The Egyptian government has refused to release archives connected to the Jewish community to the Historical Society of Jews from Egypt, prompting the society to on Wednesday ask the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to intervene.
The historical society's members consist of Jews worldwide whose families have been exiled from Egypt since the 1950s. Nearly half a million Jews originally from Egypt and their descendants live outside the country, the society's president Desire Sakkal told The Jerusalem Post by telephone from New York on Thursday.
In 1948, around 100,000 Jews lived in Egypt, but by 2007 that number had dropped to between 20 and 100.
Another organization, the World Congress of the Jews from Egypt, has been working to recover the property of Jews who were exiled in 1948.
The Historical Society of Jews from Egypt had requested ownership of or access to the books, birth certificates, "civil paper" and 120 holy books belonging to the community, Sakkal said. "It's our history, everything we own going back hundreds and hundreds of years," he said.
However, Egypt has refused to release the documents to the historical society. Sakkal said this was a consequence of the Egyptians' fear of restitution claims.
"Very clearly Egypt is trying to deny our existence. They are afraid that if we can claim that we are Egyptians, that we were born there, then our grandchildren could come there one day and claim everything that they confiscated from us," he said.
The Egyptian Embassy had no comment.
Tensions rose between Egypt and Israel on May 26 when 45 elderly Jews, most of whom were born in Egypt, were forced to cancel their four-day trip to Egypt, as reported by the Post. A media storm in Egypt made the situation too sensitive by portraying the roots tour as a call for restoration of properties.
On May 10, Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosni said during a parliamentary conference that he "would burn Israeli books myself if found in Egyptian libraries."
In response to Hosni's statement, the historical society sent a letter on Wednesday to the UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuuro, as a "last resort," Sakkal said.
The letter asks that the organization "take custody of this 'intangible heritage' of the Jews from Egypt by negotiating with Mr. Hosni on our behalf to photocopy our registers in Egypt and then to hold these copies under UNESCO World Heritage protection."
UNESCO has not yet received the letter and cannot comment, said the spokeswoman for the director-general, Muriel Depierrebourg.
UNESCO has never before received a request to retrieve documents for another country, said Joie Springer from the organization's information society division.