Egypt Pulse

Egypt's Sephardim explore Jewish roots in quest for Spanish citizenship

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Article Summary
Egypt's minuscule Jewish community has taken advantage of a chance to gain Spanish nationality, though will stay in Egypt if they get it.

Samy Ibrahim, an Egyptian of Jewish descent on his father’s side, had never paid much attention to his family story. It was not until 2015, when he joined the calls to revive Drop of Milk, an association dedicated to the preservation of Egypt’s rich Jewish heritage, that Ibrahim, then 48, became curious about Judaism and its legacy.

Up until that moment, he barely knew that his grandmother’s family was originally from Eastern Europe and that his grandfather, Jack, came from Turkey. His family name, Arie, which means "lion" in Hebrew, had never sparked his curiosity. “This is all we knew,” Ibrahim recounted to Al-Monitor. “Until I started to dig into the family’s history.”

Going through the family archive earlier this year, Ibrahim first found two documents issued by the Spanish Embassy in Cairo at the beginning of the 1930s for the stateless parents of his grandmother, Matilde Goldenberg. The papers that marked his first connection with Spain turned out to be old documents of protection.

During the British Protectorate in Egypt and until the late 30s, the prospects of legal and fiscal privileges reserved to foreign minorities under the Capitulations — a treaty under which one state permits another to exercise extraterritorial jurisdiction over its own nationals within its territory — made it more beneficial for them to seek protection from Western states. The states were largely open to granting it, first in the form of citizenship and then as protégés, since they considered those minorities well placed in Egypt’s society.

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“Being a protégé meant basically that you enjoyed the same rights as a foreign national but without granting you full European nationality,” Michael Laskier, a historian of modern Jewish history in the Middle East and the Maghreb, explained to Al-Monitor.

Most of these privileges were granted by countries in the northern Mediterranean basin and the United Kingdom. Spain was among those countries, though it issued fewer documents of protection than the others. According to a list published in a 1948 Spanish law anticipating the end of the Capitulations in Egypt and Greece the following year, at least 265 Sephardim, meaning originally from the Iberian Peninsula, had been under Spanish protection since Ottoman times. The list, the only one of its kind ever published, shows that 123 of those Sephardim lived in Cairo and the remaining 142 in Alexandria and Port Said. Jews of other origins and those who received protection after 1914 are not listed.

After Ibrahim found the documents of protection of his family, the Spanish authorities in Egypt suggested he apply for Spanish citizenship in accordance with a 2015 law granting citizenship to the “sons of Sepharad," a reference to the descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain in the late 15th century. The window for application closed on Oct. 1.

At first, “it was not in my mind to apply,” said Ibrahim. But he came to think, “If I am defending the Jewish identity, why not seek the origin?” he wondered. “From then on, I started to give real thought to my origins.”

Today, all Jews in Egypt, thought to now number around 10, are of Sephardic origin, Ibrahim said. Historically, the differences of origin, culture, language, religious rites or social status made the Jews of Egypt one of its most diverse minorities, yet Sephardim were always in a clear majority compared with the Ashkenazis and Karaites. The first Sephardim started to arrive in Egypt by the end of the 15th century. But from 1897 to 1907, there was a major wave of immigration during which Ibrahim’s grandfather came from Istanbul.

A source in the Spanish Ministry Foreign Affairs told Al-Monitor that a total of 11 Jews born in Egypt had applied for citizenship. Of them, the Spanish Ministry of Justice confirmed to Al-Monitor that nine retain Egyptian nationality. Yet only Ibrahim, his brother and his father — all of whom applied following Ibrahim’s initiative — still live in Egypt, according to the official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

To meet all the conditions required to obtain Spanish nationality, Ibrahim had to learn the Spanish language and history in Cairo while he was putting the pieces of his familiar story together, especially that of his grandfather’s side, information that was crucial to proving his Spanish ancestry. And it was at that point that "Arie" took on meaning.

“Jews were not very creative with names, and the family name that prevailed would usually refer to the place of origin,” Ibrahim said. “Arie in Hebrew means lion,” he continued, “so tracing back from the tree I understood that Arie came from León [lion in Spanish], a city in the north of Spain.”

Tracing his roots to present-day Spain took Ibrahim eight months, but he is well aware of his good luck.

Following the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Egypt, then a British protectorate, was effectively severed from the Ottoman Empire in a sudden turn that brought, among other consequences, a legal vacuum and a nationality problem for Egypt’s population. This new situation pushed Egypt to begin elaborate legal proposals to define who was Egyptian. The process would take 15 years and eventually become the nationality law of 1929.

During part of this period, from 1914 to 1929, it was especially easy for some of the local minorities to obtain European citizenship or protection, like Ibrahim’s grandmother's family did. But Ibrahim’s grandfather was among the few who opted at that time for Egyptian citizenship.

“This is how my grandfather started to plant the seeds of the family in this country,” Ibrahim said. “A lot of Egyptian Jews were blaming [my grandfather] and treating him like an idiot for choosing to become an Egyptian citizen at a time when this prevented you from benefitting" from the Capitulations, he added.

Yet as the British gradually retreated from the country in favor of the nationalistic Egyptian government, things changed. And by the time the nationality law was finally adopted, panic unfolded. Even if most Jews of Egypt were eligible for the nationality, only around 5.000 got it, out of the 70.000 to 80.000 that were thought to be living in the country. This was mainly because the local authorities started to complicate the process of naturalization for non-Muslim foreigners and minorities, with the exception of Copts.

“After 1929 and the Egyptian nationality law, many Jews realized that they would be in a disadvantageous position if they did not apply for citizenship because they realized that Egypt was slowly marching to become an independent state,” Laskier noted. But by then it was too late. “The great majority was rejected after 1929,” he said.

Afterward, during the convulsive period that unfolded from 1948 to 1973 when most of the Jews of Egypt had to leave the country, Ibrahim’s father decided to stay. Doing so cost him 11 years in prison for being a Communist Jew, but his decision allowed him and his future family to remain in Egypt. It also made it much easier for Ibrahim to find the required documents to submit to the Spanish authorities to prove his Sephardic roots.

“Some would kill to find these documents,” he said. “A lot of Jews who left the country did not have time to take the original documents,” he continued. The Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, which certifies applications, confirmed to Al-Monitor that many families had lost documents or found it very difficult to obtain them, and therefore had to depend on their family names as proof of their Sephardi origins.

Ibrahim is confident that the documents he submitted will be enough to obtain Spanish nationality. And even if he does not plan to move away from Egypt, he feels that obtaining citizenship will close a circle. “This was part of me seeking my origins, this is completing a whole process,” he said. “By discovering your own story you rediscover a whole legacy and rediscover the history of the community.”

“Spain wanted to show tolerance, so why not be part of it,” he went on. “This has been pure luck. Maybe I have been helped by the spirits of Bassatine,” Cairo’s historic Jewish cemetery.

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Marc Espanol is a Catalan journalist based in Cairo. He is interested in minority rights, politics and religion.

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