Egyptian Jews: From prosperity to Diaspora

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Monday 7 Jan 2013

Mohamed Abul-Ghar shows how Jews were well integrated into Egyptian society and how things started to change after the 1948 Palestine War

Egyptian Jewish Students during the first half of the 20th Century
Egyptian Jewish Students during the first half of the 20th Century

AlIzdihar Ela AlShitat (Egyptian Jews from the bloom to the Diaspora) by Mohamed Abul-Ghar, Cairo: Dar AlHilal (2004) 249pp.

The recent statement by Muslim Brotherhood leader Essam El-Erian calling for Israelis of Egyptian ancestry to return to Egypt showed a lack of basic historical knowledge and implied a flirtation with the US Congress.

This controversy about Egyptian Jews evokes memories of a book entitled Yahood Masr min AlIzdihar Ela AlShitat (Egyptian Jews from the bloom to the Diaspora) written in 2004 by Mohamed Abul-Ghar, head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party.

The book examines Egyptian Jews from the second half of the 19th century until the 1960s. The writer distinguishes between Sephardic Jews, whom he considers the original Egyptian Jews, from Ashkenazi Jews, who migrated to Egypt from Eastern Europe during the second half of the 19th century.

The writer says the distinction is important because Sephardic Jews were well integrated into Egyptian society, lived in Cairo and other major cities, spoke Arabic fluently and had no problems communicating with Muslims and Copts. In short, Sephardic Jews were part of the Egyptian social fabric.

However, Ashkenazi Jews, who represented 8 per cent of Jews in the country, did not speak Arabic and despised Egyptian society, the author says.

The first Zionist cells in Egypt appeared among Ashkenazi Jews, he adds.

The country's 75,000 Jews held high official positions, like Qattawi Pasha, who was appointed finance minister in 1925, and owned more than a third of the country’s registered companies by 1947, the author says.

Jews were also prominent in arts and culture, helping to establish Egyptian cinema and publishing many cultural magazines.

The 1948 Palestine War changed everything for Egyptian Jews, because the government closed the offices of the Zionist movement in Egypt and arrested many Zionist activists.

Following the 1952 Revolution, tensions towards Egyptian Jews was fading after President Mohammed Naguib visited the country’s Jewish Rabbi and criticised Minister of Islamic Affairs Sheikh Bakouri for describing the Jews in harsh terms.

Yet this did not last long. In 1954 the Egyptian authorities uncovered a Jewish terrorist group which was targeting British and American facilities in order to show Egypt was unable to protect foreigners and minorities. The so-called Lavon Operation had a damaging effect on Egyptian Jews and led many to leave.

In the final chapter, the author asks: Why did Egyptian Jews not go to Israel in 1948 but left in large numbers after 1956?

Abul-Ghar answers this question by highlighting a 1949 law that abolished special business and investment privileges for foreigners. This affected Jews heavily because many of them held dual nationality.

The cancellation of the law, followed by the doubling of taxes and agrarian reform after the 1952 Revolution, caused most Jews to leave the country in an effort to protect their wealth and businesses.

During the writing of the book, Mohammed Abul-Ghar conducted many interviews with Egyptian Jews living in Geneva, Paris and other European capitals, in addition to the few Jews still living in Egypt.

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