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Egyptian Jews in Paris and the Arab-Israeli Conflict After the 1967 War

The 1967 war reconfigured the significance of the Arab-Israeli conflict in world affairs and restored the question of Palestine to the international agenda after a long absence. In these more urgent circumstances, left-wing Egyptian Jews living in Paris found that their fragmented social and cultural formations, their commitment to political internationalism, and their strategic location at a cosmopolitan European crossroads enabled them to serve as political and cultural intermediaries. Arabs and Israelis seeking to step beyond the boundaries of their respective national consensuses to explore the possibility of reaching resolutions to their conflict based on mutual recognition and coexistence found a common language with left-wing Egyptian Jewish emigres in Paris who were able to function comfortably in all of the dialects that different parties brought to this encounter.

Raymond Aghion (b. 1921) was one of the first Egyptian Jews to undertake a project of political and cultural mediation after the 1967 war.[41] Aghion, Henri Curiel's cousin and a member of a wealthy Alexandrian family of Italian citizenship, pursued a political career parallel, though sometimes antagonistic, to his better-known cousin. He was educated at the Lycée de l'Union Juive pour l'Enseignment of Alexandria and began his political career by purchasing al-Majalla al-Jadida (The new magazine) so that it could be used as a forum for leftist opinions. During World War II, Aghion and Curiel established L'Amitié Française to support the French resistance against the Nazi occupation. Rosette Curiel was then an employee of the French legation in Cairo. Through her efforts, L'Amitié Française received official diplomatic support and political cover for conducting Marxist education in the guise of promoting the progressive face of French culture.

Despite this early collaboration, Aghion was never an adherent of Curiel; their future political careers were formed in divergent currents of the same broad stream. Aghion left Egypt in 1945 and took up residence in Paris, where he resided continually except for four years in Italy from 1952 to 1956. He returned to visit Egypt only once, in 1970, and maintained no organizational ties with the Egyptian communist movement after leaving the country. Instead, Aghion joined the Communist Party of France and its “group of Egyptians in Paris” along with Fu’ad Mursi and Isma‘il Sabri ‘Abd Allah, the future leaders of al-Raya.

In the early 1950s, Aghion and ‘Abd Allah collaborated with Maxime Rodinson in the publication of a nonparty journal, Moyen-Orient (Middle East), one of the first publications based on the collaboration of Arabs and Jews. Moyen-Orient was almost unique in the West after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War because it spoke of the Palestinians as a national community, not simply as refugees in need of humanitarian assistance. The journal also advocated Arab neutrality in the cold war, a position that anticipated the positive neutralism developed by Abdel Nasser, Nehru, and Tito after the Bandung Conference. This collaboration ended in 1951 when Isma‘il Sabri ‘Abd Allah returned to Egypt, where he rejoined Fu’ad Mursi, who had already established al-Raya after completing his studies in Paris. Aghion remained active in the Communist Party of France during the 1950s and 1960s and did not again undertake any particular responsibility for political action in the Arab-Israeli arena until after the 1967 war.

In April 1968, former Prime Minister Pierre Mendès-France published an article in Le Nouvel Observateur calling for an Arab-Israeli peace settlement on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 242, the intentionally vague diplomatic formula adopted at the conclusion of the 1967 Arab-Israeli hostilities.[42] Though Mendès-France rarely identified himself publicly as a Jew, he was married to the niece of Salvator Cicurel, the last president of the Sephardi Jewish community of Cairo, so he had a personal as well as a political stake in the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. At the urging of several Arab friends, on April 27, 1968, Aghion wrote to Mendès-France (using the pseudonym Francis Lagache) explaining that the Arab states bordering Israel had already agreed to implement UN Security Council Resolution 242, whereas Israel did not accept the principle of evacuating all the Arab territories it occupied in 1967 in exchange for a contractual peace with the Arab states. Mendès-France's reply to Aghion was lukewarm and noncommittal, and the events of May 1968 soon overwhelmed whatever potential this exchange might have had.[43]

Some of Henri Curiel's almost incidental activities of the mid-1950s assumed a new significance in the post-1967 circumstances. Soon after Curiel began working in support of the Algerian revolution, Amos Kenan, an Israeli journalist who had been a minor party in Arab-Israeli discussions in Paris generated by Yusuf Hilmi's 1955 peace initiative, introduced him to Uri Avnery, the editor of the iconoclastic Israeli weekly ha-‘Olam ha-Zeh (This world). Curiel explained to Avnery that if Israelis actively supported the inevitable victory of the Algerian FLN, then Algeria would become Israel's first friend in the Arab world and be able to mediate between Israel and Egypt. Following Curiel's advice, Avnery, Kenan, and their comrades—Natan Yalin-Mor, Maxime Ghilan, and Shalom Cohen—established the Israeli Committee for a Free Algeria.[44]

The historic political roots of this circle were on the margins of Israeli society and politics—ETZEL (the Irgun, or National Military Organization) and LEHI (the Stern Gang, or Fighters for the Freedom of Israel), as opposed to the hegemonic labor Zionist movement. Even in those dissident circles, their trajectory was distinctive because they did not join the Herut Party or its successor, the Likud, as the leaders of ETZEL and LEHI, Menahem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, and many of their followers did. In the 1950s, they were the animators of Semitic  Action, a political expression of the Canaanite movement, which advocated that Hebrew-speaking Israelis cut their ties with the Jewish diaspora and integrate into the Middle East as natives of the region on the basis of an anticolonialist alliance with its indigenous Arab inhabitants. Avnery's magazine was popular among devotees of soft-core pornography, muckraking investigative journalism, and avant garde culturopolitical ideas. But in the heyday of MAPAI rule and Ben-Gurionist statism, initiatives emanating from a current so far beyond the labor Zionist mainstream of Israeli politics and culture could have no immediate practical consequences. Only developments after the overpowering Israeli victory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and the inconclusive standoff at the end of the 1973 war invested these contacts between Israeli Jews and the Algerian FLN mediated by Henri Curiel with historical status as a new beginning of the dialogue, largely suspended outside the ranks of the Communist Party of Israel since 1948, between Arabs and Jews seeking coexistence on the basis of equality in the Middle East.

In 1969, Curiel received from several former comrades in Egypt a letter asking him to define his position on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Curiel sent a lengthy response articulating the principles that guided his efforts to serve as an intermediary between the parties to the conflict during the 1970s. The starting point of Curiel's analysis was that the Jews of Israel constituted a national community with the right of self-determination, even if Israel were regarded as a colonial fact, “because many national states have their origins in colonial facts, a truth well-verified in Africa and the Middle East.” [45] This was the same argument that the Soviet Union and the international communist movement had deployed to justify the UN partition plan for Palestine in 1947. The Egyptian and other Arab communists modified this line in response to exacerbation of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the unequivocal alignment of Israel with Anglo-French neocolonialism in 1956.[46] Curiel steadfastly upheld the formulations of 1947–48, and this was one of the reasons some of his former comrades came to suspect and distrust him. Curiel maintained that armed conflict, which had begun to escalate in 1969 with the outbreak of the war of attrition between Egypt and Israel across the Suez Canal, served the interests of imperialism and reactionary forces in the Arab world and in Israel. He regarded the slogan of “War until Victory” as an ultraleft illusion that caused great Arab suffering in the name of defending the interests of the Arab nation by rejecting any political solution to the conflict with Israel. He opposed this slogan, just as the Egyptian communists had opposed the Arab declarations of war on Israel in 1948.

Curiel believed that the Arab-Israeli conflict constituted a barrier to pursuing a progressive social agenda in both Israel and the Arab states. Therefore it should be settled as soon as possible. To break the deadlock, it was necessary to appeal to the masses of Israelis over the heads of their militarist leaders and to convince them that they could achieve peace and security by evacuating the Arab territories occupied in 1967 and recognizing the establishment of a Palestinian state. According to this analysis, the weakness of the Israeli peace forces was a consequence of their isolation from progressive Arabs. A regional political realignment was possible if the progressive forces in the Arab world recognized, supported, and defended the Israeli peace camp, just as the Vietnamese National Liberation Front had established links with the U.S. antiwar movement.

Colonel Ahmad Hamrush, a former member of HADETU and a former Free Officer who had served as a liaison between HADETU and Abdel Nasser in the early 1950s, travelled to Paris in 1968 and decided on his own initiative to renew his contact with Curiel. He was impressed with Curiel's insistence that there were Israelis who favored an Arab-Israeli peace based on Israeli withdrawal from the Arab lands occupied in 1967 and reported their conversation to Abdel Nasser, who instructed Hamrush to pursue this contact. As a result, Curiel arranged informal meetings between Hamrush and Amos Kenan and Natan Yalin-Mor, who had been members of the Israeli Committee for a Free Algeria, as well as Labor Party Knesset member Lova Eliav and journalist Amnon Kapeliuk, who were new to this circle. Sa‘d Kamil, secretary of the Egyptian Partisans of Peace, participated in some of the meetings. Eventually, Abdel Nasser agreed to convene a meeting of Egyptian and Israeli delegates in Paris, under the auspices of a French government minister, but Golda Meir, then prime minister of Israel, rejected this proposal.[47]

Striving to maintain the momentum, Yugoslavian President Josip Tito and the French journalist Eric Rouleau helped to arrange a meeting between Nahum Goldmann and Gamal Abdel Nasser in April 1970. Henri Curiel may have played a role in this endeavor as well. Both parties were willing to meet on the condition that the Israeli government be informed of their encounter at some later date. Neither Goldmann nor Abdel Nasser requested that the Israeli government approve their meeting in advance or grant it an official status. However, Golda Meir thwarted their initiative by asking the Israeli cabinet to approve the Nasser-Goldmann rendezvous. Some ministers informally supported such an encounter as a way to test whether Egypt had any serious intention of seeking a diplomatic resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Meir undermined these expressions of interest in a negotiated settlement by requesting a vote of approval for the proposed meeting by the cabinet. The Israeli government could not be a party to undermining its own sovereignty and Zionist ideology by appearing to delegate a noncitizen, diaspora Jew to negotiate on its behalf. Consequently, the cabinet voted not to authorize the meeting. After the proposed Nasser-Goldmann meeting fell through, Eric Rouleau tried to maintain the momentum by arranging a meeting between Goldmann and Ahmad Hamrush at his home in Paris.[48]

The proposed Goldmann-Nasser meeting and Israel's role in blocking it were widely reported in the international press.[49] Many Israelis, anxious to end the war of attrition with Egypt, break the Arab-Israeli impasse, and test Arab intentions, supported this modest undertaking. Hundreds of students at the Hebrew University disrupted traffic for hours on one of the main boulevards of Jerusalem to protest Golda Meir's intransigence and obstruction of an opportunity to pursue peace. This demonstration, one of the first acts of mass civil disobedience against the annexationist policies of the Israeli government, seemed to confirm the validity of Curiel's strategy.

Eric Rouleau, whose intermediary efforts were spurned by Golda Meir, is widely recognized as an exceptionally well informed and well connected journalist. He covered the Middle East for Le Monde for many years and subsequently served as French ambassador to Tunisia and Turkey during the presidency of François Mitterand. Serving as an intermediary in arranging an Arab-Jewish meeting was a new field of endeavor for him. But Rouleau's entire journalistic oeuvre, particularly his reporting on Egypt during the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser, can be regarded as a project of cultural and political translation between his early life experiences as an Egyptian-born Jew and his adult professional world of French journalism, when he became especially close to the Egyptian president. Rouleau grew up in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis and had an intense interest in international affairs. After World War II he joined the Iskra communist group. When HADETU split into several fragments in 1948, Rouleau joined one of the most dogmatic splinters—the Egyptian Communist Organization (al-Munazzama al-Shuyu‘iyya al-Misriyya). He left Egypt for France and a career in journalism in 1950.

It is more than an ironic accident that the Egyptian ruler most excoriated by Israel and the West often selected an Arabic-speaking Jew as his favored journalistic conduit to the West. The symbolic significance of their connection could not have escaped either of the parties. Whether or not Rouleau or Abdel Nasser ever consciously thought of their relationship in these terms, the high level of rapport and understanding they developed over many years suggested the possibility of a different model for Arab-Jewish relations. Because Rouleau was neither a sycophant nor an uncritical supporter of Abdel Nasser, his judgment that the Egyptian president was not an anti-Semite is worth recording.[50]

After Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat's trip to Jerusalem in 1977, Abu ‘Iyad (Salah Khalaf), a founder and leader of al-Fatah, the principal group in the PLO, asked Eric Rouleau to help him write his political autobiography. The exceptional circumstances of al-Sadat's peace initiative and the possibility that it would culminate in a separate Egyptian-Israeli peace probably impelled the PLO leadership to approve this effort to present the Palestinian cause in human terms that might receive a sympathetic hearing in the West. The leading members of the PLO rarely assigned much importance to this task.

The resulting text was the first extensive account of the life and political outlook of a historic leader of the PLO in a Western language—a tremendous professional scoop for Rouleau.[51] Although he clearly stated his disagreement with some of Abu ‘Iyad's positions, especially on the legitimacy of attacks on unarmed civilians, such as the kidnapping of the members of the Israeli team at the Munich Olympics in September 1972, Rouleau was impressed by Abu ‘Iyad's skills as a negotiator. He also noted that Abu ‘Iyad was the first PLO leader who publicly advocated creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Rouleau's ability to perceive flexibility in the position of the PLO leader most closely identified with Black September and his empathic presentation of Abu ‘Iyad's personal history undoubtedly owes something to the commingling of Egyptian, Jewish, and French influences in his life. His familiarity with the Arab milieu and prestige as a leading French journalist positioned him well to serve as the transmitter of Abu ‘Iyad's narrative.

The meetings between Ahmad Hamrush and Israeli peace activists in Paris convinced Henri Curiel that there was a political basis for convening a nongovernmental Arab-Israeli peace conference that would bring together progressive Arabs, Israelis, and interested third parties. After receiving a green light from Gamal Abdel Nasser, Curiel and several former members of the Rome Group began to organize such a meeting in collaboration with Hamrush.[52] As part of the preparatory arrangements, Khalid Muhyi al-Din travelled to Paris to meet Israelis who had been recommended to him by Hamrush. The preparations were interrupted by Abdel Nasser's death and Anwar al-Sadat's assumption of the presidency of Egypt. Because Khalid Muhyi al-Din had been close to HADETU and was identified with the left, the new regime ordered him placed under house arrest.

However, Anwar al-Sadat did not oppose extending peace feelers to Israel. In February 1971, in response to questions submitted to Israel and the belligerent Arab states by UN envoy Gunar Jaring, Egypt stated it was willing to sign a contractual peace agreement with Israel in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from all the Arab territories occupied in the 1967 war. The Israeli government failed to respond in a similar spirit to Jaring's questions, indicating it insisted on annexing at least some Arab territories. Because official channels were closed by Israel's intransigence, Anwar al-Sadat eventually authorized Khalid Muhyi al-Din to proceed with preparations for a nongovernmental international peace conference. Curiel and a few of his former Rome Group comrades now made the Middle East their personal priority and intensified their organizational work to prepare the peace conference.[53]

The International Conference for Peace and Justice in the Middle East convened at Bologna, Italy, on May 11, 1973, under the auspices of the communist-led city council. It was the first public meeting of Arab and Israeli peace activists since the end of the Palestine mandate. The Israeli attendees included Yossi Amitai, Amos Kenan, Uri Avnery, Natan Yalin-Mor, and members of the Communist Party of Israel (RAKAH). Khalid Muhyi al-Din represented Egypt. Ahmad Hamrush was to have attended but did not because of the rupture in his relations with Anwar al-Sadat.[54] Several of the Israeli participants had previously been introduced to Hamrush or Muhyi al-Din in Paris by Henri Curiel. Curiel himself did not attend the Bologna conference. His point of view was represented by Joyce Blau and Raymond Stambouli, former comrades in the Rome Group who were among the active organizers of the meeting.[55]

No one was more aware of the limitations of the Bologna conference than Curiel himself. He noted the absence of Palestinian, Lebanese, and Algerian delegations; weak representation from Israel; lack of U.S. participation; significant absences of other non-Middle Eastern delegations; and a flawed final document.[56] Nonetheless, Curiel insisted that this unprecedented encounter had rendered the hypothesis that there was a basis for understanding among progressive Arabs and Israelis credible. Consequently, he proposed that a second and much larger international conference be convened to continue the work begun at Bologna. However, the near victory of the Arabs in the 1973 war and Anwar al-Sadat's willingness to abandon his Russian patrons for the United States reconfigured the balance of forces in the Middle East and opened other, more daring possibilities.

The outcome of the 1973 war also convinced two young Egyptian Marxists, ‘Adil Rif‘at and Bahgat al-Nadi, who wrote under the pseudonym Mahmoud Hussein, that an Arab-Israeli dialogue was now possible and desirable.[57] They sought out Israelis who supported the concept of Israeli evacuation of the Arab territories occupied in 1967, recognition of a Palestinian state, and peaceful coexistence with the Arab world. With the assistance of Jean Lacouture, they chose as their interlocutor a liberal historian, Saul Friedländer. Their colloquy was published as a book titled Arabs & Israelis: A Dialogue.[58]

It is both unexpected and manifestly sensible that in one of the first published political exchanges between Israelis and Arabs, one of the two Arabs was also a Jew. ‘Adil Rif‘at is the nephew of Hillel Schwartz, the founder of Iskra. He had a stormy relationship with his parents and, after a teenage love affair with a young Muslim woman, converted to Islam and became estranged from his family.

‘Adil Rif‘at and Bahgat al-Nadi had belonged to one of the few communist tendencies that did not join the united Communist Party of Egypt in 1958: Wahdat al-Shuyu‘iyyin (Communist unity). Its leader, Ibrahim Fathi, was the most vitriolic of Henri Curiel's critics in the Egyptian communist movement.[59] Rif‘at and al-Nadi were arrested and jailed with the other communist prisoners from 1959 to 1964. In prison, they developed a Maoist orientation. Consequently, they opposed the dissolution of the Egyptian communist parties in 1965. Their efforts to continue oppositional political activity led them to a clash with the regime at a time when most of the other communists and former communists were actively allying themselves with the Arab socialist phase of Nasserism. In 1966, they left Egypt for Paris. The Class Struggle in Egypt, 1945–1970 presents Mahmoud Hussein's comprehensive understanding of Egypt in Maoist terms, combining historical and sociopolitical analysis and a critique of the theory and practice of the Egyptian left.[60] Their Maoist orientation allowed Mahmoud Hussein to develop close ties to the Palestinian armed resistance movement in the early 1970s, when the Soviet Union still kept its distance from the PLO because it disapproved of the PLO's military tactics and its goal of replacing Israel with a secular democratic Palestinian state. Mahmoud Hussein's relationship with the Palestinian resistance made them ideal interlocutors for an Israeli looking for a dialogue with Arabs at a time when the PLO was still reluctant to speak with Israelis and most Israelis regarded contacts with the “terrorist” PLO as treason.

In historical perspective, the contents of the discussion between Mahmoud Hussein and Saul Friedländer are less important than the fact that it took place. The flawed political assessments and fallacious historical arguments of both parties map the substantial perceptual gap between them. This dialogue derived its significance from the common belief of both parties that the requisites of a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict were an Israeli evacuation of all (or almost all) the territories occupied in 1967, at least partial Arab sovereignty in Jerusalem, and Palestinian national self-determination. However, in July 1974, when Mahmoud Hussein and Saul Friedländer met, Henry Kissinger had already begun to pursue an Arab-Israeli accommodation structured by a Pax Americana in the Middle East in which common understandings reached by individuals and groups concerned about achieving a just and peaceful resolution of the conflict were irrelevant.

Shortly after the publication of the dialogue between Mahmoud Hussein and Saul Friedländer in French, After the Guns Fall Silent: Peace or Armageddon in the Middle East by Mohamed Sid-Ahmed appeared in Arabic.[61] Sid-Ahmed had been a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of Egypt. After the dissolution of the communist parties, he became a prominent journalist. When Anwar al-Sadat legalized political parties, Sid-Ahmed became a leading member of the National Progressive Unionist Party (Tagammu‘), the left pole in the limited and strictly supervised multiparty system. Because it was published in Arabic by a journalist of repute identified with a current in Egyptian politics highly regarded elsewhere in the Arab world, After the Guns Fall Silent was a more consequential intervention in Arab politics than Mahmoud Hussein's discussion with Saul Friedländer. The book provoked a lively debate in the Arab world, where few political thinkers had previously raised the question of what kind of peace with Israel was possible or desirable. Sid-Ahmed and Mahmoud Hussein agreed that the consequences of the 1973 war made an Arab-Israeli accommodation possible for the first time. Sid-Ahmed implied that he agreed with Curiel and with Mahmoud Hussein that continuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict was a barrier to social progress in the Arab world and that a diplomatic resolution of the conflict was therefore desirable in principle, even if it would not provide absolute justice for the Arab side. Perhaps the elements of commonality between the analyses of Mahmoud Hussein and Mohamed Sid-Ahmed owe something to the three years ‘Adil Rif‘at and Mohamed Sid-Ahmed shared a cell in the Wahat prison camp, where they were interned as communists from 1959 to 1964.

Arriving in France, ‘Adil Rif‘at was reunited with part of his family: his mother and half-brother, Benny Lévy, who had settled in Paris after the 1956 war. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lévy emerged as the leader of one of the boldest of the groups to the left of the Communist Party of France, La Gauche Proletarienne (Proletarian left).[62] Lévy and his Maoist group won a significant popular base with tactics like stealing 50,000 Paris Metro tickets and redistributing them free of charge to passengers and kidnapping the manager of a Renault auto assembly plant. La Gauche Proletarienne also cultivated good relations with al-Fatah, the leading tendency in the PLO. Several of its members visited Palestinian refugee camps and commando bases in Jordan. Members of al-Fatah residing in France and La Gauche Proletarienne collaborated in organizing Arab workers in the Mouvement des Travailleurs Arabes (Arab workers' movement). There were also contacts between the underground section of La Gauche Proletarienne and armed elements of al-Fatah, although the French organization dissented from al-Fatah's attacks on unarmed civilians.

During the early 1970s, ‘Adil Rif‘at was primarily engaged in Egyptian emigre politics, while Benny Lévy's domain of struggle was France. In both arenas, the Palestinian resistance movement was a strategic ally. For Lévy, embracing the PLO opened a door to organizing the large immigrant Arab working class in France. Benny Lévy's origins as an Egyptian Jew prepared him to attach importance to the Arab immigrants, in contrast to the policy of the Communist Party of France, which discouraged its members from devoting significant efforts to organizing noncitizens with no right to vote. For Rif‘at, the PLO was the main force that continued to represent a revolutionary alternative in the Arab world after the defeat of 1967.

‘Adil Rif‘at may have been unconscious of any concern about his Jewish origins when he decided that the consequences of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War established a basis for an Arab-Israeli peace dialogue. Nonetheless, his outlook after 1973 situated him, along with Mohamed Sid-Ahmed, in the current of opinion within Egyptian Marxism that regarded the Arab-Israeli conflict as a barrier to social progress that should be resolved rather than an existential battle of national destiny. This commitment brought Rif‘at into contact with Israeli Jews like Saul Friedländer and, though there was never any organized collaboration among them, joined his efforts to those of other Egyptian Jews like Raymond Aghion, Henri Curiel, and Eric Rouleau.


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