Since former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was removed from power, the situation for Egypt’s dwindling Jewish community has been dire. Adding insult to the economic hardship, security problems, and civil unrest that existed under Morsi’s short reign, the Egyptian Ministry for Social Affairs also canceled a $1,000 per year grant to the Egyptian Jewish community. This effectively cuts off support for a small group of 14 elderly Jewish women still living in Cairo, Egypt who rely on charity for their survival.
Morsi’s leadership also made it impossible for Israeli Jews to go on religious pilgrimages to Egypt, in addition to his numerous antisemitic statements which surrounded Egypt’s Jewish community with an atmosphere of fear. The anti-Christian violence within Egypt and threats by radicals to curtail Jewish minority rights also deeply troubles what is left of Egypt’s Jewish community, a remnant of what used to be a 75,000 strong Jewish population which was either forcefully expelled or compelled to leave through post-Israeli independence discrimination.
Levana Zamir, head of the International Association of Jews from Egypt, emphasizes that the situation is very difficult for minorities in Egypt right now, especially for the Copts. She notes, “The Jews left in Egypt aren’t feeling safe. But now, all of the fury is against the Copts, not the Jews. They are doing to them what they did to us in ’48, ’57, ’67, and in the Yom Kippur war.” She explains, “They burned down our synagogues in 1945 before the creation of the State of Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood burnt two syngogues, in Cairo and Alexandria. Some of us were expelled, while others left by their own will because of the executions, our rights were taken from us, we couldn’t work where we wanted, we couldn’t study at universities, there was no future for Jews in Egypt. That’s why most of us left. Thirty years ago, only 150 Jews were left in Egypt and since then they died. Now what you can find is only a few old people married to non-Jews.”
While Jews are not the main target of the violence due to the community’s size, the few Jews left in Egypt still face intense discrimination since Mubarak was overthrown. A recent example was the sentencing of former Egyptian Jewish leader Carmen Weinstein to three years in prison when a Muslim man with no proof falsely claimed she sold him Jewish community property. The court believed him simply because he was Muslim and Weinstein was forced to go into hiding. She died soon after this incident, despite being given her freedom in a subsequent ruling. “They wanted her to be lower profile. They persecuted her for promoting the Jewish community,” Zamir emphasized.
Under Mubarak, there were plans by the Supreme Council of Antiquities to renovate all of the historic synagogues in Egypt. Since Mubarak’s political demise, nothing has been done, with Egyptian authorities neglecting Jewish antiquities. Zamir also decries Egyptian authorities ending the Jewish community’s hosting foreign Jews for a special minyan during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur at Alexandria’s historic Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue. “It was the first time in the history of Egyptian Jewry that Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur prayers don’t exist at this ancient synagogue. Since Mubarak’s fall from power, there is no more heritage.”
Aside from obstacles to preserving Jewish heritage in Egypt, antisemitism is also a major problem. “In Egypt, to be called a Jew is the biggest insult,” Zamir laments, noting that present head of the Egyptian Jewish community Magda Haroun “overheard someone calling the Muslim Brotherhood worse than Jews.” Furthermore, under Morsi’s rule, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to return Egyptian Jews to dhimmi status, requiring them to pay a humiliating jizya poll tax to preserve their right to live. Understandably, the politically liberal Egyptian Jewish community supported the ouster of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood regime, which promoted a brand of shariah (Islamic law) that would have made living as a Jew in Egypt virtually impossible. Sadly, there have been no improvements since Morsi was deposed.
Zamir also notes that it is dangerous for Jews living in Egypt to have any connection with Israel, including maintaining relationships with Egyptian Jews living in Israel. They are even forced to take anti-Israel stances. For this reason, Zamir cannot help Egyptian Jews directly, despite her deep desire to do just that. The anti-Israel hatred is evidently so strong in Egypt that the Egyptian Jewish community was forced to remove the name “Israeli” from their official name in Arabic. “The hate is really bad. Only when there will be democracy will there be peace. This will happen only when there is acceptance of the other,” Zamir emphasizes.
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About the Author: Rachel Avraham is a news editor and political analyst for Jerusalem Online News, the English language internet edition of Israel's Channel 2 News. She completed her masters degree in Middle Eastern Studies at Ben-Gurion University. The subject of her MA thesis was: "Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab media."
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