From biblical slavery, to prosperity, to expulsion in the 1950's, the Egyptian Jews
have survived throughout a vivid and event- filled history, unparalleled by their
fate in any other nation.
One of the highest points of Jewish existence in Egypt occurred early in history,
including the centuries following the invasion of Alexander the Great in the fourth
century BCE. Combined cultural influences between the Jews and Greeks led to the
development of a Hellenistic Judaism, much as the Jews later became integrated into
Egyptian society and created a type of Arabic- Jewish culture. The Egyptian Jews
pursued and excelled in the fine arts, philosophy and literature: Hellenistic culture
and religious virtues, and during this period, the Jews prospered, building many
synagogues and temples.
Unfortunately, this period did not last long; the onset of the Roman and later Christian
influences in Egypt would bring with them a rising anti-Semitic sentiment throughout
the second and third centuries CE. The Jews tried to resist, but were overwhelmed;
at the same time, the Jewish community itself began to atrophy through emigration
It was not until the Arab conquest (640 CE) that the Jews began to regain their social
and cultural strength. From 640 to the late 900s, Jews owned and ran their own universities,
served in the courts, and saw a period of relative economic prosperity. From 969,
the Fatimid caliphs ruled Egypt as part of what was known as the Ayyubid empire (969-1250),
and the Jews continued to flourish in cultural and political spheres, gaining recognition
at court and the right to self-rule.
In 1301, however, the new Mameluke rulers, who formerly had been slaves, began a
campaign to identify and exterminate non-Muslims. The Jews, along with others including
the Christians and Samaritans, began to flee or were executed until their numbers
were diminished to less than 900, a far cry from the estimated 12-20 000 who flourished
in the mid- twelfth century.
After 1492, as a result of their forced expulsion from Spain and Portugal, the Sephardim
of the Iberian Peninsula began a mass emigration to Egypt. In the ensuing years,
many Jews gained high posts in the Ottoman (Turkish) courts which ruled at that time,
and the Jewish finance minister was officially regarded as the political leader of
the Jews. At the same time, the Jews of North- West Africa began to move into Egypt,
and the Jewish community gradually became more complex.
In the meantime, the Turks grew less tolerant of the Jews, and when Egypt tried to
break free of Turkish rule, the Jews suffered. Nevertheless, the Jews continued to
resist pogroms, persecution and economic containment's, including the heavy taxation
enforced by governor Ali Bey during the emancipation, in his attempt to re-establish
the old Ayyubid empire in 1768.
Napoleon's influence in Egypt, between 1798 and 1801, led to yet another difficult
time for the Jews. While he appeared to support the Jews, much of his activity was,
in fact, deleterious to the Jewish community. Once again, heavy taxes and violence
emerged, and in particular, Napoleon was responsible for destroying an Alexandrian
synagogue. But the retreat of the French brought upon a sudden surge in the overall
European population in Egypt, and Jewish numbers began to rise once more. New legislation
protected the Jews and gave them new privileged status, tax exemptions, and legal
protection as foreign nationals. With these reforms came a new growth in the economic
and cultural roles of the Egyptian Jew. Among the most noted Jews of this period
was Ya'qub Sanu' (Sanua) , a satirist playwright who achieved prominence until his
expulsion in 1878.
The year 1881 brought the British to Egypt and, with them, came an increased tolerance,
which helped to raise the Jews to a new level of prosperity. A form of economic and
cultural renaissance followed, during which time many elegant homes and temples were
built, schools were established, and ultimately, the Jews in Egypt began to surpass
the native Egyptian in both education and cultural integrity. By 1917, the numbers
of Jews in Egypt had risen to 60 000, most of whom had been deeply affected by European
influences. Most had been educated in foreign schools and spoke Arabic only as a
second language, and the Jewish community was understood to be entirely distinct
from Egyptian or Arabic cultures.
Individual Jews played an important role in Egyptian nationalism. Jewish scholar
Murad Beh Farag (1866-1956) was an Egyptian nationalist. His poem, 'My Homeland Egypt,
Place of my Birth', expresses loyalty to Egypt, while his book, al-Qudsiyyat (Jerusalemica,
1923), defends the right of the Jews to a State. Farag was also one of the co-authors
of Egypt's first Constitution in 1923.
Another famous Egyptian Jew of this period was Yaqub Sanu, who became a patriotic
Egyptian nationalist advocating the removal of the British. He edited the nationalist
publication Abu Naddara 'Azra from exile. This was one of the first magazines written
in Egyptian Arabic, and mostly consisted of satire, poking fun at the British as
well as the Monarchy which was a puppet of the British. Another was Henri Curiel,
who founded 'The Egyptian Movement for National Liberation' in 1943, an organization
that was to form the core of the Egyptian Communist party.
After 1937, anti- Semitic activities in Egypt increased. Suddenly, anti-Semitic violence
was no longer considered to be simply a political manoeuvre for the personal gain
of the rising political power, but instead was regarded as a symbolic act of retribution.
An increase in legislated forms of oppression made it illegal for non- nationals
to hold high political, economic or educational posts (geared toward the largely
foreign Jewish population) and contributions were "solicited" for the Egyptian army.
In 1947, there were 65 639 Jews in Egypt, who could be categorized into four distinct
components by 1951: Arabic- speaking Jews of old Egyptian ancestry, Berber Jews,
the Sephardim of Spanish- Portuguese stock, and Ashkenazim, or central and eastern
European Jews. At the same time, Egypt was home to the largest body of Karaites,
descendants of eighth century Jews who split from the main body of Judaism. These
groups varied from each other because of their different cultural and historical
pasts, and yet the Jews of Egypt, as a whole, held together as a distinct people.
The many foreign influences, including Jewish immigrants who had come from abroad,
resulted naturally in some internal conflicts based on cultural differences and a
wide range of religious convictions. Furthermore, the integration of the Jewish people
into the commercial and cultural fabric of Egypt took its toll. This resulted in
a decrease in the intensity of religious beliefs among the later generations.
From the early - twentieth century until the expulsion of the Jews in 1956, Thousands
of Jews had their possessions confiscated and thousands more were arrested. Between
November 1956 and September 1957, 21 000 Jews were expelled from Egypt, and by 1960,
only 8500 remained. y the end of the Six-Day War in 1967, only 800 Jews were left
in Egypt, and in 1980 less
Jews in North Africa and Egypt
New, more fanatical Muslim rulers caused the quality of Jewish life in North Africa
and Egypt to deteriorate during the 12th and 13th centuries.
By Menachem Ben-Sasson (Professor of History at Hebrew University’s Institute of Jewish
The golden age of the Jewish communities in Muslim lands ended between the twelfth
and thirteenth centuries—first in North Africa and later in the Levant. Their situations
deteriorated as a result of major political upheavals in these regions: new regimes,
which valued Islam well above other beliefs inherited from Greek antiquity, came
into being. Intolerance towards religious minorities, Jewish and Christian, was one
of the more bitter consequences.
Taliban-like Dynasty Took Over North Africa and Spain
In the Maghreb (which in contemporary Arab geography included Spain as well as North
Africa), a new dynasty, the Almohad, came to power in the mid-twelfth century. Originating
in the High Atlas mountains among the Berbers, adhering to a fundamentalist and fanatic
form of Islam, the Almohads imposed their puritanical religious concepts on all Muslims
who came under their rule. The protection traditionally accorded to the “Peoples
of the Book” was severely restricted. Muhammad had given these nations, the Almohads
claimed, five hundred years for their Messiah to come forth; since the period of
grace had elapsed, the whole world was now obliged to embrace Islam.
Numerous Jews in Morocco refused to convert and chose martyrdom instead; others found
refuge in Ayyubid Egypt; but the majority stayed on, hoping that the persecution
would soon subside. The Almohads, however, remained in power until 1269. North African
Jewry was crushed under this brutal rule, and survived only by virtue of religious
dissimulation [insincere conversion]. This crypto-Judaism, however, could preserve
none of the creative energies which had characterized the Jewish community prior
to the Almohad conquest.
Many of those who converted to Islam did not return to Judaism even when the persecutions
abated. Yet the converts did not fare very much better than those who maintained
the religion of their ancestors. Suspected of “Judaizing,” they were humiliated,
spied upon, marked by distinctive clothes, prohibited from trading, and restricted
to base occupations. Often their children were taken away by order of the authorities
to be brought up in an orthodox Muslim environment. It was during this period that
Maimon ben Joseph and his son Moses (the famous Maimonides), refugees themselves,
wrote letters of advice and consolation from Egypt to the Maghreb Jews.
Mongols and Mamluks change Babylonia and Egypt
In the Orient, two major developments, both related to the Mongol invasion, transformed
the conditions of Jewish existence. In Iraq, the Mongols put an end to the Abbasid
caliphate (Baghdad was captured and sacked in 1258); and in Egypt the Mamluks, after
defeating the Mongols, formed their own kingdom.
Urban Life is Ruined in Mesopotamia
The Mongol wave destroyed the texture of urban life in Mesopotamia and ruined its
trade. Although Jews attained important positions in the administration at the beginning
of the conquest, their situation was gravely affected when the Mongols adopted Islam.
Delivered in to the hands of the vindictive mob, the Jewish communities paid dearly
for their ephemeral success.
Mamluks Harass Near Eastern Merchants and Minorities
The Near East—Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon—was under Mamluk domination for
almost three centuries. A military aristocracy of slave origin, the Mamluks--mostly
Turks or Balkan Christians taken from their families at a young age--were all the
more devoutly Muslim since they were foreigners and recent converts. They formed
an extremely centralized state. Its cadres were raised in religious schools (madrasa),
and they made every effort to curry favor with the Muslim theologians.
The Mamluk order was particularly resented by two strata of Muslim society: the urban
middle classes which were excluded from government, and the city merchants who suffered
from state intervention in the economy. Naturally, frustrations were vented against
minority groups, mostly against Christians and the Coptic rite, still numerous in
the high echelons of government and in commerce. However, in a period when the Covenant
of Omar was increasingly interpreted in a narrower sense, and when the confrontation
with the Crusaders intensified suspicion of non-Muslims, the Jews too had their share
Thus, it was a new era for the Jews throughout the Muslim world. They found themselves
economically restricted, ill at ease in a civilization which had adopted a new spiritual
direction, and ill-treated by the rulers who had once been their main source of security,
but were now intent on alienating the minorities.
Menachem Ben-Sasson is a Professor of History at Hebrew University's Institute of