1930’s Egypt: A Haven for Jews

I was reading Martin Gilbert’s outstanding book In Ishmael’s House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands.  I am quite familiar with the barbaric treatment of the Egyptian Jews under the Arab nationalist Nasser regime.  Following the 1956 Suez War and the 1967 Six Day War, the Jews were systematically dispossessed of their property, imprisoned, brutally tortured, and in some cases even murdered.  Virtually the whole Egyptian Jewish community was driven into exile.

The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has been a constant source of danger to the Egyptian Jews. On December 2, 1947, the MB began agitating against the Egyptian Jews.  Three days later, a mob attacked the Jewish Quarter in Cairo (Gilbert, 2010, pp. 212-213).  During the 1948 Israeli War of Independence in July, 1948, the MB delivered more anti-Jewish speeches.  Mobs responded by attacking the Jews of Cairo, murdering three Egyptian Jews (Gilbert, 2010, pp. 225-226).  Given this history, Israelis should understand that the MB is not their friend and should not seek an alliance with the MB or appease the MB.

But I was truly astonished to read about the wonderful way that Egypt treated the Jews during the 1930’s.  It was such a shocking contrast with the cruel and abusive treatment of the Egyptian Jews in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Wealthy Jews were an integral part of the Egyptian elite during that time, as symbolized by the fact that the funeral of banker Joseph Nissim Mosseri in 1934 was attended by five past and future Prime Ministers and by the current Prime Minister Abdel Fattah Yehia Pasha and his Cabinet (Gilbert, 2010, pg. 163).  Similarly, Egyptian Jews represented Egypt in the Maccabia Games held in Palestine in March 1935, thus indicating that the Egyptian regime in that era accepted the natural ties between Egyptian Jews and their national homeland.  In addition Togo Mizrahi was a leading Egyptian filmmaker in that era who produced films based on both Arabic and Jewish stories.

The Jewish community also flourished in that era.  The country’s 60,000 Jews attended 60 synagogues, nine Jewish schools in Alexandria and five Jewish schools in Cairo.  The Jews financed two public hospitals, one in each city, that treated Muslim, Christian, and Jewish patients (Gilbert, 2010, pg. 164).

Perhaps the most touching story was about Muslims and Jews worked together in Egypt to help Jews fleeing the Nazis.  German-born Thea Woolf moved to Egypt in 1932 and was instrumental as a nurse in organizing the Jewish community in Port Said to help Jewish refugees in Nazi Europe.  Later she reflected on ‘the crucial and generous help the Egyptians extended to the Jewish refugees fleeing from Nazi persecution…This marvellous and courageous collaboration between Jews and Arabs to save Jews from the Holocaust is an historic fact concerning the Jewish-Moslem collaboration which is  still quite unknown” (Gilbert, 2010, pg. 166). I had no idea that Muslim Egyptians helped Jews during this most horrific period of Jewish history, and I am thankful for whatever small role they may have played in assisting us at that time.

I was amazed at the incredible kindness of Dr. Maikel Nabil Sanad and his followers toward Israel and the Jews in general and toward me in particular.  They have treated me with consistent compassion in a harsh world, and they make my world a better place.  I think the most astonishing thing is that Maikel and his followers feel such deep and obvious affection for the Jews who were driven from their country some 30 or more years before they were even born.

About the Author
Rachel's educational background includes a B.A. in international relations from Brown University; she has been an independent scholar, analyst, and researcher about Middle Eastern affairs for 12 years; Her focus has been on Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Egypt.