EMIGRATION OF SEPHARDIC JEWS FROM EGYPT

Victor D. Sanua Ph.D

Before and after the onset of hostilities in 1948 between the Arab states and the newly established State of Israel, it is estimated that about a million Jews lived in Arab lands with the largest concentration in Morocco and Iraq.Algeria,Egypt , Syria and Yemen had smaller numbers. This article will deal with the experiences of Jews with their exodus from Egypt following the Arab- Israeli conflicts.The greatest increase in emigration took place during Nasser's presidency. Jews have been living in Egypt since ancient times. During the Middle Ages , the Geniza documents were accumulated in Cairo. In 1517, when the Ottomans conquered Egypt, a small number of Ladino- speaking Jews from Turkey moved to Egypt.Egypt was opened to the world when Napoleon conquered the country in 1798. While the occupation was short lived ( 1798-1801) , it left a strong imprint on the Westernization of the country. Mohamed Ali, an Albanian officer in the service of the Turks established himself as the ruler of the country and srarted a dynasty with his last reigning descendant, King Farouk, being forced to abdicate in 1952 after a military coup. During the Middle of the 19th . Century,there was an influx of foreigners attracted by the economic development of the country, particulary at the time of the building of the Suez Canal. Jews came from various parts of the world..A sizeable number came from Turkey who spoke Ladino. However;, there were groups of indigenous Jews who spoke Arabic and which included about 3500 Karaites who rejected Talmudic writings in the eighth century. There was also a group of Ashkenazi Jews ( 6000). Thus the Jews of Egypt tended to be heterogeneous. What bound them together culturally was the French language and the strong French cultural influence. Jews in Egypt, in general, prospered in business and manufacturing. By 1947, it is estimate that there were 80,000 Jews in Egypt with the largest concentation in Cairo and Alexandria. Many of them kept or acquired European citizenship , since the foreign countries tended to seek some local representation with these new citizens . In spite of their small number, the contributions of Jews from Egypt was enormous. A number of factors developed in the thirties and forties that made life a little more complex for them. There was a general concern about the conflicts between the Jews and the Arabs in Palestine because of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 which promised the establishment of a National Home for Jews in the country. In 1936, the Anglo- Egyptian Teaty was signed which gave Egypt some independence. A year later, there was another treaty which led to the closing of the mixed courts where Europeans sought jurisdiction with their legal problems. Other factors included the deteriorating conditions in Palestine. The Arab governments strongly supported the Arab cause. What brought about a decided disadvantage to the Jews in Egypt was the Company Law of 1947 which required companies to have 75 % of their office employees and 90% of their workers to be Egyptians. Thus, Jews with foreign citizenship were discharged from their positions and started having problems finding jobs, and a number of them decided to leave the country. To add to their disquiet, a number of riots took place in Cairo and some buildings and a synagogue were burned and a few Jews were killed in pogrom fashion. Conditions were worse when the actual fighting started in Israel,and some emotion against the Israelis was transposed against the local Jews accused of being Zionists. The entire history of these unfortunate events has not been judiciously documented. The present article is a meager attempt to reflect on these unhappy episodes of the Jews from Egypt, which is hardly ever mentioned in the current international press and literature. Egypt now has approximately 100 aging Jews and it is obvious that the community is bound to disappear within a very short time. Jews in Egypt, in the course of more than a century, were able to establish a rich patrimony of community assets, besides individual fortunes.A large number of synagogues with hundreds of Sifrei Torahs and precious libraries were left behind in Egypt and are now neglected since there is no actual viable community. People often hear about what Arabs left in former Palestine, but there is no mention of the wealth that was left behind - to which should be added precious religious artifacts and books- which are bound to deteriorate and ultimately disappear. In our next article, we expect to write about the trials and tribulations encountered by Jews from Egypt during the era that came to be called the Second Exodus. The material for this article was abstracted and amended from a research paper presented in Jerusalem by Dr.V.Sanua at the Eleventh World Congress of Jewish Studies in 1994. It was printed in the Proseedings, The History of the Jewwish People, Vol III, 1994.

Dr.Victor D Sanua is Research Professor in the Department of Psychology at St. John's University, Jamaica,NY 11439.

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