Cairo, Egypt - 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. Morsi's office this week disassociated the president from the comments, saying they were 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, are increasingly 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 Morsi – who hails from the Brotherhood – the government has continued cooperation with Israel, upheld the two countries' peace deal and Morsi last month helped mediate a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel.
Some warned that 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 hardline 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.
Speaking on private ONTV, historian Khaled Fahmy suggested taking el-Erian's comments at face value. "I am taking the call seriously. I would like to see it in part as respectable, as addressing morals and high principles." He 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. Estimates say about 65,000 Jews 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 number of heavily guarded synagogues, open only to Jews.
El-Erian, who is also deputy of the Brotherhood's political party, made his comments last week 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. He added in separate comments that the Zionist "project" will end.
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 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," Fadl wrote in the daily al-Shorouk Thursday.
Youssef el-Husseini, a prominent TV presenter known for his liberal views and harsh criticism of Morsi and the Brotherhood, said 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. El-Husseini said that if a liberal 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," 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?"
On Tuesday, Morsi's spokesman said the presidency is not responsible for comments made by el-Erian. "These are his personal opinion," Yasser Ali, the presidential spokesman said.
Mohammed Salmawy, the head of Egypt's Writers Union, called el-Erian's comments "delirium."
"What is this superficial understanding of matters that borders naiveté?" he wrote, saying the problem of Palestinian refugees is not one of "making room" for their return.
"What the Jews who were living in Egypt want is not to return, particularly in the current circumstances. What they want is compensation for their properties" they left behind.
He said el-Erian was recognizing a right of return for Israeli Jews of Arab origin, which he said would allow for a quid-pro-quo forcing Palestinians refugees to drop their demand to return to homes in Israel so that Jews drop demands to return to Arab nations.
"It seems the way to deny the Palestinians the right of return or compensation is to exchange that right for ... the right of the return of Jewish refugees to Arab countries," he wrote Thursday.
The leading member of a former Islamic militant group, Gamaa Islamiya, which is now a political party allied to the Brotherhood, simply said Jews were not welcome back.
Quoted in the Rose el-Youssef newspaper, Tarek el-Zumor said his group will not tolerate their return "except over our dead bodies or after they change their religion and become Muslims."