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Mixed Emotions for Their Old Home

February 17, 2011 By:
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Albert Gabbai celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at the Sha'ar Hashamayim synagogue in Cairo.

On a section of the wall in Rabbi Albert Gabbai's book-lined living room hang images that conjure up moments in the life of Egypt's vanished Jewish community. In one photograph, taken in the early 1940s, a group of men dressed in traditional Ottoman hats hover over a swaddled infant, Gabbai's older brother, following his brit milah.

But don't expect the Society Hill resident to romanticize the past. The longtime rabbi at Congregation Mikveh Israel in Center City doesn't feel much fondness for his birthplace. In 1970, he arrived in the United States at the age of 21 with "$20 in my pocket" -- and he's never gone back since.

Gabbai is one of a small group of local Egyptian Jews, an estimated 50 or 60 at most, with a particular vantage point, along with painful memories, as their native country undergoes a dramatic transition.

The rabbi says he was transfixed by the wave of popular protests that drove President Hosni Mubarak from power after three decades of rule. And he celebrated the grassroots, youth-led movement that eventually toppled an autocrat.

He remembers all too well growing up in a country ruled by such a leader. Living under Gamal Abdel Nasser, the rabbi recalled, was a terrifying experience; he recounted that he couldn't even utter the word "Israel."

When the Egyptian police came to his family's Cairo home after the start of the Six-Day War in 1967, he knew it wasn't a good sign. An officer assured Gabbai that the matter wouldn't take very long. But it did.

He and two older brothers -- who were planning to leave for France -- spent three years in a labor camp. Their release came about after some serious international diplomacy and resulted in his family being forced to leave the country with nothing.

Gabbai said he viscerally understands what it's like to live in a police state, which he said really started with the 1952 revolution in Egypt; but at the same time, he said he instinctually understands how the millions of protesters were yearning for freedom.

"As a Jew, I want everybody in the world to live in freedom and to appreciate all the good things that God has given us. I am against oppression and all that comes with tyranny," said Gabbai, who was born in Cairo in 1949.

But he's also concerned about what the revolution in Egypt could mean for Israel and the 32-year-old peace treaty between the two former foes.

Once Home to Many Jews 
Before the creation of Israel in 1948, Egypt was home to anywhere from 75,000 to 120,000 Jews.

By 1967 -- after a series of wars against Israel and state-sponsored persecution at home that led to a mass exodus, an estimated half of whom went to Israel -- only about 2,500 remained.

Growing up the son of immigrants from Iraq and Italy, Gabbai said he was raised in a French-speaking community that considered itself European and had little interaction with Muslim Arabs.

Penn Valley resident Joyce de Botton recalls a somewhat different experience. She said she had plenty of Arab friends growing up in Alexandria. But when Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, and was attacked by Israel, France and Great Britain, her family feared reprisals against Jews.

During the war, the then-18-year-old married her husband, Claude, and the couple immediately left for the United States. Much of the rest of her family wound up in Brazil.

"The Second World War was 15 years behind us. When Jews are not wanted, you don't wait and see, you get out," she said, adding that losing her whole way of life, and having her community dispersed, felt like a kind of Holocaust.

Yet, despite these strong emotions, de Botton said she was proud of the Egyptian people for bringing about Mubarak's downfall in a peaceful fashion.

"They are wonderful people. The Egyptian Arabs really are a different breed, they have been our friends," she said.

Unlike Gabbai, she and her husband, a developer, have returned to their homeland several times, including a 1983 visit in which they were hosted by Jihan Sadat, wife of slain Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat. (Joyce de Botton had met Jihan Sadat when the latter came to Philadelphia to accept an award on behalf of her late husband.)

De Botton expressed cautious optimism that democracy will ultimately take hold.

"It's not going to be easy," she said. "There are too many groups who are going to fight for it."

For his part, Gabbai was hesitant to predict what kind of government would emerge in Egypt. But no matter what evolves there, he wouldn't visit "even if you give me all the gold on the Earth."

What if a stable democracy emerges?

"Then we'll talk about it," he said. "But going there with a fear of another dictator that can come any second, I'm not interested."

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