"Know for certain that your
descendants will be strangers in a country not
their own, and they will be enslaved and
mistreated four hundred years."
-- Genesis 15:13
The Jewish community of Egypt is old,
damaged and dying. Once a thriving population of
several million Israelites, the Egyptian Jewish
community has dwindled to several hundred Jews,
most of them elderly and infirm.
This is a sad end to a glorious tradition
of Egyptian Jewry which stretches back three
millennia to Biblical times when Israelite tribes
first moved to the Land of Goshen during the
reign of the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (1375-1358 B.C.).
The Bible tells the story of Ramses II (1298-1232
B.C.), his enslavement of Jews and their
subsequent revolt and Exodus across the Sinai
desert to Canaan. Jewish traders traveled back
and forth across the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt for
centuries thereafter, often using Egypt as an
escape route to flee invading armies like those
of the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Romans.
Often these Jews failed to return to Palestine,
remaining in Egypt to found Jewish communities in
cities like Cairo and Alexandria. A substantial
Jewish spiritual community developed in the 5th
century B.C. at Elephantine, a powerful military
port from which the Egyptians fought Babylonian
expansion, around a controversial Temple which
mixed Jewish ritual with the worship of Egyptian
gods; local marauders destroyed it in 410 B.C. In
the time of Ptolemy Jews comprised almost a
quarter of the population of Alexandria and
remained a substantial force in the Egyptian
community for more than a millennium in the face
of increasing Muslim persecution.
At the turn of the 20th
century there were more than 25,000 Jews in Egypt,
mainly concentrated in Cairo and Alexandria. This
population had tripled by 1945, when the rise of
Egyptian nationalism led to anti-Jewish riots
that killed Jews and laid waste to a synagogue, a
Jewish hospital, and an old-age home. A
substantial number of Jews fled further anti-Jewish
riots in the late 40s and early 50s,
most racing across the Sinai for the relative
safety of Israel; emigration increased in direct
proportion with the escalation of Egyptian-Israeli
tensions. By 1957 only 15,000 Jews remained in
Egypt; after the 1967 Six-Day War there were less
than 2,500. The Jewish population dwindled
further in the 1970s, leaving only a handful of
Jews in the major Egyptian cities. The community
may have disappeared altogether had President
Anwar Sadat not signed the Camp David Accords
with Israel in 1979 and allowed Egyptian Jews to
once again establish ties with world Jewry.
Relations between Jews and Arabs in Egypt since
the peace have been tense but the Egyptian
government has protected the Jews right to
maintain their faith.
Most of the hundred or so Jews who remain
in Egypt live in Cairo, though a handful remain
in Alexandria. Most of them are elderly; there is
no rising generation to replace them.