Egypt’s Jews, like Iraq’s, constitute one of the oldest branches of the Tribe, the historic remnant of those who returned to the scene of the crime. But since 1948, an actual community has been non-existent, most Jews having been forced from their homes through intimidation, political pressure and general discomfort common in Arab countries after the creation of Israel and particularly the Six Day War.
The “First International Conference of Jews from Egypt” was set to begin a week ago in Cairo. But then the media got stirred up and the five-star hotel that agreed to host the conference pulled out without explanation. No other hotel would sign on.
It’s pretty easy to imagine what happened here. In the same way that American Jews have protested Palestinian Right of Return conferences, I can see, though not appreciate, Egyptians being upset about Jews exiled 60 years ago—like “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit”—wanting to return and visit their old homes and synagogues. The mere presence last year of an Islamic scholar from Hebrew Union College, Reuven Firestone, who happens to be an ordained rabbi, threw the community into a tizzy.
Egypt’s respected Al-Ahram Weekly has the backstory, history and ugly details in this lengthy account:
Official sources in Egypt said that the government had not interfered “directly” with the hotel’s decision, but said that it had been made clear to the hotel that hosting the conference at this juncture might not be advisable.
According to one government official who spoke to the Weekly on condition of anonymity, making security arrangements for the conference would have required a great deal of effort, especially in view of the anti-Israeli sentiments that have come as a result of Israeli aggression against the Palestinians.
The present was also a very “sensitive” time for such a conference, he added, as it would have coincided with the anniversary of the Nakba in 1948 and public frustration over the failure of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. A source at the hotel, who also spoke confidentially to the Weekly, argued that in the light of the “campaign” launched against the conference in the media the hotel “did not want the hassle.”
Last Wednesday, television presenter Amr Adib on his widely viewed talk show Al-Qahira Al-Youm on the Orbit Satellite Channel expressed concern over the intentions behind this conference. Among other things, Adib was particularly critical of the fact that the timing of the trip coincided with the celebration of Israel’s 60th anniversary, which was insensitive to the misery of millions of Palestinian refugees. Adib was also sceptical about the “real intentions” of this group who had “fled Egypt for Israel” in the 1940s and 1950s.
Adib’s remarks prompted wide attention, putting the hotel that was supposed to host the conference in a difficult position. According to the source at the hotel who spoke to the Weekly, the hotel had never intended to host the conference as such, and nor had it been asked to do so by the trip’s organisers.
TAREK HEGGY, a researcher on the history of Egypt’s Jews “from an Egyptian perspective” who is currently finishing a book on the Jews of Egypt and who has been in close contact with some of the organisers and participants in the conference during recurrnet visits to Israel in the past ten years, also lamented the hotel’s ‘decision’.
“I am not opposing it as such,” he said. “But the point is that if the authorities suspected that having this group of people here would be problematic, they should have said that earlier, rather than wait to the eve of their arrival.” Moreover, Heggy added, since Egypt receives dozens of Israelis and other Jews every day as tourists, “why was it difficult to have this group come and pay their respects to Egypt? This was a nostalgia trip. Nothing more and nothing less,” he said.
IN EGYPT TODAY THERE ARE no more than 70 Jews. Mostly consisting of elderly women and no more than two men, the Jewish community of Egypt today perceives itself as “an empty nest with no young members.”
In order for full prayers to take place, especially for a funeral, there must be ten men present. Consequently, the community often invites Jewish members of the Israeli, American and other western embassies to sit for prayers. To help catalogue the information contained in the Jewish cemeteries at Bassatine in Cairo, the community has also called on the help of volunteer students of Hebrew at Egyptian universities.
This meagre presence offers only a tiny glimpse of the multilayered presence Egyptian Jews once had in the country, when they were part and parcel of every echelon of society. Rich Jews, with well- known names like Rolo, Cattawi, Menashe, Suares and Mosseri who are known to have demonstrated patriotism in the face of British colonisation and less well-known ones like Leon Castro, lived in the upscale neighbourhoods of Cairo and Alexandria and contributed to the cultural, economic and political activities of Egypt. Poorer Jews lived among the rest of the economically disadvantaged Egyptian population, while preserving their distinct religious identity.
In his book, Jews but Egyptians published earlier this year, Sulimane al-Hakim pays tribute to the many contributions Egyptian Jews made to the country at the time, particularly to the arts, cinema and press of modern Egypt.
The singer and actress Laila Mourad, for example, a Muslim convert, and Neigumah Ibrahim, who died a Jew, are both praised by the author for their patriotic attachment that bypassed any religious affiliation. On the other hand, Rakiyah Ibrahim, a movie star, is criticised by al-Hakim for “leaving Egypt to join the Israeli diplomatic mission to the UN” in the wake of the establishment of Israel. For al-Hakim the difference in the behaviour of Laila Mourad or Neigumah Ibrahim and Rakiyah Ibrahim was typical of splits within the Egyptian Jewish community upon the establishment of the state of Israel and the beginning of Israel’s wars against Palestinians and Arabs.
“The community of Jews [in Egypt] before 1948 was very complicated; part was Rabbanite and part was Karaite; part was wealthy and prominent, and part was poor and Arabised. And in this community Zionism was present, but only as a very small phenomena,” says historian Joel Beinin, author of The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry, a book that offers a panoramic account of the culture, politics and lives of Egyptian Jews, especially after 1948.