Monday, June 23, 2014

Jews of Egypt [2013]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13)  Cairo 360 (3 ½ Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 ½ Stars)

IMDb listing
Cairo360 review
The Independent (A. Beach) review (P. Keddie) intervieww. director 

Official website

Jews of Egypt[2013] (directed and cowritten by Amir Ramses along with Mostafa Youssef) is a remarkable documentary, made in Egypt, one which required several attempts at passage through Egypt’s censorship board before finally being released with strong public support in the heady days of the recent “Arab Spring,” when “all things seemed (briefly?) possible.” The film played recently at the 12th Chicago African Diaspora Film Festival held recently at Facets Multimedia in Chicago. 

The documentary tells the story of the (up-until the duel blows of the 1948 creationof the modern state of Israel and the 1956 Suez Crisis) once thriving and now virtually extinct Jewish community of Egypt.    

Being in the profession that I’m in – a Catholic priest – I’ve long wondered what happened to the Jewish community of Egypt.  After all, Alexandria, Egypt had been a center of both Jewish and Christian thought for centuries, approaching a millennium prior to the arrival of Islam.  By tradition, the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek (into what has been called the Septuagint) in Alexandria.  The great Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo lived and taught – in Alexandria.  And during the first millennium of Christianity, Alexandria along with Antioch located in modern day Syria were the great centers of Christian theology (with both Rome and Byzantium/Constantinople, by differing means and for differing reasons, largely reduced to “playing referee” between them).  Over the years, I’ve had acquaintance with a number of CopticChristians, who still consider Alexandria, Egypt to be their “Vatican/Rome” and their Patriarch (of Alexandria) their Pope.  

It turns out that the fate of the Jewish Community of Egypt, at the turn of the 20th Century 80,000 trong, and the 20th century struggles of the Coptic Christians of Egypt are quite analogous.  For the documentary points out that for rather self-evident (if somewhat tragic) reasons both the Jewish and Coptic Christian communities of Egypt found themselves naturally aligned with the (Christian) colonial powers of England and France.  A number of the Egyptian born Jews, most now living in France, interviewed in the documentary noted that French was really their first language (“as it was with our Coptic neighbors” one interviewee notes) and that they learned Arabic “only to get by in the streets and markets of Alexandria and Cairo.”  So perhaps it became inevitable that when Egypt gained true independence from England following the “young officers coup” led by Gamal Nasser, et al, the position of both the Jewish and Christian communities in Egypt had to diminish.  They had been aligned (or were perceived by Egypt's Muslim majority as aligned) with the previous colonial powers, hence...  However, the situation of Egypt's Jewish community became even more precarious than that of Egypt's (Coptic) Christian community with the creation of the modern state of Israel and then 1956 War in which Israel even sided with the former colonial powers of England and France against Egypt.
Ironically, of course, the vast majority of Egypt's Jewish community didn't emigrate to Israel after being pressured to leave (and at least in part, expelled from) Egypt.  Instead, the vast majority emigrated to England and France.  As one of the Egyptian born Jews interviewed in the documentary pointed out: "Back then Israel was seen as the place that _poor Jews_ emigrated to.  Those with means when elsewhere."  Egypt's Jewish community had been a community with means.  And it was a community that _liked_ Egypt.  Indeed, striking in the documentary was the repeated refrain of the various Jewish interviewees (and their children) that their years living in Egypt, prior to being forced/pressured to leave, were among the happiest years of their lives.

The film runs squarely against decades of Arab world propaganda equating "Jew" with "Enemy" or even "Jew" with Israel.

It all makes for a fascinating story, and makes for an interesting question.  Would a Middle East settlement tackling the question of "Right of Return" / compensation of Palestinian refugees and their descendents displaced in the creation of the modern state of Israel ALSO offer, at minimum, compensation (and perhaps even a similar "Right of Return") to Jewish families _throughout the Middle East_, who since the creation of Israel have had to abandon their property, businesses and communities as well?  This documentary was about the Jewish community that resided in Egypt prior to the creation of the modern state of Israel.  However, there were vibrant Jewish communities all across the Middle East / Arab world, including sizable communities that once existed in Iraq (Baghdad) and Syria (Damascus) as well ...

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