Zionism in the Shadow of the Pyramids: The Zionist Movement in Egypt: 1918–1948, by Ruth Kimche

, December 31, 2013

Zionism in the Shadow of the Pyramids: The Zionist Movement in Egypt: 1918–1948, by Ruth Kimche, Am Oved Publishers, 2009, 850 pp. (in Hebrew)

Reviewed by Michelle Mazel

This important work, yet to be translated into English, covers thirty fateful years in the long history of the Jews of Egypt. Zionism in the Shadow of the Pyramids opens in 1918, as the First World War is ending and the Jewish community is beginning what would later be known as its Golden Age. It ends in 1948 with the proclamation of the State of Israel and the onset of the “Second Exodus”—the forced exile that left Egypt essentially judenrein.The author came to writing through an unlikely route. Kimche spent many years working for the Mossad (Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations) in an “administrative position,” along with her husband, the late Dave Kimche, who held an important role in that institution before becoming director-general of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Upon her retirement at age 52, Kimche turned to academic studies and for her doctoral thesis decided to write a study of her family history. Her paternal grandfather had fled the Russian pogroms in the early years of the twentieth century and settled in Egypt, where her father was born. During the Second World War, he met her mother in Cairo and Ruth was born “on the banks of the Nile.” Ruth devoted ten years to her research, ultimately discarding nearly half of the material to leave a hefty tome of 850 pages, 250 of them devoted to notes. Zionism in the Shadow of the Pyramids is the ultimate tool for scholars of this period.The first part of Zionism in the Shadow of the Pyramids covers the years 1918–1943, and the second, almost equal in length, brings the story up to 1948. The author explores the stormy relationship between the Jewish Agency in mandatory Palestine and the Jewish communities of Egypt. There is an extremely detailed chronicle of the contacts between the two, the visits of emissaries from Eretz Yisrael, their meetings with local youth and notables, as well as the birth of Zionist movements along the Nile.

Zionism in the Shadow of the Pyramids brims with stories, including some hitherto unpublished tales of would-be spies and romance in high places. But misunderstandings and the clash of cultures were ultimately to have tragic results. In many ways, the book is a bleak indictment of the Yishuv which failed to recognize the singular nature of the Jewish communities living in the land of the Nile. In a lengthy preface, Kimche describes a vibrant, thriving mix of Jews who had come to Egypt from all over the world. “The Jewish Community of Egypt was deemed one of the richest among Jewish communities in Islamic countries1”, she writes, adding that “there were untold riches within the Sephardi elite.” There was also a bustling middle class. Though nearly a quarter of the Jewish population were poor and lived in the Haret al Yahoud, the Jewish Quarter, more than two-thirds of Egyptian Jews were highly educated and thoroughly integrated into Egyptian society. Many held foreign passports and were not subject to Egyptian courts under the Capitulations.2 According to Kimche, the rigors of working kibbutz fields held little appeal for these cosmopolitans. Yet many felt a deep commitment to the land of their forefathers. Short visits or vacations were the compromise, with the Egyptian Jews taking advantage of the easy access to Jerusalem and Jaffa provided by the railway. Thus, they were able to see firsthand what was happening on the other side of the border.And what they saw did not always make them happy. Kimche serves it straight up: “From the first reports about the contacts between the men of the world Zionist establishment and the community in Egypt we are exposed to the feelings of intellectual superiority and scorn towards the ‘Levantine’ culture of the Jews of Egypt.3 ”And we learn more: “As I discovered more and more statements about members of the community from the representatives of the Zionist establishment—emissaries, teachers, journalists, soldiers in time of war or other visitors from Eretz Yisrael who found themselves in Egypt over the years—I became more and more convinced that there was another, more personal element: envy or narrow-mindedness. They had come prejudiced and with built-in feelings of superiority and found a prosperous and modern community living a life of ease and pleasure so close to Eretz Israel where they themselves lived in strained and Spartan circumstances.4” Not until 1943, when Europe was cut off from the world and the flow of immigrants came to a standstill, were real efforts made to relocate Jewish youth from Egypt by those in the Jewish homeland . It was too little and too late. Of the 18,000 Jews between the ages of 15–19 living in Egypt, fewer than ten percent chose Eretz Yisrael. In 1948, Israel was born and official contacts were severed; Zionism was banned. The Egyptian Jewish community, Kimche writes, was abandoned to its fate.Copious endnotes and extensive quotation of the principal players leave the reader with a strong sense of Kimche’s credibility. However, the sheer volume of the documentation at times creates
confusion.

While Kimche’s meticulous research is beyond question, her conclusions are open to debate. In this reviewer’s opinion, the Yishuv cannot be held soley responsible for the fact that Egyptian Jews did not emigrate while there was still time to do so. And it should be remembered than when forced into exile, more than half of them chose not to immigrate to Israel.

Notes

1.   p. 24 (translated by the reviewer).

2.   Name given to treaties signed between the Ottoman rulers and a number of European states granting extraterritorial rights to the subjects of these states in the Ottoman Empire. (The reviewer).

3.   598, id.

4.   Ibid, 603

 

Michelle Mazel

Michelle Mazel is a graduate of Sciences Po – the Institute for Political Science – and the Paris Faculté de Droit. She is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction and lives in Jerusalem.