Refugee-Turned-Activist Seeks Attention for Plight of Egyptian Jews
NEW YORK—For Levana Vidal Zamir, it was a “good childhood”—until May 14, 1948. At midnight, she recalls, Egyptian officers rampaged through her family’s house and destroyed everything. They denounced her uncle as a “Zionist,” arrested him, and held him in jail for almost two years. The Egyptian government confiscated the family’s business—the largest printing company in Egypt—along with much of the family assets.
“All of a sudden, being a Jew was a crime in Egypt,” Zamir recalls in an interview with JNS.org. “The persecution was rampant—beatings, jail, torture—[and] became regular occurrences.”
Zamir—now a filmmaker and the representative of the current Egyptian Jewish community for Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC)—came to the United Nations in September to bear witness. At the recent JJAC international conference in Jerusalem, she spoke for the more than 80,000 Egyptian Jews forced to flee homes in which they had lived—some, for centuries.
In New York, she was set to represent her community at the first JJAC meeting in the halls of the UN. However, no testimony about Egypt’s Jewish community was presented during the UN program. Zamir says that, only 24 hours prior to the gathering, she had been informed she would not be speaking.
In 2008, U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler D (D-NY) led efforts in the House of Representatives to pass a “bipartisan resolution recognizing the reality of Jewish refugees.” In July 2012, Nadler introduced another bipartisan bill “designed to secure equal treatment of Palestinian and Jewish refugees” and “pair any explicit reference to Palestinian refugees with similar reference to Jewish and other refugee populations.” Florida Congresswoman U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, supported the legislation.
In Israel, legislation promulgated by Member of Knesset Nissim Ze’ev, of the Shas Party, and passed by the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) February 23, 2009, confers “refugee” status on Jews forced to leave Arab countries. The Ze’ev legislation effectively laid the foundation for both the Jerusalem conference and the recent UN meeting.
“The catalyst to action was the 2009 Cairo speech of U.S. President Barack Obama, during which he equated the Holocaust to the Palestinian refugee situation,” says Zamir.
Rep. Nadler said, “It is simply wrong to recognize the rights of Palestinian refugees without recognizing the rights of Jewish refugees…This is, in part, thanks to efforts by the Israeli government, which recently announced plans to hold a national day of recognition of Jewish refugees.”
For 12 years Zamir was called Amarene—meaning moons, in Arabic. (She was named in honor of both of her grandmothers.) In 1950, her name and life were transformed. She became Levana, meaning a singular moon in Hebrew. The child and her family, stripped of all property and under threat, fled a hostile Egypt.
With virtually nothing, the family was finally allowed to leave via ship to France and was sent to a transit camp—Campe de’Arenas—outside of Marseilles. The Vidal-Morresi family arrived in Israel several months later, during one of the coldest winters, and was sent to a marbarah (refugee camp) near Tiberias. Their only shelter from the cold winter rain was a tent. More than a half century later, Levana remembers the December night when the family’s canvas shelter blew away in a blasting rainstorm. Her mother cried every night, she recalls, telling no one but her diary.
It took several years, but the family eventually found a home in Schronat Florintine—the Florentine neighborhood—in Tel Aviv.
“The difference between the Israeli refugee camps and the Palestinian ones is that in Israel we worked, studied, got out, and prospered,” Zamir says. “The Palestinians keep themselves in their camps for four generations, with UNRWA (the United Nation Relief and Works Agency) giving more and more money.”
Married for 56 years with two children, Zamir’s career has taken her from the world of business to a position as director of Israel’s major anti-drug programs—ALSAM “No Drugs”—and to her current work as a filmmaker and social activist.
Zamir held an administrative position at the Office FranÃ§ais d’Exportation de Matériel Aéronautique [French Office for the Export of Aeronautic Material]. She was there in 1968 when the French placed an embargo on 15 mirage jets Israel had purchased. “My French was good, my Hebrew was good, my head was on my shoulders…The French said no… but we got them!” she recalls.
“Nobody knows!” exclaims Zamir. “I don’t know… I was just doing my work for Israel.”
In 1978, her contributions as a volunteer at an early anti-drug program led to her becoming the organization’s director. “Social work is a virus—like being a journalist,” she says. “If you’ve got it, you’ll work 18 hours a day—more—to build something.” Despite her dedication, the work eventually frustrated her. “A drug abuser,” she stressed, “can only be helped if he wants to be. Prevention is far more important.”
At an age when many contemplate retirement, Zamir had a different idea. A third career, in social politics and film production, loomed ahead. For the past 20 years, she has concentrated on the creation of film documentaries focusing on the work of female entrepreneurs. She journeyed to China as part of Israel’s delegation to the 1992 Women’s Conference and subsequently participated in the United Nation’s Nairobi Conference on Women.
“You become who you wish to be,” says the onetime Egyptian refugee. “Today a woman can choose her roll.” She reminds us that in 1985, only 1 percent of managers of major corporations in Israel were women and only one of the country’s top 100 companies was headed by a woman. Change became her mission. “When you want to make a change you have to be an extremist: only then can you make a difference,” she says. “When bras were burned in Nairobi, I understood. Extremism can be good and necessary.”
In the 1960s, Zamir’s father broke his silence on the plight of Egypt’s Jews. He was a founder of the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries (WOJAC) and served as president of the International Association of Jews from Egypt. Through a project sanctioned by Israel’s Ministry of Justice, he gathered testimony from Egyptian Jewish families. When he died, Zamir continued his work, discovering documentation about her family history, tracing its origins from Spain, to Livorno, Italy, Egypt and finally, “home, to Israel.”
WOJAC has been disbanded. JJAC, started 10 years ago, continues much of its work and is funded by an initial grant of $1.5 million.
Zamir has visited Egypt twice in the last 30 years. She is concerned that Egyptians refuse to provide birth or other demographic records about the more than 90,000 Egyptian Jews, because “the Egyptians believe we will use (the information) against them for compensation… With Arabs, if you don’t say what you have against them, they don’t care. For 60 years, the government of Israel said nothing; in more than 30 years of ‘peace,’ there was no call for return of assets—despite inclusion of the obligation to discuss compensation in Paragraph Eight of the [1979 Egypt-Israel peace] treaty.”
“The whole project is a balancing act—a political attempt to stop the Palestinians from pushing the so-called ‘right of return,'” she says.