The earliest archaeological reference to a Jewish presence in Egypt dates to the late Bronze Age (1200BCE) and there is continual evidence of Jewish communities in Egypt from then on.
In the early 19th century Jews played a dominant role in urban Egyptian society and this continued under British colonial influence. Despite contributing significantly to society, Egyptian Jews had been denied citizenship under Ottoman rule. When Britain colonised Egypt in 1882 a few Jews managed to obtain Egyptian citizenship, however this was an arduous and purposefully difficult process that by the mid-1920s became impossible. Some of Egypt’s wealthier Jews could afford European passports, however the majority of Egypt’s Jewish community were effectively stateless.
Throughout British rule, the country’s Jewish community continued to flourish as Jews suffering persecution in Europe settled in Egypt. From 1900 to 1948 the number of Jews living in Egypt had nearly tripled to 80,000. However, with the rise of Nazism and Arab Nationalism in the 1930s, antisemitism in Egypt rapidly increased and anti-Jewish riots became more and more frequent. From 1942 onwards, pogroms began to be more common, especially in Cairo, where many businesses were destroyed and several Jewish people were killed. In 1947 a series of laws were passed, making it difficult for Jews to gain employment or own a majority share in any business.
After the establishment of the State of Israel, the Egyptian government began to enforce increasingly repressive measures against Jews, often using vague accusations of Zionism as a reason for confiscation of property and imprisonment. Riots were common - in 1952 one riot destroyed over 500 Jewish businesses and left many Jews injured or dead. By 1952, at least 40% of Egypt’s Jews had fled the country.
In 1956 a joint French, British and Israeli attack on Egypt’s Suez Canal sparked the Suez Crisis. As a result of this attack, all Jews were declared enemies of the state and were threatened with expulsion. British and French nationals were given two days to leave Egypt and anyone exiting was allowed no more than one bag. The vast majority of Egypt’s Jews left without their property for Israel, whilst those Jews with British or French citizenship were treated as refugees and settled in Europe. Those that remained in Egypt had all of their property confiscated, over a thousand Jewish men were imprisoned or tortured and all travel was prohibited.
By 1967 only 2,500 Jews remained in Egypt and with the outbreak of the Six-Day War came a renewed surge of violence. During the war all Jewish adult males were either expelled or imprisoned and tortured. Many of these men were imprisoned for nearly three years. In 1972, after prolonged international pressure, all remaining Jews in Egypt were given permission to leave the country.
Today it is estimated that less than twenty Jews live in Egypt. Efforts are being made by these people to restore some of the country’s synagogues.