Exodus: Fall of the Jews in Egypt

New film chronicles the near-extinction of a community with roots stretching back 3,000 years

Cairo

From its peak in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the Jews in Egypt numbered around 80,000, the community collapsed. Today there are no more than a few dozen remaining. All are over 50 years old. Most are women who married Muslims or Christians, meaning their children have been raised as non-Jews and that the community will probably die out within a generation.

Now a documentary chronicling their experiences has been released in Egyptian cinemas. Billed as the first film of this kind to be allowed out on general release, Jews of Egypt presents an account of a community whose 20th-century fortunes, once so buoyant, suddenly came crashing down.

In the early years of Nasser's nationalist revolution, the Jewish presence in Egypt disintegrated. Rabbi Andrew Baker, an American trying to establish a fund to preserve Egypt's Jewish monuments, said it is possible to question whether there was any future left for Jews in Egypt. He added that the remnants are possessed by a "schizophrenic" outlook on their position in society.

On one hand they are proud of a legacy that stretches back 3,000 years to the time of Ramses II, but on the other they live a precarious existence in a country weaned on decades of antipathy towards Israel – which has fought four wars with Egypt since 1948. "They know that Jews are associated with Israel," he said. "My sense is they feel it might encourage popular anger if they are too open about their religion."

It was not always like this. The great Jewish scholar Maimonides was once physician to Saladin, the medieval foe of King Richard the Lionheart. More recently, in the early 20th century, King Fouad recruited two Jewish scions of the famous Qattawi family to be his finance minister and speech writer. His playboy son, Farouk, meanwhile, employed them in a rather less august context; his mistress and his card-table chums were Jewish.

Anti-Semitic sentiment had been fuelled at times by the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood and a rising tide of nationalism. But after the creation of Israel in 1948, the mood started turning very sour. Following the Suez crisis of 1956, when Israel helped Britain and France invade Egypt to reclaim the Suez Canal and topple Nasser, the government ordered a wave of expulsions. The nation's wealthier Jews had often been implacably opposed to Israel, but about a fifth of the country's Jewry – more than 15,000 refugees – eventually emigrated east to the new Jewish state.

Today the Jews of Egypt live in a climate of anti-Zionism which often boils over into outright anti-Semitism. "When Israel came to existence, people didn't feel comfortable dealing with Jews," said Egyptian author Ahmed Towfik. "Many mixed the concept of Zionism and Judaism."

The government has carried out high-profile restoration projects on Egypt's synagogues over the years, yet some among the Egyptian diaspora complain of official ambivalence. Cairo's famous Bassatine cemetery, allotted to Jews in the 9th century, is now partially submerged by sewage.

Yves Fedida was among the tens of thousands of Egyptian Jews compelled to leave the country during the wave of anti-Zionism that followed the creation of Israel in 1948. As a Jewish schoolboy in Hendon, north London, he sat down at his bedroom desk in the spring of 1959 and began writing a letter. He did not expect a reply – his missive, after all, was addressed to Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egyptian demagogue, Britain's arch-nemesis in the Middle East, and the man responsible for expelling the 14-year-old from his homeland. "I think I addressed it to the Presidential Palace," Mr Fedida told The Independent on Sunday. "Nowadays it would have to go through national security and would take about five years to get there."

Mr Fedida received a reply from Nasser after just a month. The Egyptian President wrote that with "great pleasure" he was granting him temporary permission to return to Alexandria and see his mother, who had been allowed to stay. The letter, signed in blue ink, ended with the revolutionary autocrat expressing his "best wishes for your happiness, and sincere admiration for your filial sentiment". Mr Fedida was permitted to return for only nine months – yet he was one of the lucky ones. Now 67, he runs a foundation dedicated to preserving Egypt's Jewish heritage. "You say the word Jew now and everybody freezes," he said. "You are automatically a spy or a bloodthirsty conspirator. It's a crazy, crazy situation."

Suggested Topics
Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
scotland decidesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping First Minister up at night?
Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Life and Style
techApple has just launched its latest mobile operating software – so what should you do first?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmSo what makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Sport
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes the hobby look 'dysfunctional', they say
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Maths Teacher

£90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher (mater...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for an ...

Maths Teacher

£22000 - £37000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: A West Yorkshire School i...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week