A new lawsuit, an old claim

November 7, 2003 Published Work
The Jewish Ledger, November 7, 2003

Egyptians seek compensation for property taken during the Exodus

Several weeks ago, Dr. Nabil Hilmi, the dean of an Egyptian law school, told the Egyptian weekly newspaper, Al-Ahram Al-Arabi that a group of Egyptians living in Switzerland and he were preparing a lawsuit against "all the Jews of the world" for trillions of dollars in compensation for property, including gold and cooking utensils, purportedly stolen by the Jewish people when they left Egypt approximately 3,500 years ago.

In the article, which was translated from Arabic to English and made available by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Dr. Hilmi explained that "[t]he Egyptian Pharoah was surprised one day to discover thousands of Egyptian women crying under the palace balcony, asking for help and complaining that the Jews stole their clothing and jewels, in the greatest collective fraud history has ever known." Dr. Hilmi further claimed that an Egyptian priest said that, by taking the cooking utensils, the Jews sought "to cause a minor problem connected with the needs of everyday life so as to occupy people with these matters and prevent them from pursuing [the Jews] to get back the stolen gold."

Dr. Hilmi intends to rely on the Torah or the Jews' "holy book," which Hilmi claimed is "the same source on which [the Jews] relied when they invaded other people."

Yet, as Rabbi Avi Shafran wrote in the Sept. 3, 2003 edition of the Jewish World Review, Dr. Hilmi's claim is not new. In fact, it is nearly identical to a claim brought by the Egyptians nearly 2,000 years ago to a Roman court headed by Alexander the Great.

Artscroll's Schottenstein Edition of the Gemara, in the tractate of Sanhedrin, page 91A, recounts that "the Egyptians came to contend with the Jews before Alexander the Macedonian. The Egyptians said to him: Behold it says in the Torah of the Jews: and Hashem gave the [Jewish] favor in the eyes of the Egyptians and they lent them gold and silver and other valuables, which the Jews never returned. Thus we claim from the Jews: Give us the gold and silver that you took from us."

Geviha ben Pesisa asked the Rabbis for permission to debate the Egyptians before Alexander. Geviha told the Rabbis that, if he lost the debate, he would tell the Egyptians that they had defeated an "ordinary one." However, if he prevailed, Geviha would tell the Egyptians that "the Torah of Moses our teacher has defeated you." The Rabbis granted permission and the debate ensued.

Geviha asked the Egyptians "from where to do you bring proof that we took gold and silver from you in Egypt? The Egyptians responded "from the Torah." Geviha replied the he would respond by bringing proof only from the Torah. Geviha then said: For it is stated in the Torah: and the stay of the children of Israel that they stayed in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years. Give us, then, the wages for the labor of the 600,000 men that you enslaved in Egypt for 430 years! This sum surely far exceeds anything that we might owe you."

Alexander then demanded that the Egyptians answer Geviha. The Egyptians, however, asked for "three days time to prepare a reply." Alexander granted the request for an extension of time, during which the Egyptians "searched but did not find an adequate answer." The Egyptians then "immediately . . . abandoned their fields, sown as they were, and their vineyards, planted as they were and they fled."

While it is doubtful that any legitimate court would allow Dr. Hilmi to proceed with claims thousands of years old, the Gemara indicates that the claim has already been litigated and abandoned, if not lost altogether. The Gemara also indicates that, by enslaving the Jews for hundreds of years, the Egyptians have "unclean hands" and, therefore, have no right to seek compensation from the Jews for the gold, silver and other property taken by the Jews when they left Egypt.

In any event, time will tell if Dr. Hilmi follows through with the threatened lawsuit or if he abandons his claim as his ancestors did thousands of years ago.

Steven Malech is an attorney in the Hartford office of Wiggin & Dana LLP, where he practices in the areas of antitrust and trade regulation, consumer protection, and other business and complex litigation.