- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 8, 2013

A leading Muslim Brotherhood member and adviser to Islamist President Mohammed Morsi created a stir in Egypt when he called on Egyptian Jews in Israel to return home because Egypt is now a democracy and because the Jewish state won’t survive.

Essam el-Erian’s remarks in a TV appearance put the Brotherhood, which holds power in Egypt, on the spot as opponents — and some allies — jumped on the comments to denounce the group.

Mr. Morsi’s office last week disassociated the president from the comments, saying they were Mr. el-Erian’s personal opinion.

The criticism ran an unusual gamut of Egyptians’ attitudes toward Jews, Israel and the Brotherhood itself.

Some denounced the Brotherhood for trying to put up a veneer of tolerance by inviting Jews to return while Egypt’s other religious minorities, particularly Christians, increasingly are worried about persecution under the new Islamist rulers and an Islamist-slanted constitution.

Others saw the comments as a sort of outreach to Zionists, considered the enemy, and as a new example of how the Brotherhood has had a hard time melding its longtime anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish rhetoric with its new responsibilities since coming to power.

Under Mr. Morsi — who hails from the Brotherhood — the government has continued cooperation with Israel and upheld the two countries’ peace deal. Mr. Morsi in November helped mediate a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist terrorist group that governs the Gaza Strip.

Some warned that Mr. el-Erian was opening the door for Egyptian Jews to demand compensation for property taken from them or left behind in Egypt and could even undermine the Palestinians’ right to return to homes in Israel.

Still others were simply outraged that a Brotherhood official would invite back Jews, and one hard-line Islamist politician threatened any Jews who come back.

And there were a few voices calling for Egypt to sincerely look at past treatment of its Jewish community — including why they left or were expelled — and whether they should have the right to return.

The Jewish diaspora

Speaking on private ONTV, historian Khaled Fahmy suggested taking Mr. el-Erian’s comments at face value.

“I am taking the call seriously,” he said. “I would like to see it in part as respectable, as addressing morals and high principles.”

Mr. Fahmy said Egyptians should talk about the past “harm to Egyptian Jews” and consider them as still having Egyptian nationality. “I wish this was put to a public discussion,” he said.

Egypt’s once-thriving Jewish community largely left Egypt more than 60 years ago amid the hostilities between Egypt and Israel.

An estimated 65,000 Jews have left Egypt since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, most of them to Europe and the West, with a small portion settling in Israel.

Their departure was fueled by rising nationalist sentiment during the Arab-Israeli wars, harassment and some direct expulsions by then-President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, and attacks on Jewish properties, some of them blamed on the Brotherhood, which renounced violence in the 1970s.

Now only a handful of Jews, mostly elderly, remain in Egypt, along with a few heavily guarded synagogues, open only to Jews.

Mr. el-Erian, who is also deputy of the Brotherhood’s political party, made his comments on a late-night talk show on the private station Dream TV.

“I wish our Jews return to our country, so they can make room for the Palestinians to return, and Jews return to their homeland in light of the democracy” evolving in Egypt, he said. “I call on them now. Egypt is more deserving of you.”

“Why stay in a racist entity, an occupation, and be tainted with war crimes that will be punished, all occupation leaders will be punished,” he said, adding that the Zionist “project” will end.

Questions abound

The comments didn’t make much of an impact in Israel, and there was no official comment about them and little discussion of them in the press.

In contrast, they raised widespread ridicule and debate in Egypt on TV shows, newspapers and social websites.

Belal Fadl, a popular Egyptian columnist and satirical writer, said the comments were hypocritical, given other Brotherhood officials’ statements accusing Egypt’s Christians of threatening Mr. Morsi’s legitimacy as president, fueling anger against the minority community.

“How can we believe the tolerance of el-Erian amid all the sectarian statements by leaders of the groups and other sheiks that all seek to chase away Egypt’s Christians in the footsteps of the Jews,” Mr. Fadl wrote in the daily newspaper al-Shorouk.

Youssef el-Husseini, a prominent TV commentator known for his liberal views and harsh criticism of Mr. Morsi and the Brotherhood, said Mr. el-Erian was showing a fake tolerance for Jews to impress Israel and the United States — setting aside the anti-Israel parts of his statement.

Mr. el-Husseini said that, if a liberal had made the comments, he would be branded a traitor and would be accused of inviting Zionists back to Egypt.

“Is el-Erian flirting with the Zionist state to say we are fine and you are friends,” Mr. el-Husseini said on a Sunday-morning talk show. “Or is he flirting with Obama [because of U.S. aid to Egypt]? Is the group taking their political garb bit by bit?”