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Out of Egypt

Understanding the revival of interest in the country’s Jewish past

Ofer Nordheimer Nur
April 13, 2020
Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP via Getty Images
Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP via Getty Images

Earlier this year, more than 180 Jews gathered in the port city of Alexandria on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast to celebrate the reopening of the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue. This festive gathering for prayer, singing, and dancing was the largest Jewish event in Egypt since the demise of the community, most of whose members were pressured to leave in the 1950s. The opening of the synagogue, as well as an official ongoing authorization for an Israeli scholar to conduct research in Jewish sites of worship across Egypt, may signal no less than a new chapter in the history of the Jews in Egypt.

The event took place in February under heavy security. The delegation was made up of Jews who were born in Egypt, accompanied by family, now living in Europe, Israel, the United States, and elsewhere. Two rabbis conducted the service, Rabbi Andrew Baker and the son of the last rabbi of the community of Alexandria, Rabbi Yosef Nefussi. The service was attended by the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Jonathan Cohen, and also by former Israeli Ambassador David Govrin. During the service, 12 of the synagogue’s Torah scrolls were taken out and paraded, representing the 12 tribes of Israel.

Levana Zamir, head of the International Association of Jews from Egypt, came to the event along with her daughter, her two grandchildren, and a group of 20 who came from Israel. “To see my grandson,” said Zamir, “carrying the Torah scroll like during Simchat Torah was the most moving moment for me. These scrolls have not seen the light of day for more than 60 years. My grandson Googled how to blow the shofar and wiped his tears after the service. As for me, I saw him and remembered my father.”

Originally built in the 14th century, the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue was damaged during the French invasion of Egypt under Napoleon at the turn of the 18th century. It was rebuilt and reopened in 1850, boasting a massive hall that can accommodate upwards of 700 worshippers, complete with magnificent marble columns and elaborate woodwork. The $4 million renovation was paid by the Egyptian government. And it is a symbol that after decades of amnesia and neglect, Egypt is in a slow and cautious process of rekindling the heritage of its Jewish community.

One only needs to peruse the opening of the amended 2014 Egyptian Constitution: While Article 2 sets Islam as the religion of the state, Arabic as the official language, and Sharia as the principle source of legislation, Article 3 specifies the following: “The principles of the laws of Egyptian Christians and Jews are the main source of laws regulating their personal status, religious affairs, and selection of spiritual leaders.” In a country where only approximately a couple dozen Jews—mainly women—reside, with not even a minyan to speak of, recognizing Judaism as part of the Egyptian body politic is paramount.

This phenomenon is not happening in a vacuum, as the revival of interest in the Jewish past and rediscovery of Jewish memory is currently taking place across the Arab world, where other governments currently allow for showcasing of Jewish heritage sites. Most notably, in the port city of Essaouira on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, Bayt Dakira, the “house of memory,” has been opened in the town’s old medina as part of King Mohammed VI’s ongoing effort to revive the country’s Jewish legacy. In Tunisia, Tourism Minister Renee Trabelsi, who is Jewish, supported the resurrection of Jewish pilgrimage to Ghriba, Africa’s oldest synagogue, on the island of Djerba, visited recently by Tunisia’s prime minister. Even in the old Jewish neighborhood in Beirut, the Maghen Abraham synagogue has been fully restored, albeit with private funds.

One of the signs that this interest is not only coming from above is found in talkbacks in online forums and on social media in Egypt, showing curiosity about the Jews: Who are the Jews? Why did they leave the Arab lands? Where did they go? What happened to them? How are they related to Israel? Facebook groups that are dedicated to the history and culture of the Jews of Egypt are populated by a visible number of young Egyptians, eager to learn about the Jewish past in their country. In 2013, the young Egyptian film director Amir Ramses released his documentary The Jews of Egypt: The End of a Journey. The sensitive film tries to recapture the story of the community that was ejected from the country. At times, it is moving as it interviews a number of Jews who left Egypt in the 1950s and ’60s and now live in France and the U.S., as well as Jews who were communists but decided to convert, marry, and stay in the country. It received a warm reception from young Egyptians, eager to know more.

However, this interest does have a political angle for Egypt’s leaders. One of the country’s main sources of income is tourism; the cultivation of historical heritage sites fits well with this industry. On a diplomatic level, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has cemented international alliances, including with Israel; it is reported that since Donald Trump came to power in 2016, el-Sisi has hosted at least 10 delegations of American Jewish leaders in Cairo, hoping to leverage influence in Washington. El-Sisi is evidently embracing the Egyptian Jews—and their history—as part of its search for Egypt’s place in the world: He is cultivating an image of Egypt tolerant and multicultural.

In Egypt, business people from Israel are, in certain cases, welcome, as they are in the Gulf States, as long as their activities remain discreet and they clearly contribute to the local economy. Tourists are also welcome in a country whose income is heavily based on tourism. Israelis with a public profile, however, are still usually unwelcome in Egypt and will be shunned.

But when it comes to the memory of the Jews in Egypt, we are looking at the most foundational received biblical narrative: How the people of Israel, under the leadership of the patriarch Jacob, left the land of Canaan and went to Egypt to escape famine. How his son Joseph rose to prominence in the court of the pharaohs but after his death the people of Israel fell into servitude—and were then led to liberation by Moses, who declared the belief in one God. While this foundational narrative, widely replicated and admired as a flight to liberation from oppression, is grounded in the book of Exodus and the myth-making Passover Haggadah, it is in the national museum in Cairo where a solid external evidence from the 13th century BCE makes explicit reference to “Israel”: On the Merneptah stele, a stone inscription that describes the triumph of the Egyptian King Merneptah over a number of groups in the land of Canaan, the final line reads: “Israel is laid waste, his seed is not.”

It was to Egypt that Maimonides, the most celebrated Jewish scholar of his day, escaped from persecution in Almohad Spain in the 12th century, and where his fortunes reversed, becoming a physician to Saladin as well as a widely recognized leader of the community of Fustat.

Between the middle of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th, Egypt was a country of immigration, a country rich in business opportunities. Among those immigrants were Jews, coming from the Ottoman Empire, North Africa, and Europe, joining the small local Jewish community of approximately 6,000 Jews. By the interwar period, 75,000 Jews lived in the country, one-third of them in Alexandria, and they were an extremely diverse community, differing by regional origin, rite, language, cultural orientation, and social status. As can be seen by the names on the benches in the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Alexandria, the community was made up of members coming from Ottoman, Spanish, Italian, Ashkenazi, as well as other Arab origin. And these Jews took an extremely visible part in the rise of the Egyptian economy and culture: Yaakob Sanua established the first Arabic theater in Cairo, Togo Mizrahi was one of the pioneers of the Egyptian film industry, Daud Hossni took part in revitalizing and shaping Egyptian music in the first decades of the 20th century, and the list is long in the areas of publishing, sports, education, architecture, and popular culture. How many people know that a full repertoire Yiddish theater operated in Cairo between the turn of the century and the mid-1940s?

While el-Sisi’s Egypt accepts favorably the central role of the Jews in Egypt’s past, as the recent gathering in Alexandria demonstrates, it is still a matter of undecided policy to broach the issue to the Egyptian public and in the Arabic language. His administration still needs to take steps to inform the Egyptian public about the multicultural streak in his political outlook. The turning point will take place when the public sphere will consider discussing favorably the place of the Jews in the Egyptian past. The opening of the synagogue is a perfect example: While it made headlines around the world, the event was little covered by the local media in Egypt, in Arabic.

Ofer Nordheimer Nur teaches History at Tel Aviv University.