Published in Ahram Online on January 6, 2013
Close inspection of Essam El-Erian’s problematic statement calling Israelis of Egyptian ancestry to return to Egypt reveals Brotherhood leader’s true motives
Besides being issued by a prominent leader of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the significance of Essam El-Erian’s recent call for Egyptian Jews to return to Egypt can be found in what El-Erian actually said and what he meant by it.
As far as one can judge from his tweets, press interviews and TV appearances, the offer appears to be founded on a moral principle and a sense of injustice for what has befallen Egyptian Jews since they were forced to leave Egypt in the 1940s and 1950s.
It also seems to be based on international law.
In his response to a question by ONTV television host Reem Maged about his position on granting Egyptian citizenship to those who now hold Israeli citizenship, El-Erian said that international law does not allow revoking citizenship. Therefore, anyone whose Egyptian citizenship was revoked in the past has the right, as does his/her descendants, to have their citizenship reinstated.
His offer also appears to be rooted in a certain reading of the past as well as a certain vision of the future.
El-Erian believes that Zionism, on which the state of Israel was built, is a relatively modern ideology, one that is no more than 120 years old, “nothing to be compared with our 7000-year old history” and that Israel is sure to disappear in no more than a decade.
When this auspicious moment arrives, El-Erian believes, the Palestinians will be able to return to their homes and, for their part, Israeli Jews will need to go back to their countries of origin.
Being one of the countries from which Jews have fled, and a country that has just witnessed a turn to democracy, Egypt, El-Erian argues, will be willing to shoulder its burden and to admit the Jews who had fled some sixty or seventy years ago.
One is at a loss about where to start with El-Erian’s call. Its absurd logic and flawed reasoning are enough to dismiss this call as a bad joke that should be ignored outright. The problem is this call has been issued by a senior political figure in the Muslim Brotherhood and as such it should be taken seriously.
Although the presidency has distanced itself from El-Erian’s statements, it is difficult to conceive he spoke without the prior approval of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau or the Presidency of the Republic. Especially given that El-Erian is a presidential adviser, a former member of the Guidance Bureau, the deputy leader of the Freedom and Justice Party (the political wing of the Brotherhood) and a majority leader in the Shura Council (Egypt’s upper house of parliament).
There are five key problems with El-Erian’s statements: just one of them is enough to question the sincerity of his offer.
First, although Dr. El-Erian seems certain that Israel will cease to exist in the near future, and went as far as to specify that this will happen in ten years’ time, he did not bother to explain how this will happen and whether it will be through a war waged against Israel by Hamas from Gaza with the Brotherhood in Egypt.
Maybe he believes that Israelis will commit mass suicide as their ancestors did in Masada. More plausible is his belief that Zionism, as a backward ideology whose advocates are abandoning it, is withering away as demonstrated by reverse migration out of Israel.
The problem here is not El-Erian’s diagnosis of Zionism as belonging more to the 19th century than to the 21st, but his prediction that this will automatically lead to Israel’s demise. For over the past 60 odd years Zionism managed to invent new forms of oppression and violence that enabled it to survive, so why assume that it will suddenly give up its bloodthirsty approach?
Second, El-Erian assumes that as soon as they receive this invitation, Israeli Jews of Egyptian origin will flock back to their home country and that such an invitation will be enough to convince them that their lives in Egypt under the Brotherhood will be better than their current life in Israel.
In explaining this point, El-Erian said that this was exactly the reason why he and other Brotherhood members inserted Article 3 in the new Constitution which stipulated, for the first time in Egyptian constitutional history, that Jews would have the right to adjudicate their personal status cases according to Jewish Talmudic law.
The problem with this logic is that it takes us back to the millet system under the Ottoman Empire, a system that allowed every sect within the multi-ethnic empire to abide by its own laws.
Perhaps he is taking us back to the times of the Dhimma system, under which an Islamic state viewed its non-Muslim subjects as people entrusted to its custody (which is the exact meaning of the word ‘Dhimmi’) and, as such, deserving of its protection, but who most definitely are not to be treated as equal to their Muslim masters.
Thirdly, this call was not directed, in principle, to Egyptian Jews who left Egypt irrespective of their final destination but only to those who ended up in Israel.
If the point was to correct a mistake made in the past – and I do believe that Egyptian Jews were gravely wronged – then we must admit that injustice was committed against all Egyptian Jews. The majority of those Jews were not Zionists and they did not end up living in Israel.
By limiting his invitation to only those Egyptian Jews who ended up living in Israel, El-Erian seems to be rewarding the Egyptian Jews who may have been Zionists and who may have ended up serving in the Israeli army and fighting against Egypt in the 1967 or 1973 wars, while turning a blind eye to the majority of Egyptian Jews who rejected Zionism and who refused to live in Israel.
Fourthly, El-Erian’s invitation is not extended to Israelis of Egyptian origin who do not want to return to Egypt. Will Egypt then have to compensate them for their suffering and for their property that was confiscated?
The last problem is not about El-Erian’s futuristic predictions but about his interpretation of the past. El-Erian did not even attempt to deny or refute the common belief that those responsible for the departure of Jews was not Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s regime alone but also the policies and activities of the Brotherhood, an organisation El-Erian himself belongs to.
During the 1930s and 1940s, the Brotherhood did not view Egyptian Jews as full-fledged citizens and always doubted their loyalty to Egypt. Dozens of articles published in Brotherhood magazines were outrightly anti-Semitic and utterly failed to distinguish between Jews and Zionists.
Example of anti-Semitic pronouncements and publications by Brotherhood members are too numerous to cite, however, one telling example is the article titled ‘The Threat of Jews on the Islamic and Christian Worlds’ published in the Brotherhood’s Al-Nadheer magazine in 1938 which claimed that Jews were the real colonisers of India, not the British.
Brotherhood youth groups also carried out a series of attacks on Jewish synagogues and shops, even against those businesses not owned by Zionists on the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration on 2 and 3 November 1945.
There was even more violence against Jewish interests in Cairo and Alexandria that ended with the assassination of Prime Minister Nokrashi Pasha in 1948, when Brotherhood members marched to the Jewish Quarter in Moski district of Cairo chanting “Ennaharda el-sabt we bokra el-hadd” (Today is Saturday, and tomorrow is Sunday): a sinister reference to what was to await Coptic Christians now that the fate of the Egyptian Jews had been sealed.
Does El-Erian truly believe that his generous offer to Egyptian Jews will erase the Muslim Brotherhood’s bloody record?
Despite these problematic issues, it remains that El-Erian’s offer is based on a noble principle, namely that our conflict with Zionists is a moral one and that it is possible to imagine the end of Zionism.
But El-Erian, do you honestly expect Jews to leave the country they now live in for another that has just passed a Constitution that does not treat citizens equally, that has allotted a significant role for Egypt’s highest Islamic authority Al-Azhar in interpreting the Constitution and that has laid down the first block of a religious state?