New Spotlight on Egyptian Jews

The ordeal of the film “Jews of Egypt” has raised many concerns about freedom of expression in Egypt and also revived a debate about the rights of Egyptian Jews.

Gates of Heaven Synagogue, Cairo, May 7, 2013. Maha El-Kady for the Cairo Review.

On April 13, the head of the Jewish community in Cairo, Carmen Weinstein, passed away at the age of eighty-four. One day before her death, she was checking the renovation of a synagogue in the surburb of Maadi, as part of her efforts to preserve the fifteen Jewish synagogues and a cemetery in Cairo. Just a community of around forty people today, Weinstein was trying to prove that some Egyptians are Jews who deserve same rights as their Muslim and Christian counterparts.

In September 2012, the Session Film production Jews of Egypt premiered in the 5th Panorama of European Films in Cairo. The film was scheduled to hit theaters in March 2013. But only a few days before the screening, Egypt’s censorship bureau banned the documentary without giving a reason, despite having previously granted approval for the film’s production and for it to be shown at the international festival. Director Amir Ramsis described the prohibition as a violation of freedom of expression as laid out in the Egyptian constitution and launched a campaign to overturn ban. In March, the censorship bureau called Ramsis and informed him the ban was lifted (again, without explanation), and the film is currently screening in three theaters across Cairo and Alexandria. The ordeal of the Jews of Egypt raised many concerns about freedom of expression in Egypt and also revived a debate about the rights of Egyptian Jews.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many migrants came to Egypt from all over the Mediterranean Basin to benefit from its expanding economy, and the cosmopolitan social life. But the 1950s and 1960s witnessed a state-led mass expulsion of the Egyptian Jewish community, as President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime claimed that many Jews belonged to Israeli spy networks. Jews of Egyptpresents the stories of those who were forced to flee. Joyce Blau, a leftist activist featured in the film, said that intelligence agents detained and interrogated her for days before she was deported to France. Andre Hazzan was tortured in prison as he refused to leave Egypt. He was finally carried into a ship that took him to France. Some Egyptian Jews remained in Egypt, such as Albert Aryeh who converted to Islam in order to marry a Muslim woman. Yet, the regime never let him and his family live in peace.

Although Egypt’s conflict with Israel was a trigger for the community’s expulsion, most Egyptian Jews did not flee to Israel. “They already had an easy and good life,” explained Khaled Fahmy, chair of the history department at the American University in Cairo. “For them, leaving Egypt to go to Palestine made no sense. Many left their money in the custody of Muslim neighbors with the understanding that they will come back and reclaim it.”

Some Jews continued to support anti-colonialism in the Middle East, most notably Henri Curiel, founder of the Communist Democratic Movement for National Liberation, who offered Tharwat Okasha (then Egyptian ambassador to Rome) important intelligence in advance of 1956 Suez Crisis—the invasion of Egypt by Israel, Britain and France. Yet, Nasser ignored Okasha’s counsel to re-instate Curiel’s Egyptian citizenship, and authorities continued to expel the Jewish community. The backlash over the 1956 war was worse than the establishment of the State of Israel’s in 1948. The backlash can be explained by nationalist fervor as well as by anti-Semitism. “What Nasser did only seem to be a result of 1956. But it also comes in the heels of Egyptianization, nationalism, anti-colonialism, etc.,” said Fahmy.

In December 2012, Essam El-Erian, vice chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), stirred controversy in Egypt by calling on Egyptian Jews to return to Egypt and for Palestinians to be allowed to return to their homeland as well. He stated that Egyptian Jews were unjustly expelled, deprived of their homes, had their properties confiscated, and thus should be compensated. President Mohammed Morsi’s office distanced itself from El-Erian’s statements; the furor is believed to be a reason that El-Erian later resigned his position as presidential advisor.

The fate of Egyptian Jews is a subject of hot debate among rights activists and intellectuals, not so much the question of providing them justice but how Egypt became an intolerant society. Could such a tragedy, some Egyptians are asking, be repeated with the community of Coptic Christians. To some, the answer is yes.

“What Abdel Nasser did to Jews of Egypt will happen to the Christians of Egypt,” said an audience member after watching Jews of Egypt. “We turned into a discriminatory society. People don’t even clap for the film because it’s about the Jews.” Director Amir Ramsis explained that the film is not only about the Jewish community, but also the absence of tolerance in democratic Egypt. “Let’s be realistic, the first generation of Egyptian Jews is almost disappearing,” he said. “Returning them or their descendants to Egypt can hardly be seen as practical steps. We just need to read history in order to avoid similar tragedies in our future.”

Yet Fahmy said that the challenges facing the Coptic community are not comparable to what happened to Egyptian Jews. “It’s a much larger percentage who can’t be expelled except by a huge amount of blood, and I don’t think anyone in Egypt is ready for that,” he said. “The bigger fear is not about the targeting of a specific group but rather the sharp increase of tension along religious lines.”

In 1945, the prominent Egyptian comedian Naguib El-Rehany presented the play “Hassan, Marcos, and Cohen,” about three business partners—a Muslim, a Christian, and a Jew. The story was adapted into movie in 1954, and yet another play in 1960. During those moments of history, the cast mirrored Egypt’s diverse society. But in the 2008 remake of the film, “Cohen” was no longer a character in the story. Egypt was left with the tension between Hassan and Marcos. Some Egyptians sarcastically say that the film’s next remake will only feature Hassan.

Can post-revolution Egypt restore the diverse, cosmopolitan society of the early twentieth century?  The new leader of the Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, says that he’s optimistic about Egypt’s future and believes that moderation is the only way to build the Egyptian society. “The Nile passes exactly in the middle of the Egyptian territory, and that teaches us to be moderate,” he said.

Maha El-Kady is a reporter-researcher for the Cairo Review of Global Affairs.