Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The history of Jews in Egypt stretches back thousands of years. Despite facing discrimination during the Ottoman era, their social position was strengthened during the nineteenth century and by the early twentieth century they played a significant role in the country’s commercial life. At its peak, in the late 1940s, the Jewish community numbered as many as 80,000, concentrated in cosmopolitan urban areas such as Cairo and Alexandria. However, Egyptian Jews were adversely affected by the swift deterioration of Arab-Israeli relations in the wake of the Second World War and the establishment of the state of Israel. The 1948 conflict with Israel encouraged an outbreak of deadly attacks against Egypt’s Jewish population, triggering the large-scale migration of thousands of Egyptian Jews over the next few years. Subsequent repression and violence in 1956 and in 1967 following Egypt’s defeat by Israel, with hundreds detained and physically abused, encouraged most of the remaining Jewish population to emigrate. Others converted, and by some estimates there were fewer than 200 self-identifying Jews remaining in the country after 1967.
Despite the signing of a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1979, Israel has retained the perception of a hostile state by much of Egyptian society, which has tended to conflate the Jewish faith with Zionism. Decades of propaganda and stigmatization in popular culture and across Egyptian society more broadly, including through state-run and private media, has led to commonplace, derogatory stereotypes of Jews in Egypt.
Egypt’s Jewish community has also faced discrimination directly at the hands of the state. For instance, an annual Jewish festival planned for January 2015 was finally cancelled due to a ruling by the Alexandria Administrative Court. Though previously called off in 2012 and regularly opposed by locals, the event commemorated the birthday of the prominent nineteenth-century Rabbi Abu Hasira and attracted hundreds of Jews, including many from Israel, to visit his tomb in the Nile Delta village of Damanhour. The Court’s ruling deemed the festival contradictory to Islamic traditions and a violation of public order.
Other sites of important Jewish heritage have also struggled with dereliction or disuse, with all of the estimated 12 synagogues in Cairo and Alexandria now reportedly closed or falling into disrepair due to lack of funds. However, after many years of neglect of Jewish cultural heritage, in the first ever step of its kind, the Ministry of Antiquities announced in June that it would begin registering Jewish antiquities in an effort to protect them from theft and neglect.
Egypt’s Jewish community, the country’s oldest still-existing religious group, is on the verge of disappearing. In 2015, they reportedly numbered fewer than 30 people, the majority elderly women.
Updated October 2017
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