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Jews in Islamic Countries: Egypt

Jewish Population
1948: 75,000    |    2020: <101

Between June and November 1948, bombs set off in the Jewish Quarter of Cairo killed more than 70 Jews and wounded nearly 200.2 In 1956, the Egyptian government used the Sinai Campaign as a pretext for expelling almost 25,000 Egyptian Jews and confiscating their property. Approximately 1,000 more Jews were sent to prisons and detention camps. On November 23, 1956, a proclamation signed by the Minister of Religious Affairs, and read aloud in mosques throughout Egypt, declared that “all Jews are Zionists and enemies of the state,” and promised that they would be soon expelled. Thousands of Jews were ordered to leave the country. They were allowed to take only one suitcase and a small sum of cash and forced to sign declarations “donating” their property to the Egyptian government. Foreign observers reported that members of Jewish families were taken hostage, apparently to insure that those forced to leave did not speak out against the Egyptian government.3

When war broke out in 1967, Jewish homes and property were confiscated. Egypt’s attitude toward Jews at that time was reflected in its treatment of former Nazis. Hundreds were allowed to take up residence in Egypt and given positions in the government. The head of the Gestapo in occupied Poland, Leopold Gleim (who had been sentenced to death in absentia), controlled the Egyptian secret police.

In 1979, the Egyptian Jewish community became the first in the Arab world to establish official contact with Israel. Israel now has an embassy in Cairo and a consulate general in Alexandria. At present, the few remaining Jews are free to practice Judaism without any restrictions or harassment. Shaar Hashamayim is the only functioning synagogue in Cairo. Of the many synagogues in Alexandria only the Eliahu Hanabi is open for worship.4

Anti-Semitism in the Egyptian press is found primarily, but not exclusively, in the nonofficial press of the opposition parties. The Government has condemned anti-Semitism and advised journalists and cartoonists to avoid anti-Semitism. There have been no anti-Semitic incidents in recent years directed at the tiny Jewish community.5

In September 2000 construction began on a highway-bridge through the ancient Basatin Jewish cemetery in Cairo. Cooperation and funding were provided by the Egyptian Ministry of Housing and an American ultra-Orthodox Jewish Athra Kadisha group. The plans will not harm any tombs and it will honor Jewish law concerning cemeteries.

Anti-Semitism is rampant in the government-controlled press and increased in late 2000 and 2001 following the outbreak of violence in Israel and the territories. In April 2001, columnist Ahmed Ragheb lamented Hitler’s failure to finish the job of annihilating the Jews. In May 2001, an article in Al-Akhbar attacked Europeans and Americans for believing in the false Holocaust.6 On March 18, 2004, ‘Bad al-Ahab ‘Adams, deputy director of Al Jumhuriya, accused the Jews of the terrorist attack in Madrid on March 11 as well as of the September 11, 2001 attacks.7

A positive development was the announcement that a Cairo synagogue built in 1934, which had been closed because so few Jews remain in Egypt, would be reopened in July 2005. The head of Cairo’s Jewish community, Carmen Weinstein, and Israel’s ambassador to Egypt, Shalom Cohen, arranged to reopen the synagogue, which the Israeli Embassy will help to maintain.8

On October 30, 2007, the Sha’ar Hashamayim synagogue in Cairo was rededicated by the city’s small Jewish community. Many guests from Egypt and around the world attended the event which celebrated the synagogue’s 100-year anniversary and the completion of recent renovations that occurred with assistance from the Egyptian government.9

In March 2013, Egyptian security agencies banned an Egyptian film about the Arab nation’s once-thriving Jewish community, called “The Jews of Egypt,” just a day before it was due to open in cinemas. Producer Haytham el-Khamissy said no reason had been given for the ban, which recalls the worst excesses of the famously censorial regime of former dictator Hosni Mubarak. The film is based on testimony from researchers, political figures and exiled Egyptian Jews, and presents a harmonious vision of early 20th century multicultural Egypt and asks “how did the Jews of Egypt turn in the eyes of Egyptians from partners in the same country to enemies?”10

As of 2013, the Jewish community in Egypt numbers only a few dozen and is quickly fading into extinction. In May 2013, the Egyptian government announced that it would be canceling its annual $14,000 stipend to the Jewish community which has been part of the state budget since 1988. The stipend had been used to pay for renovations to the Bassatine cemetery, the second-oldest Jewish cemetery in the world behind only The Mount of Olives cemetery in Jerusalem. The funds also helped to pay for security.11

In December 2014, an Egyptian court placed a ban on a yearly festival that attracts hundreds of Jewish individuals from all over the Middle East. The annual festival celebrates the birth of Abu Hatzira, a legendary Moroccan Rabbi revered for his kindness and known for performing miracles. Abu Hatzira was also the grandfather of famous Kabbalist known as “the Baba Sali”. The festival was banned by an Egyptian court because the celebration involves the consumption of alcoholic beverages, dancing, and casual intermingling of the sexes. The celebration takes place at Abu Hatzira’s tomb and as part of the ruling the court also ordered that the tomb be taken off Egypt’s list of antiquities, cultural sites, and monuments lists. The festival was called off in 2012 due to security concerns surrounding the Arab Spring. 12

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi appointed an ambassador to Israel in June 2015, following a significant three year lapse in diplomatic relations between the countries.13 Former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi recalled the previous ambassador to Israel in 2012 in protest of Israeli treatment of Palestinians in Gaza. The Israeli embassy in Egypt was re-opened on September 9, 2015, after a closure due to security concerns during the Egyptian revolution that began in January 2011. On September 9, 2011, angry and violent protestors descended upon the Israeli embassy in Egypt, forcing the Diplomats and other officials inside to evacuate immediately. The embassy remained vacant for four years. Director-General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Dore Gold, stated at the re-opening ceremony on September 9, 2015, that, “Egypt will always be the biggest and most important state in the region. This event taking place in Cairo is also the beginning of something new.”14

For the first time since the State of Israel’s creation in 1948, Egyptian representatives at the United Nations voted in Israel’s favor, in October 2015. Egypt was one of 117 countries who voted in favor of Israel joining the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space Affairs. The Egyptian representative refused to comment before or after the vote.15

At the January 7, 2019, inauguration of the Cathedral of the Nativity, the largest church in the region, and the Al-Fattah Al-Aleem Mosque, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar said Islam obliged Muslims to safeguard houses of worship for Muslims, Christians, and Jews. In addition, according to the penal code, using religion to promote extremist thought with the aim of inciting strife, demeaning or denigrating Islam, Christianity, or Judaism, and harming national unity carries penalties ranging from six months’ to five years’ imprisonment.16

1 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, U.S. State Department, (March 30, 2021).
2Howard Sachar, A History of Israel, (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), p. 401.
3 AP, (November 26, 1956); New York World Telegram, (November 29, 1956).
4Jewish Communities of the World.
5U.S. Department of State, 2000 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Washington, DC, (September 5, 2000).
6 U.S. Department of State, 2001 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Washington, DC, (October 26, 2001).
7U.S. Department of State, 2004 Report on Global Anti-Semitism, Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Washington, DC, January 5, 2005).
8 Jewish Telegraphic Agency, (July 13, 2005).
9 “Dateline - Cairo,” The Jerusalem Report (November 26, 2007), p.40.
10 Ben Child, "Egypt Bans Film About Jewish Community," The Guardian, (March 13, 2013).
11 Ponts, Zach, "Egypt Cuts Annual Stipend for Jewish Community From new Budget," Algemeiner (May 23, 2013).
12"Egypt Court Bans Festival Honoring Reverred Moroccan Rabbi," The Daily Mail, (December 29, 2014).
13 Fahmy, Omar/Aboulenein, Ahmed/Fisher Ilan, Allyn. "Egypt Appoints First Ambassador to Israel in Three Years," Reuters, (June 21, 2015).
14"Israel Reopens it's Embassy in Egypt," MFA, (September 9, 2015).
15Soffer, Ari. “For the first time ever, Egypt votes for Israel at the UN,” Israel National News (November 2, 2015)

16U.S. State Department