Jack Cohen – 1917 – The “Copts”
My friend Barry Shaw, who has made a name for himself as an anti-BDS campaigner and author, has written a book entitled simply “1917: From Palestine to the Land of Israel.” He launched this book at the AACI Netanya, and described the story of that crucial year in the Holy Land, focussing on the characters that played a pivotal role in the historic events exactly 100 years ago. Modestly I contributed to the realization of this book by helping him with the computer formatting and I designed the cover of the book.
The people involved in what he describes as “the extraordinary early struggles of Jewish and Christian heroes to establish the State of Israel” represent a great cast of characters: Aaron Aaronsohn, a world-renowned agronomist, who established a research station on the coast at Givat Olga and also headed a spy ring known as the Nili that gave valuable information about the Turks to the British; Gen. Sir Edmund Allenby, C-in-C of British Forces in the Middle East, who apparently followed Aaronsohn’s advice to attack Beersheba instead of Gaza again; Richard Meinertzhagen, a British intelligence Officer and a spy, who apparently managed to trick the Turks into thinking the next attack would come at Gaza instead of Beersheba; Jabotinsky and Trumpeldor, the Zionist leaders who persuaded the British to form the first Jewish armed force in 3,000 years; Then there are of course, Chaim Weizmann, the leader of the Zionists and Arthur Balfour the British FM who formulated the famous eponymous Declaration. And the heroine, Sarah Aaronsohn, Aaron’s sister, who ran the spy ring in his absence and when captured by the Turks and tortured, managed to commit suicide with a hidden gun. What a great and true story!
I happened recently to see again the movie “Lawrence of Arabia” on TV. Also a great story. And Lawrence and Meinertzhagen played roles in the story of Israel’s birth since Lawrence was the representative of the Arabs and Meinertzhagen of the Zionists at the Versailles Conference after WWI. But, frankly the battle of Beersheba was a much more important and pivotal battle than that at Aqaba, yet it is hardly known about. It is known to the Australians and New Zealanders whose Light Horse Infantry crossed the desert (using Aaronsohn’s maps) to attack and capture Beersheba from the Turks (this last mounted charge is reenacted every October by a cadre of Australians). Being outflanked, the Turks withdrew up the coast and that allowed Allenby to capture Jerusalem in 1917, the first British victory of WWI.
Although the movie “Lawrence of Arabia” is justifiably famous, there is a movie about the Battle of Beersheba entitled “The Lighthorsemen,” a 1987 Australian production that is essentially unknown. When one compares the story of Lawrence to that of the Aaronsohns and Meinertzhagen, one wonders why one story was made famous and the other not. Wouldn’t it be great if a truly talented director like Steven Spielberg took this story and made an epic movie out of it. The characters, the spying, the struggles, the battles, it’s a great story waiting for an equally great script writer and director. If anyone reading this knows Steven Spielberg, please tell him!
The Copts are a minority Christian denomination in Egypt, 8-10% of the population. They are Egyptian, in fact they are very authentically Egyptian, tracing their descent prior to the Muslim invasion and conquest of Egypt. It is therefore a cruel irony that the Muslim extremists and many ordinary Muslims seek to oust them completely from what they consider to be part of the Muslim Empire, in which there should be no infidels (Christians, Jews, Hindus, or any non-Muslim). Although the Copts speak Arabic, they use a variant of the original Egyptian language, Coptic, in their religious services and liturgy. In that respect they are more authentically Egyptian than the Arabs, something that irks the Islamists.
Last week there were two serious terrorist attacks against the Copts, their Church in Tanta north of Cairo was bombed, killing 36 and injuring 100, and the same day their Cathedral in Alexandria was bombed by a suicide bomber. Although their Pope Tawadros was present at the time, he was not injured. In that attack 4 were killed and 20 injured. Added to the attack on the Cathedral in Cairo last December, this represents a sustained campaign by IS to kill and intimidate Coptic Christians and to get them to leave Egypt.
Many Copts will take the “hint” and leave, which will add to the flow of refugees from Muslim countries, although these are perhaps the largest population of Christians left in the Middle East. Christians in Syria and Iraq have been decimated during the current wars, and Christians in the Palestinian areas have been forced to leave. Bethlehem which was 80% Christian 25 years ago is now only 20% Christian, and there are very few Christians left in Gaza after the bombing of their Churches. It is surprising that the Christian West does essentially nothing to protect these Christians, as the French used to do in Lebanon.
The plight of the Copts results largely from the inability of Pres. Al-Sisi to manage to control Egypt. The Islamists are constantly carrying out terrorist attacks and he seems unable to use the Army and the police to maintain control. This is largely to be blamed on Pres. Obama who refused to give Al- Sisi support when he needed it against the Muslim Brotherhood, that might have nipped the insurgency in the bud before it became uncontrollable.