MONTREAL — The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) held a protest outside the Coca- Cola Company’s recent annual shareholders’ meeting in Wilmington, Del., calling on the multi-billion dollar company to compensate the Bigio family of Montreal, Egyptian Jewish refugees whose land and factories were expropriated by the Egyptian government during an anti-Semitic campaign in the 1960s.
In 1994, Coke bought a minority interest in the El Nasr Bottling Company (ENBC), the Egyptian firm that took over the Bigios’ seized property. Three years later, the family sued Coke for trespass in federal district court in New York.
“Coca-Cola continues to violate its own code of business conduct,” said Leonard Getz, a national vice-president of ZOA and a Coca-Cola shareholder.
“First the company refuses to acknowledge that it is profiting from stolen property, and now it reneges on its promise to engage in good faith settlement discussions with the Bigios. What will it take for Coke to do the right thing?”
Last year, Getz submitted a shareholder proposal for consideration at Coca-Cola’s annual shareholders’ meeting, proposing that Coca-Cola be required to fairly compensate the Bigios for their loss. He said the company agreed at that time to negotiate with the Bigios.
This year, Getz was outside the shareholders’ meeting, along with several dozen other protesters, displaying signs that read, “Who’s Benefiting from Anti-Semitism? Coke is it!,” “Coke Trespasses on Stolen Jewish Property,” and Christians and Jews United for Justice Ask ‘The Real Thing’ To Do The Right Thing.”
“The ZOA called off a demonstration last year after Coca-Cola promised to discuss settlement terms with the Bigio family. But after several meetings held during the past year, it is now abundantly clear that Coca-Cola has no intention of offering the Bigios a fair settlement,” said ZOA national president Morton Klein.
In the 1960s, the Egyptian regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser expropriated the Bigio family’s land and factories near Cairo without compensating them. The ZOA claims the only reason was that the Bigios were Jewish.
The Bigios had owned the property since the early 1900s. Coca-Cola had leased the land and a factory from the Bigios since the 1940s. The Bigios had a longstanding business relationship with Coca-Cola in Egypt, supplying bottle caps and other products to the company.
The New York federal district court dismissed the Bigios’ case at Coca-Cola’s request, concluding that Egypt was a more appropriate forum to decide their claims. The Bigios appealed, asking the ZOA to submit an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief on their behalf.
The ZOA’s brief showed that the Bigios would not get a fair trial in Egypt because hatred of Jews is deeply ingrained in Egyptian society, and that this hatred is still fostered today, even by the government-sponsored media.
The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the federal district court ruling last year, and decided that the Bigios’ case could proceed in an American court, saying, “It was perfectly reasonable under these circumstances for the plaintiffs to bring their action against Coca-Cola, the only U.S. company involved, in the United States.”
The ZOA has been actively supporting the Bigios’ cause and has called for a boycott of Coca-Cola products until the company makes a fair settlement with the Bigio family.
“Despite its self-image and promise to act with honesty and integrity in all matters, Coca-Cola has been unfairly and immorally benefiting from the campaign of anti-Semitism against the Bigios,” said Susan Tuchman, director of the ZOA’s Centre for Law and Justice.
The Bigios are represented by Washington, D.C., attorneys Nathan and Alyza Lewin, who successfully argued before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that the Bigios were entitled to proceed with their claims in an American court.
Raphael Bigio, 63, speaking on behalf of his family, said he is deeply grateful for the ZOA’s assistance. He hopes that Jews and other “fair-minded” people will stop buying Coke products.
“As Coca-Cola well knows, my family owns these valuable assets in Egypt, and they were stolen from us. You can’t go and buy stolen assets and then reap the benefits. It is only right that my family be compensated because of Coca-Cola’s using and benefiting from my family’s property in Egypt.”
Klein added: “This case is important for several reasons. First, it seeks to right a shameful wrong committed by Coca-Cola. Second, it’s a reminder of the billions of dollars worth of assets, businesses, homes, etc., stolen from Jews in Arab countries.
“And finally, the case is a reminder of the close to one million Jewish refugees who suffered in the Arab and Islamic countries in which they lived. Israel and the Jewish community must demand full and fair compensation for their losses.”
Coke spokesperson Crystal Warwell Walker said the company is not commenting as this is a matter of ongoing litigation.
She reissued an earlier statement, which reads in part: “Prior to submission of the bid for the purchase of the Egyptian bottler by a Coca-Cola Company subsidiary, a due diligence investigation was conducted. The investigation did not reveal any pending claims by the Bigios against ENBC.”