A Commentary on
The Jews of Egypt :Yesterday and Today
- By; Rami Mangoubi Ph.D
In “The Jews of Egypt” (Elaph, December 22, 2005), author Nabil Sharaf el Deen is respectful of Egyptian Jews, and even acknowledges that they suffered injustices, including expulsion, during the Nasser era. The reader will also be pleasantly surprised to see that Egyptian Jews who fled to Israel are not described as traitors, a common accusation, but as a community that is “bound by profound longing for the motherland, Egypt”.
The article, however, contains serious historical errors. It wrongly asserts, or at least implies, that prior to the Nasser era, Jews lived in total harmony. While Jews in the twentieth centuries had cordial, warm and unforgettable relations with many other Egyptians, they still experienced suffering and exclusion long before the Nasser era, even long before Israel and Zionism.
Historically and through the middle of the nineteenth century, they, along with Christians, were tolerated as Ahl el Zemma, or Dhimmi. To be precise, they were shown condescending mercy provided they did not contest the inferior social and legal status imposed on them. The Dhimmi status implied the prohibition from testifying against Muslims in court, the prohibition from bearing arms or joining the army, and dress restrictions. Jews and Christians were also required to pay an extra poll tax, the guizyeh.
Shortly after Khedewi Said ordered the emancipation of Jews and Christians from the Dhimmi status in the middle of the nineteenth century, and cancelled the guizyeh, new and increasingly dangerous forms of marginalization and exclusion started to appear. As far back as 1869, long before political Zionism was born, nationality decrees were interpreted so as to deny Jews Egyptian citizenship. These decrees were consolidated into Egypt’s 1929 Nationality Law. As a result, more than 90 percent of Egyptian Jews were denied citizenship, regardless of how many centuries they resided in Egypt. The majority, or 60 percent, remained stateless (apatride or gheir mo’ayan lel genseyah), while others were able to obtain foreign documents. Despite the enormous Jewish contribution to Egypt’s economy, employment laws implemented during the 1930’s and 40’s thought to deny Jews opportunities even in the private sector. The most notorious of these laws was the 1947 Company Law, as a result of which a huge number of Jews, because they lacked citizenship, lost their livelihood.
During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, accusations of ritual murders were also common in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world. Nor was the article’s author made aware of the destruction of the Jewish synagogue in Cairo’s Darb el Barabra quarter on November 2, 1945, or the two massacres of Egyptian Jews that occurred during the Summer and Fall of 1948, shortly after the Egyptian army invaded Israel. As many as 42 Jews were murdered, and many more wounded during these massacres. No serious trial took place.
Also unbeknown to the well meaning author are the incarceration and torture between 1967 and 1970 of nearly all Egyptian Jewish males, in the notorious detention camps of Abu Za’abal and Tura. Nearly all were freed only on condition they leave the country, never to return; they were taken from prison to the airport without being allowed to see their homes, families, and neighbors.
It is rather disappointing and sad that Jews living in Egypt were unable to provide Sharaf el Deen with an accurate historical account of Egyptian Judaism; a strong indication that the dozen or so elderly Jews still in the country live in fear, a fear that many of us Egyptian Jews remember only too well. We never dared discuss such matters in Egypt, and when pressured to talk to the press, Egyptian Jews had to claim that all was well.
The more courageous individuals, however, would refuse to abide. I recall for instance the time in 1969 when Mrs. Flore Marzouk, a member of the community who was volunteering her service at the Rabbinate, was asked to give an interview to Le Monde. The security officer accompanying the correspondent to the Abbassiyah Rabbinate warned Mrs. Marzouk against any mention of the Jewish men imprisoned and tortured in Abu Za’abal and Tura. The official let her know that she was expected to state that Jews are well treated in Egypt. He also advised her that the correspondent should be made aware “that you are certain that both Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir (Israel’s defense and prime minister at the time), are criminals.”
That day, I was at the Rabbinate, now called the Jewish Community Center, delivering some food to be shipped to my brother and uncle at the Tura detention camp, and I recall how Mrs. Marzouk, with a mixture of determination, fear, and tear retention, flatly refused to talk to the correspondent from Le Monde under such conditions. As a result, the security officer never allowed the correspondent into the Rabbinate. Had he come in, the correspondent would have seen how incandescent with rage we all were at the suggestions of the security officer.
The article’s reader will quickly notice that courageous Jewish individuals like Mrs. Marzouk no longer live in Egypt. This is indeed a shame for we do see courageous Moslems and Christians like Sa’ad el Din Ibrahim, Ali Salem, and Tarek Heggy, openly calling for good relations with the Jewish state and even praising Israeli democracy. Even Ariel Sharon can hear good words from no less an Egyptian than President Husni Mubarak. The President of Egypt declared that only Sharon can bring peace, and, upon hearing of Sharon’s hospitalization, he called Israel and expressed concern. What Egypt needs and does not have today is an outspoken, courageous Jewish community leader who can explain to Egyptians what happened to Egyptian Jews, and what Zionism and Israel mean to all Jews.
Few Egyptians are aware that, while Egypt’s government denied employment and citizenship to Jews living in the country for centuries, Israel offered them both upon arrival. The largest percentage of Egyptian Jews, roughly 40 to 45 percent, fled to the Jewish state, while most of the other sixty percent or so spread to various English or French speaking countries, mainly the United States and France. We therefore are grateful, and indeed morally indebted, to Israel, and to the other countries that support her and took us.
The absence of any honest discussion of taboo subjects like Israel or the fate of Egyptian Jewry only reflects poorly on the country. Regrettably, in today’s Egypt, it is more common to hear Holocaust denial by high profile personalities like Mohamed Mahdi Akef, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. And such criminal bigotry is not limited to fundamentalist circles. William Fisher, who for a long time managed for the state department economic development project in Egypt and in the Middle East, despairs that even graduates of the American University in Cairo whom he considers Egypt’s future leaders, consider the Holocaust “an idea that's been pushed by the Jewish lobby in America.”
The sad irony is that such mindset constitutes an injustice not only to Jews who fled the country, but also to non-Jewish Egyptians who were tolerant to Jews. For it definitely ought to be mentioned that not a few Christians and Moslems friends and neighbors were affectionate to the Jews they knew. Our neighbors protected us from hostile elements in some neighborhoods like Abassiyah and Sakakini. They bought our grocery when it was too dangerous to step outside. Our custodians would chase away harassers.
The fondness that some Jews have for their former lives stems from such memories, and Egyptian Jews inside and outside Egypt have the moral obligation to act as a bridge of peace with Israel, a peace that an increasing number of Egyptian Moslems and Christians realize will benefit Egypt too. Jewish spokespersons must also inform Egyptians and others about the massacres, the incarceration, the torture, and the years of persecution, if only to explain and acknowledge the deep loyalty and friendship of Egyptian Moslems and Christians who stood by their Jewish neighbors and friends.
Rami Mangoubi is a Jewish refugee from Egypt. He holds a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and works as an engineer in the United States.
 For an excellent account on the lives of Jews in the Arab countries, Iran, and the Ottoman empire since the Seventh century, see Bernard Lewis, The Jews of Islam, Princeton University Press, 1987. The Dhimmi status is also discussed in Sanaa Hasan,Christians vs. Moslems in Modern Egypt, Oxford University Press, 2003.
 Shimon Shamir, ed., “The Evolution of Egyptian Nationality Laws and their application to the Jews in the monarchy period,” in The Jews of Egypt, A Mediterranean Society in Modern Times, Boulder: Westview Press, 1987, pp. 33-67.
 Bernard Lewis, p. 158.
 Al Ahram, July 16, 1948, and September, 23, 1948.
 I have personally lived through that period. Michael Laskier, Egyptian Jewry under the Nasser Regime, 1956-1970, Middle Eastern Studies, 31, (no 3: 1995), pp. 573-619. See also Norman Stillman, The Jews from Arab Lands in Modern Times, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1991.
 Ali Salem, A Drive to Israel – An Egyptian Meets his Neighbor, Syracuse University Press, 2003.
 “Mubarak Phones Olmert, wishes PM well”, Ynet News, January 6, 2006.
 Rami Mangoubi, “A Jewish Refugee Answers Youssef Ibrahim,” Middle East Times, October 30, 2004. Http://Www.Metimes.Com/Articles/Normal.Php?StoryID=20041030-025149-4018r