Meeting with Egypts ambassador frustrates local Jews

In a meeting described by one participant as “one of the more frustrating exchanges I’ve ever participated in,” a contingent of local Jews and Egypt’s ambassador didn’t agree on much.

While admiring Ambassador Nabil Fahmy as a “masterfully skillful” and even “slick” orator, about a dozen local Jews walked away from the meeting in varying degrees of anger over Fahmy’s uncompromising views on Israel and anti-Semitism in Arab and Muslim society. The meeting was held Thursday, Nov. 6 at the San Francisco headquarters of the Jewish Community Federation.

“He is a very well-spoken and bright diplomat who, I think, probably comes off sounding moderate to many audiences. But, in our session with him, I had the feeling that he presented a position that was not moderate, particularly relating to anti-Semitism in the Arab and Muslim world,” said Rabbi Doug Kahn, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Fahmy, in town for a Wednesday, Nov. 5 speech at the World Affairs Council, could not be reached for comment. The S.F.-based Egyptian Consul General Hagar El-Islambouly, who also attended the meeting, did not return phone calls.

Kahn and the others were particularly galled at Fahmy’s defense of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s anti-Semitic ranting, who received a standing ovation at the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and Mohamad’s defense by Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher, who rebuked charges that the Malaysian’s speech was anti-Semiti..

“I think this is the first time since World War II that a head of state has basically called for attacks on Jews. This is a very disturbing development,,” said Jonathan Bernstein, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Fahmy’s “basic response was, you people keep issuing reports and no one pays attention to them anymore because you don’t acknowledge that we’ve made improvements.”

Despite a lack of progress and understanding, Kahn said the meeting was more about listening than spurring change.

“The most important thing is he heard from the representatives of the Jewish community here the depth of our concerns about Egypt,” he said.

Still, Joseph Wahed left angry.

The Egyptian-born Jew, who fled his homeland 51 years ago, asked the ambassador about compensation for Arab Jews expelled from their native countries and Jewish possessions now being held by Egypt’s antiquities department.

“Basically, he told us it was not a good idea to muddy the waters by bringing in this question of Jewish refugees from the Arab world and the issue of compensation. In other words, he rejects us. He thinks that we, the Jews from the Arab world, are irrelevant,” said Wahed.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.