For new readers: The idea behind these submissions is to show in theory, scholarship, and anecdotes that Jewishness has been during the exile, and is all the more today in Israel, a nationhood. Nationhood isn’t nationalism. Even if you loathe nationalism, you have nationhood. Everyone has exactly one nationhood. Jewry sustained the essential attributes of nationhood for centuries until its Western branch abandoned them in favor of those of their citizenship countries. By seeing it this way, we can understand so many contemporary Jewish phenomena that don’t make sense otherwise.
An anecdote: How strong the nationhood sentiment is, or: skewered nationhood
The scene is the semi-basement of a Tel Aviv tenement that the Association of Egyptian Jews in Israel uses for its gatherings. This past January, the Association hosted Professor Edy Cohen upon the publication of his book in Hebrew on the pro-Nazi proclivities of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. I attended the event in order (1) to get out of the office and (2) to interest the author in having the book translated into English, which is what I do most of the time. Cohen didn’t have the money for that, and last week the English-language media confirmed Abbas’ proclivities so explicitly as to make the project unnecessary.
Now for Egyptian Jews in Israel. When Israel was established, there were about 75,000 Jews in the land of the pharaohs. By then, they were full-time Others there: too unrooted, too international, too bourgeois for the Arab nationalist way the country was heading. And they were Jewish, a bad thing to be after the resurgent Jewish national entity next door had just whipped Egypt on the battlefield. So they received the treatment that we’ve come to consider normal under the circumstances: pogroms, dispossession, arbitrary restrictions, and forced emigration. It got worse later on, with a blown Israeli intelligence operation in Egypt involving Egyptian Jews (1954), another trouncing on the battlefield (1956), and especially in 1967, when “trouncing” hardly describes the disgrace that Nasser’s Egypt sustained at the hands of the former dhimmis.
At that time (according to Wikipedia, quoting a community source), “Nearly all Egyptian Jewish men between the ages of 17 and 60 were either thrown out of the country immediately or taken to detention centers […] where they were incarcerated and tortured for more than three years. The eventual result was the almost complete disappearance of the 3,000-year-old Jewish community in Egypt; the vast majority of Jews left the country. Most Egyptian Jews fled to Israel (35,000), Brazil (15,000), France (10,000), the US (9,000) and Argentina (9,000).”
Some of those who reached Israel formed the Association. They appeared to be the majority in attendance at Professor Cohen’s book unveiling.
Before he spoke, they did. Eaising their hands politely, they demonstrated their Israeli credentials by complaining about Israel government policy. Specifically, Israel refused to recognize them as Holocaust survivors. Now, why should Israel give this recognition (and the benefits it would confer)? It’s because Nasser’s government was so strongly influenced by the Nazis as to make them Holocaust survivors. And that should include the Iraqi Jews, too, a member of the audience intoned. The farhud, after all, was directly Nazi-inspired.
Then a number of those in attendance reminisced about the horrors they had endured in their own unique exodus from Egypt. The memories were as fresh and detailed as yesterday’s: families deprived of breadwinners, citizenship revoked, torture or execution averted by payment of bribes, desperate departure, initial hardships in Israel that were overcome. The Holocaust-survivor business retreated to a low murmur. Israel’s raison d’etre had been proved once again.
Now it came time to introduce Professor Cohen and elaborate on his area of interest: demonstrating that Mahmoud Abbas was in no way benign, in no way a partner for peace, in every way a menace to Israel of the most fundamental sort: a living, breathing nexus of Nazism and militant Islam. A woman officer of the Association delivered this preface to the audience. Heads nodded. No news there; if it weren’t for his wish to sell and publicize his book, Cohen could have skipped the lecture.
Then the emcee rose to the occasion:
“And after Professor Cohen’s speech, we’ll be serving refreshments that you’ll all appreciate: EGYPTIAN KABABS!”
I turned my head and saw them, on a counter at the edge of the room. Egyptian kababs aren’t like other kababs. They are larger, softer, and pear-shaped. They aren’t pierced by a metal skewer. Instead, they perch on a something that’s more like thick wooden dowel.
A liquidy sound ensued from the people in front of me: fifty smiling mouths watering all at once. For a national delicacy that the attendees could have prepared at home any time they wanted—but presumably did not. A food that’s skewered only from the bottom, not from the top, a bit like their Egyptian-ness at least half a century on.
The power of nationhood.