Legacy of Jews in the MENA - World Jewish Congress
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The Jewish Legacy of Egypt

A Jewish community had existed in Egypt since the sixth century BCE, though its size and heterogeneity fluctuated periodically in response to political and economic changes. According to the 1857 census, five thousand Rabbinic Jews and two thousand Karaite Jews lived in the country. Most of them were long-time residents in Egypt and were deeply rooted in its culture and language.

Common estimates indicate that by 1948, sixty to one hundred thousand Rabbinic Jews and five thousand Karaites were living in Egypt. Most of the Jewish newcomers were of Sephardi or Middle Eastern origin. Only a small minority was of Ashkenazi decent, never exceeding ten percent of the total Jewish population.  

The 19th and 20th Centuries 

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the Jewish community in Egypt had experienced exponential growth and underwent significant changes. These were not limited to the Jewish community alone, but the result of a general process of modernization that the country was undergoing. Relatively extensive governmental investments in education and infrastructure, and a fast-growing colonial-European presence in the country, created a high demand for people who were proficient in European languages, had  urban life experience, and received  a European education. The privileges (also referred to as the Capitulations) granted to those considered foreign added to Egypt's allure, and immigrants from across the Ottoman Empire and the Mediterranean basin moved predominantly to its two bustling metropoli—Cairo and Alexandria.  

Although Egypt only acknowledged the authority of the Hakham Bashi (government appointed chief rabbi) as the highest official representative of the entire Jewish community, a separate Ashkenazi community was established in 1865 along with its own organizations. Many of the Ashkenazi immigrants first settled in the Ottoman-turned-British Mandatory Palestine and arrived in Egypt after their efforts to set root there failed. Some came temporarily and others with the intention of staying. Others still stayed in Alexandria—one of the largest international ports of the era—partway through their journeys due to illness, impoverishment or at times opportunities that presented themselves. Some were transient residents who were feeling from conscription or other hardship utilizing the railroads that facilitated  movement across the Middle East.  

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Jewish girls in Alexandria, Egypt during a Bat Mitzvah procession, 1950s-1960s.

The size of these sub-groups within the Jewish community indicates that those of Sephardi, Levantine, and local origin were clearly the majority in Egypt. It also reveals that they were the majority of those who remained longer, possibly because they more easily found their place in Egyptian society, had wider and stronger local support networks, and were more proficient in the  Egyptian Arabic and later French and English after the 1940s. 

The Community's Characteristics and Collective Identity  

Over ninety percent of the  Jewish population in twentieth-century Egypt clustered in one of its two metropoli—the capital Cairo and the international port city of Alexandria. The elite of this community made up fifteen percent of the population. The majority of this stratum was comprised of well-established Sephardi families with deep roots in Egypt such as the Cattaui, Aghion, De Menashe, Shemla, and Cicurel families. Many of them had connections to families of the Muslim elites and even the royal family. Jewish residents thus invested heavily in the development of Egypt’s industry and infrastructure. The president of the Jewish community in Cairo between 1924–1942, Joseph Aslan Cattaui, was also an elected member of the Egyptian legislative assembly until its dissolution in 1922 and a member of the committee drafting the Egyptian constitution. In 1924, he became the minister of finance and later the minister of communication in 1925.  

Conversely, fifteen percent of the community were of the lowest  socio-economic status and included Local, Levantine, Sephardi, and Ashkenazi families alike. Ethnic stereotypes are still prevalent among historians of the region and of the Jewish world  that the Ashkenazi population was better positioned to take advantage of the new opportunities presented by Egypt's integration into the world's economy and colonial order. Recent research, however, indicates that the language barrier, lack of  familiarity with the cultural norms, and the impoverished state in which many arrived in Egypt after a failed attempt to establish themselves in Ottoman-turned-British Mandatory Palestine, meant that Ashkenazi families were often among those who struggled to find financial success. 

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Egyptian Jews celebrating a bar-mitzvah celebration outside the Shaar Hashamayim synagogue in Cairo

The majority of the newcomers, however, integrated relatively quickly into the urban middle classes, which had emerged at the end of the nineteenth century. Estimates include roughly sixty five percent of the community among this group. An immigrants' society and a strong urban middle class affiliation provided this community with its collective identity during this period. Informed by colonial cultural hierarchies, the Jews in Egypt actively distanced themselves from all that was Arab—both consciously and unconsciously—as did other non-Muslim communities. Putting an emphasis on education, they incorporated a western-European corpus of ideas, morals, sensitivities, preferences, and tastes, which they shared with other middle class communities in Europe and around the Mediterranean basin. For example, the first Jewish school that offered a French curriculum opened in 1840.  

Because being middle class became synonymous with being modern, Egyptian Jews began to overtly express their new identity. Wearing the "Ach'ar Moda" [lit. the latest fashion set by the fashion houses of Paris and London], reading French and English magazines; having a telephone, and owning a car or a refrigerator, they publicly marked their assumed modernity, which in turn helped them attract professional opportunities and allowed access to rapid mobility and cultural acceptance. 

Familiar with both the local and colonial social mores, many among the Jews of Egypt moved comfortably between these spheres and filled the intermediary role allocated to them by the colonial order. Many secured positions in the service industry, finances and banking, medicine, education, social services, commerce, international trade, and media. They now had enough capital to move out of the older neighborhoods of the city and into the new, well-equipped and European-styled areas. Even those with less adopted middle-class patterns of consumerism and leisure. 

Alongside Jewish day schools that were established, subsidized, and occasionally free, multiple synagogues, stores, and butchers provided services and supplied kosher products. Institutions such as the Jewish hospital and the Gout de Lait [a drop of milk] focused on maternal and infant health. Other philanthropic organizations were also established and provided care and support to those among the community who needed them. In the 1930s, a variety of Zionist youth groups were also active and provided teens and young adults with opportunities to interact and engage with one another and with Zionism. 

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Jewish Egyptian men congregate in the streets of Alexandria (1890-1900)

Dissolution of the Jewish Community of Egypt  

In their accounts, members of the community describe the period between the end of the nineteenth century and the early 1940s as Egypt’s golden age. By the end of the 1930s, however, the intermediary role that the Jews and other non-Muslim groups played under British control, which afforded them an era of prosperity, proved to be a double-edged sword. In 1919, reactionary responses to the lingering colonial presence that became a constant feature of Egyptian politics and public discourse in prior years exploded in the streets when Students and members of the urban middle class led mass anti-colonial demonstrations against the continued foreign control over the country. 

While the narrative of the 1919 revolution  was Egypt for all Egyptians, and was presented as an inclusive, sovereign vision, an exclusive national narrative replaced it in the 1930s. The foreign identity that was assumed by the non-Muslim middle class who filled intermediary roles under British rule now led to their rejection by other Egyptians as they were perceived as part of the colonial order. For the Jewish community, the escalating Arab-Jewish conflict that had been simmering since the 1930s exacerbated a feeling of insecurity.   

By the end of the 1940s, the Egyptian government introduced new reforms and restricted participation of the non-Muslim populations in the economy. In 1947, the Companies' Law limited non-Egyptian ownership of businesses and partnerships. In the early 1950s, the Free Officers' reforms, other nationalist policies, and Pan-Arab ideology further limited any "foreign" access to capital and  power.  

The establishment of Israel in 1948 instigated the first wave of massive Jewish  emigration out of the country, resulting in a loss of a third of the population of the Jewish community. The pan-Arab ideology dominating  public discourse in the 1950s further contributed to the feeling of instability, and the 1956 Suez Canal crisis instigated a second wave of emmigration . This time, the mass  exodus crippled the community and resulted in the closing down of its institutions and services. The third and final wave followed the Six Days war in 1967. Though a small number of Jews ramained in Egypt, within a few decades a Jewish population will no longer be present in Egypt.  

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Egyptian Alexandria Jewish choir of Rabbin Moshe Cohen at Samuel Menashe synagogue. Alexandria.

The Jews of Egypt in Israel and the Diaspora 

Of the Jews living in Egypt in 1948, roughly one third held foreign passports. Of those, many chose to emigrate to France or the United States. Some found a home in Italy, Australia, and Brazil, and  smaller populations resettled elsewhere. The remaining two thirds—of whom the minority held only Egyptian citizenship and the remainder were stateless—resettled in Israel. They did so for one of three reasons: religious yearning, Zionist ideology, or for lack of an alternative.  

Many Egyptian Jews  settled in the country's fast-growing cities and towns where their urban experience and skill set proved highly applicable and beneficial, and their capital from Egypt that afforded them a middleclass identity allowed them access to opportunities that were not available to other immigrants from the Middle East. 

The Jews of Egypt had access to education (including secondary education) in the cities and towns of Israel , and though they often had to compromise on rank and pay, many found employment in the same feilds in which they worked in Egypt. Relatively quickly, they made the necessary local cultural adaptations and—, unlike many other subaltern Mizrahi Jewish groups— fought their rejection from the Israeli mainstream. They thus secured both their economic and socio-cultural status    as part of the Israeli middle class. Ironically, it was their proficiency in Arabic—from which they originally wanted to distance themselves—as well as other languages that allowed them to fill an intermediary positions in Israel's labor market and public sphere, as many were recruited into the nascent intelligence and security services and/or Israeli broadcasting. These lucrative positions both placed them in a position of authority and provided them with economic security and social prestige.  

Almost six decades after the last large wave of Jewish emigration from Egypt in 1967 that marked the de facto end of the Jewish community, Egyptian Jews —whether they be  in Israel, the United States, or elsewhere—are very hard to find. As a relatively small community, which is comprised of a highly diverse group of immigrants, any specific local traditions unique to them  were apparently not successful in allowing them to maintain a distinct identity among the larger communities of Jewish Middle Eastern and North American immigrants. Their strong middle-class identity seems to have led to both a relatively quick and successful integration into the new societies to which they immigrated, and to their assimilation thererin.   

Jews In Egypt
Layla Murad (1918–1995)

Murad (1918–1995) was an Egyptian singer and actress who was a prominent figure in the Arab film industry in the 1930s and 1940s. She began her career as a professional singer at a young age, despite societal associations of female performers with prostitution. Her first major hit, Hayrana laih [Why Can’t You Decide?], was composed for her by Dāʾūd Ḥusnī, a renowned Egyptian composer. Despite her early retirement in 1956, her impact on Arab music and cinema is undeniable, as 27 of her films are still shown on Egyptian television and nearly 1,200 of her songs are still played on Egyptian radio.

Togo Mizrahi (1901–1986)

Mizrahi was a prominent figure in the Arab film industry during the 1930s and 1940s. He was a multitalented filmmaker known for his ability to produce, direct, and act in some of the most popular Arab-language films of the early 20th century. As a pioneer in the Egyptian film industry, Mizrahi aimed to present a diverse view of Egyptian society and highlight the significance of minority groups such as Jews, Greeks, and Italians. His films were recognized for their blend of musical and melodramatic elements, as well as for addressing social issues such as class divisions and snobbery. Mizrahi’s final major production was Salamah (1945), featuring the renowned Egyptian singer Umm Kulthūm.

Yaʿqūb Ṣanūʿ (1839–1912)

Yaʿqūb Ṣanūʿ (1839–1912), also known by his pen name Abou Naddara [the man with glasses], was an Egyptian political activist, journalist, and playwright who founded the satirical magazine Abou Naddara Zarqa in 1877, which was popular among both the literate and illiterate. However, due to the politically liberal and revolutionary nature of Ṣanūʿ's writing, he was exiled from Egypt on June 22, 1878. Ṣanūʿ's Egyptian nationalism was based on loyalty to Egypt as a state and geographic entity rather than on ethnicity or religion, and he presented Egypt as a pluralistic space in which Muslims, Christians, and Jews were united by a shared love of the homeland.

  • Joel Beinin, The Dispersion of the Jews of Egypt, (Los Angeles: UCLA Press, 1998)
  • Dario Miccoli, Histories of the Jews of Egypt: An Imagine Bourgeoisie, 1880s-1950s, (London: Routledge, 2019)