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On Egyptian TV, Jews as actual humans

A Ramadan soap opera with sympathetic Jewish characters is a tiny, deeply flawed, step in the right direction

A group of scared people are frantically running in the direction of a synagogue, trying to find refuge from the fierce shelling. This is not a part of news bulletin from southern Israel during “Operation Protective Edge”, but the opening scene from “Harat al-Yahoud” (The Jewish Quarter), the latest TV sensation from Egypt.

After reading and hearing in press and social media in English, Hebrew and Arabic about the series being broadcast during the month of Ramadan in Egypt, I decided to take the time and see it for myself. I was curious, as the issue of the portrayal and depiction of Jews and/or Israel was central to my activity as a TV-reporter on Arab affairs and also part of my academic research. Today, as a Member of Knesset I continue to deal with Jewish history and culture in the Arab world — serving as the head of a parliamentary caucus dedicated to protection of Jewish heritage in the Arab world. And so I found the series on the Internet, took an hour, and tuned in.

But first, a few words about the tradition of watching TV on Ramadan nights. Throughout the whole year television studios work non-stop for the sake of this month, competing with each other in boldness and imagination in order to sell the 30-episode series to leading TV channels. When the streets empty and the Iftar (the festive evening meal marking the end of the day’s fast) begins, people have their family dinners, watch TV, then go out to restaurants and shopping centers, walk by the Nile, eat popcorn and wait for the dawn to have a Sohour meal prior to the new day of fasting. The next day everyone talks about the previous night’s episode at his or her place of work or study.

During my career as a journalist I reviewed a lot of Ramadan TV series. There was one about a polygamous family, “Family of Hajj Mitvalli”; “Colors of Rose” about a love affair between a Christian and a Muslim, and the semi-documentary series “Days of Sadat.” There were, however, also rabidly anti-Semitic television series, such as “Al-Shatat” (“Diaspora,” 2003), and the “Fares Bila Jawad” (“Horseman Without a Horse” – 2002), which is based on “The Protocols of Zion Elders”.

However, this year Egyptian TV presented a new drama. The Jewish Quarter tells the story of a beautiful young Jewish girl, Leila Harun, who is in love with a dashing army officer (a Muslim) fighting for the liberation of Palestine. Israeli aircrafts bomb the city, and residents of the so-called Jewish district — Jews, Muslims and Christians — find refuge in the synagogue. Soon Leila finds out that her brother is on his way to Palestine to fight for the Independence of Israel against the coalition of Arab armies. Leila condemns her brother and says to her parents: “You brought up a Jewish Egyptian, not a Jewish Israeli.”

Meanwhile, activists of the Muslim Brotherhood and “Young Egypt” (an Islamist organization of which Anwar Sadat was a member) try to fight the revolutionary “Free Officers” movement, and attempt to divide Jews, Muslims and Christians and pit them against one another. There is not a single word in the series on how the Jews were denied Egyptian citizenship, and were robbed and expelled from the country — and this is sad, because it heightens the injustice of this tragedy even more.

But at the same time, the glass is half full. The series is notable for its marked change of tone in its portrayal of Jews — albeit not without flaws. For the first time in decades, Jews are represented without horns and a tail; they do not use blood to cook the Passover matzah, nor do they kill children or strive for world domination. They live, love, dream and dance like everyone else. When I compare the series “Harat al-Yahud” and other films and TV series about Jews – for example, “48 hours in Tel Aviv”, “Cousins” and “The Embassy in a Building,” not to mention the anti-Semitic shows mentioned above, there is a genuine attempt to portray Jews as human beings. Despite this, the fact is that Magda Haroun, one of the last Jews in Cairo and head of the Jewish community, made only two comments on the show: that the Jews were not so rich, and that in her time skirts were longer. The show was originally supposed to be aired two years ago, but the Islamist President at the time, Muhammad Morsi, forbid it. Now, with relations between Israel and Egypt improved, the show got a green light.

In Egypt itself, the reaction is mixed. I watched the show online, and found many anti-Semitic comments and insults. Some believe that the show is too sympathetic to the Jews, while others are offended that the handsome officer has chosen a Jewish girl. But there are also others who like what they see. They nostalgically reminisce about old times that will never return — the blend of the cultures, the coexistence, the freedom of speech, the times when Jews were involved in the commercial and cultural life of Cairo, along with other minorities — Greeks, Armenians and Italians.

However, despite The Jewish Quarter’s refreshingly positive portrayal of Jews, the situation is bleak. Today almost nothing is left of the Jewish community of Egypt, and Jewish landmarks are neglected. Synagogues and old Jewish cemeteries may make for an excellent background in a TV series, but sadly these historic sites are crumbling and in dire need of protection and reconstruction. As head of the lobby to preserve the heritage of Jewish communities from Arab and Islamic countries, I will do everything possible to preserve the history of the Jews in Egypt and elsewhere, and to protect the rights of Jewish refugees from these countries. The Jews of the Arab world have a rich culture and an important history that must neither be marginalized nor forgotten. I look forward to working on behalf of these communities.

About the Author
Ksenia Svetlova is a Middle East affairs expert and a publicist. She was a member of Knesset for the Zionist Union and previously worked as a journalist specializing in the area of Arab affairs.
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