Restitution case leads to boycott call

The Bigio family in Egypt circa 1950. From left, Salma Ferial, Josias, Refael, and Bahia Bigio. (Bigio family)

The Bigio family in Egypt circa 1950. From left, Salma Ferial, Josias, Refael, and Bahia Bigio. (Bigio family)

NEW YORK (JTA) – For nearly three decades, Refael Bigio has struggled to recover assets
taken from his family by the Egyptian government as part of the country’s broad
seizure of Jewish-owned property.
Bigio’s grandfather had owned a factory 45 minutes from downtown Cairo in
an area he describes as “prime real estate.” In the 1930s the Coca-Cola Company
rented space from the Bigios for its first bottling operations in Egypt. Later
the Bigios opened a factory that produced bottle caps for the
company.Egypt sequestered the property in 1962 and formed a new company, the El Nasr
Bottling Company, from the merger of Bigio’s company and Coca-Cola’s
Egyptian subsidiary. The Bigios were driven from the country three years later and since 1979 have been trying to recover the property.
In March, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide whether an Egyptian
court is the appropriate venue for Bigio’s lawsuit against Coca-Cola, which has
moved repeatedly to have the case dismissed on jurisdictional grounds.
Jewish refugees from Arab lands have stepped up their efforts in recent
years to document the losses they suffered and to balance the narrative of
Palestinian refugees with international recognition of their histories.
But the Bigio family, which now resides in
Canada, enjoys certain advantages over other Jewish refugees.For one, the
Egyptian government already has decreed that the property should be returned to
the family, though the order was never carried out. Bigio also is pursuing
litigation against an American company that is subject to American law and
vulnerable to American public opinion.
The Bigio case has also benefited from the attention of the Zionist
Organization of America, which is now calling for a boycott of the company.Leonard Getz, a Coca-Cola shareholder and a Philadelphia-based national vice
president of the ZOA, was rebuffed when he moved to allow company shareholders
to consider a proposal on the matter at their upcoming meeting.
“Until the Bigios’ case is justly and fairly resolved, we urge all
Americans and all others of good will to refrain from purchasing any of
Coca-Cola’s products,” ZOA President Morton Klein said. “When asked to name an
American company that participates in and benefits from anti-Semitism, our
answer should be ‘Coke is it.’ ”
Bigio’s efforts to recover his family’s property began in the late 1970s. A lawsuit in
Egyptian courts went nowhere.
But in 1993, Bigio discovered that Coca-Cola, his family’s former client,
was about to purchase a significant stake in El Nasr. Bigio said he approached
Coca-Cola with several proposed settlements, and when that effort proved
unsuccessful, he filed a lawsuit against the company in the United
States.
Bigio’s lawyer, Nathan Lewin of Washington, said the company has
labored intensively to have the case dismissed and to avoid having the facts
discussed in court.
“Coca-Cola has not come up one time in the course of all these years and
said, ‘The reason we don’t owe the Bigios is X,’ ” Lewin told JTA. “They don’t
have a defense. So instead they’ve been saying dismiss the case, try it in
Egypt, but for God’s sake don’t get to the merits of this case.”
Lewin estimates that a judgment against the company could be worth $100
million to $200 million.
Getz’s proposal, submitted in December, condemned the company for violating
its code of conduct by deriving benefit from an anti-Semitic campaign against
the Bigios. The proposal also called for Coca-Cola to compensate the Bigios but
did not specify an amount.
In denying Getz’s request that the proposal be heard at the shareholders
meeting, Coca-Cola argued that it referred to ongoing litigation that as a
matter of company operations should be left to the management.
When Coca-Cola sought to have the case moved to Egypt, the ZOA was asked to
file an amicus brief attesting to the unlikelihood that the Bigios could receive
a fair hearing in an Egyptian court.
“Egypt was the country that took the property from these people in the
first place,” said Susan Tuchman, a lawyer with the ZOA. “Anti-Semitism has been
a longstanding problem in Egypt. It’s still rampant today. The notion that they
would get a fair hearing in an Egyptian court is ridiculous.”
A spokeswoman for Coca-Cola told JTA that Egyptian courts have ruled in
favor of Jewish families who lost property.
Moreover, she said there are outstanding questions regarding Bigio’s claims
that cannot be adequately considered in an American court.
“The company doesn’t know what exactly transpired,” the spokeswoman said.
“There are a ton of questions that have been brought to bear, and we believe
that if the case is addressed in Egypt, the questions can be
answered.”
But Bigio, now 63, says his claims are well documented and if they
are allowed to be heard in an American court, he will surely
prevail.”I have no doubt,” he said. “Because we are the owner of these
assets, and these assets were stolen from us, and you can’t go and buy stolen
assets. All the profits that Coca-Cola is generating out of Egypt, my family, my
mother has a share.”

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