A file photo inside Eliahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria
A file photo inside Eliahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria
Mina Thabet

CAIRO — Egyptian Jews are having to face the ugly truth that their community appears bound to vanish.

As recently as 1947, Egypt's Jewish community numbered up to 80,000. Today, by most accounts, there are just seven Egyptian Jews left, most of whom are elderly women in need of daily medical care.

The last time I met Nadia Haroun, one of the last survivors of Egypt's Jewish community, was in November 2013. I remember that day because I met her at the same time as her older sister Magda, the community’s leader.

Jews represent the oldest religious community in Egypt, which has faced a wave of propaganda, defamation and hate speech over the years. That legacy is still felt today through stereotypes and slurs that persist in everyday language.

I was criticized for writing an article in Arabic entitled, "We are sorry, Jews." Some wondered how a Christian could defend Jews, who some blame for taking part in the crucifixion of Jesus. Ironically, many of those critics are Muslims extremists, some of whom themselves discriminate against Christians.

A history of oppression

Unfortunately, Egyptian history is full of violations of the essential rights of minorities and vulnerable groups.

On Nov. 2, 1945, anti-British, anti-Zionist (and anti-Jewish) demonstrations took place in Cairo on the occasion of the 28th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. A synagogue was burned down, 27 Torah scrolls were desecrated, and among the buildings damaged or destroyed were a soup kitchen, a home for the elderly, a shelter for poor transients, the Jewish hospital, the quarters of the Art Society and several Jewish public buildings.

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From the outside of Eliahu Hanavi synagogue. Photo: Marcivist

After the 1948 war, a hostile environment against Jews worsened, as they were suspected of acting as a "fifth column" for Israel. After the 1952 coup, Jews were subject to detention, deportation and sequestration. In the mid-1950s, then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser initiated his policy of nationalization, which had a devastating impact on the Jewish community, as it controlled a broad sector of the Egyptian economy. American diplomats noted that sequestration decisions were filed against 539 Jews by name and 105 companies, in addition to Jews covered in the sequential orders filed against British and French nationals.

In November 1956, the regime modified its citizenship and nationality laws in order to keep Jews and other minorities from becoming Egyptian citizens. The situation became more complicated at the end of November, when at least 500 Egyptian and stateless Jews had been expelled from Egypt, not including a considerable number of Jewish citizens from Britain and France. Most of the them were heads of families, and they were ordered to leave the country within days. In most cases, the individual served with a deportation order was responsible for supporting his family, so all members of the family would have to leave the country. This measure led to the mass migration of Jews, who nearly vanished from Egypt.

The last ones

A small number of Jewish families stayed in Egypt, among them leftist activist Chehata Haroun and his family. According to Haroun’s daughter, Magda, when her father tried to fly her older sister to Paris for medical treatment, Egyptian authorities would only approve an exit visa with no return, so his daughter died without treatment and he never left the country. When he died in 2001, his family had to bring in a French rabbi to perform the ritual prayer for him, because there was no rabbi in Egypt.

The same happened with Nadia, who died in March 2014. I had the honor of attending her funeral. Egyptian state officials did not attend, even though they typically attend funerals of Al-Azhar sheikhs or bishops from the Coptic Church. Nadia left her older sister Magda alone to carry the burden of Egypt's Jewish community.

On the first anniversary of Nadia's death, Magda went to her older sister's grave along with her current Christian husband and her Muslim daughters from a previous marriage to perform their rites. She found that a group of youth had desecrated her sister’s grave. They also insulted her and Judaism. I can't imagine how Magda felt about that. It's very hard for anyone to see their beloved insulted in life and death, just because they had a different religion.

Heritage in decay

Despite the fact that Egypt has some of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the world, they have been left vulnerable to desecration and vandalism. Cemeteries are not the only neglected part of Jewish legacy in Egypt. According to Magda, there are about 12 Jewish synagogues in Cairo and Alexandria left without maintenance. The majority were closed because there is no one left to pray there.

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Photo: David Lisbona

There are also registers belonging to Egypt's Jewish community, which are part of history that need to be digitalized and safeguarded. The original written Torah also needs to be restored and kept in a museum, along with other parts of this dying community's heritage

Magda once told me about her deepest fear — that after she is gone, what remains of Egypt's Jewish heritage will be lost. I remember her comments at her sister's funeral. She looked in my eye and said, ""It's your history, Mina." Then she turned to one of her friends and said, "It's your history, Mohamed.""

About six decades of propaganda and hate speech finally led to the end of this country’s Jewish community. The same hate speech led to the forced evictions of the Baha’i from Sohag in 2009. The same hate speech led to the brutal murder of four Shia men in June 2013. The same hate speech led to a swell of sectarian violence against Christians, with dozens of churches burned down, and dozens more Christian homes and stores looted since 2011.

Hate speech and lack of equal protection under the law inside create a hostile environment for minorities. Since 2011, at least 40 incidents of sectarian violence have occurred in Egypt. Most of these followed hate speech, which incited the perpetrators to commit the attacks. Since 2011, sectarian violence has taken the lives of at least 100 Egyptians, where the absence of accountability and protection for vulnerable groups has become all too common.

We should learn from our mistakes. We should start preserving our Jewish heritage and restore our synagogues. We should face down hate speech and discrimination. We should stop sectarian violence and bring its perpetrators to justice.

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