Up until the 1950s, Egypt’s Jewish community was thriving, with as many as 100,000 residents. Today, only about eighteen Jews remain, most of them elderly women, struggling to maintain their community’s centuries-old heritage in a society that often no longer considers them full Egyptian citizens.
Magda Haroun, president of the Egyptian Jewish Community Council since 2013, is working to protect this heritage through the preservation of artefacts. She hopes to share these relics with the wider public, by establishing the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. As a home for all of Egypt’s historic civilizations, the museum offers the Jewish community a meaningful way of preserving its rich history. Well on the way to its grand opening, the museum has already successfully opened its first temporary exhibit this past February.
Boosting Haroun’s efforts, the Ministry of Antiquities has pledged to protect all Egypt’s Jewish monuments, including cemeteries and synagogues, and has allotted funds for the restoration of a collapsed synagogue roof in Alexandria. Altogether, there are about a dozen synagogues across Egypt, all of which are in need of repairs.
Before the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the impact of Egypt’s Jewish community was both widespread and deeply ingrained in the country. At a time when German Jewish film-makers were fleeing Hitler and Hollywood was steering clear of prominently featuring Jewish characters, Egyptian Jews were important figures in the country’s film industry. Jewish actress and singer Leila Murad was the most prominent star of Egyptian film in the 1940s and 1950s, while Togo Mizrahi, a founding father of Egyptian cinema, made numerous movies with Jewish protagonists in the 1930s.
Though less well-known, Egyptian-Italian Jew and Freemason, Yaqub Sannu, established the satirical newspaper, “The Man in the Blue Glasses” in 1877, one of the country’s first anti-imperialist and anti-royalist publications. Promoting activism and national unity, the paper even inspired the Urabi Revolt, which began in 1879 when Egyptian officer Ahmad Urabi led thousands of Egyptians to protest against the corruption of the ruling class.
Despite the contributions made by Egypt’s Jewish community, many Egyptians have unfortunately come to view Egyptian Jews, unfavorably. This trend began with the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, when many Egyptian Jews were branded as Zionist enemies of the state. This sentiment was compounded by a swelling Egyptian nationalism, following the 1952 coup and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rise to power.
The tendency to conflate Jews with Zionism remains strong in Egypt. Appreciating this reality, Magda Haroun has made a point of emphasizing that the two are not the same. In a 2013 interview with Egypt Independent, Haroun, whose father Shehata was a staunch anti-Zionist, declared Zionism a racist system and called for Judaism to be separated from Zionism.
Given its minuscule membership, the Jewish community has been spared the systemic violence experienced by Coptic Christians in recent years. Still, it has not escaped attack completely. In 2010, for example, a makeshift bomb detonated at Sha’ar Hashamayim synagogue in Cairo. Although no one was injured and the building was not damaged, the incident underscored the pervasive hostility that still exists towards the Jewish community.
In a 2016 interview with Niveen Ghoneim of CairoScene, Haroun observed that, with a small and aging population, Egypt’s Jewish community may very soon cease to exist. Her hope is that the community will live on through its preserved history, which she said “would be the biggest testament to what a pluralistic, vibrant and colourful society we once were.”