Posted on July 21, 2019
commissioned by Haaretz
At first glance, the 92-year-old man sitting in a Parisian apartment and clutching a book to his chest does not look in the least bit like the hero at the center of a tale of a high-stakes escape.
However, this is exactly who Clement Behar was: The unsung savior of Cairo’s Jews, who risked his own life to rescue members of the community from persecution in the 1940s and 1950s.
Forty-six years later, his story is still emerging from obscurity – Behar, formerly known as Chehata, has published a memoir in which he revealed how he helped release scores of Jews from Cairo’s prisons. The self-published oeuvre, titled “A Story of a Life with a Difference,” came out in 2003.
Born in 1925, Behar grew up in the Egyptian capital at a time when the city was a Jewish, Muslim and Christian cosmopolis. Joining his father’s prospering electrical business at 15, he was propelled to Egypt’s elite social circles. As a teen, he saw anti-colonial movements gain more traction shortly after the British Empire granted nominal independence to his homeland in 1922.
His family, much like many other Egyptian Jews, enjoyed financial and social success. But in 1948 matters took a turn for the worse: Israel was established as an independent state after Jewish militants defeated the British Mandate of Palestine. A day later, on May 15, the War of Independence broke out. The young country survived the invasion of five Arab nations which opposed Jews taking over Arab lands. It even gained control over more territories, sparking a deep anti-Jewish sentiment in the region.
At the time, Egypt was home to 80,000 Jews who resided there for three millennia, with some immigrating from Europe since the late 19th century. Despite their stature, the country’s Jews were put in a precarious position over their alleged loyalty to Israel. Many of them perceived themselves as more Egyptian than Jewish, and rejected calls by Egypt’s growing ethnonationalist circle to leave.
The calls quickly escalated into violence. One infamous incident is the Balfour Day riots, which took place in November 1945. They began as anti-Jewish demonstrations on the 28th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, but quickly turned into altercations in which five Egyptian Jews were killed and hundreds were injured. In 1948, the riots worsened. Hundreds were murdered, Jewish synagogues were burned down and Jewish areas in the country were bombed. Many Jews were jailed, often on suspicion that they had spied for Israel.
This is when Behar’s operation was set in motion. “Every day, officers arrested young Jewish people, and their families came to see me and enlist my help,” he wrote in his memoir.
‘Obliged to help the Jews’
In 1953 the Egpytian Republic was born, and gave rise to a national socialist president – Gamal Abdel Nasser. Egypt was finally freed from the British occupation, but the Jewish community only suffered from these developments. The Pan-Arabist movement continued to grow under Nasser, and Jews were seen as an obstacle to its goal: Uniting all Arab nations into a single state. By 1950, 40 percent of Egyptian Jews fled. “I felt morally obliged to help the Jews,” Behar told Haaretz.
He began to do so, using his close friendship with a high-ranking police officer named El Hamichari. Behar negotiated the release of imprisoned Jews through “gifts and bribes.” Dressed neatly and wearing a traditional fez, the young Behar easily entered and left Cairo’s police stations, where he was often mistaken for an officer thanks to his command of Egyptian Arabic.
The Jewish community continued to shrink. 14,000 Jews had escaped to Israel, while others sought refuge in different countries. Egypt’s chief rabbi also became a target. In his memoir, Behar wrote that in 1954 President Nasser sent Rabbi Nahoum Effendi a “poisoned invitation.”
To mobilize anti-Israel sentiment, Effendi was called on to give a speech publicly denouncing the Jewish state. The rabbi “prayed that he would be spared the ordeal,” Behar wrote, but was powerless to decline the invitation.
Behar decided to save the rabbi. He enlisted the help of a daring Jewish hospital manager, Dr. Bensimmon, who prescribed medication for the rabbi as well as “a very strict diet which made him actually unwell.” The national papers reported that Effendi was very ill and could not attend the event. Behar wrote about the chief rabbi’s gratitude. “May God keep you near me to have you by my side in difficult times,” he told Behar.
The prison escape
Behar continued his operations to aid the Jewish community in its plight, but eventually his luck ran out. Egyptian police caught him smuggling money out of the country for the chief rabbi’s son. As he waited for his trial, Behar wrote a letter to his wife Dorette and their four children. He begged them to flee Egypt immediately. After he was sentenced to six years of hard labor behind bars, Behar “decided to escape there and then.”
In his memoir, Behar wrote that he wore civilian clothing prior to his trial. Exploiting his attire and the prison’s shortage of guards, he made his big escape. “I went downstairs, I walked to the prison gates and just walked out of prison,” he recollected.
From there, Behar bolted to a Christian monastery where he sought cover with the help of a monk he befriended when the latter paid visits to the prison. Behar wrote that for 18 months he was on the run. “I shaved my moustache. I work dark glasses and started running in all directions, incognito, to find a way of escape. I would return to the monastery at night,” he wrote.
After close to two years at large, Behar acquired a false Lebanese identity card under the name Sami Refaat Abdul Hadi. His cover story was that he was Muslim businessman. “I knew Arabic perfectly well. No one would have suspected that I was Jewish,” Behar wrote. Later, he was aided by a high-ranking police officer named Captain Said Nached, who sheltered him in his home until he was finally able to board a flight to Damascus.
Longing for Egypt
In 1956, Behar moved on from Syria to Lebanon. He was able to seek shelter there because Beirut and Cairo were political enemies at the time – then-Lebanese President Camille Chamoun, a Christian Maronite, was seriously opposed to Nasser’s Pan Arabism.
As a political refugee, Behar resided in the magisterial mansion of the president’s secretary for several months. He also managed to obtain a Lebanese passport. “After being sheltered in a monastery, I was familiar with all the prayers and Christian traditions. I was very much in need of that in the circle I was mixing in at that time,” he related in the memoir.
Later, Baher was able to secure a visa from Switzerland and made his way to France, where his wife and sons were living. In 1958 he arrived in a northern suburb of Paris as an illegal refugee, where at long last he reunited with his family. “‘They are all here! In the twinkling of an eye, I had forgotten everything: Jail, my walkabout, my nightmares.”
Speaking to Haaretz decades after his fugitive journey ended, Behar teared up when he talked about Egypt. Asked how he felt about his exile from his native land, Behar responded: “I spent at least 25 years locked up inside myself because of leaving Egypt, my roots and identity. It took me that long to accept that I live in Europe.” Despite the many years he spent in France, Behar said that he still felt more “Egyptian and Arab than Jewish.”
Six months after our interview, Behar passed away in October 2017. He did not hear of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s surprising recent overture in which he offered to build synagogues in Egypt should members of the Jewish community choose to return. Behar himself only went back to Egypt once in 1980. In his memoir he wrote of a walk along Cairo’s Jewish quarter, where he found “the synagogue which had fallen to pieces… All I had was a blow to the heart.” He told Haaretz that his feeling was that he “returned as a tourist.”
Writing the memoir helped Behar accept his journey, but he remained ambivalent about his homeland until his death. His is a tale of triumph; it is also a story of bitterness and longing, which linger with may other Jews who were forced to flee their Middle Eastern homes a century ago.