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
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
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

Recruitment Genius: Weekend Factory Operatives

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This high quality thread manufacturer is curr...

Recruitment Genius: FP&A Analyst

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A market leading acquirer and m...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fully qualified electricians re...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service and Business Support Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: By developing intimate relationships with inte...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific