Egypt’s Jews – Part II: Identity in a modern era

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Egypt’s Jews: A forgotten community is a TNN special series exploring the historical presence of the Jewish community in Egypt. 

Part II: Identity in a modern era

Recording the history of modern Egypt began with the French military campaign that conquered Egypt in 1798 AD. That very same period also marks the beginning of the modern history of the Egyptian Jews. After the campaign was over, Jewish presence in Egypt became more conspicuous, specifically during Mohamed Ali’s era and his sons’, who introduced important reforms under a pressure imposed by European countries, particularly France and England.

Until 1840 AD, the number of Jewish residents in Egypt was not more than 7,000 people. Their identity at the time was particularly based on their religious precepts, as was the case for many communities before Egypt became a national state founded on citizenship, without sectarian, religious or ethnic discrimination between citizens. This is why many expected that Egypt’s Jews would not play a critical role in Egyptian life then due to religious discrimination and the application of Islamic Sharia. Jews and Christians in Sharia were considered Dhimmis (non-Muslim citizens) and were consequently excluded from assuming high posts. When discrimination against religious minorities was prohibited, large numbers of Jews returned to Egypt between 1880 and 1903, most of them immigrants from Russia, Poland and Romania.

The immigration of Jews from eastern Europe and Russia brought about two apparent effects. The first was a discriminatory phenomenon against Jews based on a cultural-ethnic basis, which occurred for the first time in Egypt’s modern history. According to the presumed logic, the generations of Jews who used to live in Egypt for a long time were called Sephardim (Middle Eastern Jews), while those who came from Europe were called Ashkenazim. The second effect was the fierce competition between Jews and Coptic Christians because both worked in similar professions such as banking, trade and other financial services like the distribution of loans.

For the aforementioned reasons, the relationship between the Sephardim and Ashkenazim Jews was strained to the extent of producing particularly violent clashes between the two. On the other hand, the tension between Egypt’s Jews and Coptic Christians reached the tipping-point resulting in violence due to stringent commercial competition, not to mention the way Coptic Orthodox viewed the Jews as those responsible for killing Christ.

Ethnic and sectarian differences between Egypt’s Jews

Generally speaking, Jews have different opinions regarding the interpretation of the Torah and the validity of its books. They also entertained contradictory views about the stature of rabbis and the way they explain Talmud (rabbis’ interpretations of Torah and Judaic laws). These divergent views inevitably entailed the emergence of different Jewish sects throughout history. For example, the Pharisees, the followers of the rabbi Ezra, who was considered the most important Jewish instructor after Moses, followed different interpretations to Jewish ritual compared to Orthodox strains. Still, they were considered by Coptic Christians as responsible for betraying Christ.

There is also the Sadducees; a sect that was named after Sudduc, the high priest during the era of the prophet Suleiman, and they specifically do not believe in Talmud. Another Jewish sect that does not believe in Talmud is the Karaite, which was founded by Anan Ben David in the 8th century AD. They also do not believe in applying Torah’s laws word for word. Finally, there are the Reformers, a movement founded by Moses Mendelssohn in Germany at the end of the 19th century AD. Mendelssohn’s ideology was affected by the European enlightenment and called for bringing Jewish religious beliefs closer to quotidian life in order to compliment identity with the citizenship state in Europe.

There are other sectarian Jewish movements, but we will focus more on the Karaite and the Reformers. The reason for this is that one crucial aspect of the dispute among Egyptian Jews since the 1920’s was based on the ethnic division between the Ashkenazim and Sephardim. Another aspect that led to this dispute is the sectarian division between the Karaite, who were mostly Jews who lived in Egypt for several generations, and the Rabbinic, who were mostly Ashkenazim who immigrated to Egypt after the middle of the 19th century. The latter predominantly believe that Talmud held the same value as the Torah, and at times considered it even more so important to Jewish identity.

More to come in part III of TNN’s special series Egypt’s Jews: A forgotten community.