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Thursday, October 11, 2012

"Jews of Egypt" film causes uproar in Arab world

From Al Arabiya:
“Jews of Egypt,” an Egyptian documentary film that records the life of Jews in Egypt before their departure from the country in the 1950s, has stirred controversy after it was screened in a film festival in Cairo.

Amir Ramsis, director of the film, was accused of promoting normalization of ties with Israel through attempting to gain the audience’s sympathy for Jewish Egyptians, currently seen as Zionists by many Egyptians.

“Those accusations are absolutely groundless,” Ramsis told Al Arabiya. “Those who think the film promotes normalization either did not watch it or analyzed it very superficially.”

It is very obvious, Ramsis explained, that the documentary is against Israel and against normalization.

“The film showed how Jewish Egyptians were against the creation of Israel before the July 23, 1952 Revolution and that many Egyptian anti-Israeli institutions were actually led by Egyptian Jews.”

Ramsis noted that the purpose of the film is to set straight many of the misconceptions Egyptians have about Jews.

“Many people do not distinguish between being Jewish and being Israeli or Zionist. Many Egyptians automatically consider Jews enemies.”

Ramsis said the film does not seek to embellish the image of Jews either, but basically to “present the truth as well as his own point of view.”

Ramsis said that the people he interviewed in the film were either Jews who still live in Egypt or who are currently residing in Europe.

“Egyptian Jews were apprehensive about taking part in the film because they were afraid they would be hunted down by State Security at the time of Mubarak. They were actually given clear instructions not to make any media appearances.”
Egypt Independent has a review:
The film is a history lesson, not simply for these fascinating and important details, that have slipped out of popular memory. It is a history lesson in its stories. The stories they tell are of an Egypt that is almost unrecognizable.

Even if we suppose that these depictions of smooth religious harmony are laced with nostalgia, we cannot escape the fact that Egypt has lost something. Not only has it lost a part of its history, but these are stories of an Egypt far less closed in on itself than it is today, far more open, respectful and integrated.

It is a tale of history that is a decline. A fraying of social fabric, as mistrust enters into the interactions between neighbors. From a way of living where to be Jewish was inconsequential to social relations, to the way that being Jewish became an accusation.

Ruth Browning interviewed her grandmother, Julie Gresh, before the onset of Alzheimer’s. She speaks about her now in the film, she says, to ensure her grandmother’s place in the history of Egypt’s Jews. In one sense, this is indeed a history of Egypt’s Jews. It is also a chapter of Egypt’s history, a forgotten one, just as it is a forgotten part of Jewish history generally.

The story of Jews in the Middle East does not fold smoothly into a Jewish narrative of oppression, and many Egyptian Jews can trace their families’ arrival in Egypt to an escape from persecution, whether from pogroms or the Spanish Inquisition. The history of the Jews in Europe has been told such that it becomes the history of all Jews, and it is a deeply politicized narrative, its folds influenced by Zionism, such that the history of the Jews without a homeland is simply one of persecution, and that Israel offers a solution to that perennial condition.

The Jews of Egypt tell a different story. So different was this story that, even for those who did not oppose Israel for political reasons, it simply did not resonate or speak to them. As a French journalist, the daughter of an Egyptian Jew, says: “It did not occur to the family to go to Israel. That was a place for oppressed Jews, so it wasn’t for us.”

...The stories become darker. There’s the story of the officer who arrives at night, giving an entire family a number of days within which to leave their country. And these are stories also of resilience — the man who says to the officer, “I am more Egyptian than you,” the one who challenges the officer at his door not to “challenge the patriotism standing before him,” or the one who answers the officer’s suggestion that he leave to Israel with, “No, why don’t you go to Israel.”

While no one in the film talks about being expelled from their country, they were compelled, and even coerced, into leaving. And on doing so, they had to sign a paper that stripped them of their Egyptian identity and obliged them never to return.

Grinsman, who, after being imprisoned for three years for refusing to leave, was later forced to sign the document, and put on a ship. He was expelled, he says, not really for being Jewish, but for his socialist activism. Forced to sign that document, one respondent comments wryly that it is easier for Israelis to get into Egypt than it is for Egyptian Jews.
While the film seems to be important for Egyptians to watch, it definitely seems to ignore the anti-semitism that was an undercurrent in Egypt and other Arab countries well before Zionism. Relatively speaking, the Jews of Egypt were in better shape than those in Europe, but they were never as fully integrated into Egyptian society as they are portrayed here. As Joseph Abdel Wahed wrote:

But even as child, I understood that Jews were second-class citizens. Signs in the street read: El yahud kalb el arab, "The Jews are the dogs of the Arabs." At school, my best friend Menyawi turned to me and said with a half-smile, "One day, all the Jews will have their throats slit." An older Muslim man advised that if I was threatened in the streets, I should say: Ana Muslum, M'wahed billah, "I am a Muslim and believe in one God."

I'm also not convinced that the Jews in Egypt in the 1940s were uniformly anti-Zionist as the director says. No doubt some were, but he clearly didn't interview any Egyptian Jews who now live in Israel.

Here's the trailer: