Jewish community in Cairo : Six women are all that remain

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In 1971, Egyptian daily newspaper Akhbar Al-Youm published a story by journalist Abdel Wahab Mursi about Cairo’s “Jewish Alley,” and how it had changed during successive migrations by Jews from Egypt.

Mursi pointed out that the name is misleading and that this “alley” was in fact an entire neighborhood which, at the time of his report, was home to about 25,000 people. However, only 18 of them were Jewish, all of them elderly or widows.

The rest were Muslims and Copts.

“The Jews who did not sell their property during the time of immigration never allowed others to live in the houses they left,” wrote Mursi.

He also writes about a number of synagogues, including one called Rab Ishmael at 13th Al-Sakkia Street. Another, called Moses Ben Maymon and also known as Hermban, at 15th Dar Mahmoud had collapsed suddenly on the first day of Ramadan in 1970. Other temples mentioned in his story include Al-Torkeya, Al-Istaz, Rab HayiinQabous, Ram Zamra and Al-Yahoud Al-Feda’eya.

The neighborhood known as Jewish Alley was home to about 25,000 people in 1971, only 18 of whom were Jewish. (Photo/Supplied)

Almost 50 years after the story was published, much has changed in Jewish Alley. Most notably, the entire Jewish community in Egypt, led by Magda Shehata Harun, now numbers six women, according to a statement they issued in 2016 following the death of one of their number, Lucy Sawel.

As for the synagogues, all but one – the Adli Temple in Downtown Cairo – have vanished or become derelict ruins.

A picture taken on October 3, 2016 shows a general view of the interior of the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue in Cairo. (Khaled Desouki/AFP)
A picture taken on October 3, 2016 shows a general view of the interior of the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue in Cairo. (Khaled Desouki/AFP)

“Both the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the outbreak of war between Jews and Arabs had a distinctive impact on the role of the Jewish community in Egypt,” said Egyptian historian and writer Mohammed Abul Ghar.

Most of the Jews liquidated their businesses and property and migrated to Europe, America or Israel.”
Egypt was once host to the largest Jewish community in the Arab world.

It was influential and involved in various aspects of Egyptian society.

The president of the Egyptian Jewish Community Magda Shehata Haroun, left, and her mother Marcelle Haroun, right, pose for a picture during an interview at their home in Cairo on February 11, 2017. (Khaled Desouki/AFP)
The president of the Egyptian Jewish Community Magda Shehata Haroun, left, and her mother Marcelle Haroun, right, pose for a picture during an interview at their home in Cairo on February 11, 2017. (Khaled Desouki/AFP)

Although there are no accurate census figures, the Jewish population of the country was estimated to be between 75,000 and 80,000 in 1922, but had fallen to fewer than 100 by 2004.

At its peak, it included Arabic-speaking, Rabbinic and Karaite Jews, along with Sephardic Jews who had come to Egypt after they were expelled from Spain.

In addition, trade flourished after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, attracting Ashkenazi Jews fleeing massacres in Europe. As a result, Egypt became a safe haven for Jews, who congregated in Jewish Alley and established a commercial and cultural elite. It would not last, however.

Illustrative: The president of the Egyptian Jewish Community, Magda Shehata Haroun, talks during an interview with AFP at the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue in Cairo, also known as Temple Ismailia or Adly Synagogue in downtown Cairo on October 3, 2016. (Khaled Desouki/AFP)
Illustrative: The president of the Egyptian Jewish Community, Magda Shehata Haroun, talks during an interview with AFP at the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue in Cairo, also known as Temple Ismailia or Adly Synagogue in downtown Cairo on October 3, 2016. (Khaled Desouki/AFP)

BACKGROUND

After the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Egypt became a safe haven for Jews, who congregated in Jewish Alley and established a commercial and cultural elite.

“During the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser (Egypt’s president from 1954 until 1970), the conflict between Egypt and Israel increased dramatically,” said Abul Ghar.

“From the moment the State of Israel was established and invited Jews from all over the world to immigrate to it, Muslims started burning well-known shops owned by Jews, such as Chicoril and Ads.

“Several Israeli espionage networks, the members of which were Egyptian Jews, were discovered. In the 1980s, after Egypt’s victory in the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war, some attempts to emigrate to Egypt by a few families were made.

However, according to the Egyptian constitution, after someone acquires Israeli nationality he is stripped of Egyptian citizenship and so faces rejection of all applications for emigration.”

In the days when the Jewish community was thriving in Egypt, Abul Ghar said that wealthy Jews monopolized certain fields of commerce, including “Mosa Dubik,” “Marco E’nteibe” and “Jalabaj.” They traded in scrap and toys, while “Mizrahi” and “Mozaki” organized textile auctions in Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra city.

Jewish Alley, meanwhile, was not very hospitable to non-Jews. Hajji Abdul Latif Fawzi, an 82-year-old former assistant secretary at a medical center, said that when he went there one day at the age of 10 he was hit in the eye with a stone that had been thrown at him.

The Jewish residents prevented any outsider from entering their neighborhood except for the few Egyptians who worked with them in workshops and textile shops.
Fawzi said when he entered the alley, he heard someone saying “Joey … Joey.”

This was a word used to describe “someone who is not Jewish” though he did not know this at the time.

Then a group of young men rushed toward him and attacked.
“In the 1950s things began to change gradually in the neighborhood, as Jews started emigrating to Israel,” he added.


“Several Israeli espionage networks, the members of which were Egyptian Jews, were discovered. In the 1980s, after Egypt’s victory in the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war, some attempts to emigrate to Egypt by a few families were made.

However, according to the Egyptian constitution, after someone acquires Israeli nationality he is stripped of Egyptian citizenship and so faces rejection of all applications for emigration.”

In the days when the Jewish community was thriving in Egypt, Abul Ghar said that wealthy Jews monopolized certain fields of commerce, including “Mosa Dubik,” “Marco E’nteibe” and “Jalabaj.”

They traded in scrap and toys, while “Mizrahi” and “Mozaki” organized textile auctions in Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra city.

Jewish Alley, meanwhile, was not very hospitable to non-Jews. Hajji Abdul Latif Fawzi, an 82-year-old former assistant secretary at a medical center, said that when he went there one day at the age of 10 he was hit in the eye with a stone that had been thrown at him.

The Jewish residents prevented any outsider from entering their neighborhood except for the few Egyptians who worked with them in workshops and textile shops.

Fawzi said when he entered the alley, he heard someone saying “Joey … Joey.”

This was a word used to describe “someone who is not Jewish” though he did not know this at the time.

Then a group of young men rushed toward him and attacked.
“In the 1950s things began to change gradually in the neighborhood, as Jews started emigrating to Israel,” he added.


History – The Jewish Community of Cairo

Jews first came to Egypt at the time of the First Temple. A Jewish military settlement existed in the town of Yeb (Elephantine) on the border of the Nile in the 7th century BCE. Following the conquests of Alexander the Great, Jewish settlement in Egypt increased. Many refugees from Eretz Israel came to Egypt during the Ptolemaic period (322 BCE to 30 AD) and at the time of the persecutions of Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

In the first century AD, a million Jews lived in Egypt. During that period, Jews adopted Hellenistic culture and the Bible was translated for the first time into Greek. At that time, the philosopher Philo Judaeus (Philo of Alexandria) was one of the leading figures in the community. In 624, Egypt was occupied by the Moslems. Jews became inferior citizens and were obliged to wear special clothing, but nevertheless continued to hold governmental jobs.

Throughout the 8th and 9th centuries, the Jews of Egypt maintained close contact with the Yeshivot of Babylon and developed a Jewish culture based on Babylonian Talmud and influenced by Arab-Moslem culture. One of the most influential rabbinical figures of that period in Egypt was Rabbi Sa’adiah Ha-Gaon, who was born in Faiyum in Egypt in 892 and lived in Babylon; many Jews from Babylon came to Egypt and established communities, amongst them also a Karaite community.

In 969, the Fatimid rulers conquered Egypt. Under their tolerant rule (969 – 1171), Jews held ministerial positions in the government. Members of the Karaite community also held positions at the courts of rulers.

Approximately 25,000 Jews lived in Egypt in the 12th century, mostly in the town of Fostat (Cairo) and their language was Arabic. The “Nagid” was the head of the community. They excelled in medicine, served at the courts of the rulers and engaged in crafts, especially in the dyeing of textiles, in tanning and in international trade.

In 1171, Egypt was occupied by the Ayyubids. A crisis in the autonomous organisation of the Jewish communities developed, the institution of the “Nagid” was abolished and the Gaons, the heads of the Yeshivot, became the leaders of the communities. Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon (Moses Maimonides) came to Egypt in 1165 and became one of the most important leaders of the Jewish community. When he died, the institution of Nagid was restored for a period of 300 years.

In 1250, the Mamluks occupied Egypt and religious zeal intensified. From 1301on, the discriminatory laws increased, the communities dwindled and at the end of the 15th century less than 500 Jews remained in Egypt.

The Jews who were expelled from Spain began to arrive in 1492 and organized themselves in separate communities from the Mustarabs, the local Jews. In the course of time, the two communities merged together.

Following the Ottoman occupation (1517), the Jewish community grew. Jews became active in the maritime trade with Europe. The organizational structure remained as before, but the “Nagids” (the community leaders) were sent from Turkey. Since the middle of the 16th century, the Jewish finance minister of the Pasha (the Ottoman governor) also headed the Jewish communities.

The settlement of the Spanish exiles brought about a religious and spiritual awakening. One of the notable rabbis was Rabbi Jacob Castro. But in the 17th and 18th centuries ignorance became widespread, the state of health and personal safety declined, and Egypt became the focus of the messianic movement connected with Shabbetai Zevi.

The modern period of Egypt began with the ascent of Mehmet Ali (1805). At that time, European Jews began to be concerned about the fate of the Jewish community of Egypt. In 1840, Sir Moses Montefiore and Adolphe Cremieux came to Egypt heading mission that initiated the opening of the first modern school. Thus, the Jews of Egypt were the first community in the Middle East who offered their children a general education. They were the first Jewish community in the East to eliminate all traditional educational institutions, and had the lowest rate of illiteracy compared to other communities in the East. French became the spoken language of the higher classes.

The position of the Jews improved under the British occupation. In 1898, the community of Egypt numbered 25, 000 Jews, “Italian” and “Ashkenazi” communities were established, and the Karaite community continued to exist. Rich Jews left the ancient quarters and moved to the new suburbs. Jews began to participate in public events. Families of Jewish philanthropists established educational, health and charity institutions in the communities.

The economic flourishing brought prosperity to many Jews who succeeded in industry, banking and commerce, and occupied important positions in social life and governmental circles. Zionist activity in Egypt began in 1897 with the establishment of the “Bar Kokhba” society in Cairo by Marco Baruch. During World War I, the Zionist activity spread with the arrival of many refugees from Eretz Israel. Throughout World War II, Zionist ideology was mainly promoted by Jewish soldiers from Eretz Israel who served in the British army and were stationed in Egypt. Clandestine Zionist activity continued until the mid-50’s.

At the beginning of the 20th century the Jewish community exercised remarkable influence in industry, commerce, culture and the professions. The Arab revolt in Eretz Israel (1936 – 1939) marked the beginning of the deterioration in the situation of the Jews in Egypt and their continued harassment. There were demonstrations against Jews in 1945 and Jewish shops and synagogues were looted. Following the UN decision of the partition of Eretz Israel (November 1947), the Jews of Egypt became hostages of the authorities, their property was confiscated and many were arrested. About half of the 80,000 Jews emigrated to Eretz Israel and in 1956 only about 40,000 people remained. Following the Sinai campaign (1956) many more escaped to Israel. In 1967, only about 2 500 Jews had remained in Egypt. When the Six Day War broke out, all Jewish men were arrested. They were released and expelled from the country only in 1970. In 1996, only some 100 Jews were living in Egypt, in two communities, Cairo and Alexandria.

In Cairo, the 800 year old Ben Ezra Synagogue has been restored and serves as tourist attraction for Jewish visitors from all over the world.   The only functioning synagogue in Cairo today is Shaar Hashamaim, which is maintained by the Israeli diplomatic staff.

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