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Fate Sealed for Egypt’s Jews

Islamists storm the U.S. embassy and Egypt’s last Jews have no rabbi. Shanah tova from the Muslim Brotherhood.

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Outside of Israel, the Jewish community of Alexandria is perhaps the Mediterranean’s oldest, dating back to Alexander the Great’s founding of the city in 332 B.C. But this year, there may not even be High Holiday services at the city’s last remaining synagogue, Eliahou Hanabi, also known by its street address, Nabi Daniel.

The Egyptian press first reported that government authorities “ordered the cancellation” of this year’s Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur celebrations. But the synagogue’s caretaker, Youssef Gaon, explained that there would be services. “The only difference,” he said, “is a rabbi and cantor who usually lead the services were denied entry to the country.”

Apparently they were not granted visas for security reasons. That shouldn’t come as a surprise: The Muslim Brotherhood-led government is incapable of providing security for anyone—from ordinary Egyptians who have endured a crime wave of epic proportions since Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February 2011 to Americans based in our Cairo embassy, which is currently being mobbed by Islamists. Only a year ago this month, the Israeli embassy was also besieged; its staff was lucky to escape alive.

Given the small size of the city’s permanent Jewish community—according to one Egyptian paper, four men and 18 women, almost all of them between their 70s and 90s—these guests were crucial in order to create a prayer quorum. As the blogger Elder of Ziyon put it: “For the first time in some 2,000 years, Alexandria will not have a minyan.”

But while some see this episode as the end of Jewish life in Egypt, it is in fact the coda to a tragic story of one of what was once a thriving Jewish community in the Middle East—and for the past 50 years has existed primarily as a memorial to the past.

***

Yves Salama, now an IT entrepreneur in New York, was born in Alexandria but left with his family in the middle of the 1967 war. He remembers his bar mitzvah at Nabi Daniel in 1963. “It was a beautiful synagogue, at its height. In 1956, there were maybe six synagogues open in Alexandria, but they were closed one by one, until only Nabi Daniel was left.”

Salama last visited Egypt five years ago to see his Uncle Max, who was the caretaker of the synagogue until his death in 2008. “My understanding,” Salama told me, “is that the celebrations during the High Holidays were largely a result of the Israeli consulate in Alexandria. Otherwise Nabi Daniel is more of a museum.”

The troubles for Alexandria’s Jews began in 1948. With the creation of the state of Israel, and the subsequent Arab-Israeli war, almost a quarter of Egyptian Jewry—around 80,000 people, concentrated mostly in Cairo and Alexandria—fled the country under severe pressure, many of them settling in Israel. After the Free Officers’ Revolution overthrew King Farouk in 1952, the new government made efforts to reach out to the Jewish community. But that posture changed when Gamal Nasser took control. After the 1956 Suez Crisis, Nasser expelled some 25,000 additional Jews. The 7,000 or so Jews who remained after 1967 were subject to arrest and more expulsions, until the community ceased to exist as anything but a relic.

So, who were the Jews that stayed? “I wondered about this for a long time,” said Lucette Lagnado, the author of two celebrated memoirs about her family’s expulsion from Cairo and their subsequent troubles, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit and The Arrogant Years. “The answer is that many of them are women who married Coptic Christians or Muslims and adopted those confessional identities. After their spouses died, they come out as Jews.”

Still, some who stayed didn’t marry out and remained publicly committed to their Judaism. Salama’s Uncle Max, for example, helped restore the Nabi Daniel synagogue, repairing its roof, entrance steps, and cemetery walls. Two things sustained Jewish worship and devotion in Egypt after the forced exodus: the efforts of Israel’s diplomatic corps in Egypt, and, much more important, the Egyptian government’s desire to show Washington that it took the Camp David accords seriously. The fact that Cairo is not offering any accommodations to Egypt’s tiny Jewish community in order to placate Washington this year augurs ill for future relations between Egypt and Israel, the state that absorbed the energies and talents of the Jews that the Arabs once envied and admired, but finally exiled.

Lagnado blames this turn for the worse on the revolution. Ever since the Tahrir Square protests began, Lagnado told me, “I’ve had a horrible knot in my stomach. It was clear quickly that Egypt was going to be led by a Muslim Brotherhood regime.”

Other Egyptians aren’t so sure that there’s been a big change in the public’s attitude toward Jews since current president Mohamed Morsi took power. “We are anti-Semitic; why should the president be less anti-Semitic?” Amr Bargisi, senior partner at the Egyptian Union for Liberal Youth, told me on the phone from Cairo.

Bargisi, a vocal critic of his countrymen’s anti-Semitism, believes that the fundamental issue predates the revolution. “There has long been an effort to efface all traces of Jewish life in Egypt.” He notes, for instance, that even when Mubarak was still in power, the 2010 reopening of the Maimonides synagogue in Cairo was not well received. “When the images hit the Egyptian press they showed that Jewish ceremonies weren’t grim—so Egyptians were unhappy.”

Bargisi’s colleague Samuel Tadros agrees that the mainstream of Egyptian society regarded Jewish rituals with suspicion long before the Brotherhood came to power. “There are two issues that stir the anger of the Egyptian public,” said Tadros, a fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. “The first is that there’s this popular Egyptian conception of what Jews do when they gather for celebrations—they drink, have sex, etc. The second is that Egyptians believe the Jews will use these festivities as a foothold to retake parts of Egypt.”

***

There are good reasons for the Jewish state to miss Mubarak: He was attentive to the sensibilities of his superpower patron, Washington, which meant that he kept the peace with Israel. And while American policymakers did not often feel strongly enough to voice complaints about anti-Semitism to Egypt, when they did, the Mubarak regime walked it back. For instance, in the wake of the hateful 2002 Ramadan television serial Rider Without a Horse, Mubarak’s political adviser Osama el-Baz contributed a three-part series in one of the government’s official newspapers criticizing anti-Semitism.

Still, the Egyptians who lived under Mubarak’s decades-long reign were every bit as anti-Semitic as the electorate that brought Morsi to power. The difference is that Mubarak saw Jewish issues, Jewish artifacts, and synagogues as chips to be used in his bargaining with the United States. But this is the kind of balancing act between Washington, Cairo, and Jerusalem that sustained the peace treaty for more than 30 years. For in the end, it is not fear of Israel that will keep Egypt from waging war, but fear of what the Americans might do.

Morsi apparently doesn’t care about appeasing the Americans in this regard, and it seems that the White House is applying little pressure—even as it plans to provide Egypt with another $1 billion aid package. If the United States blinks when an Egyptian mob scales the walls of its embassy in Cairo on the anniversary of 9/11, there is little chance that the White House is going to stick its neck out for a handful of elderly Jews in Alexandria.

***

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julis123 says:

Good article Lee. Tablet needs more articles about what happened to 800000 of our Jewish brothers and sisters ethnically cleansed from Arab countries.

Jeshurun says:

I often read people lamenting the loss of Jewish communities in Arab countries – but for me it is a good thing that the Jews have all but fled these countries. Arab. even muslim countries are no place for Jews – with their rampant anti-Semitism, dhimmitude, uneducated backward populace, lack of prospects etc etc – the absence of Jews in these cesspits is something to be celebrated.

bartmartin says:

Time to make the Bro illegal in the U.S.Time also to close the U.S embassy in Egypt at least until things become clearer with the government in Egypt.In Libya of course close the embassy permanently and make Libya a terrorist state again.The Mulsims believe in freedom of speech to shout ” kill the infidels ” Jews,Christians,Hindus ,Buddhist and non jihad sharia Muslims.If you make a comment about their chief muhammed or his book they go pyscho in a mafia,nazi way.Instead of defending their chief and sayng” that`s not the way it is.”.. they go beserk..Let`s welcome Netanyahu.,even if Obama doesn`t. As for the prez of Iran.how about a million person march in N.Y to shout ” go back to your bunker nazi and wait until a special bomb gets you !! ” He and his ayatollahs are international criminals aganist the peace and against humianity!

Beatrix17 says:

It
was called a cold peace because Mubarack kept the peace agreement but
made no overtures of friendship to Israel. Sort of like Obama treats
Israel now.

Claude Salem says:

Thank you for devoting your limited space to the last remnants of the Alexandria Jewish community.

My family was “asked to leave” Alexandria in 1957 and we spent a bitter year in Paris as UN protected refugees before coming to New York. I did not return to Egypt until much later in 1979 when, under Sadat, it felt like Egypt had had enough of its puerile obsession with the yahoud ( Israelis , Jews — it’s all the same in their vernacular).
I retuned often after that and have distinct memories of Max and his service maintaining OUR Nebi Daniel synagogue; making sure every new returning visitor felt welcome; making sure they went up to the tabernacle, moving the curtain and opening the cupboard for them to view OUR dozen ancient sefirot –as moving an experience every time as getting to the Kotel for the first time, some say like visiting old friends perhaps for the last time.
It is an absolute outrage that the disappearance of the Egyptian Jewish community was not even worthy of mention in Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo extolling Islam’s religious equanimity . It is equally outrageous that the Egyptian government still considers these torah scrolls to be “Egyptian artifacts” and thus prohibited from export. That is their level of “respect” for the religious books of other religions!
I fear this administration has been wholly unrealistic in expecting reciprocity to our so-called “fair-minded and balanced “approach . With the scent of weakness in the air for the dog packs to sense, the use of velvet gloves may well be waning while bringing much closer the need for kevlar cover.

Claude Salem says:

Incidentally, If I am not mistaken, the rabbi in the accompanying photograph is Rabbi Aaron Angel. He tested my religious knowledge before deeming me fit for a Bar Mitzvah !

PhillipNagle says:

Fortunately the Jews now have somewhere to go. Pity the poor Coptic Christians.

Given the small size of the city’s permanent Jewish community—according to one Egyptian paper, four men and 18 women, almost all of them between their 70s and 90s—these guests were crucial in order to create a prayer quorum. As the blogger Elder of Ziyon put it: “For the first time in some 2,000 years, Alexandria will not have a minyan.”
If the guests were a rabbi and a cantor, 2 men, isn’t 2+4=6, still not a minyan? Could the women be counted? It’s about time.

Really Beatrix? Is that why Obama recently publicly upgraded the security deal with Israel and upped arms payments and supplies? Or did you not get that? Obama is a major friend of Israel.

http://www.whitehouse.gov/advancing-israels-security

Pam Green says:

Whatever OBAMA has SAID should be disbelieved. Are you just naive, or a paid propagandist for the Islamists? From your hostile tone, I assume the latter.

Obama has not upped aid to Israel – quite the contrary. He scaled way back on all forms of aid, most especially military. And we have Obama to thank for the empowerment of the most radical, violent extremists of the Muslim world. It is he who destroyed Libya, funded the terrorists and brought them to power there. It is he who turned his back on Mubarek and allowed the country to be taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood, despite reports of rigged elections.

Pam Green says:

Perhaps, but it is not to be celebrated that they were forced to run for their lives, leaving behind their synagogues to be vandalized by the terrorists, and all their property, businesses and wealth to be expropriated by these fascist Arab regimes. Were the Jews compensated for their losses? Of course not! And yet the Islamist terrorists get billions of American taxpayer money ever year.

Pam Green says:

Agreed. America should close its embassies, declare the Muslim Brotherhood illegal, stop allowing mosques in America to raise money for terrorist organizations, close the loopholes in the sanctions against Iran, etc. And since Obama won’t do these things, we have to let him go.

Scott Tennis says:

Any Jew who remained in Egypt after Nasser had to be suffering from a severe case of masochism.

Umish Katani says:

These article need to be published in the mainstream press. yahoo, google, times WSJ etc. being here on a small jewish paper is not productive… We need the same exposure to the world as the arabs get in the main stream press….How do we get it done.

Umish Katani says:

i dont know.. as far as cesspools yes.. but why do we have to lose who we are becasue of bigots….. we have lost europe,,ie the balkans, poland, germany, bulgaria, hungary..austria..etc, we have lost india, we have lost iran iraq yemen, etc…. we have lost yiddish, ladino and other lingua franca…. Why must we change.. time to change the others… We should be tired of running already

Umish Katani says:

the money to the arabs must stop……. botom line,, that is something we do here by bombarding our cowardly representatives… with forcing them to do what we want or dont support them in the next election…

Umish Katani says:

major… only to garner vote. i m not so sure how good a friend.. but Netanyahu is no angel either.. so it takes two to tango

Umish Katani says:

not the point or at least with their form of the religion….come off it women count inthe states only and in certain places… you know where

Beatrix17 says:

TABLET
9/13/12 FATE SEALED FOR EGYPT MEIR MOSES

Hi
Meir:

I
hope you’re right about Obama. Whoever wins should be friends with
Israel.

The
Iron Dome system was the result of a prior agreement with the Bush
administration.
Demsey,
Obama’s general yelled at Israel for thinking about attacking Iran.
Obama
cut back on training exercises with Israel.
Obama
removed Israel from both the NATO and the Global Counterterrorism
Forum at Turkey’s insistence.
Turkey
is an important country, but Obama’s friendship seems to make him
subordinate to Erdogan. America, once a great power, should be in
charge.
Obama
is the first President since Sadat made his peace offer who can’t
get the Israelis and the Palestinians to even sit down to talk.
Abbas
has called Obama weak. Obama is not popular in other Arab
countries, either..
We
left Iraq with no promises of future realtions. We might as well
have lost the war.
Despite
the propaganda, Israel wants good relations with other Mideastern
countries. Obama can’t facilitate this.

Jeshurun says:

we cannot change others – the current overt worldwide anti-semitism only 70 years after the holocaust proves this irrefutably – Israel exists because of and in spite of this fact. But all is not lost, there are still 1.5 million Jews in Europe, some of whom still speak yiddish…

העבודה הציונית says:

People should not have to flee there countries because of racism. Leaving Arab countries is the bad response, we should be helping them be more like Israel, not less.

Jeshurun says:

Getting Arabs to be like Jews – this is the human equivalent of alchemy. A nice idea but an impossibility.

Jean Naggar says:

My parents were married in the Nebi Daniel synagogue in 1937. My memoir, SIPPING FROM THE NILE, My Exodus from Egypt ( http://amzn.to/AcwYfd) is about the lost world of Jews from Egypt that slides deeper and deeper into oblivion as years go by and the fate and losses of the Jews from Arab lands continues to be ignored by the world at large. See also my website, http://www.jeannaggar.com for other relevant pieces. Thank you to Lee Smith for shining some light on the matter.

confused says:

Was there a point to this post other than to promote your book?

העבודה הציונית says:

Bullshit. That’s said about everything until it’s done. There’s no true reason for people, Jewish or Arab, to languish there. Those societies can be made better.

Jean Naggar says:

Of course there was! I was deeply touched by the piece.
I wanted to offer my thanks to Lee Smith for the piece, and also to alert interested readers to my book and to other pieces about our common experiences leaving Egypt after Suez, in the hope that more exposure might lead to an answer to Umish Katani’s question above, which I wholeheartedly share. I apologize if I offended. At least I used my real name!

Jeshurun says:

good luck with that

Dick Stanley says:

Most of our money to Egypt goes to their military which now uses our tanks and rifles, flies our planes and drops our bombs, not the Russian ones they used to, which is a good thing because when they go to war with Israel next time, we cut off the flow of spare parts and ammunition and they have nothing to fight with. They probably don’t have a lot of either even now since their generals are likely stealing most of the money.

David Gold says:

We as Jews sadly can never trust the muslims they wish us no good and never have

Or it could have been sentimentality for the place that was your home all your life, pride in your 2300 year old community, or patriotism (yes, there were several prominent Egyptian nationalists who were Jewish).

Sunni Cloudy says:

I was born in Egypt to a Muslim family and was brought up to be proud of my Egyptian heritage with its three components of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Call me naive, but I was brought up thinking these are indivisible parts.
I am so sorry the Jews left and I’m so sorry the remaining non-Jewish Egyptians never once thought of the hurt this forcible separation caused Jewish Egypians ( yes to me that’s what they are, before they are Egyptian Jews) and Egypt.
Egypt will only ever be great again when it is whole again. I know, I said call me naive, but I want our Jewish Egyptians back home where they belong.
Best wishes for Rosh Hashanah

Sunni Cloudy says:

I don’t blame your feelings. I too no longer understand my fellow Egyptian Muslims. They scare me. And I’m a Muslim.

Disparishun says:

Yes, but you don’t have the right to determine other people’s identity. It is nice and pleasing for you to incorporate Jews into your Egyptian identity. But we are actually real people with our own feelings and ideas, which will not always correspond to what is nice and pelasing for you.

IShoAintNoPushOver says:

Yiddish is actually flourishing among the Hasidic community where hundreds of thousands of kids are being raised speaking it. There are also families within the Lithuanian Haredi community that speak it, and let us not forget the secular Yiddishists, who are still around, and have a youth movement. Ladino is being preserved mainly in Israel by circles of young Sephardim who speak it with each other and their elders, and have cultural associations, like the Ladino cultural center and theatre in Bat Yam. Another Jewish language, Juhuro-Tat is kept going by the 4,000 Jews of Qirmizi Qesebe, Azerbaijan.

IShoAintNoPushOver says:

They’re not interested.

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Fate Sealed for Egypt’s Jews

Islamists storm the U.S. embassy and Egypt’s last Jews have no rabbi. Shanah tova from the Muslim Brotherhood.

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