Six women are all that remain of a once-thriving Jewish community in Cairo

1 / 2
The neighborhood known as Jewish Alley was home to about 25,000 people in 1971, only 18 of whom were Jewish. (Photo/Supplied)
2 / 2
The entire Jewish community in Egypt, led by Magda Shehata Harun, now numbers six women. (AFP)
Updated 25 May 2019

Six women are all that remain of a once-thriving Jewish community in Cairo

  • Egypt was once host to the largest Jewish population in the Arab world

CAIRO: In 1971, Egyptian daily newspaper Akhbar Al-Youm published a story by journalist Abdel Wahab Mursi about Cairo’s “Jewish Alley,” and how it had changed during successive migrations by Jews from Egypt.
Mursi pointed out that the name is misleading and that this “alley” was in fact an entire neighborhood which, at the time of his report, was home to about 25,000 people. However, only 18 of them were Jewish, all of them elderly or widows. The rest were Muslims and Copts.
“The Jews who did not sell their property during the time of immigration never allowed others to live in the houses they left,” wrote Mursi. He also writes about a number of synagogues, including one called Rab Ishmael at 13th Al-Sakkia Street. Another, called Moses Ben Maymon and also known as Hermban, at 15th Dar Mahmoud had collapsed suddenly on the first day of Ramadan in 1970. Other temples mentioned in his story include Al-Torkeya, Al-Istaz, Rab HayiinQabous, Ram Zamra and Al-Yahoud Al-Feda’eya.
Almost 50 years after the story was published, much has changed in Jewish Alley. Most notably, the entire Jewish community in Egypt, led by Magda Shehata Harun, now numbers six women, according to a statement they issued in 2016 following the death of one of their number, Lucy Sawel. As for the synagogues, all but one — the Adli Temple in Downtown Cairo — have vanished or become derelict ruins.
“Both the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the outbreak of war between Jews and Arabs had a distinctive impact on the role of the Jewish community in Egypt,” said Egyptian historian and writer Mohammed Abul Ghar. Most of the Jews liquidated their businesses and property and migrated to Europe, America or Israel.”
Egypt was once host to the largest Jewish community in the Arab world. It was influential and involved in various aspects of Egyptian society. Although there are no accurate census figures, the Jewish population of the country was estimated to be between 75,000 and 80,000 in 1922, but had fallen to fewer than 100 by 2004.
At its peak, it included Arabic-speaking, Rabbinic and Karaite Jews, along with Sephardic Jews who had come to Egypt after they were expelled from Spain. In addition, trade flourished after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, attracting Ashkenazi Jews fleeing massacres in Europe. As a result, Egypt became a safe haven for Jews, who congregated in Jewish Alley and established a commercial and cultural elite. It would not last, however.

BACKGROUND

After the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Egypt became a safe haven for Jews, who congregated in Jewish Alley and established a commercial and cultural elite.

“During the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser (Egypt’s president from 1954 until 1970), the conflict between Egypt and Israel increased dramatically,” said Abul Ghar. “From the moment the State of Israel was established and invited Jews from all over the world to immigrate to it, Muslims started burning well-known shops owned by Jews, such as Chicoril and Ads.
“Several Israeli espionage networks, the members of which were Egyptian Jews, were discovered. In the 1980s, after Egypt’s victory in the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war, some attempts to emigrate to Egypt by a few families were made. However, according to the Egyptian constitution, after someone acquires Israeli nationality he is stripped of Egyptian citizenship and so faces rejection of all applications for emigration.”
In the days when the Jewish community was thriving in Egypt, Abul Ghar said that wealthy Jews monopolized certain fields of commerce, including “Mosa Dubik,” “Marco E’nteibe” and “Jalabaj.” They traded in scrap and toys, while “Mizrahi” and “Mozaki” organized textile auctions in Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra city.
Jewish Alley, meanwhile, was not very hospitable to non-Jews. Hajji Abdul Latif Fawzi, an 82-year-old former assistant secretary at a medical center, said that when he went there one day at the age of 10 he was hit in the eye with a stone that had been thrown at him. The Jewish residents prevented any outsider from entering their neighborhood except for the few Egyptians who worked with them in workshops and textile shops.
Fawzi said when he entered the alley, he heard someone saying “Joey ... Joey.” This was a word used to describe “someone who is not Jewish” though he did not know this at the time. Then a group of young men rushed toward him and attacked.
“In the 1950s things began to change gradually in the neighborhood, as Jews started emigrating to Israel,” he added.


Family backs Tlaib’s decision not to visit Israel

Updated 18 August 2019

Family backs Tlaib’s decision not to visit Israel

  • Israel said a humanitarian travel request by Tlaib would be considered as long as she promised not to promote a boycott against Israel

RAMALLAH: Relatives of a US congresswoman say they support her decision to decline Israel’s offer allowing her to visit them in the West Bank because the “right to travel should be provided to all without any conditions.”

Rashida Tlaib said she would not see her family, even after Israel lifted a ban on her entry, because the government had imposed restrictions on her trip.

“We totally understand her position and support her in her efforts. The right to travel should be provided to all without any conditions,” her uncle Bassam Tlaib told Arab News.

He was speaking from the family home in Beit Ur Al-Fuka, which is 3 km from the West Bank city of Ramallah, and was flanked by his elderly mother.

He said his niece had visited them many times in the past, but there had never been any conditions attached to her travel.

“She said we will meet when she can come without conditions,” Tlaib said. “One idea has been floated of flying the grandmother to the US or finding a way to have the two meetings in a third country. You know my mother is nearing 90 and it is not easy for her to travel but we are checking out all options.”

Tlaib, a Democrat, has criticized Israel’s policy toward Palestinians and had planned to make an official visit to the country.

Israel said a humanitarian travel request by Tlaib would be considered as long as she promised not to promote a boycott against Israel, local media reported.

But the congresswoman, who is Palestinian-American, lashed out on social media.

“I can’t allow the State of Israel to take away that light by humiliating me & use my love for my sity to bow down to their oppressive & racist policies,” she tweeted, using the word sity to refer to her grandmother. “Silencing me & treating me like a criminal is not what she wants for me. It would kill a piece of me. I have decided that visiting my grandmother under these oppressive conditions stands against everything I believe in — fighting against racism, oppression & injustice.”

The NGO hosting and organizing the trip, Miftah, has been criticized by supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Hanan Ashrawi, the NGO’s founder, said her staff had organized other congressional trips. “This was the third trip we have organized, and we try to do our work professionally and seriously,” Ashrawi told Arab News. “Our very mission is to promote global dialogue and democracy.”

Ashrawi said the attacks on Miftah were unwarranted.  “Miftah has been targeted with the expressed goal of trying to discredit us even though our record is clear. We believe that they are trying to keep organizing congressional delegations within the AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) monopoly, while we are trying to provide visitors with an opportunity to learn about Palestinian life under occupation and to understand the Palestinian narrative by providing opportunities for delegations to see and engage with Palestinians of all walks of life.” 

Ashrawi said Miftah had been “vetted” by the US Congress’ ethics committee. “We might not be able to bring hundreds of congress people like AIPAC, but we can bring a few and have them see, hear and interact with Palestinians.”

US President Donald Trump had called on Israel not to allow Tlaib and fellow congresswoman Ilhan Omar into Israel as admitting the two “would show great weakness.”

He tweeted that the pair “hate Israel and all Jewish people, and there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace.”