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Jewish community looks back on exodus from Egypt

Ean Higgins, The Australian

The photo from June 1956 shows Joe Barda and his 17-year-old sweetheart Racheline Abecassis on the beach at Alexandria with friends — members of a 100,000-strong Jewish community living the good life in Egypt.
“The view was that Egypt was our country,” Racheline told The Weekend Australian. “We were living in a multicultural community within certain boundaries — there was a lot of interaction, though not much intermarriage.”
Alexandria was then a vibrant, prosperous, cosmopolitan city, with substantial British, French and Greek populations.
The common language among the elite was French, including in the Jewish community. It was ¬Racheline and Joe’s mother tongue, though they also spoke good Arabic.

Even after the establishment of the state of Israel and the Arab--Israeli war in 1948, many Jews thought they still had a home in Egypt, including Joe, whose family ran a significant cotton export business. “We were living peacefully, loyally in Egypt,” Joe, 81, said.
“When Zionism came on, the majority were thinking, ‘This is not for us, we are comfortable, we are well established, we have lived in this country for centuries’.”

Only months after the photo caught their halcyon days on the beach, Racheline and Joe’s world fell apart. Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, leading the Israeli, French and British governments to launch an invasion in an abortive attempt to bring it back under Western control.

Egyptian authorities nationalised or sequestered Jewish property and businesses, and the Barda family fled to Italy.
Racheline soon followed, with Egyptian authorities strip-searching her on her departure, and confiscating most of her possessions.
“If you left you had to leave with 20 pounds, if that, and your clothes,” said Racheline, 76.
After a brief time in Italy, where they married, Racheline and Joe migrated to Australia, where he had relatives, and in Sydney he set up a successful business trading with the Pacific islands.

Today, only a handful of Jews, some suggest fewer than 10, live in Egypt.
Racheline and Joe’s story is that of a Jewish exodus less well known than that of European Ashkenazi Jews and, until now, not officially commemorated. Before World War II, up to one million Sephardic Jews lived in Iran and a range of Arab countries, including Morocco, Tunisia, -Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

Many had been well integrated and were held in high regard. Racheline, who did a PhD on the topic at Sydney University and wrote a book published in 2011, said some Egyptian Jews had served as senators and ministers.
But decolonisation, Arab and Islamic nationalism, and the series of wars between Israel and the Arab world progressively fuelled anti-Semitism, violence against Jews and, in some cases, specific policies to expel them.

There are few Jewish communities remaining in the Middle East and North Africa, and those that do are tiny.
Determined that their stories are not forgotten, many of those expelled lobbied the Israeli government, which last year set -November 30 as the international day of commemoration for this -diaspora. On Monday, Racheline will deliver an address at the Sydney Jewish Museum, at the first official annual commemoration.

It promises to be a colourful event: one member of each Jewish community in nine of the countries concerned will speak. There will also be films showing life before the exodus. One clip will show Leila Mourad, the Jewish Egyptian film star who in 1953 was selected to be the “official singer of the Egyptian revolution”.

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