Judaism in Egypt

Contributed by Ben Marcus, Harvard Divinity School

Jews have lived in Egypt since the Hellenistic period and over that long history have seen various periods of growth and decline determined in large part by bouts of tolerance and persecution. In the era following the conquest of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE; between the Arab conquest in 640 CE and the rise of the Mamluk rulers in 1301; following their expulsion from Spain and subsequent resettlement in Egypt in 1492 and the Napoleonic conquest in 1798; and then again from the start of British rule in the 1880s through the establishment of Israel and the 1952 Egyptian revolution and its aftermath; the Egyptian Jewish community contributed greatly both to the local economy and to the religious and intellectual life of Jews broadly.

The Jewish community in Egypt has been far from homogeneous. Indigenous Arabic-speaking Rabbanites and the religiously and culturally distinct Karaites (those who reject the validity of the Talmud as a source of Jewish law) formed the core of the community. Many date the establishment of the Sephardic community to the arrival of Maimonides, an extremely influential Spanish Sephardic philosopher and Torah scholar in 1165, and a new influx began after their expulsion from Spain. Ashkenazi Jews did not arrive until the intensification of anti-Semitic persecution in Europe in the 19th century.

Concentrated in Cairo and Alexandria, Jews were often multilingual and multicultural, and their socioeconomic status varied by ethnic division and even city of residence. For example, Jews in Alexandria were typically more cosmopolitan than those in Cairo, and the generally wealthier more established businessmen, bankers, and merchants of the Sephardic community who formed part of the Egyptian cultural elite looked down on the newer and less well-off Ashkenazim and other Jewish communities.

The modern period has seen a dramatic decline in the fortunes of the Jewish community in Egypt starting with large-scale emigration in 1948 following the Arab-Israeli War and the expulsion of Jews from Egypt in 1956-57 during the period of the Suez Crisis and Sinai War. In part due to the nationalist movement—increasingly based on a particular religious and ethnic identity—that accompanied calls for independence from British colonial rule, and in part due to the creation of Israel and the ensuing conflict with Palestinians, Jews were increasingly pushed to the margins of Egyptian society. Various estimates put the number of Jews in Egypt in 1948 at between 65,000 and 80,000, but by 2014 less than one hundred Jews remained, most of whom are elderly women.

While anti-Semitism and particularly popular disapproval of Israel have been widespread since the 1950s, and despite attempts to frame anti-Semitism as protest against Israel, comments, cartoons, and slurs rarely make that distinction. Anti-Semitic speech appears to have worsened since the Arab Spring. Media often accuse Jews of subversion, and the deposed president Morsi seemingly condoned calls to “destroy the Jews and their supporters” despite separately seeking to distinguish between his opposition to certain Israeli policy and his denial of anti-Semitic sentiment.

In April 2013, the widely recognized leader of the Jewish community in Cairo, Carmen Weinstein, died. She had successfully persuaded the government to preserve monuments of Egyptian Jewish history and spoke publicly about the role of Jews in Egypt’s history. She is succeeded by Magda Haroun who has already gained international attention for saying, during an interview with an Egyptian television station, that she has never visited Israel and would not until “Palestinians received all their rights.”

Sources:

Joel Benin, The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry: Culture, Politics, and the Formation of a Modern Diaspora (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

Selma Botman, “Review: The Jews in Modern Egypt, 1914-1952 by Gudrun Kramer,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 23, no. 2 (May 1991): 259–260.

“Egypt 2012 International Religious Freedom Report” (U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor), accessed January 20, 2014.

“History of the Jews in Egypt,” Projet Aladin, (2009), accessed January 22, 2014.

Jacky Hugi, “Jews in Egypt: The Story of a Dying Community,” Al-Monitor, April 2013.

David D. Kirkpatrick, “Carmen Weinstein, Who Led the Jews of Cairo, Dies at 82,” The New York Times, April 14, 2013, accessed January 22, 2014.

Herbert S. Lewis, “Review: The Jews in Modern Egypt, 1914-1952 by Gudrun Kramer,” American Ethnologist 20, no. 1 (February 1993): 204–205.

M.R., “A Dwindling Flock,” The Economist, April 17, 2013, accessed January 22, 2014.

Ilan ben Zion, “Morsi: My Anti-Semitic Statements Were ‘Taken Out of Context,’” The Times of Israel, January 16, 2013.

See also: Egypt, Judaism