History of the Jews in Egypt

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From biblical slavery, to prosperity, to expulsion in the 1950's, the Egyptian Jews have survived throughout a vivid and event- filled history, unparalleled by their fate in any other nation.

One of the highest points of Jewish existence in Egypt occurred early in history, including the centuries following the invasion of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE. Combined cultural influences between the Jews and Greeks led to the development of a Hellenistic Judaism, much as the Jews later became integrated into Egyptian society and created a type of Arabic- Jewish culture. The Egyptian Jews pursued and excelled in the fine arts, philosophy and literature: Hellenistic culture and religious virtues, and during this period, the Jews prospered, building many synagogues and temples.

Unfortunately, this period did not last long; the onset of the Roman and later Christian influences in Egypt would bring with them a rising anti-Semitic sentiment throughout the second and third centuries CE. The Jews tried to resist, but were overwhelmed; at the same time, the Jewish community itself began to atrophy through emigration and intermarriage.

It was not until the Arab conquest (640 CE) that the Jews began to regain their social and cultural strength. From 640 to the late 900s, Jews owned and ran their own universities, served in the courts, and saw a period of relative economic prosperity. From 969, the Fatimid caliphs ruled Egypt as part of what was known as the Ayyubid empire (969-1250), and the Jews continued to flourish in cultural and political spheres, gaining recognition at court and the right to self-rule.

In 1301, however, the new Mameluke rulers, who formerly had been slaves, began a campaign to identify and exterminate non-Muslims. The Jews, along with others including the Christians and Samaritans, began to flee or were executed until their numbers were diminished to less than 900, a far cry from the estimated 12-20 000 who flourished in the mid- twelfth century.

After 1492, as a result of their forced expulsion from Spain and Portugal, the Sephardim of the Iberian Peninsula began a mass emigration to Egypt. In the ensuing years, many Jews gained high posts in the Ottoman (Turkish) courts which ruled at that time, and the Jewish finance minister was officially regarded as the political leader of the Jews. At the same time, the Jews of North- West Africa began to move into Egypt, and the Jewish community gradually became more complex.

In the meantime, the Turks grew less tolerant of the Jews, and when Egypt tried to break free of Turkish rule, the Jews suffered. Nevertheless, the Jews continued to resist pogroms, persecution and economic containment's, including the heavy taxation enforced by governor Ali Bey during the emancipation, in his attempt to re-establish the old Ayyubid empire in 1768.

Napoleon's influence in Egypt, between 1798 and 1801, led to yet another difficult time for the Jews. While he appeared to support the Jews, much of his activity was, in fact, deleterious to the Jewish community. Once again, heavy taxes and violence emerged, and in particular, Napoleon was responsible for destroying an Alexandrian synagogue. But the retreat of the French brought upon a sudden surge in the overall European population in Egypt, and Jewish numbers began to rise once more. New legislation protected the Jews and gave them new privileged status, tax exemptions, and legal protection as foreign nationals. With these reforms came a new growth in the economic and cultural roles of the Egyptian Jew. Among the most noted Jews of this period was Ya'qub Sanu' (Sanua) , a satirist playwright who achieved prominence until his expulsion in 1878.

The year 1881 brought the British to Egypt and, with them, came an increased tolerance, which helped to raise the Jews to a new level of prosperity. A form of economic and cultural renaissance followed, during which time many elegant homes and temples were built, schools were established, and ultimately, the Jews in Egypt began to surpass the native Egyptian in both education and cultural integrity. By 1917, the numbers of Jews in Egypt had risen to 60 000, most of whom had been deeply affected by European influences. Most had been educated in foreign schools and spoke Arabic only as a second language, and the Jewish community was understood to be entirely distinct from Egyptian or Arabic cultures.

Individual Jews played an important role in Egyptian nationalism. Jewish scholar Murad Beh Farag (1866-1956) was an Egyptian nationalist. His poem, 'My Homeland Egypt, Place of my Birth', expresses loyalty to Egypt, while his book, al-Qudsiyyat (Jerusalemica, 1923), defends the right of the Jews to a State. Farag was also one of the co-authors of Egypt's first Constitution in 1923.

Another famous Egyptian Jew of this period was Yaqub Sanu, who became a patriotic Egyptian nationalist advocating the removal of the British. He edited the nationalist publication Abu Naddara 'Azra from exile. This was one of the first magazines written in Egyptian Arabic, and mostly consisted of satire, poking fun at the British as well as the Monarchy which was a puppet of the British. Another was Henri Curiel, who founded 'The Egyptian Movement for National Liberation' in 1943, an organization that was to form the core of the Egyptian Communist party.

After 1937, anti- Semitic activities in Egypt increased. Suddenly, anti-Semitic violence was no longer considered to be simply a political manoeuvre for the personal gain of the rising political power, but instead was regarded as a symbolic act of retribution. An increase in legislated forms of oppression made it illegal for non- nationals to hold high political, economic or educational posts (geared toward the largely foreign Jewish population) and contributions were "solicited" for the Egyptian army.

In 1947, there were 65 639 Jews in Egypt, who could be categorized into four distinct components by 1951: Arabic- speaking Jews of old Egyptian ancestry, Berber Jews, the Sephardim of Spanish- Portuguese stock, and Ashkenazim, or central and eastern European Jews. At the same time, Egypt was home to the largest body of Karaites, descendants of eighth century Jews who split from the main body of Judaism. These groups varied from each other because of their different cultural and historical pasts, and yet the Jews of Egypt, as a whole, held together as a distinct people.

The many foreign influences, including Jewish immigrants who had come from abroad, resulted naturally in some internal conflicts based on cultural differences and a wide range of religious convictions. Furthermore, the integration of the Jewish people into the commercial and cultural fabric of Egypt took its toll. This resulted in a decrease in the intensity of religious beliefs among the later generations.

From the early - twentieth century until the expulsion of the Jews in 1956, Thousands of Jews had their possessions confiscated and thousands more were arrested. Between November 1956 and September 1957, 21 000 Jews were expelled from Egypt, and by 1960, only 8500 remained. By the end of the Six-Day War in 1967, only 800 Jews were left in Egypt, and in 1980 less than 300 were known to exist in the country which had been the home of generations of Jews for over thirty-two centuries.