A new television series is shaking up the lucrative Ramadan viewing season in Egypt. The program – titled “The Jewish Quarter” and set in the late 1940s and early 50s – departs from decades of Egyptian precedent by depicting some Jewish characters in a positive light. It is a welcome development, but the fact that the series represents “progress” underscores the ubiquitous, mainstream nature of anti-Semitism in Egypt, and a lingering inability to deal honestly with its own Jewish past.
The series – hailed in Western media for its sympathetic portrayals – nonetheless raises cause for concern. First, it draws a clear distinction between “good” Egyptian Jews (those fiercely opposed to Israel’s creation) and the rest. The program overturns the usual Egyptian stereotype – of all Jews as spies for Israel, or at least disloyal – into another: that nearly all opposed Zionism. The truth is neither here nor there: A significant proportion quietly supported Israel’s founding, but those who actively worked for Israel’s interests – such as in the infamous, failed false-flag mission known as the Lavon Affair – were miniscule. Some other Egyptian Jews opposed Jewish nationalism, and many were somewhere in between.
Second, the program lays responsibility for the harassment, property seizure and ultimate expulsion of Egypt’s Jews with the Muslim Brotherhood, rather than where it belongs: with the military-led government of then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser. (Egypt’s Jews now number exactly seven, from 80,000 in 1948.)
Third, the series and its creators remain unable to consider the prospect that Egypt faces bigger threats than the Jewish state. “The series is not supporting the Israelis. It is against them,” the director told The New York Times, lest his series be misunderstood as an olive branch. “Israel is the first enemy of Egypt.”
It requires a fertile imagination to believe that Israel – with which Cairo has been at peace since 1979 and with which it has no territorial dispute – represents the country’s gravest threat. Egypt is, after all, a nation in which one person in four lives in poverty and a similar proportion can’t read, and in which 9 in 10 women have suffered female genital mutilation. Egyptians faces Islamist insurgencies in the east (in the Sinai), west (along the Libyan border) and increasingly in their populous heartland. The economy remains limp, it hasn’t had a legislature since 2012 and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government now jails more journalists than at any time in three decades.
Still, anti-Semitism remains a hallmark of Egypt’s cultural life, and is as much a problem among putative Egyptian liberals as their Islamist counterparts.
Take Gigi Ibrahim, the engaging and attractive face of the 2011 revolution that overthrew the authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak. Born in California and educated at the American University of Cairo, she has appeared on the Daily Show (twice), served as the subject of a PBS documentary (“Gigi’s Revolution”), graced the cover of TIME, and granted platforms from the Times to CNN and the BBC. A Foreign Policy piece this month on “Egypt’s Quiet Social Revolution” splashed her image across the top.
Like many self-stated Egyptian liberals, however, her liberalism ends at Egypt’s eastern border. “Israel is a zionist enemy and i will stand against it until it cease[s] to exist,” she tweeted in 2011, adding, “I am against Israel with its Zionist existence period … i am protesting its presence everyday.” In 2012, she posted a photo of a Hamas rocket taking a piece from an apartment building near Tel Aviv with the caption, “Long live the resistance.” Lest her meaning be misunderstood, she tweeted “#Israel must end for Palestinians to live,” and later the hashtag #EndIsrael.
Or consider Alaa Abd El-Fattah, a “liberal” blogger according to the Financial Times, AFP and Reuters in and out of prison for years for his anti-government activity. “One should only debate human beings,” he tweeted in 2009. “Zionists and other imperialists are not human beings.” The next year he added: “Dear zionists please don’t ever talk to me, I’m a violent person who advocated the killing of all zionists including civilians.”
“My heroes have always killed colonialists,” he later tweeted, linking to an article marking the death of the mastermind of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre of 11 Israeli athletes. In 2012 he opined that assassinating Anwar Sadat – the Egyptian president who made peace with Israel in 1979 – “isn’t something that should shame a man, but instead honor him.” The Wall Street Journal exposed the tweets, which Abd El-Fattah subsequently deleted, only after the European Parliament nominated him for a human-rights prize (the nomination was ultimately withdrawn).
Or take Mona Hala, a popular young actress who laudably declared recently on national TV that one should have a right to choose one’s religion, and even to be gay. Commendable and liberal remarks, surely, but Hala also plays the role of “Golda” on Quarter of the Problem – a state-TV sketch-comedy series on the misadventures of an imbecilic, effete, sidelocked and skullcapped Mossad agent.
To say the show indulges anti-Semitic stereotypes is hardly to do it justice. In one representative example, Hala introduces a skit thus: “When we hear the word ‘Jews,’ we immediately think of banks. Aren’t they the ones who invented the game and still control it till nowadays? When we hear there’s a global economic crisis and all the markets are messed up, who do we think of?” In another, Elisha’s grandfather proffers this advice: “The real Jew is the one who is good at business. The most important thing is how to make money – don’t miss any chance to make money.”
These actors and activists may be many things – radical, anti-Islamist, even secular – but liberal they are not. Similarly, while “The Jewish Quarter” represents a small step towards reversing the anti-Semitism omnipresent in Egyptian culture, genuine progress remains many, many miles away.