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 stony 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 has always known that its multimillion dollar windfall in Egypt has been and is now being generated by property unlawfully stolen from its Jewish owners by Nasser’s regime in a Nazi-style property seizure. In other words, the company is in possession of stolen property—and knows it. Coke’s only defense is that the theft Bigio suffered, for no reason other that he was Jewish, actually did not violate international law and was perfectly legal. By Coke’s long-standing legal rationale, the property of every Jew in the world could be seized without violating international law.
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. With exasperation, he adds, “Enough with the multiple excuses invented by the Coca-Cola legal team.” Bigio continues, “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, award-winning constitutional attorney Alyza Lewin and her father, Nathan Lewin, add their own measure of disgust. “It is absolutely appalling,” commented 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.”
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. Coca Cola’s chairman Muhtar Kent is a Turkish Muslim. His father earned legendary 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, Necdet, 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 round-up, 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.” Even after the Gestapo commander at the track demanded that Kent leave the area, he refused, insisting the Jews in those cattle cars were Turkish citizens, and therefore protected. When the Gestapo commander defiantly refused to exempt the Jews, Kent and his assistant astonished the Germans by jumping aboard the boxcars. Now there were two Turkish diplomats on a train destined for a death camp.
The Gestapo officer pleaded with Kent to jump off. He would not, even as the locomotive began chugging out of the station. As the death train rumbled down the track, Kent had no idea what his fate would be. When the train stopped at the next station, a group of German officers stepped aboard, approached and apologized. Kent was directed to a Mercedes parked near the track, ready to escort him back to Marseilles. Kent still refused: “I explained [to the German], that more than 80 Turkish citizens had been loaded on to these animal wagons because they were Jews and that I was a representative of a government that rejected such treatment.”
Finally, the flustered Germans unloaded the Jews, thus ending the standoff. The saved Jews wept uncontrollably and lavished Kent with endless hundred-year hugs. Kent remembered, “Those embraces around our necks and hands ... the expressions of gratitude in the eyes of the people we rescued ... the inner peace I felt when I reached my bed towards morning.”
After Necdet Kent retired from a career of valiant diplomatic service, he received Turkey’s Supreme Service Medal. Israel also bestowed a special medal upon Kent, with the inscription: “Saving one life is like saving all the world.” Kent told the assembled audience, “What I have done is what I should have done. I knew I had to act.”
Enter Kent’s son, Muhtar, now chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola. Enter Coke’s corporate attorneys, King and Spalding. To defend against Bigio’s compensation demand, Coke through its attorneys has declared, “Seizure of Jewish citizens’ property in Nazi Germany did not violate international law.” That is, Coke avers that the Nazi regime that its chairman’s father risked his very life to defy was within its legal rights under international law.
How did a beverage company and its well-respected attorneys come to plead Hitler’s case decades after the Nuremberg Trials declared that all Nazi laws, statutes, regulations, and decrees were artifices of a genocidal campaign? The perversion of justice was triggered by the Nazi legacy that infused Egypt in the sixties.
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