Ties That Bind – From Moses to Suez and Sixty Years On

When I tell people that I was born in Egypt, they usually remark, “That’s interesting, but didn’t all the Jews leave with Moses?” I reply that I left in 1956 after the second exodus—the Suez Crisis of 1956. Meanwhile most Egyptians will insist that no Jews ever lived in Egypt. In fact, although largely oblivious to each other, the two peoples have cohabited continuously for thousands of years right up to the present day. This is the land we never left.

The sixtieth anniversary of the Suez Crisis has prompted numerous publications focusing on the events of the 1950s. Too many fail to consider the complete history of the Jews of Egypt. Those who watched Simon Schama’s television series The Story of the Jews will remember the remains of the synagogue on the island of Elephantine, of Aswan, dating back to c.500 BCE. Since then, there have been successive cycles of Jewish immigration, repression and emigration.

The Ptolemaic successors to Alexander the Great brought Jewish slaves to Alexandria around 300 BCE. At that time, the Hellenised Jewish community numbered 180,000. They suffered under the subsequent Roman occupation that brutally repressed a Jewish uprising in 115, twenty years before Bar Kochba in Judea. The Arabs from Mecca invaded Egypt in 642, submitting Jews to alternating cycles of submission and tolerance. During a period of tolerance, Maimonides settled in Egypt, becoming the court physician to Saladin. He wrote the Mishneh Torah and Guide to the Perplexed in Arabic before dying in Egypt in 1204. The Cairo Genizah, a treasure trove of Jewish manuscripts and scrolls, also dates from this period.

Almost five hundred years ago, the Ottomans conquered Egypt in 1517 and welcomed Jews to develop international trade. The price of cotton quadrupled during the American Civil War, resulting in a boom in Egyptian cotton. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Egypt became a golden medina to which people from all over Europe and the Middle East flocked, including many Jews. More Jewish immigration followed from Palestine, Salonika and Smyrna (today Izmir) during the First World War and following the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire.

From then on, the Egyptian–Jewish community would be largely composed of immigrants. The indigenous Arabic-speaking Egyptian Jews were reduced to a minority whose poorer elements clustered around the Hart el’Yahood (Jewish Quarter) in Cairo. Numbering around 60,000 in 1917, it was the most prosperous in the Middle East. The majority were Sefaradim and Mizrahim (Oriental), alongside a few Ashkenazim. There was also a large Karaite community that maintained its separate identity and religious practices, adhering solely to the Pentateuch and ignoring the Oral Law, not celebrating, for instance, Hanukah, and rejecting tephillin and mezuzoth as amulets.

Whilst the original Egyptian Jews were mainly artisans, jewellers or moneylenders, the new immigrants leveraged their superior education and international contacts to develop international trade and contribute disproportionately to Egypt’s economic development in banking (Cattaui, Mosseri, Zilkha), textiles, food and urban development. The Suares family built the Cairo tramway network and Joseph Smouha, who was originally from Baghdad but emigrated from Manchester, drained the marshland around Alexandria to develop the idyllic Smouha Garden City. The stock and cotton exchanges closed on Jewish holidays. Even today, the main department stores retain their original Jewish names– Cicurel, Hanaux, Chemla. In 2001, I saw a crowd fighting to get into the Benzion department store in Aswan for the first day of the sales.

Jews were also involved in the drive to wrest independence from Britain. The journalist and satirist, James Zaradel Sanua, better known by his pseudonym Abu Naddara (Father Spectacles), published a pro-independence newspaper and supported the unsuccessful Urabbi uprising in 1882. Félix Benzakein, Victor Sonsino and David Hazan (condemned to death in absentia by the British) were amongst the leaders of the Wafd (Delegation) independence party led by Saad Zaghloul Pasha; Leon de Castro, editor of the El Horeya (Freedom) newspaper, was the Wafd’s itinerant ambassador. After independence in 1922 under King Fuad, Joseph Cattaui Pasha became the first minister of finance. The chief rabbi Haim Nahum Effendi, was a senator and wrote most of the king’s speeches. The king attended Kol Nidrei at the main Cairo synagogue to mark solidarity with his Jewish subjects.

At the other extreme of the political spectrum Jacques Rosenthal, Hillel Schwartz and Henri Curiel were founding members of the Egyptian Communist Party. Originally centred around intellectual groups mainly composed of foreigners, it only reached the wider sections of the Egyptian working class after the Second World War. Ultimately, the active presence of Jewish members projected a negative perception of the party that expelled most Jews after 1948, in spite of their strong Egyptian nationalism and opposition to Zionism as a bourgeois movement.

Alec Nacamuli’s exploration of Jewish presence in Egypt is featured in the 2016 Autumn issue, 1956: Revolution and Exile.

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