The Assertion of Egyptian Jewish Identity
The convoluted military positions of Egypt and Israel at the end of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War forced the parties to negotiate a disengagement of forces. Between January 1974 and September 1975, indirect talks between Egypt and Israel orchestrated by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger resulted in two Sinai interim agreements and a partial withdrawal of Israeli forces from Egyptian territory occupied since 1967. Anwar al-Sadat abandoned Gamal Abdel Nasser's program of positive neutralism, pan-Arab nationalism, and Arab socialism. He announced a new open door economic policy, sought ties with the United States, and negotiated the first agreements between Israel and an Arab state since 1949.
The prospect of a negotiated peace between Egypt and Israel reconfigured the political context and offered Egyptian Jews in Israel an opportunity to construct a new social role for themselves. Daily norms of life in Israel were deeply shaped by a powerful consensus on Arab-Jewish relations, past and present, that led most Israelis to regard almost everything Arab as frightening, sinister, and utterly alien. Immigrants from Arab countries were under constant and massive social and cultural pressure to align their memories with these public norms. Egypt was especially vilified and feared because it had led the Arab camp against Israel. Consequently, most Egyptian Jews minimized or avoided mentioning their former lives in the land of Israel's most formidable military adversary. In Chapter 2, I argued that Rahel Maccabi's Mitzrayim sheli (My Egypt), published at the height of Egyptian-Israeli conflict in 1968, can be understood as a text confirming the prevailing negative images of Egypt in post-1967 Israel. Once peace with Egypt became a possibility, evoking and celebrating previously long suppressed positive memories of Jewish life in Egypt could be understood, not as sympathy for the enemy, but as a contribution to constructing a human bridge for peace. Having lived in Egypt and known its people and culture well, Egyptian Jews considered themselves uniquely positioned to serve as intermediaries between the land of their birth and their new home. Situating themselves as promoters of peace and mutual understanding permitted and even required them to reassert the Arabo-Egyptian elements of their own identity because they were now important credentials qualifying them for this role.
Even before President Anwar al-Sadat's dramatic visit to Jerusalem in November 1977, Sami ‘Atiyah offered his services to Defense Minister Moshe Dayan to serve as an intermediary in conveying peace offers from the Israeli government to Egypt. ‘Atiyah recommended that Egyptian Jews renounce their claims to financial compensation for their property losses if this would promote peace talks between Egypt and Israel. In effect, ‘Atiyah was prepared to relinquish his status as a victim of anti-Jewish persecution in Egypt in exchange for peace, a very substantial gesture because the assertion of victimhood and the demand for restitution had been the central purposes of his organization's activities and the basis on which they asserted Egyptian Jews' claim to status in Israel. When al-Sadat did visit Jerusalem, ‘Atiyah and Maurice Sachs sent him telegrams of welcome, praising his courage and declaring, “we are with you in your struggle for peace, and God is the grantor of success” (allah wali al-tawfiq). Invoking this traditional Islamic formula demonstrated that the senders of the telegram were familiar with Arabo-Egyptian culture and knew how to behave appropriately according to its canons. The senders identified themselves as heads of the organization of Egyptian Jews in Israel, apparently hoping that acknowledging their link to Egypt would benefit the cause of Egyptian-Israeli peace.
The signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in April 1979 and its implementation by Israel's evacuation of the Sinai Peninsula in 1982 (except for Taba) unleashed a flurry of activities by Egyptian Jews in Israel and around the world. Projects officially sponsored by the state of Israel or Zionist institutions, privately initiated associations devoted to documenting and memorializing the cultural heritage of the Egyptian Jewish community, publications sponsored by associations of Egyptian Jews, and writings by individuals acting on their own all expressed a reassertion of the distinctive collective history and identity of Egyptian Jews. Each of these initiatives was rooted in its own particular local circumstances, and the politics of these projects were rarely explicit; they were commonly founded on the assumption that remembering and recording what had been was an unqualified good in itself. Consequently, there was great variety and eclecticism in what was selected for remembrance and the purposes these memories served.
Soon after the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Egyptian Jews in Israel established the Association for Israeli-Egyptian Friendship. Levana Zamir, the president of the association, was born in Cairo in 1938 and emigrated to Israel in 1950. In 1980, she organized an Egyptian culinary competition in Tel Aviv under the patronage of Sa‘d Murtada, Egypt's first ambassador to Israel. The event was a success, and Zamir pursued her promotion of Egyptian food by publishing a book of Egyptian recipes. Her introduction to the volume acknowledged that “Israeli-Egyptian peace aroused in me a pent up nostalgia for the land in which I was born and for all the happy smells of childhood.” 
Some Egyptian foods are familiar to Israelis because many Middle Eastern dishes have been assimilated to Israeli cuisine. Nonetheless, the cover blurb of Zamir's cookbook promoted it as a compendium of “exotic” cuisine. The recipes are framed in a typically Orientalist style: All the illustrations in the text are images of ancient Egypt. Besides the recipes themselves, the only evocation of modern Egypt is Ambassador Murtada's preface. Levana Zamir and her publisher seem to have agreed that ancient Egypt was more appealing and less threatening for a middle-class and disproportionately Ashkenazi Israeli book-buying audience. As a marketing and a political strategy, this allowed them to avoid any contemporary references that might disrupt the benign image of Egypt they sought to convey.
The warm and positive associations of food are an ideal medium for nostalgia. Cuisine crosses ethnoreligious boundaries easily. There are some distinctively Egyptian Jewish dishes, but Jews generally ate the same foods as other Egyptians of their social class. Focusing on culinary culture allowed Levana Zamir to claim a depoliticized connection with her past that posed no threat to either the Israeli or the Egyptian government. Nonetheless, promoting Egyptian food in Israel appeared to have weighty import. The preface contributed by Ambassador Murtada hailed the book as an initiative that would “broaden the familiarity, the rapprochement, and the understanding between the Egyptian and Israeli peoples.” 
In January 1984, a nucleus of families convened in Haifa to revive the activities of the long moribund Union of Egyptian Jews (Hitahdut Yotzei Mitzrayim). They began to meet regularly and to publish a mimeographed bulletin, Goshen: alon moreshet yahadut mitzrayim (Goshen: Bulletin of the heritage of Egyptian Jewry). The Haifa group sponsored regular lectures on all aspects of Egyptian Jewish life, hosted social events for Passover, Purim, and Hanukah, and promoted the publication of literature by and about Egyptian Jews. Goshen published articles in French and Hebrew, with an occasional contribution in English, including memoirs of life in Egypt, summaries of lectures delivered at meetings of the group, notices of books and articles published about the Egyptian Jewish community, and reports of the association's social activities. Less active branches of the union were revived or established in Tel-Aviv, Bat Yam, Acre, and Or Yehudah.
The organization of Egyptian Jewish collective memory was not restricted to or centered in Israel. The most active and successful initiative was based in France. In December 1978, the topic of Egyptian Jews was introduced to a public meeting of about 400 people at the Centre Rachi in Paris, an enormous crowd in light of the strong disinclination of mainstream French culture and politics to recognize ethnically or religiously based minorities. This event inspired the formation of the Association pour la sauvegarde du patrimoine culturel des juifs d'Egypte (ASPCJE-Association to safeguard the cultural patrimony of the Jews of Egypt) in September 1979. During the early 1980s, the ASPCJE held monthly events in Paris; and from 1980 to 1986, it published twenty-five issues of a quarterly journal, Nahar Misraïm (The Nile River). Its leaders sought out contacts with Egyptian Jews in Israel and the United States, some of whom contributed to Nahar Misraïm. The ASPCJE was in some way connected with nearly every organized activity of Egyptian Jews and every publication about them during the 1980s.
Inspired by the activity of the ASPCJE, Paula Jacques (Abadi), a radio journalist born in Egypt in 1949, revisited her birthplace in 1981 for the first time since leaving after the Suez/Sinai War. On her return, she reported on her trip on the prestigious France Culture radio program. The previous year she had published her first novel, Lumière de l'oeil, set in Cairo in 1952. Since then she has written three more novels whose principal characters are Egyptian Jews. Her work has been praised by the French literary public, and her fourth novel, Déborah et les anges dissipés, won the Prix Femina in 1991. Egyptian Jews familiar with her work have been disappointed and upset that she has filled her novels with what they consider unflattering characters—beggars, orphans, swindlers, and the like—who do not represent a “true” image of their life in Egypt.
The principal animators of the ASPCJE included several former communists who had worked with Henri Curiel and the Rome Group: Jacques Hassoun, Raymond Stambouli, and Ibram Gabbai. They were joined by representatives of several other sectors of Egyptian Jews in and around Paris. However, the tone of ASPCJE publications and its network of contacts reflected the leftist (but no longer communist) outlook of the nucleus of former communists as well as younger left activists like Eglal Errera. Hassoun's three trips to Egypt in 1977 and 1978, his first return since he was expelled as a communist in 1954, prepared the way for the organization of the ASPCJE. Hassoun also served as editor of Juifs du Nil, a history of the Jews of Egypt from antiquity to the modern era published by a press associated with Egyptian communist exiles. Alfred Morabia, a major contributor to that volume and an ASPCJE Executive Committee member, had belonged to the Egyptian Communist Organization, one of the short-lived splinter groups of the communist movement. Jacques Stambouli, the son of Raymond Stambouli, was the editor and publisher of a lavish photo essay, Juifs d'Egypte: Images et textes, one of the most substantial projects of the ASPCJE. He and Hassoun had met as members of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist League in the 1970s.
Because of the prominence of leftists in the ASPCJE, its dominant, though unofficial, outlook was neo-Bundism-diasporic Jewish nationalism—the same orientation militantly rejected by the Rome Group in the 1950s (see Chapter 5). The leading figures of the ASPCJE were not Zionists, but neither were they hostile to the existence of the state of Israel. Several had public records of supporting the national rights of Palestinian Arabs as an essential element of a peace based on the coexistence of Israel and a Palestinian state. The demise of the leftist internationalist project that had attracted them from the 1950s to the 1970s in Egypt and France left them with only one arena for political activism: their own community. They did not abandon their progressive commitments but adjusted them to the task of retrieving and preserving their heritage with great determination, connecting themselves to every form of activity relating to Egyptian Jews they could identify.
People who began their political lives as Marxists probably never imagined they would be involved in a struggle to preserve the remnants of the Jewish cemetery at Basatin, a suburb of Cairo on the road to Ma‘adi, a project with religious overtones and no apparent “practical” value. But the ASPCJE contributed hundreds of thousands of francs to finance the efforts of Carmen Weinstein, one of the few remaining active Jews living in Cairo in the 1990s, to construct a wall around the cemetery and engage a guard to protect it from squatters. I met Carmen Weinstein in Jacques Hassoun's home in Paris in 1994. Though both are secular Jews with little attachment to orthodox religious observance, they were united by a fierce determination to preserve the cemetery as material evidence that a Jewish community had lived and flourished in Egypt.
Egyptian Jews in the United States also began to organize themselves in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I discussed the organization of the Karaite Jews of America in San Francisco in Chapter 7. A Rabbanite Egyptian Jewish community settled in Brooklyn, New York, following the 1956 Suez/Sinai War. Some of its members, especially those of families who came to Egypt from Aleppo in the nineteenth century, assimilated to the larger and previously established Syrian Jewish immigrant community. In the late 1970s, Egyptian Jews in Brooklyn established the Ahaba ve-Ahva synagogue, which practiced the Egyptian liturgical tradition.
In October 1995, a group of Egyptian Jews gathered at the Ahaba ve-Ahva synagogue to initiate the formation of the Historical Society of Jews from Egypt. Their objective was to record and preserve their cultural heritage, the same purpose that motivated the formation of the French ASPCJE. Among the leading activists in this initiative with some previous public exposure were Victor Sanua, a research psychologist who has gone beyond the boundaries of his field to publish historical articles about Egyptian Jews, and Mary Halawani, an independent film maker whose short documentary, I Miss the Sun, records her grandmother's fond memories of Egypt. The society began publishing a newsletter, Second Exodus, and organized a series of lectures in private homes. This form of ethnic organizing has been quite common and acceptable in the United States, so it is remarkable that it has begun so recently. The leading individuals had been in contact with Jacques Hassoun and the ASPCJE and were obviously inspired by that example; but the New York group was organized several years after the demise of the French association, and its leading members did not share the same political commitments.
These associations have had modest and limited success as institutions; a certain kind of failure is inherent in the nature of such activity. The Jewish community of Egypt is nearly extinct, and there is little prospect for its revival in the foreseeable future. Those who remember their lives in Egypt are gradually passing away. Most of their children, even those who maintain some level of curiosity and engagement with their parents' heritage, have become assimilated to the dominant cultures of Israel, France, and the United States.
Therefore, examining the revival of Egyptian Jewish identity associated with these institutions cannot be an effort to map out a coherent cultural or political alternative. Rather, it is an excursion into memories and current sensibilities that have not found adequate space for expression in the brave new world of national states in which Egyptian Jews have found themselves after their dispersion. I have argued that the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement altered the insistently negative images associated with Egypt sufficiently to allow Egyptian Jews to begin the process of recalling and reconstructing their past and representing it to themselves, their children, and the public. In the remainder of this chapter, I elaborate this argument, focusing on the post-1977 literary production of Egyptian Jews living in Israel.