Egypt

Highest Jewish Population: c. 80,000 in 1940s


There has been a continual Jewish presence in Egypt dating back at least 2500 years. Under Ottoman rule, Jews in Egypt were subject to dhimmi status and laws; their fortunes fluctuating with various rulers of the age.


In 1867 Egypt became an autonomous tributary state of the Ottoman Empire, although in reality it was already heavily influenced by the colonial powers of both Britain and France, who together completed the Suez Canal in 1869. The new Egyptian regime abolished dhimmi laws and Egypt became an attractive opportunity for people from all over the ailing Ottoman Empire. Several foreign communities were established and amongst these new émigrés were a sizeable number of Jews. Sephardi Jewish families that had settled around the Ottoman Empire and the Mediterranean when escaping the Spanish Inquisition in the 14th century now turned to Egypt to improve their economic circumstances. Ashkenazi Jews escaping pogroms in Russia, Romania, and Poland also turned to Egypt for new, safer opportunities. By the turn of the century, these new Jewish communities greatly outnumbered the indigenous Jewish communities of Egypt, the majority of whom were significantly less affluent than their Sephardi counterparts. The foreign communities of Egypt formed part of the new European social elite, and French became the lingua-franca of this social class.


Under the Ottoman Empire, the Jews in Egypt had been defined by their religion, rather than their nationality. In 1875, under the new Egyptian regime, Mixed Tribunals were established. This meant that foreign nationals were no longer held under the jurisdiction of the Egyptian courts and local laws. Representatives in these courts were numbered in proportion to the citizens of each European power living in Egypt. This meant that by adopting foreign nationalities, the Jews of Egypt could enjoy the physical and financial protection of the Mixed Tribunals. Each country had different criteria for obtaining nationality, however at least 25% of Jews in Egypt managed to obtain a foreign passport.


In 1882 Britain occupied Egypt and it was declared a British Protectorate. By 1922 Egypt was granted nominal independence, although Britain continued to hold significant political and military influence in the country. By this time, the Jews in Egypt largely enjoyed a privileged economic and social position. Educated young Jews were entering professions such as medicine, law, and banking. Jewish businesses were thriving, and Jewish families started moving out of the traditionally Jewish areas of Cairo and Alexandria into more affluent suburbs. Jewish civic life also thrived and schools, newspapers, community clubs, care homes, and even hospitals were established.


In 1927 the first Egyptian nationality laws for individuals came into effect. In 1929 community wide laws were implemented. Egyptian nationality was made available to any person who could pay £5 and fulfil a number of criteria. It is estimated that about 20% of the Jews in Egypt eventually managed to obtain Egyptian nationality. Many of those who had not obtained foreign nationality could not afford the £5 fee, or could not find the documentation to prove they met the legislative criteria. This meant that between 40-50% of Egyptian Jewry were legally stateless.


The vast majority of Egyptian Jews saw themselves as Egyptian, whatever their legal status. However, this complicated question of nationality meant that Egyptian Jews were later stigmatised and persecuted as foreigners.


Throughout the 1930s, antisemitism, fuelled by Nazi ideology, rapidly increased in Egypt. In the years leading up to the Second World War, riots became increasingly common. WWII led to a rise in Arab nationalism, which left little space for Jews in its ideology. In 1945 a series of riots broke out in Cairo in which six Jews were killed and many more injured. The Ashkenazi Great synagogue, a Jewish hospital, many Jewish shops, and a Jewish care home were also burned down.

In 1947 Company Laws stated that 51% of business ownership and 75% of each company’s employees had to be Egyptian nationals. As the majority of Jews in Egypt were not Egyptian nationals, this greatly impacted on many Jewish owned businesses and jobs.


The State of Israel was established in 1948 and the Israeli War of Independence broke out. Over one thousand Jewish people in Egypt were arrested without charge. Jewish assets, both private and communal, were seized and sequestered, and Jewish schools were placed under government control. In addition to this, riots and bombings led to the deaths of over two hundred Jews throughout the course of the year.


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. Over 20,000 Jews, the majority of whom were stateless, fled Egypt for Israel.


From 1950 Jews were barred from applying for Egyptian nationality and anyone accused of Zionism had their Egyptian nationality revoked. In 1952 a coup led to the removal of the Egyptian monarchy and the Republic of Egypt was established. Further riots targeting all foreign communities and businesses broke out, and extensive land reforms boosted the popularity of the new regime. Despite this, government officials attended High Holy Day services in both Alexandria and Cairo until 1954. In this year, Gamal Abdel Nasser became President of Egypt, a post he held until his death in 1970.


Nasser championed pan-Arabism and in 1956 nationalised the Suez Canal. This led to a joint French, British and Israeli invasion of the Canal, known in the UK as the Suez Crisis. British and French nationals, amongst them thousands of Jews, were declared enemies of the state and given two days to leave the country with a single suitcase, leaving all their property and belongings behind. One month later, government proclamations denounced all Jews as Zionists and therefore enemies of the state. Over 1,000 Jews were arrested and many more detained in their homes, some without food. Hundreds of Jewish businesses and properties were sequestered, and many more blacklisted. Despite travel restrictions imposed on all Jews with Egyptian nationality, by the 1960s no more than 2,500 Jews remained in Egypt.


In 1967 the outbreak of the Six Day War brought a renewed surge of antisemitic violence. All adult Jewish men were either expelled or imprisoned and tortured. Many were not released for months or even years.


After prolonged international pressure, the Egyptian government agreed to allow the last Jews to leave Egypt in 1972. In 1979 Israel and Egypt signed the Camp David Accords, normalising relations. This paved the way for the small number of Jews still living in Egypt to facilitate Jewish tourism to the country. Surviving synagogues in Egypt are currently held under the care of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities. The latest to be renovated and rededicated was the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue of Alexandria, in February 2020.

 

Interviewees

SVUK is grateful for the support of The Exilarch's Foundation, The KC Shasha Charitable Foundation & The Shoresh Charitable Trust

 

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