For 15 years, Egyptian-Jewish businessman Refael Bigio has been battling a goliath corporate adversary, the Coca-Cola Company. Bigio charges that Coke has been profiting from his family’s stolen property just outside Cairo.
The Bigio family’s property was expropriated by Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser in the mid-1960s during one of Egypt’s anti-Jewish purges. Over the course of a decade and a half, the Coca-Cola Company has steadfastly refused to bargain in good faith or to negotiate any fair compensation for the expropriated property, according to Bigio’s lawyers. In the company’s defense, Coke’s attorneys have defended Egypt’s anti-Jewish seizures and even those of Hitler’s Germany as confiscations that “did not violate international law.”
Coca-Cola’s refusal to even place a fair offer on the table, Bigio’s attorneys charge, stands in bitter contrast to hundreds of millions of dollars in profits derived since 1965 from the operations of Coca-Cola Egypt.
Coke’s only defense is that the theft Bigio suffered, for no reason other than he was Jewish, did not violate international law and was perfectly legal.
After 15 years, Bigio believes he is now locked in a mortal struggle, not with a beverage company, not with its powerful million-dollar attorneys, King and Spalding, but with the only man who has the authority to resolve the conflict: Muhtar Kent, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of the Coca-Cola Company.
“The Coca-Cola Company had clearly mistreated our family in a shameless way,” says Bigio from his current home in Montreal. “Today the ultimate responsibility lies on its chairman, Muhtar Kent. Kent needs to look at the acquisition of the El Nasr Bottling Company [ENBC], an entity which gobbled up and was merged with the industrial complex of the Bigio family property in Cairo, two bottling factories – all seized by Nasser for no other reason than we were Jews.”
He adds, “Chairman Kent needs to examine every aspect of the transaction his company undertook years before he ever became chairman. He needs to ask himself: Is it acceptable that in defense against our family’s claim, one of the arguments of the Coca-Cola legal team presented in 1997 is: ‘Seizure of Jewish citizens’ property in Nazi Germany did not violate international law.’ Mr. Kent in his current tenure and in the future will be remembered on how he resolves our case by directing his legal team to pay all due compensation long overdue to our family.”
Bigio’s attorneys, Alyza Lewin and her renowned father, Nathan Lewin, add their own measure of disgust. “It is absolutely appalling,” said Alyza Lewin, “that a company making so much money off Jewish patrons, should state that what Nasser did to the Jews – and what the Nazis did to Jews – was perfectly legal under international law. It is shocking and appalling.”
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Ironically, as Bigio squares off against Kent over Nazi and Egyptian anti-Jewish persecution, the greatest insult may not be to average sensibilities but to the legacy of Kent’s own father, Necdet Kent.
Muhtar Kent is a Turkish Muslim. His father earned distinction as the Turkish Muslim diplomat who courageously placed his own life on the line to save Jews during World War II. The elder Kent was Turkey’s vice consul-general in Nazi-dominated Marseilles, France, between 1941 and 1944. He distributed Turkish citizenship papers to dozens of Turkish Jews living in France to save them from round-ups and deportation that would deliver them to Nazi gas chambers.
One singular act of valor by the elder Kent occurred in Marseilles one night in 1943. Nazis and French police were herding local Turkish Jews into cattle cars. Their final destination would be the gas chambers. When Kent learned of this latest roundup, he raced down to the railroad station at St. Charles. As the Jews were being loaded into the cars, Kent saw an indelible scene that seared his conscience.
“The one single memory of that evening which will never be erased from my mind,” the elder Kent related in a book on Holocaust heroism. “What I saw was incredible: cattle trucks full of people, hundreds of women and children, sobbing and screaming!” His eye was drawn to an “inscription which I saw on one of the wagons: ‘This wagon may be loaded with 20 large beasts and 500 kilograms of hay.’ And in each of these wagons, I saw almost 80 Jews pushed in one on top of another.”