The Last Jews of Cairo
February 13, 2007 11:58 AM   Subscribe

The Last Jews of Cairo As soon as we saw the guns, we knew we’d arrived at the synagogue. Egyptian policemen thronged behind barricades, white uniforms in the dusk, handguns at their hips. Above them, on stairs, Special Forces soldiers in black with red armbands held machine guns as easily as we did point-and-shoot cameras.
posted by MDA38 (34 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
Great essay. Unlike a lot of essays on Islam and Judaism, this one doesn't feel like a partisan screed. Guernica, if people aren't familiar with it, is a really great literary journal.
posted by bhouston at 12:29 PM on February 13, 2007


This is the second essay from Geurnica we've featured as an FFP in the last while, see also Unintelligent Design...
posted by bhouston at 12:30 PM on February 13, 2007


Great FPP

It was very interesting how so many of the congregation were blowing off the service, chatting, just using it as a reason to socialize, until this point:

At the service for Simchat Torah, which we would attend two weeks later, three ancient scrolls were actually taken out of the ark and paraded around the room. For the first time since we’d begun attending services, the congregation displayed a real religious intensity. As each Torah passed by, the old Egyptian Jews grasped it, touched it, and kissed it with so much fervor that the men carrying the scrolls had to pull away.
posted by jason's_planet at 12:35 PM on February 13, 2007


Nice article. I would have liked a bit more sympathy from the writers for the world of the Egyptians. They seemed very focussed on what they expected to find, and unable to really account for what they did find. It's a strange lack of understanding of cultural judaism, as at least one of the authors appears from publication history to be from the US.
posted by OmieWise at 12:42 PM on February 13, 2007


After the foundation of Israel in 1948, all Egyptian Jews became suspect, and the situation of the community became untenable. That year, bombings of Jewish areas killed 70 Jews and wounded nearly 200, while riots claimed many more lives. The Lavon Affair, in which some Egyptian Jews working as Israeli agents attacked Western targets exacerbated a general distrust of the indigenous Jewish communities by other Egyptians. In 1956 Egypt expelled almost 25,000 indigenous Jews and confiscated their property as part of the Sinai campaign, and 1,000 more Jews were imprisoned. On November 23, 1956, a proclamation was issued stating that "all Jews are Zionists and enemies of the state," and it promised that they would be soon expelled. Thousands of Jews left, forced to sign declarations that they were doing so voluntarily, and allowing their property to be confiscated. Foreign observers reported the taking of hostages. After 1967, more confiscations took place.

The result was the almost complete disappearance of the Jewish community in Egypt, only a hundred or so remain. Most Egyptian Jews fled to Israel (35,000), Brazil (15,000), France (10,000), the US (9,000) or Argentina (9,000). Today, anti-Zionism is common in the media, and the Jewish population is minimal -- the last Jewish wedding took place in 1984.
posted by Postroad at 12:43 PM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Great post. It's really sad that the Jews, in achieving their nationalist dream, have set the conditions for the slow demise of isolated communities like these. It's entirely possible that within a generation or two, the only substantial Jewish communities to speak of will be in Israel and America.
posted by SBMike at 12:44 PM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


SBMike writes "the Jews, in achieving their nationalist dream, have set the conditions for the slow demise of isolated communities like these."

The history of Jews in Egypt doesn't at all resemble your remark. The tension between diaspora and Israeli jewish populations is interesting, but there's nothing inherent in "achieving [the] nationalist dream" that leads to the demise of diaspora communities.
posted by OmieWise at 12:48 PM on February 13, 2007


Y'know, I didn't know about any of this kind of stuff until this year. I was in Egypt in May & made some close friends there, and I've kept very in touch with them. During a long conversation about Israel, I let one of my Egyptian friends know that my best friend here is Jewish. He said "Oh, I am not anti-Jewish. I like my Jewish friends. But I am definitely anti-Zion." I asked him to explain and I listened to his takes on the many conflicts Egyptians have with Israel and I could clearly see where his thoughts came from & how his opinions had formed from his environment.

But then he started to tell me about reading "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" (he had absolutely no idea it was a fake, he had been told it was completely fact) and about how the "famous American Jew" Henry Ford believed in it. It felt like he said that because it would probably impress me that it had impressed Henry Ford... that if this famous American Jew had said that Jews were trying to rule the world it was obviously an admission of truth.

I didn't know how to respond, but after a while I finally told him that I REALLY didn't think Henry Ford was a Jew. He said, "But it says here in print that he is." and he read it from the Arabic script to me. So I had to tell him that Henry Ford was the only American that Hitler had a portrait of in his office... he wasn't Jewish and although he was undisputably brilliant in many ways he wasn't necessarily known to be a very nice guy.

He got really quiet, and said, "Really? Are you sure he wasn't Jewish? I mean, it says so in the book. What does it mean when you say the book is fake? How can that be? I have never been told this."

So we ended up having a conversation about how here there's a lot of Anti-Arab propoganda in America, and that if I didn't sift through that to see what's real and what's not I probably wouldn't be such close friends with him. And maybe, since he lives in a place where there's just as much propoganda going in many directions, he should sift through it a little more carefully too.

He's a really brilliant & good-hearted man, he's just immersed in his surroundings... I don't know if he will sift through things more now, but I made him do some serious thinking at least. He tends to be a bit of a rebel so I'm hoping maybe something I said clicked at least a tiny bit. And if something did click, maybe he'll pass it on. I'm bringing said Jewish friend with me to Egypt the next time I go & he will be hanging out with us... so I'm really hoping so. I actually think they'd really adore eachother. Fingers crossed.
posted by miss lynnster at 12:57 PM on February 13, 2007 [6 favorites]


Terrific article.
We had come to the synagogue expecting to find a religious fervor hidden amid a thriving and often hostile Muslim environment. Instead we found little more than a cluster of the elderly, the last of a dying breed—too old and too tired to make any real attempt at a Jewish revival.
In the wake of the past 60 years, we've come to think-- especially about religions in the Middle East-- that fundamentalist, exclusionary, sectarian ideals are the natural way of the world.

But you know, there had been vibrant Jewish communities in the Arab world for centuries, or millenia. Fundamentalism isn't an iron law of human behavior; it's a fact of human nature that happens to be a plague of our time.
posted by ibmcginty at 1:01 PM on February 13, 2007


… but there's nothing inherent in "achieving [the] nationalist dream" that leads to the demise of diaspora communities.

Sure. And the Jewish population in Australia is healthy, confident and subject to minimal persecution. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be any of those things if there was an independent Jewish state centred on Perth which disenfranchised many of the people living on its territory chiefly because they had no claim to jewishness. The history of Jews in Egypt resembles his remark pretty closely.
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 1:02 PM on February 13, 2007


Well, it created internal pressures (Zionist propaganda, the idea that the only true home for the Jews is in Israel, the idea of a Jewish state acting as a protector of Jewish interests worldwide, particularly w.r.t. diaspora communities in danger, and a government that actively encourages emigration from these communities to Israel) as well as external pressures (creating mistrust of indigenous Jews as "Israeli spies", giving an excuse for governments to expel their Jewish citizens, Zionism acting as a lightning rod that attracts harrasment from hostile local populations).

Since the establishment of Israel in 1948, with few exceptions, the net result for small Jewish communities has been that the younger generations move away (by choice, coercion, or outright expulsion). There's definitely a correlation if not a causality.
posted by SBMike at 1:08 PM on February 13, 2007


The tension between diaspora and Israeli jewish populations is interesting, but there's nothing inherent in "achieving [the] nationalist dream" that leads to the demise of diaspora communities.

The connection between the two events is fairly complex but it is there. See Jewish exodus from Arab lands on Wikipedia for more details.
posted by bhouston at 1:13 PM on February 13, 2007


miss lynnster, was he Borat?
posted by matteo at 1:14 PM on February 13, 2007


Damn, I screwed up the Wikipedia link above. The proper link is: Jewish exodus from Arab lands.
posted by bhouston at 1:21 PM on February 13, 2007


Of course there's a relationship, but SBMike's original comment is written in a way that seems to gloss over the fact that Egypt expelled Egyptian Jews. That is the proximate cause of the demise of the Egyptian Jewish community, that's the history behind the demise of that particular diaspora community. Of course the existence of Israel, Israeli policies, expulsion of the Palestinians, all of those things had an effect on whether or not Egypt pursued an anti-Semitic policy of Jewish expulsion, but the community didn't just fade away because Israel came into existence, it faded away because Egypt expelled those who lived there. They didn't deserve it because they wore short skirts, or anything.

But the larger point is even more troubling, because the largest Jewish diaspora communities were wiped out in the Holocaust. Israel was established after that had already happened. So the comment is pretty much only applicable to Arab lands, but is non-sensical even then, as it fails to account for the huge level of tension and fear introduced into the diaspora by the slaughter of six million diaspora Jews just a few years before Israel was established. How are we to know what contributes to the "demise of communities" in the face of the Shoah?

Mostly, though, I was reacting to what I read as a tone in the comment that seemed to suggest that the actual history of anti-Semitic acts fomented by a National government on its citizens had less of an effect on the history of a given community than did the creation by fiat of a Jewish state. Had the community been in such disrepair, Jews would not have needed to be expelled, they would have been gone already. Even the history of the Egyptian Jewish diaspora militates against the comment, as only about half made their way to Israel. It is not some kind of excuse of Israel's policies in the Occupied Territories or elsewhere to acknowledge that the Egyptian Jewish community was destroyed not by Israel's existence (even if it was because of Israel's existence), but by anti-Semitic expulsion on the part of Egypt. To suggest otherwise is a complete misreading of the historical record.
posted by OmieWise at 1:31 PM on February 13, 2007


Here's a related post from a couple years ago about the last Jew in Afganistan. Here's another about the dwindling number of Zoroastrians (and their vultures) in Bombay.
posted by ewagoner at 1:41 PM on February 13, 2007


Why yes, matteo. How insightful of you to figure that out. Yes, my Egyptian friend is indeed Borat. Because that's just what my post needed. More Borat. And the image of my Egyptian friend searching my Jewish friend for her horns upon our arrival at Cairo International. This makes the story seem so much more real & human. Thanks so much for helping it along.

/sarcasm
posted by miss lynnster at 2:09 PM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Ok, looks like I touched a nerve with OmieWise. I went back and read my original post and it was poorly worded. It wasn't my intention to blame Zionism or Israel for the treatment of Egyptian Jews. Obviously they were mistreated by the Egyptian government. I think we're generally in agreement, particularly the part in parenthesees here:

It is not some kind of excuse of Israel's policies in the Occupied Territories or elsewhere to acknowledge that the Egyptian Jewish community was destroyed not by Israel's existence (even if it was
because of Israel's existence), but by anti-Semitic expulsion on the part of Egypt. To suggest otherwise is a complete misreading of the historical record.

My point being that the justice or injustice of Israel's establishment and continued existence is somewhat inconsequential for these communities. There's a perception of gross injustice, which does put pressure on these communities.

I know that these issues are complex and involved and can't be easily boiled down, so I apologize for the over-simplification and subsequent derail. I was more lamenting the fate of these communities than pointing fingers.
posted by SBMike at 2:22 PM on February 13, 2007


I would have liked a bit more sympathy from the writers for the world of the Egyptians. They seemed very focussed on what they expected to find, and unable to really account for what they did find.

I have to agree with OmieWise; I'd call this an interesting article, hardly a "great" or "terrific" one. It whets my appetite for an article (hopefully longer) by someone actually familiar with the community and its history, and the ways in which it resembles other ancient Jewish communities in the Middle East. I'm currently reading Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews by Mark Mazower, and it's fascinating to see how the Jews, a downtrodden minority in most places (and particularly persecuted in Christian Europe), were the dominant force in Salonica, where many moved after they were expelled from Spain. The administration was Ottoman, but Jews dominated the cultural and commercial life of the city, and Jews, Muslims, and Christians celebrated each other's holidays and shared each other's feasts. (Another excellent book on the subject is Leon Sciaky's autobiography Farewell to Salonica.) The world of Levantine Sephardic Jewry is hard for foreigners to grasp, and bears little resemblance to that of Jews in America; anyone who's interested should read Ammiel Alcalay, starting with the brilliant After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture.

Mind you, I'm not knocking the post—I'm glad to have followed the link, I just think people are overreacting to a rather superficial article because it's an interesting topic.
posted by languagehat at 2:46 PM on February 13, 2007


We do agree. The issues are complex and completely wrapped up in the history and subsequent actions of the Israeli government. The nerve was my own issue with the need for nuance (talking about bad American actions in the Middle East does not mean excusing the bombing of the World Trade Center) and care (being frightened of Islamic terrorists does not justify invading all Arab countries) when talking about complex issues in a way that acknowledges history while holding people accountable for their actions. Your clarification makes it clear that you understand my impulse. Cheers.
posted by OmieWise at 2:49 PM on February 13, 2007


Interesting article, although the first paragraph isn't very clear. The Synagogue they mention is always guarded (as are all major holy sites in Cairo), but only the way it is portrayed in the article because of the political situation at the very current time, and the fact that it was a major holiday. I got the impression the Egyptian guards made the authors feel less safe, when in fact they are there for the protection of the site from terrorism.
posted by cell divide at 2:51 PM on February 13, 2007


This is an interesting case involving an Egytptian Jewish family, the Bigio's, who had their Coca-Cola bottling factory confiscated in 1962 and forced to leave the country with $5 in their pockets. Then in 1994, when the Egyptian government was privatizing and selling off state property, Coca-Cola bought the factory. Of course the family wants to be paid, but Coke says it's not their problem, they bought it from the Egyptian government (who stole it from the Bigio family). The case may be the first of many court battles in the United States brought by Jews seeking to recover confiscated property from Arab countries. "At a minimum, a private corporation that acts in concert with a foreign government is liable for violations of international law." We will see what happens, case is still pending.
posted by stbalbach at 3:01 PM on February 13, 2007


stbalbach, that's interesting. There was a lot of that during that era, see this related case that still lingers to this day. Hopefully, someday, things will get untangled.
posted by bhouston at 4:39 PM on February 13, 2007


Well, that’s wonderful. Did Hallmark do the article? Where is the link to the Norman Rockwell painting?
posted by Huplescat at 5:02 PM on February 13, 2007


in Bigio v. Coca-Cola Co., the Second Circuit concluded
“however reprehensible, neither racial or religious discrimination in general nor the discriminatory expropriation of property in particular is . . . an act of universal concern . . . or sufficiently similar to [such] acts” absent commission by state officials or a private party acting under color of state law. The plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that Coca-Cola was complicit in the confiscation of their property by the Egyptian government.
posted by BrotherCaine at 5:11 PM on February 13, 2007


miss lynnster, was he Borat?

Sure he was. In your world, only Americans and Israelis are ignorant.
posted by Krrrlson at 5:45 PM on February 13, 2007


Sure. And the Jewish population in Australia is healthy, confident and subject to minimal persecution. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be any of those things if there was an independent Jewish state centred on Perth which disenfranchised many of the people living on its territory chiefly because they had no claim to jewishness.

Wrong. There's an exclusive & independent Jewish state in St Kilda, Melbourne, and another in Vaucluse, Sydney. And nobody in Australia gives a rat's ass about Perth, anyway. Too bloody far from anything for us to care.

In other matters, I have been to the exact synagogue they mention in the article. It's off to the right as you reach the northern end of Talaat Harb St. Quite freaky: all the barricades & security guards, armed with machine guns. It makes the synagogue feel almost as if it is any other touristic site in Egypt!
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:12 PM on February 13, 2007


Great FPP.

This is one of the tragedies of Zionism: that Jewish communities in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and other Arab states have all but disappeared. Arabs and Jews don't know each other anymore, have little cultural and ECONOMIC interaction, and this only increases the divide between them. The wall being erected around Israel is a tangible manifestation of the cultural wall that has been going up for decades.

None of this end well.
posted by three blind mice at 8:57 PM on February 13, 2007


Actually, considering all that the Jews have had to suffer in the past 2000 years it's no wonder Israel is a nasty little chancre. I wish it weren't so, that the goyim had let the Jews alone in the first place.
posted by davy at 9:18 PM on February 13, 2007


The Jewish population in India dropped down as well after the formation of Israel. Most of them immigrated to Israel.
posted by dhruva at 9:37 PM on February 13, 2007


My grandmother's immediate family left Cairo in the early 20s, after her father argued with the uncle with whom he was in business. In fact, I recently discovered, on seeing the ship manifest, that my 6-year-old grandmother recieved a new name in America, to remove the honorific original name the uncle had requested. The family had spent several middle class generations in Alexandria, and had roots in Odessa and Romania.

Emigrating to America was difficult, requiring passage through France, where they obtained false Russian passports, as the quotas were tight for Egyptians (or perhaps for Egyptian Jews). They settled in Los Angeles, and my sophisticated department store manager great-grandfather ran a used tire yard on Sunset Blvd., before founding a discount shoe store on what is now the El Coyote parking lot.

As far as I can tell, the family was culturally Jewish, but not particularly observant; the article's image of a high holiday as an excuse to socialize did not ring particularly false.

The rest of the family is spread between Israel, France and Brazil. When my grandmother went back to Egypt for a visit in the '70s she was held diplomatic captive for a week after entering Jordan on a visitor's visa on which she noted that she was a Jew. I am too stubborn to visit Israel with her until the Palestinian situation changes, and she refuses to go back to Egypt, so I have no more direct stories to share.
posted by Scram at 11:02 PM on February 13, 2007


miss lynnster, was he Borat?

Sure he was. In your world, only Americans and Israelis are ignorant.


You had better not be talking to me. Because I'm having to refrain myself from being really really pissed off.

And actually, now that I think about it I'm even not getting the insult, even if it was to matteo. Because Borat is supposed to be from Kazakhstan. So how does that show that someone thinks Israelis are ignorant? Especially since Borat is actually an observant Jew?
posted by miss lynnster at 6:58 AM on February 14, 2007


I visited that synagogue the last time I was in Cairo. I was sad to see it empty at the time. I was really hoping to see a vibrant community, like I had seen previously in Morocco.
posted by laz-e-boy at 8:25 AM on February 14, 2007


You had better not be talking to me.

Or else what? And no, I was not talking to you.

And actually, now that I think about it I'm even not getting the insult, even if it was to matteo.

All that matters is that he does, no matter how he might protest.
posted by Krrrlson at 7:44 PM on February 14, 2007


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