Contention and Dialogue Across the borders
Since 1979, Egyptian Jews residing in Israel, Europe, and North America have actively begun to revalorize their relationship with Egypt in both literary and historical texts. But to fully transcend the limits of nationalist discourse or nostalgia, this process requires an active dialogue with Egyptian interlocutors. The intransigent policies of Israel's governments toward the Arab world despite (some would argue enabled by) the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty have not been conducive to such a dialogue. However, it must also be acknowledged that the anti-Semitic character of much of what the Egyptian intelligentsia has recently written about Jews has also obstructed dialogue. Most of what has been written about the modern history of the Jews of Egypt by Egyptian intellectuals since 1979 has been in the genre of “know your enemy,” a phrase actually used by the editor of al-Ahram al-Iqtisadi, Lutfi ‘Abd al-‘Azim, in his introduction to Anis Mustafa Kamil's series of articles.
Because I did not want to appear to be joining the vocal chorus of Westerners who have been abusively critical of Egypt, Arabs, and Islam, it was only after overcoming considerable reluctance that I resolved to include a chapter on Egyptian representations of Egyptian Jews in this book. When Anis Mustafa Kamil's articles on Jewish capitalism appeared in al-Ahram al-Iqtisadi, I was living in Cairo and researching the history of the Egyptian labor movement. I sympathized with my Egyptian colleagues who opposed normalizing relations with Israel before a just resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was achieved and shared their concern about the inequities of the open door policy. I was also uncomfortable with Kamil's anti-Semitic tone. There seemed to be no constructive way to open a discussion of this issue, and so I avoided it, hoping that more open-minded Egyptian colleagues would take on the task in their own time and manner.
In the same period, an astute and politically active Egyptian friend remarked to me that he foresaw a difficult future for people like us, who supported peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict based on recognition of the national rights of both Israel and the Palestinian Arabs, but who opposed the particular terms of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty because it left the question of Palestine unresolved. He was uncomfortable about opposing the treaty in a tacit alliance with pan-Arab nationalists and radical Islamists who opposed any peace with Israel. He predicted that these elements would resort to anti-Semitic portrayals of Israel and Jews, attack the government with demagogic rhetoric, delegitimize the concept of peace with Israel, and discredit progressive and internationalist perspectives in Egyptian politics and culture. Unfortunately, this proved to be a prescient prediction.
Recent political currents and the canons of Egyptian nationalist historiography have therefore unwittingly converged with the main lines of Zionist historiography in portraying Jews as an inherently alien community whose members sojourned in Egypt only until they could emigrate to Israel. Egyptians who still remember their personal experience with Jews often know that this is an inadequate characterization. But despite the proliferation of books, articles, and even references to Jews in films and television programs, there has been little significant public debate challenging the dominant representations of Egyptian Jews as exemplified by the texts I have examined here.
There are some faint signs that a direct dialogue has begun, though it remains circumscribed by the still unresolved political tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors. I noted previously Nabil ‘Abd al-Hamid Sayyid Ahmad's weak effort to refute the claim of Ada Aharoni's The Second Exodus that eligible Jews could not obtain Egyptian citizenship. ‘Ali Shalash's extended rejoinder to Aharoni's novel has already been discussed in Chapter 8.
In a similar vein, Tawhid Magdi responded to Yoram Meital's guide to Jewish sites in Egypt, Atarim yehudiyim be-mitzrayim. Meital's main audience is Israeli tourists who wish to visit places of Jewish interest in Egypt. He provides descriptions of synagogues, communal buildings, and cemeteries in Cairo, Alexandria, Ma‘adi, Hilwan, and Damanhur, with brief historical sketches of those Jewish communities. The volume was produced with the assistance of several establishment Israeli institutions, including the Kaplan Chair for the History of Egypt and Israel at Tel Aviv University and the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo. The cover features an endorsement by Shimon Shamir, who has served as Israel's ambassador to both Egypt and Jordan in addition to his academic positions as holder of the Kaplan Chair and former director of the Dayan Center for Middle East Studies at Tel Aviv University. Consequently, Magdi sees Meital's guidebook as “a new maneuver against Egypt.”  He is convinced that Meital has prepared a survey of Jewish property that will serve as the basis for establishing an Israeli claim to ownership of these sites. Magdi is especially concerned that Meital includes a description of the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo, housed in a rented apartment located in a building owned by an Egyptian and over which Israel could have no rightful claim. Meital's scholarship is actually quite critical of official Israeli policies toward Egypt. He has collaborated with the Institute for Peace Research at Giv‘at Haviva directed by Ilan Pappé, one of the boldest of the Israeli “new historians.” So he is very unlikely to advocate the objectives Magdi attributes to him. Moreover, Egyptian Jews living in Israel who have tried to convince the government to press their property claims against Egypt since the 1950s are convinced that it has no intention of doing so because this would open the door to Egyptian counterclaims (see Chapter 8).
Ruz al-Yusuf, the weekly that published Magdi's article, is no longer the serious and respectable political journal it was for many years. It now regularly features yellow sensationalism and rumor mongering. Thus, it would be easy to dismiss Magdi's response to Meital's book as merely another expression of anti-Semitism. But I would argue that one of the effects of publishing Magdi's profusely illustrated, lengthy article in a popular weekly is to remind readers that there was a substantial Jewish community in Egypt. And even if Magdi is alarmed by Meital's survey of its communal sites, he has responded to a Hebrew book written by an Israeli that would otherwise have received no notice in Egypt. Moreover, Meital was immediately aware of Magdi's review of his book. Though Shalash and Magdi both consider Israel and Jews as enemies, they nonetheless felt compelled to respond directly, however polemically, to representations of Egyptian Jewish life published by Israelis.
There is a small number of signs of more productive dialogue, though their significance should not be overestimated. Anis Mansur's memoir of Anwar al-Sadat's era serialized in Uktubir relates that when Israeli President Yitzhak Navon visited Egypt in 1980, he brought, as a personal present for al-Sadat, a copy of the story of Joseph from the Hebrew Bible as first translated into Arabic by an Egyptian rabbi, Sa‘adya ben Yosef al-Fayyumi (882–942). The text was beautifully rendered in Farsi-style Arabic calligraphy by an Egyptian Jew then living in Bat Yam, Israel, described by Mansur as “the colleague Yusuf Wahba, who used to work as a calligrapher at Akhbar al-Yawm. ”  Yusuf Wahba had emigrated from Egypt after the 1956 war. He was thrilled that Anis Mansur remembered him from the days when they both worked at Akhbar al-Yawm and publicly acknowledged him as a “colleague” (zamil). Preferring to conduct our conversation in Arabic rather than Hebrew, Wahba fondly recalled his life in Egypt, proudly displayed examples of his Arabic calligraphy, and spoke warmly of the many Palestinian Arabs he had trained in the art before he retired.
Samir W. Raafat has published a chronicle of Ma‘adi, a suburb of Cairo built by Jewish investors, which offers many fond remembrances of the Jews unencumbered by the ideological agenda of most of the works examined in this chapter. Raafat also regularly contributes a column to the Saturday Egyptian Mail and occasionally other English newspapers in which he has often written about Jewish business families, their enterprises, their homes, and other topics touching on Egyptian Jews. One of his articles asking why there is no tree at Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial honoring the Egyptians who gave refuge to Jewish survivors of the Nazi persecutions was translated and reprinted in the Saturday supplement of ha-Aretz.
Raafat's broader project is to revalorize the era of the monarchy by highlighting its architectural monuments, economic accomplishments, and social life, an objective regarded with suspicion by many contemporary Egyptians. He has so far operated primarily outside the circuits of Arabo-Egyptian intellectual life. And because his work has appeared only in English, it has had limited influence.
These meager indications of a positive reassessment of the history of the Jewish community by Egyptian intellectuals are disappointing for those who hoped that the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty would open a new era. It seems that hostility and suspicion toward Jews has actually increased in Egypt since the signing of that agreement. The deep dissatisfaction of important sectors of the Egyptian intelligentsia with the partial diplomatic peace with Israel and Israel's continuing exercise of its overwhelming military power to guarantee its regional hegemony have prevented the broader cultural peace that many eagerly anticipated from materializing.
Egyptian Jews have become historical subjects once again since 1979. But they remain fiercely contested by Zionist and Egyptian nationalist historiographies committed to establishing and defending the authenticity of their national communities and their cultures. This contention is likely to persist even if a more just and comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace is achieved, though such a peace would probably contribute substantially to making it a more civil and constructive debate.