The Egyptian government recently overran its own censors in their attempt to ban the screening of a documentary featuring Egyptian Jews who were forced to leave Egypt in the mid-fifties. Luckily, freedom and independent film making prevailed at the end of the day and “Jews of Egypt” received the necessary but late approval to be shown in Egyptian theaters.
This should not be the end of the story but only the beginning of a question:
What exactly was the Morsi regime’s issue with the showing of this film?
That Jews are interviewed and portrayed as loyal, patriotic and loving to “their” home country of Egypt is problematic?
Is it that the mere existence of Jewish history in Egypt has become an issue?
How much of this failed “censorship” has to do with some wishing and wanting to present to the Egyptian people a new Egypt, a Jew-free Egypt, which is in fact the case – but a Jew-free Egypt is actually unprecedented in Egyptian history rather than the norm.
As I have written before, my grandfather Eli Wahba, was made stateless and he was forced to sign a paper promising never to return to his homeland as he was kicked out of Egypt in 1956 . He never imagined what his life could be like outside of Egypt.
Coming from a family deeply rooted for over two millennia in Egypt, it was a shocking reality for my father when he realized in 1939 that the time for Jews in Egypt was coming to an end.
The copies of Adolf Hitler’s Mien Kamp translated into Arabic, flying off the shelves in Cairo’s bookstores crystallized his fears. The book is still widely available and sold on the streets of Cairo, today.
Rommel was advancing in North Africa and, “I saw the writing on the wall,” he often told me, “…they (the Egyptians) didn’t want us.”
Rommel was stopped and never got to Egypt, but after the Suez Crisis in 1956 Gamel Abdel Nasser forced the Jews out.
And now, today, Morsi cannot stand the thought of a documentary featuring Egyptian Jews talking about how much they loved their lives in Egypt?
Does it upset him that there was once such a thing as “Egyptian Jews”?
And those Jews are still alive today to talk about it?
My father told me a very disturbing conversation he had with his former friend the Egyptian Consul General in Bombay, India in the mid -forties. They were friends, and they frequently socialized. One morning over coffee, newspaper in hand, my father expressed his distress over the news coming out of Europe. Jews were massacred by the millions. As my father was trying to figure out what he could do to help with the refugee situation, the consul general looked at him curiously:
“Moussa, you are Egyptian, even more Egyptian than me, what are you crying about these Europeans for, what do they have to do with you?” he demanded.
It was more of a criticism than a question, more of an insult than curiosity.
“I am a Jew, how can you ask me ‘what does it matter’, you know what happened there!” my father protested.
“They are Europeans, what is it to you?” The consul General raised his voice.
He continued as my father felt his heart sink.
“You who are more Egyptian than me, your family the Wahbas lived in Egypt much longer than mine, what are you crying about these Jews for!”
I don’t remember if my dad told me he stayed and finished his coffee or if he left.
But only a few years later, his being a “real Egyptian” didn’t matter. As they met again when my father was leaving India for Japan, the consul informed him
“Soon even you Wahbas will no longer be Egyptian.”
Like the Jews in any documentary one could make about the Jews of Egypt – the ones who were there for a thousand or more years or the ones who were there for just a few generations to the Consul General, it made no difference.
We were stripped of our identity, property, citizenship and our history.
I imagine what different members of our family would say if they were interviewed in the documentary Morsi tried to block.
Some would say they were Egyptian first, others would say they were both Jew and Egyptian and others would say they always felt (because of “tolerance” not equality), they were “Jews first.”
In the end none of it matters when an entire people is erased from your country and history.
And when a President like Mohammed Morsi cannot bear the descendants of “apes and pigs” calling themselves “Egyptians,” documentaries about Jews are dangerous.