All I wanted was justice
One family’s 50-year fight for restitution of an Alexandria hotel sheds light on the little-discussed plight of a million Jews who were expelled from Arab lands decades ago.
By Adi Schwartz Jan. 3, 2008
Albert Metzger never left his hotel. Although he owned another six hotels in Alexandria, and was actually in charge of the entire hotel industry in northern Egypt, for him the seaside Cecil Hotel was the jewel in the crown. From the time he built it in 1929 Metzger lived there, in a private apartment on the first floor, supervising every movement and every employee closely. Within a few years the hotel in the heart of Alexandria Bay had become famous, and turned into one of the most famous meeting places in the Levant. British author Lawrence Durrell, who lived in the city for a few years, commemorated it in his „The Alexandria Quartet.“
One morning in November 1956, however, Albert Metzger was forced to leave. The gallery of famous guests who used to stay at the hotel – from Al Capone, to Josephine Baker, to Winston Churchill – couldn’t help him. Nor could the fact that the battle of El Alamein had been planned on its first floor, at a time when the hotel had served as the headquarters of the British Police. Nor could the fact that Metzger himself had built and created the place ex nihilo.
That morning Metzger went from being a wealthy businessman whom everyone in Alexandria knew, to being persona non grata, an enemy among his fellow Egyptians. In the days following the outbreak of the Sinai Campaign, Egypt had decided on a campaign to punish its Jewish community, which numbered about 50,000 souls. The Jews lost their citizenship, their businesses and bank accounts were confiscated, and they were not allowed to work. The Cecil Hotel, like hundreds of other assets, was taken away by the Egyptian regime for one reason only: Its owners were Jewish.
Overnight Metzger turned from multimillionaire to penniless refugee. Even when he decided to leave the country and try his luck elsewhere, the authorities refused to allow him to take out money, property, jewelry, books or pictures. Only one suitcase full of clothing, weighing 20 kilograms. He left by car accompanied by his family and headed for the Libyan border, leaving behind an entire life that had gone down the drain.
During Metzger’s wanderings he passed through Libya, Italy and England, and in the end settled in Tanzania, where he passed away without ever seeing his hotel again. Today, 50 years after Metzger was expelled from Egypt, his son Chris, his daughter-in-law Patricia and his grandson John are conducting a legal battle to get the hotel back. In 1996 the Egyptian high court ruled in favor of the Metzgers, and said that the hotel – which meanwhile has become part of the Sofitel chain – and the land on which it is built belong to them, as do the revenues that accumulated over the years. But the Egyptian government did not act on the ruling, and only this past June offered a deal to the family: Egypt will recognize the legal decision, but will immediately buy back the hotel. The Metzgers agreed, but discussions of the amount of compensation continue.
„They told me I’d never win,“ says Patricia Metzger, 69, in a phone conversation with Haaretz from Dar es Salaam, „but I’m a very stubborn woman. I wanted to return to Alexandria and run the hotel, but the Egyptians told me ‚Forget it, it’s over.‘ They kept dragging things out, and in the end they offered us very low compensation. They didn’t want to give up the hotel, and that’s why they said that if we didn’t accept their offer, they would bury the matter for a few more years. I cried when I heard the sum they had offered us for this beautiful hotel, but I agreed, because in any case this may be the longest lawsuit in history. All I wanted was justice.“
Back on the agenda
Patricia Metzger’s campaign to achieve justice sheds light on a little-discussed aspect of the Israeli-Arab conflict: In the wake of the War of Independence and the establishment of Israel, two major population movements took place in the Middle East. The one that is frequently mentioned is the Palestinian exodus, but at the same time almost one million Jews were forced to leave Arab countries where they had lived for hundreds of years. According to official Arab statistics, some 850,000 Jews left those countries from 1948 to the beginning of the 1970s, and about 600,000 of them were absorbed in Israel. For the sake of comparison, the United Nations data estimate the original population of Palestinian refugees at 720,000.
Moreover, the property the Jews left behind in Arab countries was much more valuable than the property of the Palestinians: The amount of Jewish-owned land alone is estimated at 100,000 square kilometers – four times the size of Israel.
Before the Annapolis summit and now, prior to the visit to Israel of U.S. President George W. Bush, several Jewish organizations are trying to put this subject back on the world agenda. Prof. Irwin Cotler, a Canadian MP and former justice minister, wrote a detailed opinion in November on behalf of the Justice for Jews from Arab Countries organization, along with its director and another legal expert. It states that discussion of the plight of the Jewish refugees is „[not] intended to argue against the Palestinian right of redress nor intended to diminish the suffering of the Palestinian population … Rather, the point is that the rights to redress of Jewish refugees from Arab countries are at least as compelling as those of the Palestinians.“
An expert on human rights, Cotler points out that the definition of refugee in international law – as a person with „a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion“ – clearly applied to the Jews from Arab countries. Indeed, the international community has already recognized the suffering of these Jews – including in statements by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in the 1950s. In 2000, during the Camp David negotiations, then U.S. president Bill Clinton said that Israel was full of Jews who had lived in Arab countries and immigrated to Israel because they had become refugees in their own countries.
Cotler’s detailed opinion mentions that the Arab world’s refusal to accept the existence of the State of Israel gave rise to a negative attitude and discrimination against the Jews, and even to violence. The 1948 decision by the Arab League in effect determined the policy that Jews would be considered „members of the Jewish minority of Palestine“ – i.e., citizens of an enemy country, Israel. The decision also stipulated freezing Jews‘ bank accounts, imprisonment of Zionists and confiscation of their property. For all these reasons the Jewish population in the Arab countries declined during the first years after Israel’s establishment: in Yemen from 55,000 to 4,000; in Iraq from 135,000 to 6,000; in Aden from 8,000 to 800; in Egypt from 80,000 to 50,000; in Libya from 38,000 to 4,000; and in Syria from 30,000 to 5,000.
In each country the situation was different. Ada Aharoni, a native of Cairo who left with her family in 1949, remembers a happy childhood, but also the swift decline after the Partition Plan of the UN General Assembly in 1947.
Aharoni, 74, is today a professor of sociology in Israel and abroad, and president of the World Congress of Egyptian Jews. Her family used to spend summer vacations at the seashore in Alexandria, where she remembers the luxurious Cecil Hotel. But there were many other rich and important Jews in Egypt – businessmen, writers, journalists, musicians and doctors. For example, the largest and most fashionable department store in Egypt, Cicurel, in Cairo’s European quarter, was owned by Moreno Cicurel. The Jews, who lived in Egypt already in Second Temple times, were considered a major force in the emerging Egyptian nationalism.
„Jews were kings in Egypt when I was a child,“ says Aharoni, „but the atmosphere began to change, mainly after 1948. We began to hear curses in the street. Things we hadn’t heard previously.“ In June, 1948, a bomb exploded in the Karaite quarter of Cairo, and 22 Jews were killed. The following month, after bombing by Israel Air Force planes, Jewish businesses and the synagogue in Cairo were attacked, and 19 Jews were killed. Harsh legislation was also enacted against Jews, and among the victims was the Aharoni (then Yedid) family. Ada’s father, a flour merchant, was told he could no longer keep his job, and the business was transferred to his Muslim deputy. The family’s livelihood disappeared.
Aharoni’s family decided to leave for Israel. The ships, which couldn’t sail directly to Israel, first arrived in Marseille. „Father had deposited all our money in a Swiss bank in Cairo,“ she recalls, „and the first day we arrived in Marseille, we went to the bank. There the branch manager told him that there wasn’t a single cent, because Egypt had confiscated the account.“
The shock caused Aharoni’s father to suffer a heart attack, from which he had difficulty recovering. His elder brother, a judge in the supreme rabbinical court in Cairo, died of cardiac arrest while on the plane to Paris. The grandmother of her best friend refused to leave the land of her fathers, threw herself down the stairs and died on the spot.
The second anti-Jewish wave in Egypt, which took place in 1956, hit the Metzgers. The family had arrived in the 19th century from France, but Albert, and his father, were born in Egypt and spent almost their entire lives there. Only a few years earlier he had received the title „emir,“ because of funds he raised for charitable projects and his status in Egyptian society. But with the outbreak of the Sinai Campaign in October 1956, the situation deteriorated.
Some 1,000 Jews were arrested immediately upon the outbreak of the war, and about 500 places of business were confiscated. In the mosques of Cairo and Alexandria a government order was read calling for Jews to be treated as „enemies.“ Bank accounts were blocked, and Jewish managers and salaried workers were fired. Judges and lawyers were expelled from the professional organization, and Jewish engineers, doctors and teachers were not allowed to work.
Albert’s daughter-in-law, Patricia, whose engagement party was held in the Cecil Hotel in 1955, has returned to Egypt several times in recent years because of the legal proceedings.
„Every time I went there I tried to get even some small part of what used to belong to us,“ she explains. „Albert had a gilded guest book, signed by everyone who ever visited the hotel – everyone who came there for Christmas parties, which were the most famous in the city. Somehow they didn’t find the book. I asked for the collection of clocks that was in Albert’s private apartment. In return they gave me two boxes full of junk.“
What attracted Metzger’s attention during her most recent visits to Egypt was the fact that the newspapers kept calling her the „Jewish woman.“ The Egyptians‘ explanation for the affair, she says, is that everything happened because of the Jews. But to date the Jewish state has not shown much interest in this story, or in the broader destruction of Jewish communities in Arab countries. Various organizations, such as the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries (WOJAC), have approached various Israeli ministries in recent years to draw their attention to the subject, but in vain.
Prof. Aharoni believes that a major mistake is being made. In her opinion, this is not only a matter of doing historical justice to entire communities that were lost, but also a matter of great importance to the present. She discovered that first hand when, a few years ago, she gave a course at the University of Pennsylvania entitled „The Nakba [Arabic for ‚catastrophe‘] of the Jews of Egypt and Arab Countries.“ Over half the 50 students in the class, she recalls, were Arabs from Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Palestinians and Israelis, as well as several Iranians. They all expressed great anger when she presented the subject of the course, and claimed that „nakba“ refers only to the tragic events experienced by the Palestinians in 1948. However, she says, toward the end of the course one of the participants, a Palestinian PhD in sociology, got up and said in amazement: „We checked the data carefully, and the numbers and facts you gave us were in fact correct. I’m surprised that you Jews, who are known to be in telligent, enlightened and smart, haven’t publicized this important and interesting story. How is it that we never heard this story? Why don’t you tell the story of the nakba of the Jews from the Arab countries?“
Aharoni was curious to know why it was so important to him that the story be publicized. „Because it rescues my honor and that of my people,“ he replied. „It makes us Palestinians realize that we’re not the only ones who suffered from the Arab-Israeli conflict. It makes things much easier for us. This information enables us to stand erect and opens opportunities for a sulha [reconciliation]. The condition for a sulha is that the side that causes injustice to the other side has to pay for it. Full reconciliation is reflected in the sulha ceremony where the payment is made. Now I understand that those Jews already paid for the sulha, when they lost all their property and were forced to disperse, just like us Palestinians. The conditions of the sulha have already been fulfilled. If the Israeli government publicizes that, the two nations will be able to progress to a process of true peace. We won’t feel that we are the only underdog, because the Jews from the Arab countries were victims. You also experienced a catastrophe, and the time has come to engage in a sulha and to stop killing one another.“