Communities: Remnants of a Jewish past
Jake Meth The Egypt Independent Thu, 28/06/2012 - 18:43
A taxi pulls up to the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue on Adly Street in downtown
Cairo. The driver has to wait for the manic traffic to calm down before he
can unload a wheelchair from his trunk, unfold it, and help a frail, elderly
woman into its seat.
The occasion is the Jewish holiday of Passover, and the woman is one the few
remaining Egyptian Jews. The driver wheels the woman past some 20 security
guards stationed in front of the synagogue. Entrants, with some exceptions,
need to be on a list before being allowed into the seder, the ritual dinner
that celebrates the holiday. According to two of the seder’s opening lines:
“All who are hungry, let them enter and eat. All who are in need, let them
come celebrate Passover with us.” But here, security concerns appear to take
The seder is held in a multipurpose room adjacent to the synagogue’s
impressive, high-walled central courtyard. Almost all of the Egyptian Jews
present are elderly women, sitting at two small, round tables at the back of
the room. A long, white-clothed table runs down the center, at the head of
which sits Rabbi Mark El Fassi, the president of Les Enfants d’Abraham (the
Children of Abraham) organization in France, who has been imported to lead
Fassi conducts a short and not overtly religious service, reciting only a
few Hebrew prayers — which at one point compete with the Arabic call to
prayer echoing through the downtown streets outside. He cycles through
Arabic, Hebrew, French and English in an attempt to accommodate the language
capabilities of everyone in the room. He tells a few jokes. The food is
plentiful and the conversation friendly. And there is wine.
The primary force behind this seder, and the continued relevance of Egypt’s
Jewish community, is the woman seated to Fassi’s left, Carmen Weinstein. As
president of the Egyptian Jewish community, Weinstein has presided over the
restoration of the Bassatine Cemetery — the second oldest Jewish cemetery in
the world — and the synagogue at which the seder is held, among other
projects. She maintains a website, Bassatine News, which bills itself as
“the ONLY Jewish newsletter reporting directly from Egypt.” That United
States Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson attends the seder is a further
testament to Weinstein’s clout.
But Weinstein’s efforts have only put off an inevitable reality: Egypt’s
Jewish community — some 80,000 strong in the early twentieth century and now
consisting of a few dozen elderly women — is dying out.
“There’s not much a community,” says Joel Beinin, a professor of Middle East
history at Stanford University who wrote “The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry.”
“I mean we’re talking about a few people here.”
Israel declared itself a sovereign state in 1948, immediately setting off a
war with neighboring Arab states, including Egypt. In the middle of that
year in Egypt, bombs and rioting in Cairo’s Jewish neighborhoods left 70
Egyptian Jews killed and hundreds wounded. The situation worsened during the
1956 Suez Crisis, when Israel, France and Great Britain attacked Egypt after
former President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. As Beinin
puts it in his book, “Between 1919 and 1956, the entire Egyptian Jewish
community ... was transformed from a national asset into a fifth column.”
Most of Egypt’s remaining Jews left after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
Isaac Cohen, a Jew born in Cairo who now lives in Chicago, was obtaining his
PhD in Paris in 1956 when he learned that war had broken out back home.
“I didn’t know whether my parents were dead or alive. France was an enemy
country for Egypt so there were no communications,” he recalls. “And I was
scared to death. Then one day I got a mail from Italy that they had left and
they were expelled.”
Cohen, a retired professor of cell and molecular biology at Northwestern
University, says in a phone interview: “It is important for Egyptians to
know about the population of Egypt that practically disappeared from Egypt.
After all, this is part of their heritage.”
Despite what happened to his family, Cohen betrays no ill-will toward the
country of his birth. “I had a beautiful life, a beautiful youth in Egypt,”
On the guestbook of the website Historical Society of Jews from Egypt, other
expatriate Egyptian Jews like Cohen can be found trying to reconnect with
their homeland. Egyptian Jews living in Mexico City, Malta, Bristol,
Montreal, New York and Jerusalem, to name a few places, post messages in
hopes of finding long-lost friends, trading memories and telling personal
stories of when (almost all in the 1950s and 60s) and under what conditions
While few of the posts seem bitter at the Egypt of today, some do hint at
lingering resentment over the treatment of Egyptian Jews under the 1952
military regime. “Egypt was a beautiful country before 1952,” writes one
Other websites and organizations run by expatriate Egyptian Jews, such as
Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA), Justice for
Jews from Arab Countries, Harif (Association of Jews from the Middle East
and North Africa) and the blog “Point of no return,” aggressively highlight
what they describe as a history of Jewish persecution in the region. The
sites exhaustively compile media stories and other reports documenting
Jewish expulsions and continued expressions of anti-Semitism. They
emphasize that Middle Eastern and North African Jews were made refugees,
often hinting that Palestinian refugees have been given disproportionately
more attention than Jewish ones.
The JIMENA mission statement reads, in part:
“JIMENA seeks to address the existing gap in the historical narrative of the
Middle East and North Africa by sharing the Mizrahi and Sephardi story of
oppression, plight and displacement.”
Joseph Wahed, JIMENA’s founder and an Egyptian Jew, says Egypt’s Jews were
“all ethnically cleansed between 1948 and 1970.” Wahed and many expatriate
Egyptian Jews, in their focus on preserving the past, want the Jewish
antiquities that remain in Egypt to be moved to the United States, but have
been met with resistance by both Weinstein and the Egyptian government.
“The government is a major obstacle because it considers these as ‘Egyptian
Antiquities’ and belonging to Egypt. The Egyptians will do anything to hurt
us,” he writes in an email message.
The voices of the remaining Egyptian Jews remain silent on the issue of
their dwindling community. Despite this journalist’s repeated attempts to
contact members of the community, all refused to speak on or even off the
Speaking in a telephone interview, Beinin says that the community today has
found itself in a complicated position, which is why its members are
reluctant to speak to the media.
“There’s nothing they can say that can be safe for them,” he says. “They are
under the intense scrutiny of the Egyptian government and Egyptian
intelligentsia. They themselves are not Zionists, that’s why they’re still
in Egypt. But they’re not sufficiently anti-Israel for some Egyptian
Despite the difficulties inherent to the task, Weinstein appears set on
maintaining the Egyptian Jewish community. She declined to be interviewed
for this story.
“There is a very long history of Jewish life in Egypt; it goes all the way
back to Abraham and Joseph, and permanent settlement as old as Jeremiah,”
says Beinin. “So if someone is actually thinking about the past and future
of this community, you don’t so easily say it’s done.”
Cohen has recently seen some encouraging signs. He says he is inspired by
Egypt’s young generation, which not only toppled dictatorial President Hosni
Mubarak but has also gone on to question state-propagated narratives about
the country’s history. Cohen says that through Facebook, he has been able to
connect with a few young Egyptians who are interested in the history of the
country’s indigenous Jewish community, though he says most are afraid to
speak about it publicly.
Cohen says he may return to Cairo for a visit next spring to meet these
young Egyptians in person. He hasn’t been here for over 50 years.
“The light at the end of the tunnel are my new friends in Egypt,” he says.
“I consider them as heroes. I want to visit Cairo, the land of my birth, and
I want to honor them.”