Story of Egypt's Jews: Rich, complex, not yet over
AP Photos NY381-383 of April 16
By DONNA BRYSON
Associated Press Writer
CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ In a fifth-floor office nearest the creaky
elevator, behind a door that still bears the name of their late father
and law firm's founder, attorneys Magda and Nadia Haroun chat about
childhood visits to the synagogue and family seders.
It's tempting to see them, washed in the sepia light of late morning,
as relics of an Egyptian Jewish community that once numbered in the tens
of thousands but has dwindled to about 100.
It quickly becomes clear, though, the sisters are vibrant parts of
today. Their conversation ranges over their father's communism and
Egyptian nationalism, their own criticism of Israel's treatment of
Palestinians, the nuances of their legal speciality _ patent law.
They observed Passover _ with its traditional recital of the story of
Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt _ as they do every year, with a
family gathering Wednesday evening for the traditional meal known as a
Like the Harouns' story, the story of Egypt's Jews is rich and complex.
Most Jews left Egypt a half century ago, heading to the United States,
Europe, Israel and elsewhere when turmoil over the emergence of the
Jewish state of Israel made them unwelcome here and across the Middle
The Haroun sisters still count among their close friends the Muslims
and Christians with whom they went to school as girls, and each grew up
to marry Muslims. But much has changed in a generation, says Nadia
Haroun. Her daughter was ostracized when she revealed to schoolmates
that her mother was Jewish.
"She suffered a lot for telling the truth, because the mentality of the
people has changed," Nadia Haroun said.
The history of Jews in Egypt is a story most people in this
overwhelmingly Muslim country of more than 69 million barely know.
Some look back with nostalgia, saying a spirit of tolerance now lost
enabled Jews to contribute significantly to Egypt's cultural and
Today, Egyptian media are filled with words and ideas that would be
seen as anti-Semitic in most places.
Government officials insist that is an expression not of hatred of
Jews, but rather popular anger at Israel. Even though Egypt in 1979
became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel,
relations have never been warm.
Ali Salem, a Muslim writer and social commentator, sees more to it. He
argues that while Israel cannot be ignored, Egyptians' attitudes toward
Jews also were shaped by government leaders who thought in military
"terms of enemies and friends."
Since Lt. Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser led the 1952 overthrow of Egypt's
British-backed monarchy, the military has played a central role in
politics. Liberals like Salem accuse the regime of focusing attention on
"the other" _ Israel, Jews, Western imperialists _ to justify
Add the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt, and the result is a
country in which the government last year helped finance a TV series
that treated the anti-Semitic forgery "Protocols of the Elders of Zion"
Joel Beinin, who teaches Middle East history at Stanford University,
said that when he researched a book on the Jews of Egypt, he found
government records hard to track down and Jews still here wary of
telling their story for fear of getting mixed up in politics.
"Certainly the history of the Jews in modern Egypt is an enormously
contentious issue," he said.
Beinin's 1998 book, "The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry: Culture,
Politics and the Formation of a Modern Diaspora," portrays an Egyptian
Jewish community so diverse that community seems a misnomer.
Jews from elsewhere in the Arab world started arriving in large numbers
in the 19th century in search of economic opportunity.
Polyglot Jews immigrated from across Europe at the turn of the 20th
century, perhaps fleeing anti-Semitism, to form an element of the
urbane, cosmopolitan culture for which Cairo and Alexandria were
celebrated before World War II.
There were other Jews already here. The Karaites, Arabic-speaking Jews,
had lived in Egypt for at least 1,000 years and in their dress and
conservative outlook resembled their Muslim neighbors. A minority within
a minority, Karaites rejected the Talmud and relied only on the Torah
for guidance on how to live as a Jew.
Yoram Meital, head of the Middle East Studies Department at Israel's
Ben Gurion University, estimates Egypt's was home to 100,000 Jews when
Israel was founded in 1948. By then, he says, many Egyptian Jews
supported the creation of a Jewish state, though only half moved to
If there were supporters of Israel, there were also Jews like Chehata
Haroun. The father of lawyers Nadia and Magda counted himself an
Egyptian, not a Jewish, nationalist.
In the 1940s, Haroun, whose family roots are in what is now Syria and
Lebanon, was a founding member of the Egyptian Communist Party and over
the years was repeatedly arrested and detained. He remained a political
activist until the last years of his life.
When Haroun, an outspoken critic of what he saw as Israeli injustices
toward Palestinians, died in 2001 at age 82, he left instructions that
no Israeli rabbi officiate at his funeral. It had been generations since
Egypt had any rabbis of its own, and the funeral was delayed more than a
week until a rabbi could be brought from France.
"He was convinced until he died that he was an Egyptian citizen of
Jewish religion," Magda Haroun said. "He believed nobody can force you
to leave your country because of your religion. Many people did leave,
but my father was a stubborn man."
His two children sometimes found staying behind difficult. By the
1960s, their only relatives in Egypt were each other and their parents.
Magda Haroun, 50, said that when she finished high school, she wanted to
go abroad to college, but her father insisted she and Nadia, two years
younger, attend an Egyptian university before deciding whether to leave.
When they graduated, they were rooted.
They were taught never to hide they were Jews, though they say the
identity was mainly a cultural one after their grandfather died when
they were girls.
By the time he was a father himself, Chehata Haroun may have forgotten
the prayers he learned as a boy. But out of respect for his parents and
then as a family tradition, he marked Jewish holidays with dinners at
which non-Jewish friends often outnumbered the hosts, his daughters
The sisters say their children may decide their future is out of Egypt,
but they expect to finish their lives here, as their father wished.
"He gave us an identity," Magda Haroun said. "I see with my relatives
who left _ my cousins, for example, who lived in France _ for a long
time they didn't know who they were. They had this feeling a part of
them was still here."
The sisters have started going to synagogue again, mostly to socialize
with Cairo's other remaining Jews, women of their parents' generation
who gather at the blue-domed Gates of Heaven synagogue on holidays or
simply to chat over lunch. Once the synagogue of the elite, Gates of
Heaven is empty most days, guarded by police for fear of attacks by
"We are the last of the Jewish community," Magda Haroun said. "But I
think, like the pharaohs, like the (early Christians), like the Romans,
we have been here. It must be marked."