Egypt's Forgotten Jews

Over the past 50 years, much ink has been lavished on the displacement of the Palestinians from their homes, but barely a passing glance has been accorded the displaced dispossessed Jewish communities of Egypt and other Arab lands.
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When I was 19 years old, I left my home in Egypt, permanently blown into a larger life and wider world by fierce winds of change. A mere footnote to history, the Suez crisis of 1956 is little known in the larger world, and less remembered. But the shock waves it created uprooted my family, scattered hundreds across the world, leaving them with no support systems, few possessions, and a history no-one understood. It decimated the deeply rooted, ancient Jewish communities of Egypt, some 80,000 strong and centuries old. In a climate of profound stress and fear, we had instantly become the enemy.

Within months, only 400 remained. Now, some 50 years later, there are fewer than 100. Recent history has also wrenched Jewish communities from other Arab countries, ejecting them, tragically destitute, into unfamiliar lands. Far-flung from the life they knew and understood, sprinkled across continents and oceans, many close-knit extended families have since been separated for years by geography, language, and economic restrictions.

As most of us did, I packed childhood memories away and moved forward with my life. I worked hard to spread roots somewhere, somehow, for decades skirting the deep gulf I camouflaged under the dense foliage of reinventing a life. Years passed, and I realized I needed to clear off the foliage and confront my childhood, to create a path for children and grandchildren to own a way of life which had been mine. They needed to know the community and the vibrant individualistic family members who wove the fabric of my own childhood into a raft to sail me safely through uncharted seas.

My mother's Smouha family had deep roots in the Middle East, probably going back to the first Diaspora. Her mother came from Damascus, Syria. Her father was born in Baghdad. They met and married in Manchester, England, and began to raise a family there. Business for the British government took my grandfather, Joseph Smouha, to Egypt, where he eventually settled with his family, contributing his vision and his integrity to the city of Alexandria, draining the mosquito-infested Hadra lakes to build a fine development still known as Smouha City.

My father's Mosseri family, prosperous merchants in Toledo, Spain, arrived in Egypt in the 18th century, tracing a path back to the Spanish Inquisition of the late 1400s. They fled Spain for Livorno, Italy, where they reinvented their lives and traded across the Mediterranean. Eventually, some decided to settle in Cairo, Egypt. Once again reinventing themselves, the Mosseri family wove their lives into the social, economic and cultural fabric of Egypt. They embraced the multi-cultural, post-colonial world in which they found themselves and were in turn embraced by it, creating networks across national and religious lines that led them to live peaceably and productively alongside their Egyptian neighbors, producing eminent financiers, journalists, jurists and real estate developers. As time went on, their many achievements enabled them to undertake the establishment of hospitals, schools, orphanages and community centers.

In 1948 with the emergence of the State of Israel, the balance between Arabs and Jews underwent a profound change. In 1956, I watched my father become unwelcome in his own life. An official summoned him to government offices to pick up an expulsion notice to leave Egypt immediately. Glancing at the address, my father was dumbfounded by the irony: compelled to leave his homeland and the lifework of five generations forever, he was summoned to offices located on the very street that a grateful Egyptian government had named for his father.

My grandchildren hold the key to the future, but I held the key to their past, to a time before economics, politics and war blew entire families, like thistledown, across the face of the world to forge a future in foreign soil. So I wrote a memoir, "Sipping from the Nile, My Exodus from Egypt," to give my children and grandchildren a glimpse at a past from which they were forever excluded.

But I also wrote it in the hope that a profound disenfranchisement so little acknowledged by the larger world would not disappear without trace. The Suez crisis - that footnote in history - hurled Egypt's Jewish communities into exile, leaving homes, businesses, social structures, lifelong friendships and fortunes behind.

Over the past 50 years, much ink has been lavished on the displacement of the Palestinians from their homes, but barely a passing glance has been accorded the displaced dispossessed Jewish communities of Egypt and other Arab lands. We were expected to move forward. We expected it of ourselves. As our ancestors have done from time immemorial, we reinvented ourselves. No international outrage from the nations of the world took up our cause. No effort at compensation was made. And so now, 50 years later, the forgotten Jews of Egypt and other Arab lands have begun to mine their own lives, exposing bittersweet memories and remnants of a beloved past to lead their children and grandchildren fully equipped into the future. It is time for the world to take notice, too.

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