“Everything Was Fine”: Rehabilitating the Jewish Other in Egyptian Historiographical Discourse.

By Katharine Halls
Submitted to Session P4846 (Representations of Jews in Contemporary Arabic Literature, 2017 Annual Meeting
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This paper examines contrasting narratives of the twentieth-century Jewish departure from Egypt and the place of historiography within contemporary formulations of Egyptian national identity. If Egyptian scholarship on Egyptian Jewish history in the post-Camp David period was ‘antagonistic and tendentious’ (Beinin 1998), recent years have witnessed the emergence of a sympathetic revisionist historiography amongst liberal-minded Egyptian intellectuals. Highly nationalistic in tone, it presents the departure of the Jews as a violent and regrettable rupture of an idealised earlier past, instigated by clearly recognisable villains—specifically Islamists and Zionists. Non-Zionist Jews, meanwhile, are redeemed by their patriotism or Egyptian-ness, in a case of ‘exclusionary incorporation’ by which ‘abject beings become subjects, but in a way that preserves and even depends on their position as outsiders’ (Partridge 2008). Professed tolerance towards Jews—which remains abstract in the absence of a significant Jewish population—becomes an index by which Egyptian intellectuals may stake claims to modernity, whilst simultaneously dismissing similar claims by Islamists, and formulate a model of Egyptian identity which explicitly excludes the Muslim Brotherhood. This project has clear strategic significance in the contemporary Egyptian political context, where the vilification of Islamists unites those of disparate political persuasions. The paper concludes by placing this project into dialogue with a number of Jewish narratives of the the 1967-70 period, when Jewish males were arrested, imprisoned and deported—an episode which is conspicuous by its absence from Egyptian accounts. These ambiguous and ambivalent narratives, I argue, directly challenge both nostalgic visions of coexistence and binaristic views of enlightened tolerants and villainous anti-Semites, highlighting a number of historical and ethical points which are elided in nationalist Egyptian historiography.