A Jew in Egypt

Shar Hashamiyim, Cairo’s largest functioning synagogue, is a grand old stone building sandwiched between ice cream parlors and department stores on a busy commercial street. It is instantly recognizable by the Hebrew inscriptions on its facade and the two Egyptian army jeeps parked in front. The jeeps sit there year round, ostensibly to protect worshippers from terrorist attack. During Rosh
Hashanah, when I visited the synagogue, there was also a soldier checking bags and identification cards at the door.

The building’s interior is oriented around an elegant wooden bimah that stands in the middle of the sanctuary. There is room to seat at least 600 people in the synagogue, but on that particular evening there couldn’t have been more than 50 of us. The upper balcony level was completely vacant.

During my stay in Egypt, I visited two synagogues with small but active congregations: Shar Hashamiyim and Ibn Ezra, also in Cairo. All the other synagogues I saw in Egypt were empty and unused like seashells scattered on a beach, hinting at the vibrant past of a Jewish community that in the 1947 census numbered more than 65,000.

The dispersion of Egyptian Jewry began in 1948 with the end of the British Mandate in Palestine and the establishment of the State of Israel. In the years following the 1948 Middle East War, the lives of Egyptian Jews became increasingly difficult. Jewish neighborhoods in Cairo and Alexandria were bombed by the Young Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood movements. Anti-Zionist demonstrations were commonplace. And the demonstrators sometimes turned violent, attacking the members of the mostly non-Zionist Egyptian Jewish community and looting their property.

With violence on the rise, Egyptian Jews began to leave their homes. Between 1948 and 1956, more than 30,000 Jews left Egypt. About 20,000 moved across the border to Israel and another 10,000 embarked for farther destinations in North America, South America, and Europe. Most of the rest of the community left Egypt in the late 1950s and early 1960s .

Today the Egyptian Jewish community numbers in the hundreds–mostly old women in Cairo and Alexandria. The Rosh Hashanah service I went to had no more than 20 “real” Egyptian Jews in attendance. The rest of the congregants were American and Israeli diplomats, travelers, business executives, and foreign students at the American University of Cairo, like myself. It was a motley group, but we had a minyan.

The service was conducted by Daniel Kurtzer, then the American ambassador to Egypt and an observant Jew. (He currently serves as ambassador to Israel.) It certainly wasn’t the exotic Rosh Hashanah experience I had expected. As I listened to the ambassador’s quick, undeniably American rendition of the prayers, I picked up an old prayer book lying next to me on the pew. At least this is Egyptian, I thought. Curious, I opened the book and saw, stamped in red ink on the front cover, “This prayer book was donated to the Jews of Egypt by the American Jewish Committee.”

After the service, the Israeli ambassador to Egypt gave a dry sermon about peace and security in the new year. It was certainly the most secure Rosh Hashanah service I have ever attended. In addition to the cadre of Egyptian soldiers outside, there were Mossad agents standing in the aisles with walkie-talkies to their ears and guns bulging under their jackets.

A few weeks later, the Al-Aqsa Intifada broke out. Within 48 hours, posters of injured Palestinian children started appearing around the American University campus. Students established committees to help raise money for these children, who stared down at us from the wall with wide eyes as we walked to class. There were rallies on campus almost every day with passionate speeches in English and Arabic denouncing Israeli aggression. Sometimes the protest organizers would burn a makeshift Israeli flag: a blue Jewish star and two horizontal lines painted on a bed sheet.

It is possible to see any of these things at a major university in the United States. What made the atmosphere unique was the absence of a Jewish–let alone Zionist–voice. I was one of six Jewish students on campus in a school of more than 2,000. Despite the relatively small number of Jews, the anti-Zionist rhetoric on campus almost never slipped into anti-Semitism. Most AUC students know the theoretical and political difference between criticizing Israel or the Israeli government, and criticizing Jews in general. But there were, of course, those few who didn’t know the difference or chose to ignore it.

During the four months I lived in Cairo, I experienced overt anti-Semitism only once–a message written on a piece of poster board where students were supposed to vent their feelings about the Intifada. I saw the message on a break between classes. It was written in green ink and it said, “They told us Hitler was bad. They told us he killed six million Jews. What’s so bad about that?” When I saw those words I stopped dead in the stairway. What I remember most is looking around, like I was scared that someone was watching me being Jewish.

The rest of the day I spent wringing my hands with my Jewishness. I wanted to talk to someone about the issue, but I didn’t feel comfortable bringing it up with anyone. The words reverberated in my head. I thought about what my grandparents, who survived the Holocaust, would think. I was scared. Not scared for my safety, but scared that everyone around me agreed with this one anti-Semite. But these thoughts lasted less than 24 hours. The next day I walked by the poster board again and saw it filled with messages denouncing the original green scrawl.

When I returned to the United States after studying in the Middle East for a year, everyone asked me the same questions: Were you close to the suicide bombing in Tel Aviv? And what do Egyptians think of Jews? The answer to the first question is easy. (Yes, I was a block away.) The answer to the second question is a bit harder. The only evidence I have to draw on is my personal interaction with Egyptians: friends, students, professors, and taxi drivers. A majority of these interactions were limited by my Arabic skills.

As I mentioned, the vast majority of students and professors at AUC are anti-Zionist, but not anti-Semitic. All my friends and most of my professors knew that I was Jewish. And I never once felt uncomfortable around them because of this.

Outside the walls of AUC, things are much different. Most of the Egyptians I met off campus did not differentiate between Jews, Zionists, and Israelis. And generally, their impression of Israel is pretty negative. (Egyptian national television tends to focus its coverage of the Intifada on Israeli aggression and Palestinian tragedy. Correspondingly, the beginning of the Intifada saw an increase in anti-Semitic newspaper articles and editorials.)

I made the mistake early in the semester of telling a Coptic Christian cab driver that I was Jewish, thinking that we could relate as religious minorities. Instead, he blamed me for the entire Arab-Israeli conflict. For the rest of my time in Cairo, whenever a stranger asked my religion (an almost daily occurrence in Egypt) I took a deep breath and said “Christian.” My other Jewish friends did the same.

Hiding my religion from cab drivers and shopkeepers was easy, while my friends from AUC didn’t care. The big test was my one Egyptian friend who wasn’t associated with AUC. For the first two months of our friendship I was scared to tell Hatim, a student of agricultural engineering at Ains Shams University, about my Jewish roots. Everything between us was great except for that one little secret. I decided not to tell him because I was worried that my Jewishness would end our friendship. But, at the same time, I didn’t feel right keeping such a large part of me hidden from a friend.

When I
finally told him during a late-night discussion about politics, it was completely spontaneous. He hardly even reacted. I couldn’t believe it. My Jewishness didn’t faze him at all. Instead of ending our friendship right then and there, as I had imagined he would, he went on to tell me all about his Communist uncle who had many Jewish friends.

After “coming out” to Hatim, he began asking me questions about Israeli history and culture. We talked often about the Intifada and prospects for a resolution. He was often critical of Israel, but always held onto the hope that the Israeli people wanted peace. That the Egyptian and Palestinian people wanted peace was, to him, self-evident.

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