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The Egyptian Jewish Remnant, Against Israel

Girls celebrate bat mitzvah, Alexandria, 1960s.

CAIRO: At this upscale Cairo café, Sam and Amira, brother and sister, are the last two who would be seen as Jewish.  They walk, talk, and discuss their country with as much confidence as any young Egyptian professional.  They say they don’t get many questions about their ethnicity: their parents gave them names that are common in Egypt, not identifiable as Jewish.

“Egypt is a strange country,” Amira says, “because while we have seen so much anger toward Israel, and rightfully so, at the same time even those people who find out we are Jewish have little problem hanging out and dealing with us.”  Amira works in Egypt’s Smart Village, an international IT complex just west of Cairo.  She is a call center specialist, part of a team that works for a U.S. corporation and serves North American users.

“Work is great,” she says.  “I speak English and Spanish, so my language skills are useful.”  Nobody in the office even questions my religion, because they don’t know.  I mean, who would, with Amira as my name?  It’s a great name to have, really, especially if you are Jewish here.”

Most of Sam and Amira’s ancestors in Egypt—at least the recent ones—fled the country following the founding of Israel, then the crackdown on Jewish businesses and the Jewish community in general with the ascension of President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956.  But Sam and Amira’s family has never taken Egyptian citizenship.  Though Sam and Amira seem Egyptian in every sense of the word—they have lived their entire lives in Cairo, speak Arabic, and joke like Egyptians—they hold European passports.  “This is probably a large part of the reason why our family was able to stay in the country and not face the crackdown that came in the Nasser era,” says Sam (it’s his nickname).  When the pogroms against the Jewish community began in earnest in the early 1950s, the government went after those business-owning families who were officially documented as Jews; Sam’s was not.

According to rough estimates, the Jewish community in Egypt numbered around 80,000 in 1922.  Today, after the attacks and the exile forced by the Egyptian government, fewer than 100 documented Jews remain in Egypt.  But Amira and Sam, because they are not documented, don’t count in this estimate.  “We have a few friends who are in positions similar to ours,” Sam explains, “living and working in Egypt as residents but technically not Egyptian.”

Egyptian Jews are now scattered across the globe, but their historical connection with the country is old and strong.  Jews have lived in Egypt continuously since post-Exodus Jews were documented there in the 7th century B.C.E.  As late as the 1920s and 1930s, there were Jews who were integrated into the political and intellectual life of the country: Jewish figures were part of the struggle against the British, who continued to dominate the country after it was nominally declared independent in 1922.  One of these figures, Murad Beh Farag, was a co-author of the first Egyptian constitution, adopted in 1923.  He was an outspoken opponent of the idea of a Jewish state.

But the history of the Jewish community in Egypt has been filled with intrigue, exile, and uncertainty.  The most recent chapter, since the establishment of Israel, has been especially dark.   There have been more than 50 years of anger—attacks and forced exile by the government and widespread antagonism from the general population for the Jews’ alleged connections with the Israel.  In 2004, as documented by Rami Mangoubi in the Middle East Times, nearly all of the Jewish males in Egypt were jailed or forced into exile for their purported connections with Tel Aviv and the Jewish occupation of Palestinian lands after 1967.

With the removal of long-time Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak in February, 2011, times are changing in Egypt once again.  The country is coming to terms with its new democratic future, one fraught with tensions born of the struggle between conservatives and liberals vying for control of the world’s largest Arab nation.  The recent demonstrations at the U.S. Embassy have occupied the attention of Americans; but in Egypt itself, optimism is growing after a tumultuous 18 months.

Sam and Amira think Egypt can once again be the tolerant and open society it once was.  Amira hopes that in the new Egypt, the country’s Jewish history will become more widely known.  She says, “I really think that Egyptian Jews had a great role in the formation of this country, and it has been lost sometimes as a result of the anger toward what Israel does to Palestine; so I think that if people can start talking honestly about our participation in Egypt, it will help see the return of many Jews in exile.”

“Egyptians are welcoming people by cultural heritage and our upbringing,” Sam adds. “So, I don’t think it is out of the question to be able to have a flourishing Jewish society as part of the greater Egyptian culture.  It isn’t as if we are foreign to the country. We have a long history of living with Muslims and Christians.”  He says he knows dozens of Egyptian Jewish families, living abroad for decades, who would love the opportunity to return to their native Egypt.  “Even after all these years, with the tensions and even with Israel, I believe there are opportunities to have a strong Jewish community here once again.”

In fact, Amira believes that people like her and her brother can be instrumental in showing Egyptians that Egyptian Jews are Egyptian first and have no love for what Israel is doing to the Palestinians: “At first glance, too often people think ‘Jew’ and immediately think we are supporting Israel.  This is not the case, and trying to tell our history and show how we were mistreated can do a lot to end this misunderstanding.”

Sam and Amira finish their coffees and offer to pay for all the drinks at our table before they head back into Egyptian society.

Joseph Mayton is a seasoned journalist and the editor-in-chief of Bikya Masr, usually based in Cairo, Egypt.

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Carl on October 3, 2012 at 2:58 am (Reply)
Without addressing the sad and pathetic Amira and Sam. I'd just like to point out what a bunch of hooey the so called Egyptian defending of the Palestinians is. The fact is that Egypt occupied the Gaza strip in 1948. Instead of turning it over to the Palestinians for their state, they ruled it under a hash military administration.
    Elon on October 3, 2012 at 2:41 pm (Reply)
    Right, and Israel is not responsible for the misery of Sam and Amira either. Egyptian anti-Semitism is. But when you are living among violent people who will kill you for the slightest incorrect thought, you start to believe the fictions you are forced to maintain.
      adagioforstrings1 on October 6, 2012 at 12:47 pm (Reply)
      Like Stokholm syndrome, or battered spouse syndrome. The bedraggled remnant of Coptic Christians seem to suffer from this as well.
Nachum on October 3, 2012 at 3:24 am (Reply)
I got where the article was heading as soon as it hit "rightfully so," but what clinched it was the use of "Tel Aviv." Like it or not, Israel maintains its capital in Jerusalem, and anyone who uses "Tel Aviv" as a metonym is either living in a PC fantasyland or an anti-Israel one. And then to talk of some democratic promise of the Arab Spring and how many Egyptian Jews would love to return to Egypt shows that either some good hash is being smoked or there's the common problem of speaking to a few young liberals and assuming the masses of Egyptians- the same ones who just elected the Muslim Brotherhood!- think just like them. What a terrible piece.
Elihu on October 3, 2012 at 6:33 am (Reply)
With respect, the article and the interviewees have either missed or ignored the elephant currently sitting in the middle of the living room. The word 'Islamist' is conspicuously absent. One would think it might show up somewhwere in this paragraph: "With the removal of long-time Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak in February, 2011, times are changing in Egypt once again. The country is coming to terms with its new democratic future, one fraught with tensions born of the struggle between conservatives and liberals vying for control of the world’s largest Arab nation." But, nope. I worry greatly for Sam, Amira and others like them who apparently believe that Judaism would thrive in Egypt if it would just divorce itself from Israel.
Jayman on October 3, 2012 at 7:22 am (Reply)
No word on all on how old Sam and Amira are. Or to what extent they live as Jews. Or how much they identify with the miniscule and shrinking Jewish community. Lots of information that we're not given. For all we know, these two might not even exist.
ScottB on October 3, 2012 at 7:53 am (Reply)
Such brave Jews, holding on to their European passports, not using their real names!
Tom Solomon on October 3, 2012 at 8:29 am (Reply)
There's only one thing worse than the canard that hatred for Jews is largely the result of Israeli's mistreatment of Palesinians, and that is when it's uttered by putative Jews.
Eliyahu on October 3, 2012 at 10:18 am (Reply)
Egypt tolerant under Islam??

Jews living in Egypt after the Arab conquest were subject to the dhimma laws which were fiscally exploitative, humiliating and oppressive, along with the native Egyptian Christians, the Copts. Read what Karsten Niebuhr and Edward Lane wrote about the treatment of Jews in Egypt in the 18th and 19th centuries, long before the renewed State of Israel.
Evan on October 3, 2012 at 10:36 am (Reply)
This was a wonderful piece. I have spoken with Syrian and Lebanese Jews here in Brooklyn who have a strong sense of nostalgia for their country. On Facebook I have a group of Muslim and Christian Syrian friends who are nostalgic for the time before the rise of the State of Israel and the plague of Arab nationalist dictators hit the region. The Jewish presence in these countries is very much a symbol of those times.

I'm sad that so many people lack the patience to her Amira and Sam out. They have a lot to teach us, if we'll listen.
J Fibel on October 3, 2012 at 10:49 am (Reply)
I think the article is very interesting. These "kids" don't mention the recent riots where the crowds turned on the Coptic Christians (a very ancient group in Egyptian society) and where someone was almost killed when the crowd thought he was Jewish (he wasn't) .

Hopefully, someday the local atmosphere will be what these two describe but as of today it definitely is not. I wonder who really wrote it. If the two who wrote are its real authors and it is found out they are in deep trouble.

I am sure, however, that it is simply a piece of attempted artful, but unsuccessful proganda.
S W on October 3, 2012 at 11:56 am (Reply)
The photo used to help illustrate the article is from the 1960s. One wonders what a photo from this year about a public celebration of a bar mitzvah exhibiting the Magein David would look like.

Mr. Mayton, an American living in Egypt, wrote only days ago, "If we are to have an honest look at this recent crisis, the context of decades of Western oppression, support for dictators and the continued struggle for economic success among the populations in these countries must be mentioned. If not, we fall victim to the same cyclical pandering to those who already believe Islam is the problem." (Understanding the Unrest in the Islamic World)

So herein we learn that Mr. Mayton does not think that "Islam is the problem" and those who do are panderers to another view than his. Given that the brother and sister have no last names in his human interest article, one wonders why if Islam is not the problem there would be any reason to not tell the tale of Sam and Amira "no-name" with names.
Maurice Mizrahi on October 3, 2012 at 2:32 pm (Reply)
This article is so one-sided that it's almost funny. It could be entirely made up and no one would know the difference. The author would do well to talk to Jews from Egypt who were forced out (as I was) -- that is, the near-totality of them. He would find out that not a single one wants to go back under any circumstances. He would find out that "Sam and Amira’s family has never taken Egyptian citizenship... they hold European passports" is a euphemism for "The vast majority of Jews in Egypt were stateless, because Jews, even those born in the country, were denied citizenship." He would find out that the feelings of Jews from Egypt about Israel are diametrically opposed to those of his two alleged interviewees. And they call this journalism!
Elon on October 3, 2012 at 3:10 pm (Reply)
Evan, the Talmud has a name for the nostalgia people feel for their homes. It is called the Jericho Paradox after the people who told Elisha that their city was great, and only then did they mention the deadly waters. People have an irrational love for their home.

But let's be realistic here. Sam and Amira were born in Egypt, and they were raised in Egypt. Yet, they have no citizenship, simply because of their religion. If they openly practice their religion, regardless of what they might claim, we know and they know they'll probably be lynched. We have all just seen what happened on Egyptian Television when one of the guests thought he might be talking to a Jew. Even blood libel is a commonly held view broadcast on their television stations. If anything the average Egyptian is more anti-Semitic than Mubarak, so the idea that his fall will change things for the better is patent nonsense. And yet, for all that, Sam and Amira claim that Egypt is a haven for Jews and all the Egyptian Israelis have a desire to move back.

It's not surprising that everyone has seen this for the BS it is.
BLJWAW on October 3, 2012 at 4:18 pm (Reply)
It is patently obvious that any criticism of Islam and Muslim countries by Muslims is invariably done from a Western country. Similarly, all those living in Muslim countries always have pleasant things to say about their living conditions One would think these people value their heads!
Ira on October 4, 2012 at 5:43 am (Reply)
Like others that have mention the fact that these Jews are hiding by using Arabic names means that Jews are oppressed in Egypt.

The sad thing is that they think that Jews were ousted because of Israel.

The Egyptians hate Israel because it is Jewish. They do not hate Jews because of Israel.

I hope for these 2 young folk that they do not end up like German Jews. They loved their country but their country did not love them.
Cranky Notions on October 4, 2012 at 5:52 am (Reply)
You say Murad Beh Farag, co-author of the first Egyptian constitution, was an outspoken opponent of the idea of a Jewish state.

However, according to Wikipedia:

"[V]arious wings of the Zionist movement had representatives in Egypt. Karaite Jewish scholar Murad Beh Farag (1866–1956) was both an Egyptian nationalist and a passionate Zionist. His poem, 'My Homeland Egypt, Place of my Birth', expresses loyalty to Egypt, while his book, al-Qudsiyyat (Jerusalemica, 1923), defends the right of the Jews to a State.[21] al-Qudsiyyat is perhaps the most eloquent defense of Zionism in the Arabic language. Farag was also one of the coauthors of Egypt's first Constitution in 1923.
Heidi on October 4, 2012 at 8:58 am (Reply)
great article..much support and love for Sam and Amira..od yavo shalom ve aal kulam and hope you had a great "yom gofran" aka yom kaibur :) regards from a non-Jewish Egyptian citizen ♥
Daverocq on October 4, 2012 at 11:57 am (Reply)
I am a jew who left Egypt in 1957 as a teenager and this article is laughable. It is a well known fact that the current jewish community in Cairo comprises not more than 25 persons, all of them old women, mostly widows, who have remained in Egypt. To hide one's religion as these two lost souls have is already symptomatic of the climate of fear they have endured since they were born...
I have returned twice to Egypt in 56 years and they have managed to obliterate the contribution of the jewish community over the 2500 years of presence. Egypt like most arab countries has succeeded in its "ethnic cleansing" where the Nazis failed...and the rest of the world watched in silence.
No one among the many thousands of jews still alive or their children or grandchildren wishes to go back to a country which made us live in fear and where our parents where second class citizens, denied even the citizenship of their country of birth, only because they were jews.
this article is just BS and shame on the person who wrote it for propagating such an idyllic image of that country
Levana Zamir on October 5, 2012 at 1:14 pm (Reply)
This article seems like a promotion for the "Return of Jews to Egypt', as declared by President Morsi at the UN 2 weeks ago. "Palestinian Refugees must get their right of return" said Morsi, "and the Jews of Egypt are invited to come back as well". Pure Hypocrisie, when no one in Israel could get a Visa to Egypt today, unless you are in a special Governmental mission...
What could the Jews expect in Egypt, where xenophobia is reigning, and where the good Egyptian Copts citizens are persecuted, massacred, and their churches burned ?
Levana Zamir - a Jewish refugee from Egypt, living in Israel.
Eliyahu on October 8, 2012 at 4:44 pm (Reply)
I for one do not believe that "Sam" & "Amira" are for real. They may be inventions of Mr Mayton who has difficulties dealing with reality in any case --or maybe he's just a paid propagandist. I appreciate the contributions above of the Egyptian Jews who commented, Levana, Maurice, & Daverocq. The Danish traveler Karsten Niebuhr visited Egypt about 35-40 years before Napoleon's conquest of the Country in 1798 approx. Niebuhr reported how dhimmis, non-Muslims, especially Jews, were regularly humiliated in Egypt at that time --by the Muslims. This was before any Western power occupied the country.

By the way, Anwar Sadat wrote a book about 1954 --Revolt on the Nile-- in which he frankly talks about he and his associates in the so-called "Free Officers" group --including Nasser-- being pro-Nazi. He also expresses disappointment that the Germans did not win the war. His lesser disappointment is that he and his "Free" friends could not effectively collaborate with the Germans and help them win the war in North Africa. And who does he blame for the failure of the pro-Nazi officers? He blames Egyptian Jews who supposedly informed the Germans of the plot that he and his gang were trying to execute. He speculates that the pro-Nazis' failure in Egypt may have led to Rommel's defeat in the war in North AFrica, especially at el-Alamein, and that this in turn led to the Nazis' defeat overall. So, if Sadat was right, Egyptian Jews can take credit for the final defeat of the German armies in the war.

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