, due to political turmoil and the growing Arab - Israeli conflict, the status of the Jews in Egypt as "welcomed guests," changed considerably. The Jewish community, under economic pressure and a surge of anti-Zionist propaganda, had to emigrate and to leave all their property behind. Out of the estimated 100.000 Jews that were in Egypt in 1948, today there are only about sixty very old Jews living in Egypt. That means there has literally, and not only figuratively, been a "Second Exodus" which took place in our own century,
and unfortunately, not many people are aware of this.
Since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, and in the wake of Egypt’s active participation in the Arab - Israeli wars of 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973, Egyptian Jewry emerged as victims of these conflicts. Many were interned in concentration camps in Huckstep in Heliopolis, and in El Tor, in the Sinai Desert, and they were expelled from the country in large numbers. Those who were not expelled, due to restricting work laws and other prohibiting measures by the Egyptian government, understood they had no future in Egypt, and they were compelled to emigrate. About half of them emigrated to Israel, while the others went to the United States, Canada, France, Australia, South America and other places. The still more unfortunate, who had succeeded to obtain the Egyptian citizenship, were prevented from leaving and became political pawns of the Egyptian regime.
After every war with Israel, there was a new wave of emigration, until this ancient and prosperous two thousand year community was completely destroyed. The Jews of Egypt lost all their personal property and assets, as well as all the flourishing public property of the Jewish community, such as schools, youth movements, synagogues, old age homes, hospitals etc, which have been estimated at millions of dollars.
Everything they owned was confiscated and sequestered by the Egyptian Government, and they were forced to leave with nothing but their shirts on their backs, and only twenty Egyptian pounds in their pockets. Their tragedy and sufferings were tremendous. From a prosperous community, they found themselves paupers almost overnight. Several people suffered heart attacks caused by these tragic events and developments, and did not even make it to France or Italy, which were the ports of arrival of most of the Jewish emigrants from Egypt. The Jews from Egypt feel they have paid a very high price for the State of Israel - the destruction of their community, and they are sad and frustrated that their narrative history is so little researched or known, and that their cultural heritag is disappearing.
3. Effects of Multicultural Traditions
a) The multi-cultural heritage and ability of the Jews from Egypt helped them in their uprooting and emigration from Egypt during the “Second Exodus” (1948 -1967). Whether they came to Israel, or whether they emigrated to Europe, America or Australia, their knowledge of languages and of the European culture, helped them to integrate in their new homelands.
b) Another aspect of the multicultural character of the Jews from Egypt nowadays, as in the past, is their openness and respect toward other cultures and not only toward their own. The fact that they had lived in Egypt in the past, and that they know the language and mentality of the Middle East, bestows on them the possibility of becoming appreciative of the culture of their Arab neighbors. Their cultural heritage can indeed be an educational model and source of openness, tolerance and understanding, which can promote reconciliation, peace and harmony.
c) Reconciliation in the Middle East, as in other areas of deep-rooted conflict, can benefit from the bridging between nations through their cultural heritage. The deep levels of mistrust on both sides of a conflict which have accumulated over the years, can best be reached by vehicles of emotions and feelings such as literature and poetry, that can penetrate those deep levels of frustration.
Culture, literature and poetry, can convey what no political speech can convey. They are particularly suited for analyzing and reflecting fears and mistrust, and for changing them into more positive attitudes. The intercultural approach, includes identification with the “other”, and comprehension and respect for the other’s situation, reality, problems and culture. It can build up ideological, emotional and psychological motivation, and increase awareness and knowledge, that can help toward the “Sulha” - the full reconciliation, not only between the leaders that have signed the peace agreement, but also between the two conflicting nations.
War causes suffering to both sides in a conflict, and not just to the one side, and the modern history of the Jews from Egypt indeed proves that it is so.
In these hard times we are going through nowadays, it is imperative to remember this, and to use the history of the Jews from Egypt as an example of that. Not only Palestinians have been uprooted and have suffered, but Jews from Egypt and the other Arab countries have been uprooted and have greatly suffered too from the Arab Israeli Conflict. All this should be part and parcel of the Ministry of Education curriculum and programs.
4. Literature and Poetry
In my books The Second Exodus, and Not In Vain: An Extraordinary Life, which are based on a research on the Jews from Egypt who emigrated to Israel, I delineate some of the tragedies and sufferings endured by the painful uprooting of this population.
The “Second Exodus” of the Jews from Egypt which led to their total uprooting as well as that of their community and their cultural heritage, is a tragic part of Jewish history that has not been sufficiently taught or exposed. Additional writers, such as Andre Acimov, in Out of Egypt , Paula Jacques, in Lumiere de l’Oeil , Jacques Hassoun in Les Juif du Nil, have recalled their own impressions and memoirs of the painfulness of the uprooting and exile.
Recently, Professor Mohamed Fawzi Deif, of the Departments of Arabic Studies at the University of Cairo, and the University of Minya, wrote a series of books on War and Peace in Israeli Literature , which analyzes in depth the Jewish-Egyptian condition and uprooting, as expressed in works of literature written by writers in Israel, who are former Jews from Egypt. In his thorough analysis he shows sensibility and openness to their precarious situation as expressed in their poetry and prose. The first book in this series is titled: The Significance of Peace in the Poetry of Ada Aharoni - Mafhoum El Salaam fi Sheer Ada Aharoni (The University of Cairo, Nile Publications, Egypt, 200 pages). The book includes a serious and thorough discussion of the theme of war and peace in Ada Aharoni's work, and a comparison of Yehuda Amichai's poetry, as well as 30 poems of Ada Aharoni on the Jews of Egypt, which Professor Daif translated from Hebrew into Arabic, with explanations, historical background and a deep analysis of the reasons for the Second Exodus.
5. Required Research
Despite the valuable books that have been published on the Jews of Egypt, in general, the modern history of the Second Exodus, has not been researched enough, either historically, sociologically, or culturally. And what is available has not been used or exposed enough, either by educational and literary institutions or the electronic media.
The painful and tragic “Second Exodus,” caused by the Arab-Israeli conflict, has been overlooked not only by historians and educationalists, but also by policy makers. The complex myriad of historical facts associated with the forced emigration of the Jews from Egypt, and the tragic sufferings associated with their uprooting and dispersal, has not yet been thoroughly explored or recorded.
The exodus of the Jews from Egypt has not been taken into account as a potential factor in the present endeavors toward the ending of the conflict in the Middle East. These facets should be given urgent attention, and should be widely studied and promoted by extensive research. What is already available should be widely used in educational institutions, universities and schools. The “Second Exodus” of the Jews from Egypt, on coming to the attention of Prof. Fawzi Deif, as well as to the attention of certain other Egyptian academics and professionals, have emitted feelings of responsibility and comprehension toward the tragedy of the Jews from Egypt, as well as toward their necessity of having emigrated to Israel. Their acceptance of Israel as a necessary and legitimate State, was thus strengthened.
Literary research of the “Second Exodus,” and the writing of creative works on this subject, in addition to the historical research, can highlight feelings and predicaments which are inherent to all uprooting, and therefore shared by both sides of the conflict.
The question can be asked how come this important subject has not been included into the educational curriculum of schools? The history of the Jews from other Arab Lands such as Iraq, Morrocco and Syria, is more covered. I will briefly touch on two possible answers to that question.
The first explanation might be that the Jews from Egypt are usually not politically minded. As they were not citizens in Egypt they did not appreciate the importance of the political game. They have succeeded to integrate very well in the financial, technical and social life in Israel, but they looked down on politics (the attitude in Egypt was mainly: Politics is only for the natives), and they have carried these attitudes in Israel, and they therefore have no representatives in the Knesset to press for funds for research or for educational representation.
Another factor that may explain the difference between the attitude of the Jews from Egypt toward their cultural heritage, is when we compare it to the staunch pursuit of their heritage by other Jewish communities.
The second reason for the lack of extensive research concerning the Jews in modern Egypt, is probably because of their conciliating, tolerant and moderate upbringing. In our research on “The Jews of Egypt in the Twentieth Century”, conducted at the Technion’s “Neaman Institute for Advanced Studies in Science,” the majority of a sample of 501 Jews from Egypt who were interviewed, when asked why they did not try to salvage their history and cultural heritage, many of them emitted a typical response: “ele fat mat,” meaning “what is past is dead.” This kind of response was not considered running away from the issue or an irresponsible attitude toward their heritage, but rather as a proof that they were not vengeful or bitter, and they knew how to stoically accept the vagaries of destiny.
Suggestions and Conclusions
The “Second Exodus,” of the Jews from Egypt, as well as from other Arab countries, in the twentieth, with its potential for creating a balance, and for the promotion of peace in the region, should be made part and parcel of curriculum materials in the educational systems of Israel, as well as in the Palestinian Authority and the Arab countries.
Support and investments should be mobilized toward this important educational aim. There should also be a provision of grants to encourage extensive research and creative writing on various aspects of the historical facts and cultural heritage of both the “Second Exodus” of the Jews from Egypt, and from other Arab countries, as a parallel to the emigration of the Palestinians. Comparisons should be made and lessons should be learned from the past and should be used in the present in the educational system. This need for research on the “Second Exodus” is particularly urgent, seeing that the older generations of the Jews from Egypt are disappearing and taking with them their history, cultural heritage and memories, into oblivion. What is left can still be redeemed if the urgency of the task is recognized and acted upon as quickly as possible.
The second suggestion is that inter-cultural bridges should be formed, as a powerful tool for overcoming hatred and building trust. This could be accomplished through education and mass media, using modern technical facilities such as satellite, television and the internet, to propagate them. Research and promotion of the facts of the “Second Exodus,” through plays and drama, should be diffused through the mass media, using TV documentaries and films, multimedia, the internet, and CD’s, as widely as possible.
The fact that there were more Jews who fled from Arab countries, than Palestinians who fled from Israel in 1948, is not known enough and not taught in history lessons. It is estimated that there there were more than 800.000 Jews who fled from Arab lands, while there were 600.000 who fled from Israel, according to UNRA. Neither is it known that the property of the Jews from Egypt and other Arab countries, which they were forced to leave behind, was much more than what the Palestinians left behind when they fled.
The thorough researching, revealing and teaching of the cultural and historical heritage of the Jews of Egypt, from the books and materials that are already available, through the promotion of the Ministry of Education in Israel, can constitute a comprehensive and important contribution to both the Jewish Heritage, and to reconciliation with our neighbors.
1) Salim Shashua , The Golden Age: Cooperation Between Jews and Arabs in Andalusia, Second Edition, 1990, El Mashraq, Shfaram, Israel.
1. Yehuda Ben Shmuel Halevi, p. 27.
2. Casmona Bint Ismail, p. 94.
3. Moshe Ben Maimon, Harambam, 178.
4. Shlomo Ben Yehuda, Ibn Gabirol, 191.
2) Ada Aharoni, From the Nile to the Pyramids (Eked, T.A. 1979),
The Second Exodus (Tamuz, Tel Aviv, 1997), From the Nile to the Jordan (Lachman, Haifa, 1994), Memoirs from Alexandria (Rubin Mass, Jerusalem, 1985).
3) Michael Laskier, The Jews of Egypt, 1920 - 1970: In the Midst of Zionism, Anti-Semitism, and the Middle East Conflict, New York University Press, NY, 1992, pages 125 - 164.
4)Andre Acimov, Out of Egypt, Farrar Strauss Giroux, NYC, 1994.
5) Paula Jacques, Nour Einaya: Lumiere de l’Oeil, Paris, Le Seuil, 1980.
6) Jacques Hassoun, Juifs du Nil, Le Seuil, Paris, 1981.
7) Shimon Shamir, ed. The Jews of Egypt , Ada Aharoni, “The Image of Jewish Life in Egypt in the Writings of Egyptian Jewish Authors,” Westview Press, Boulder and London, 1987, 192 -198.
8) Ada Aharoni, Research on the Jews of Egypt in the Twentieth Century, the Neaman Institute for Advanced Studies in Science (Technion- Israel Insitute of Technology), 1995 - 1996.
9) Mohamed Fawzi Deif, War and Peace in Israeli Literature: The Significance of Peace in the Poetry of Ada Aharoni,, The Nile Publications, Cairo University, Cairo, Egypt, 1996, 200 pages.
10) Mohamed Fawzi Deif and Ada Aharoni, Peace Poems: A Hebrew - Arabic Bilingual Edition , Preface and translations from Hebrew and English to Arabic, by Professor Mohamed Fawzi Deif, Lahman, Haifa, 1997
11)Ada Aharoni, Not In Vain: An Extraordinary Life, Ladybug Press, San Carlos, CA., January, 1998, “A Green Week,” Poems from Israel, Lahman Press, Haifa, 1992, p. 50.
12) Gudrun Kramer, The Jews in Modern Egypt (1914 - 1952), Washington Press U, Seattle, 1989.