In the week that Jews all over the world sat down to mark their biblical exodus from Egypt, an Egyptian director was struggling for the right to show a film on the 20th century exodus of the country’s Jews.
Despite an attempt to block ‘Jews of Egypt’s release on security grounds, Amir Ramses finally won his battle with the authorities: ‘Jews of Egypt’ went on general release in three cinemas in Cairo and Alexandria on 27 March.
The film took three years to make. Ramses has rightly been acclaimed for bravely tackling a ‘taboo’ subject: the Jews. So poisoned are Egyptians with anti-Jewish hatred that the word Jew is an insult and a provocation. Jews are malevolent, a curse, a cancer, the ‘enemies of Islam’. When informed that Leila Murad, one of Egypt’s most popular film stars in its 1930s heyday, was Jewish, one man in the film instantly loses his enthusiasm for her.
The Jews left their mark in all walks of Egyptian life – contributing to culture and commerce. But with the flight of its minorities, Egypt has become monolithic, dull and impoverished. As the Canadian columnist Mark Steyn puts it: “Islam is king on a field of corpses.”
By leaving no doubt that Egypt’s 80,000 Jews were driven out, Ramses has lifted the lid on another taboo. The Jews did not leave of their own free will, as the official version would have it. Some 20,000 fled in 1948 following internment and sequestration. About 25,000 were brutally expelled after 1956 by Nasser, who took power in a military coup in 1952. The refugees were prohibited from returning. More persecution followed after 1967. For exposing this dark episode of modern Egyptian history to a mass audience, Ramses must be given due credit.
“We are in a very dark place. Egyptian society has become pre-emptively racist. They fear and shun the ‘other’ until proven otherwise,” Ramses told Al-Ahram online.
For Ramses, the near-extinct Jewish community – some 50 Jewish women, almost all married to Christians or Muslims, remain in Egypt – is the vanishing symbol of an earlier age of tolerance and cosmopolitanism, as celebrated in books like Lawrence Durrell’s ‘Alexandria Quartet‘.
But how did the Jews, who had been a part of the Egyptian landscape for 3,000 years, go from partners to enemies? How did they become ‘controversial’?
Zionism was made a crime in 1948. The Jews of Egypt became conflated with Zionists. (But the seeds of xenophobia had already been planted. Discriminatory nationality laws predated the creation of Israel; anti-Jewish disturbances often spilled over against Greeks and Copts.)
However, choosing his interview subjects carefully, Ramses clings to the delusion that if only Judaism could have been distinguished from Zionism, the Jews would not have had to leave. It’s pie in the sky: bigots target the ‘other’ for what he is, not for his views.
One can understand Ramses’s survival strategy as a film-maker operating in post-Arab Spring Egypt where artistic expression is a fragile flower, easily crushed by the powers-that-be. To escape being tarred with the Zionist brush – he has already been accused of ‘normalisation’ with Israel – his film avoids altogether the 37,000 Egyptian Jews who fled to Israel. From what the trailer tells us, apart from the few timorous Jews still in Egypt whom he persuades to talk on camera, Ramses homes in on Jews in Paris or Switzerland. The assassinated communist leader Henri Curiel exerts a particular fascination for Ramses, who interviews his son Alain Gresh. Ramses’s subjects seem more than happy to wallow in nostalgia and declare their undying loyalty to Egypt, although they are hardly representative of the community as a whole.
Nevertheless, the film appears to be a milestone. Like Ramses himself, the Egyptian audiences who packed the cinemas for the premiere of ‘Jews of Egypt’ are searching for the missing parts of their mutilated identity. And anything that bucks the official trend of dehumanisation and demonisation of Jews must be a good thing.