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.”