Egypt’s Jews: Shedding light on the history of a forgotten community (I)

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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 I: Shedding light on the history of a forgotten community

In less than a year, the Jewish community in Egypt has lost two prominent figures. Despite their more than 4000 year presence in the country, their scant community is continuing to diminish. In April 2013, the head of the Jewish community, Carmen Weinstein, passed away. Eleven months later in March 2014, the deputy head of the community, Nadia Haroun, died of a heart attack.

Egyptian Alexandria Jewish choir of Rabbin Moshe Cohen at Samuel Menashe synagogue, Alexandria

Currently, approximately 60 Jews are left in Egypt, in the broadest assessment, most of which are elder women. One cannot stop wondering about the logic behind holding off on recording the history of Egyptian Jews, especially at the beginning of the 20th century, despite their rigid adherence to their Egyptian citizenship. This attachment to their citizenship continued even after the establishment of the state of Israel which proudly called itself “a state for all the Jewish people”.

Mourners carry the coffin of Carmen Weinstein

Some Egyptian Jews resolutely refused to leave their homeland and rejected Israel’s unsubstantiated claims regarding themselves as the state for all Jews. Giving credit to this community has not only become a matter of scientifically recording the contributions of an Egyptian community that has its own culture, but certainly a human obligation as well.

The late Nadia Haroun speaking at a ceremony for Egyptian political activists during the 40s and 50s, including her father, Shehata Haroun (photo: YouTube)

We have to bear in mind that their culture never ran counter to their sense of belonging to their homeland, Egypt, to which they harbor no grudges or negative feelings against. Nonetheless, they sometimes suffered from discrimination due to ill-informed policies that linked Judaism to Zionism and the state of Israel without paying attention to the underlying differences between them.

Orthodox Jews sporting traditional garb (photo: Al Arab Al Yawm)

Egyptian Jews in ancient times

Egyptian Jews have existed in Egypt for more than 4000 years. According to Torah scriptures, the number of Jews who came to Egypt during the time of the prophet Joseph was approximately 70 people. But after two centuries (in the 19th century BC) the number increased to 700,000. Although some scholars question the accuracy of the aforementioned numbers, its significance lies in the fact that their community enjoyed – at certain periods – a prosperity that eventually led to this considerable increase. Even after the exodus from Egypt led by the prophet Moses near the end of the 13th century BC, they remained emotionally attached to Egypt due to its spiritual standing as the cradle of revelation for Moses. Despite their historical exodus, some Jews remained in southern Egypt and were considered the offspring of Moses and his Egyptian wife. This Jewish minority did not provoke any issues then until tensions heightened with Egyptians after the second mass immigration of Jews immediately following Alexander the Great’s conquering of Egypt in 332 BC. The Ptolemies employed the Jews in many professions, especially in the police, the army and in tax collection, which at moments led to violent clashes between Jews and their Egyptian counterparts.

An illustration of Moses leading the Jews

Generally speaking, the number of Jewish residents in Egypt remained relatively stable and did not exceed a few thousand before Muslims came to the country in 640 AD. It seemed that their numbers decreased during the Romans’ rule of Egypt due to the severe oppression they suffered. They existed as a minority throughout Roman and Islamic rule. However, their numbers began to increase in the middle of the 19th century until it reached its peak in the middle of the 20th century. In 1947, the Egyptian official census confirmed this fact and revealed that the number of Jews in Egypt exceeded 65,000 people.

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