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9 Facts about Jews and Egypt

April 3, 2017 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

Jews’ turbulent relationship with Egypt over thousands of years.

After centuries of slavery in Egypt, God led the Jews out of Egypt with signs and wonders and with great miracles that we celebrate during Passover.

Jews have subsequently had a turbulent relationship with Egypt. Here are 9 fascinating facts about Jews and Egypt.

1. Do Not Return

The Torah forbid Jews to return to Egypt: “for God has said to you, ‘You shall no longer return on this road again’” into the land where they were enslaved (Deut. 17:16). Egypt was corrupt; the Jews were to have no dealings with the country, even once they were settled in their neighboring land of Israel.

When the kingdom of Assyria threatened to invade the northern kingdom of Israel, King Hosea ben Elah turned to Egypt to form an alliance against Assyria. Isaiah the prophet warned against turning to Egypt for help instead of to God: “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help…” (Isaiah 31:1). As a result, Assyria invaded the northern region of Israel and exiled the 10 tribes who lived there.

Tragically, that wasn’t the last time the Jews of ancient Israel turned to Egypt for help. After the destruction of the First Temple, a group of Jews led by Yochanan ben Kareach went down to Egypt to seek an alliance against the mighty empire of Babylonia. The prophet Jeremiah warned them not to go: “If you would turn your face to go to Egypt...the very sword of which you are afraid will reach you there” (Jeremiah 42:15). His prophecy came true when Babylonia invaded Egypt, wiping out the Jewish community there.

After the Roman Empire destroyed the Second Temple and laid waste to Jerusalem, it also invaded Egypt and killed and exiled many of its inhabitants. Many rabbis felt that now that since the ancient community of Egypt no longer existed, it was permissible for Jews to live in Egypt. Visiting Egypt without the intention of living there was acceptable, as was moving to Egypt from third countries (which did not violate the Biblical prohibition on returning to Egypt from the Land of Israel according to many thinkers).

2. Flourishing Jewish Community in Alexandria

The Greek King Ptolemy I ruled ancient Egypt starting in the 4th Century BCE and introduced Greek culture there. Soon, a Jewish community sprang up in the city of Alexandria. Unabashed Hellenists, the Alexandrian Jews spoke Greek and occupied many key positions in Greek government and business. The community was large; some scholars estimate it was up to a million strong at the time.

Alexandria’s Jews continued to flourish well into Roman times. The Jewish historian Josephus described a semi-autonomous community there: “At their head stands an ethnarch, who rules and judges the people.” He also noted that the Jews of Alexandria were scrupulous in following the laws of their Jewish community.

Egyptian Romans rose up against Alexandria’s Jews in a series of violent anti-Jewish riots in 38 CE. Long the subject of simmering resentment, the Jews found themselves mocked that year when the Israeli King Agrippa visited Alexandria. An official pantomime show made fun of King Agrippa, featuring a clown dressed as him mockingly hailing him as king. Alexandria’s non-Jewish citizens joined in the derision and asked the local Roman governor to erect statues of the Roman Emperor Caligula in all synagogues there. The populace demanded ever more restrictive anti-Jewish edicts, denying them the vote and eventually countenancing all-out riots against Alexandria’s Jews. Jewish shops and buildings were burned, and many Jews were murdered. The local governor gathered 38 Jewish community officials together and had them publicly whipped, some of them to death. Jewish rights were only restored when the Emperor Claudius succeeded Caligula in 54 CE.

3. Rabbi Saadia Gaon

Rabbi Saadia ben Joseph, known as Saadia Gaon (Saadia the “Genius”) was born in Egypt in 882 CE, in a small village near the town of Fayyum, traditionally identified as the ancient city of Pithom which was built by Jewish slaves thousands of years before.

Rabbi Saadia Gaon’s life and work illustrate many of the conflicts facing Jewish communities in the Middle East at the time, as Muslim rulers imposed second-class status on Jews and Jewish communities found themselves in conflict over how to respond. Much of Rabbi Saadia Gaon’s early work was directed against the Karaites, a sect of Jews who rejected the Talmud and established their own customs and religious traditions. Over time, Saadia faced increasing persecution from Karaites, who broke into his home and destroyed his books and writings. He fled to Israel and spent time living in Israel, Syria and once again in Egypt before becoming head of the famed Jewish academy of Sura in Babylonia.

4. Dhimmi: Second-Class Citizens

As Egypt passed from Roman to Muslim rule, a series of laws relegated Jews to second-class, or dhimmi, status. Jews were forced to wear yellow as a symbol of their lowly level. Jews were forced to pay an annual tax, and the method of payment was meant to enforce their inferior status. Officials receiving the tax were supposed to keep the Jews waiting when they came to pay, scream at them, and even shove and slap them. Jews paying the tax weren’t allowed to raise their hand above the hand of the official receiving the tax. Jews were also prohibited from attending public events such as non-Jewish weddings, feasts or funerals.

Despite these humiliating restrictions, Jewish life flourished in Egypt, usually behind closed doors. Jews enjoyed parties and lavish meals with guests in the courtyards of their homes. Numerous documents survive that tell of getting together to play board games on Shabbat afternoons. Pigeon racing was a popular pastime: pigeon coops were located on the roofs of some synagogues, and Jews sent pigeons to one another between Alexandria and Cairo. Even the yellow dress forced on Jews didn’t diminish their sense of style. A letter from a Jewish resident of Egypt named Salama ben Musa ben Isaac in the mid-11th century describes a yellow shirt he ordered for Yom Kippur: “short and well-fitting, and of fine not coarse material”.

5. Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi in Alexandria

Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi, the great Jewish scholar, writer and poet was born in Spain in 1075. His philosophical work The Kuzari continues to be a classic of Jewish literature, and his beautiful poetry still inspires today. Yehudah yearned to visit Israel before he died: “My heart is in the East / And I am at the edge of the West. / How can I possibly taste what I eat? / How could it please me?” he wrote, pouring generations of Jews’ yearning to see the Land of Israel into his verse.

In 1140, Rabbi Yehudah finally departed for Israel, travelling with his son-in-law. In those days, travel was incredibly difficult; ocean voyages ran a real risk of shipwreck, and also of falling victim to pirates. Rabbi Yehudah himself had helped raise ransoms many times to buy back Jewish passengers who’d been abducted at sea. He now feared a similar fate, penning the words “decks and compartments rattle / stacked within the hull / men pull at the ropes / ...the cedar masts are like straw / ballast of iron and sand is tossed around like hay / everyone prays in their several ways / but you turn to the Lord.”

Eventually, Rabbi Yehudah arrived at his first stop on the way to Israel: the coastal city of Alexandria, in Egypt. Centuries later, scholars unearthed a trove of letters written by Alexandria’s Jews in the months before his arrival. Long fans of the famous poet, it seems all of Alexandria was in a tizzy wondering who would host him, hoping for the honor of the great poet’s company, and expressing intense disappointment when a neighbor hosted Yehudah instead. Arriving just before Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Yehudah stayed in Alexandria throughout the holiday season, but cowered at the thought of another ocean voyage. Perhaps, he thought, he should journey on to Israel in a caravan, instead, and started to make those preparations.

In the meantime, Rabbi Yehudah enjoyed the beauty of the Alexandrian Jewish community, writing beautiful new poems: “Has time taken off its clothes of trembling / and donned its finest gowns and jewels / is the earth now wearing robes of linen / richly woven, threaded with gold…” Finally, after months in Alexandria, Yehudah booked passage on a ship bound for Israel just after Passover. On May 7, 1041, he set sail for the Israeli port of Acre. There are conflicting accounts of what happened next: some maintain that Yehuda’s ship was lost at sea. Others point to witnesses that he arrived in Jerusalem in time for the Jewish day of mourning the destruction of the Temples there that summer. Some accounts maintain that soon after arriving in Israel, Yehuda Halevi was run over by an Arab horseman and died.

6. Maimonides: The Royal Physician

Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, known as the Rambam, was one of the greatest Jewish sages. Born in 1135 in Cordova, Spain, at the age of thirteen the Rambam had to flee with his family when Cordova was conquered by the fanatical Almohad Muslim sect, which forced Cordova’s Jews to convert to Islam on pain of death. For the next 12 years, the Rambam’s family wandered through Christian Spain, then moved to Fez in Morocco. Finding the practice of Judaism rigorously suppressed there and punishable by death, the family then moved once again to Cairo, where at last they were free to practice their Jewish faith.

By this time, the Rambam was already an author and one of the greatest rabbis of the age. He also became a physician, and worked for the king: Saladin, first Sultan of Egypt and Syria. A letter that the Rambam wrote conveys the high esteem he was held by the royal family, the non-Jewish population of Cairo, and the community’s Jews, who revered him as their rabbi:

I dwell in Fustat (the Jewish section of Cairo) while the king lives in Cairo (about a mile away). I have a very difficult appointment to the king. I have to see him at the beginning of every day. When he is weak or one of his sons or (other members of the palace) are sick I cannot leave Cairo and spend most of the day in the palace. Then I have to attend to the officers of the king….

When the Rambam arrived home, he explained, ”As soon as I arrive, ravenously hungry, I find the halls of my house packed with Gentiles, the grand and the humble, judges and magistrates, a mixed crowd…. I get down from my mount, wash my hands and go and persuade them to wait a little while I manage a light meal… Then I go to heal them and write whatever prescriptions they need. Sometimes they are coming and going all hours...sometimes my fatigue is so great that I have to speak to them while lying down… When night falls I am so totally wiped out that I can’t say a word.”

On Shabbat, Maimonides studied with his Jewish congregants all day long, answering questions and guiding the community. In addition, Jewish communities from all over the world carried on a brisk correspondence with him, posing important questions. The Rambam’s many insightful replies are still read and treasured by Jews the world over to this day.

7. The Cairo Geniza

The oldest synagogue in Egypt - some say the oldest synagogue in the world - is the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo. Tradition tells that it was founded by Ezra the Scribe in the 6th Century BCE, and that it stands in the site where Moses was found in the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter. (The waters of the Nile continue to flood the synagogue’s basement.) The building is old, though it’s been refurbished in recent years; it was sold to the Jewish community in Cairo from the Coptic Church in the 9th Century and converted into a synagogue.

The Ben Ezra Synagogue

The Ben Ezra Synagogue contained a secret room: the Genizah (Hebrew for a hidden place), which housed thousands of religious books, letters and other documents. Because these works contained God’s name, they could not be simply thrown out; instead, for generations, they were deposited in the Genizah. It’s typical to bury this type of document but, luckily for future historians, the Cairo community kept them instead. The room’s cool, dry climate was the perfect place to store delicate pages.

Over time, legends grew up about the Genizah’s contents. It was said that something terrible would happen to anyone who examined the documents. Nevertheless, it seems that in the 19th century, some antique dealers got wind of the Genizah and pilfered some of its contents, selling them to antiquarian collectors on the black market.

In 1896, two Christian brothers purchased some documents stolen from the Genizah and brought them to a professor of Talmudic Literature at Cambridge University, Solomon Schechter. He identified them as important Jewish texts, and led a group of scholars to Cairo, where he carefully examined the writings and brought the collection back to Cambridge (where most of it remains to this day).

The Geniza documents paint a vivid picture of centuries of Jewish life. There is an eyewitness account of Crusaders ransacking Jerusalem: “I was with him on the day I saw them killed in a terrible fashion...I am an ill woman on the brink of insanity, on top of the hunger of my family and the little girl who are all with me, and the horrid news I heard about my son”.

Marriage Document

There are more prosaic documents as well. The oldest known Jewish wedding contract was contained within the trove. Another letter was preserved from a woman whose husband was fed up with living with his in-laws and, to add insult to injury, paying them rent. He moved out, but returned every Shabbat to be with his wife. (The wife was evidently not pleased and promised to find a more agreeable place for them to live.)

8. A Second Exodus

In November 1945, an anti-Jewish student protest led to riots in Cairo, quickly spreading to Alexandria and beyond. Thousands of Egyptians drove through the streets of Cairo yelling “Death to the Jews”. Jewish stores were looted, homes were burned, and synagogues set alight and Torah scrolls and other Jewish books burned in a huge bonfire. Six people were murdered in the pogrom and hundreds were injured.

A Jewish Telegraphic Agency report noted at the time: “This correspondent saw young Egyptians come out of the (Jewish-owned department) stores dragging rolls of wool, with shoes, towels, stockings and other items bulging from their pockets… In many cases Egyptian police...merely stood by and watched or turned their backs.” In the middle of the riots, representatives of five Arab organizations presented a missive to all foreign diplomats in Egypt: “We beg to inform your country that all the Arab world is starting today this active struggle against the Zionists who threaten the Arab world by their existence in Palestine”.

Their words were prescient: rampant discrimination soon became the norm for Egypt’s ancient Jewish community. Starting in 1945, Jews were gradually forced out of public jobs; in 1947 Jewish schools were put under surveillance and forced to teach an Arab-focused curriculum. In 1948, Jewish organizations were forced to turn over lists of members to the authorities; in 1949, Jews were banned from living near any of King Farouk’s palaces.

Bat Mitzvah girls in Alexandria

After Israel declared independence in 1948, thousands of Jews were arrested and placed in camps. Synagogues, Jewish homes and Jewish-owned businesses were bombed. With a Jewish state once again in existence to flee to, the second Exodus began. Despite laws forbidding Egyptian Jews from moving to the Jewish state, between 1948 and 1968, over 70,000 Jews found managed to flee Egypt for Israel.

9. Few Remaining Jews

From a high of over nearly 100,000 Jews in 1948, fewer than 100 Jews remain in Egypt today. During Rosh Hashanah services in 2016, Madga Haroun, the leader of Cairo’s Jewish community, told a visiting reporter, “I don’t know if next year we’ll have members of the community.” Besides for Ms. Haroun, who is 64, all the other Jews in Cairo are women over 80. Another three elderly Jews lived at the time in Alexandria. When the previous head of Cairo’s Jewish community, Carmen Weinstein, died in 2013, the remaining Jews had to fly in a rabbi from Paris to bury her.

Ms. Haroun explained that life as a Jew is difficult in Egypt today. Although she is an Egyptian citizen, her religion is printed on her official ID card. Egyptians often refuse to believe that an Egyptian can be Jewish. “Sometimes at the bank,” Ms. Haroun explains, “they say, ‘We have to have permission of the embassy.’ I said, ‘Which embassy? I didn’t know that Egypt has an Egyptian embassy!’”

Anti-Semitism remains rampant in Egypt today. “It is probably the only ideological component that all Egyptian factions agree on, whether you are Islamist, secular or even those that the West describes as liberals or democrats” explains political analyst Samuel Tadro. “Anti-Semitism is the common language of Egypt today.”

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