Requiem for Egyptian Jewry

Unfortunately, the rise of radical Islam and Arab nationalism in Egypt in the aftermath of the formation of the State of Israel proved fatal for Egyptian Jewry.  By 1971, according to JIMENA, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East, the persecution of Egyptian Jews had cost the community roughly a billion dollars.  Half of the loss, $500 million, was in personal property.  But the other half of the loss included $300 million in communal religious property and $200 million in religious artifacts.

The postwar assault on Egyptian Jewry began even before the formation of the State of Israel with a two-day riot on November 2-3, 1945, in both Cairo and Alexandria that killed five people and injured two hundred more (Gilbert, In Ishmael’s House, 2010, pp. 201-202).  Another pogrom inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood broke out in the Jewish Quarter of Cairo in 1948 (Gilbert, 2010, p. 212).

The physical assault was accompanied by the passage of a 1947 law which insisted that 75% of all employees in companies must be Egyptian (Gilbert, 2010, p. 202)..  The law was intended to confiscate the property of Egyptian Jews, 80% of whom held foreign passports (Gilbert, 2010, p. 202).

Egypt reacted to the creation of the State of Israel with mass arrests of Jews.  600 Jews were arrested by the end of 1948, and naturally they lost their property (Gilbert, 2010, p. 218).  The bombing of Cairo’s Jewish Quarter on June 19-20, 1948, killed 22 Jews and wounded 41 more. Virtually an entire Jewish family, the Levis, was wiped out, and 8 year old Yossef Levi was the only survivor of his family (Gilbert, 2010, p. 224).

Egyptians retaliated against Israeli bombardments of military targets in Cairo and Alexandria in July, 1948, by killing three local Jews.  In August and September, 1948, Jewish-owned businesses were bombed in Cairo.  On September 22, 1948, 22 Jews were killed and 62 wounded by bombs in Cairo’s Jewish Quarter (Gilbert, 2010, pp. 225-227). Thus, the creation of the State of Israel became an excuse to rob the Egyptian Jewish community of its property and freedom. Egypt escalated its physical and economic attacks on Egyptian Jews.  In response to these oppressive conditions, 25,000 Jews left Egypt between 1949 and 1952, 60% of whom moved to Israel (Gilbert, 2010, p. 235).

Sami Anbar described the restrictions against Jews after 1948 in the following fashion. “It became difficult for Jews to obtain permission to travel abroad and impossible to get jobs unless they had their own business. Jewish owned companies were no longer allowed to do business with the Egyptian Government.”

Conditions deteriorated after Israel allied with the UK and France against Egypt in the Suez Canal War of 1956.  This time 24,000 Jews were deported and deprived of their property.  In addition, 3,000 Jews were imprisoned without trial (Gilbert, 2010, p. 258).  Naturally the 1956 War produced another mass exodus of Egyptian Jews.  The largest number, 35,000, came to Israel (Gilbert, 2010, p. 258).  But 24,000 came to South America, including 15,000 to Brazil and 9,000 to Argentina.  9,000 moved to the U.S., and 14,000 moved to Europe, including 10,000 to France and 4,000 to the UK.   The exodus was followed by the confiscations of some 800 Jewish-owned banks and companies in 1961 (Gilbert, 2010, p. 261).

Sami Anbar explained, “Our business, apartment and car, were expropriated by the Egyptian Government. Our family was among a list of Jews accused of having “sucked the blood of Egypt.”  His grandfather died two years after his business was forcibly confiscated.

Claire Berke recalled that her father’s plastics factor was confiscated in 1956.  She also remembered, “Jews were not safe in Egypt, nor were their belongings. Claire’s mother had all her valuable jewelry taken from her safety deposit box by workers who knew that she was Jewish.”.

By 1967, only 1,000 Jews remained in Egypt.  But the Six Day War produced another anti-Jewish campaign in Egypt that included the arrest of one-fifth of the Jewish community (Gilbert, 2010, p. 288).

By creating the State of Israel, the Jews were rejecting their ancient subordinate status as dhimmis, or protected people, within the Muslim umma.  For centuries Jews had accepted a subordinate status within Muslim communities as the price for their economic survival.  They were denied the right to build synagogues higher than the nearest mosque and forced to wear distinguishing marks on their clothing. They also paid special discriminatory taxes in exchange for the Muslim ruler’s protection.

But Muslims reacted with rage to the idea that Jews were stepping outside their historical role as subordinate subjects of a Muslim majority country.  Even worse, Jews were taking up arms in their own defense and humiliating the Muslims by defeating them militarily.  They were violating their image as weak, impotent, and defenseless creatures and proving themselves as strong and independent.  Being unable to defeat the Jews militarily, the Egyptian Muslims took out their rage on the defenseless Jewish population within their midst.

Joseph Abdel Wahab recalled an important factor which helped destroy the Egyptian Jewish community: the post-war presence of German Nazis in the Middle East.  He wrote, “German Nazis escaped to Egypt. They helped the Egyptians implement their vicious agenda, resulting in violent anti Semitic riots around the Arab world.”  The destruction of Egyptian Jewry is a major loss for the country and symbolizes the collapse of democratic norms and human decency which began after WWII and escalated with the imposition of an Arab nationalist regime in 1952.  Jews were only most extreme victims of the political totalitarianism which began to emerge after 1945 and fully took hold after 1952. I hope that one day a free and democratic Egypt can compensate the Jews for the enormous loss of their property and their illegal captivity and cease the teaching of hatred against Israel and the Jews.

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.