chapter  4
Extremely close and incredibly far: Egypt, la Palestine, Jews and other Jews: Zionist refugees in First World War
Pages 47

In April 2014, a group of Egyptian Jews now living in Israel, Europe and the US gathered at the Israeli holiday resort of Eilat in order to take part in the Fifth World Congress of Egyptian Jews. Eilat is best known for its beaches and coral reef, and for being a place where Israelis enjoy the sun and heat of the Red Sea. Anyone familiar with the history of this community would, however, immediately think that even from Eilat, situated only 9 km from the border between Israel and Egypt, Egypt appeared close, yet incredibly far. In fact, if it is true that Egyptian Jews can visit the country where they were born, they still cannot really go back to their Egypt: Zionism, the dynamics of the Arab-Israeli conflict and, last but not least, internal changes of the Egyptian sociopolitical arena made Egypt very different from the one they knew. In the previous three chapters, I portrayed aspects of the history of the Egyptian Jews in the colonial and monarchical eras, explaining how it was then that a bourgeois identity – based on a shared education, as well as on differing feelings of what being Jewish and Egyptian meant – emerged and consolidated. Although Egypt was at the centre of the narration, other national and imaginative spaces emerged, such as, for instance, Europe and France – suffice it to think of the students of the AIU and MLF – but also what in Judaism is known as ‘Eretz Israel (‘the land of Israel’), which is the area that roughly corresponded to Ottoman and then British Palestine, which, after 1948, became the State of Israel.1 This last chapter will look at the manifold connections that Egyptian Jews had with ‘Eretz Israel before and especially after the consolidation of Egyptian Zionism and the birth of the State of Israel. In doing so, I wish to explain how ‘Eretz Israel – or la Palestine as Egyptian Jews more often called it before 1948 – was a distant yet always present and familiar space, which over time acquired different cultural, religious and political meanings. Except for the first section, which will take us back to First World War Alexandria, the chapter will mostly deal with the period that extends from the 1930s to the 1950s – that is, when Zionism started to spread in a more evident manner, both in Alexandria and Cairo. This said, my aim is not to write a history of Egyptian Zionism per se, but to reconsider the manifold meanings that being an Egyptian Jew has had and still has vis-à-vis this national ideology, looking at various events that interlinked with it from the First World War to the Suez War and, last but not least,

how Zionism stimulated at times the reformulation, and at times the weakening, of an Egyptian Jewish bourgeois identity.