The Jews of Egypt

"Bon souvenirs"

By: Denise Douek Telio
published: October 4, 2004


The following is the text of a speech I gave in our synagogue. "Bon souvenirs"

A couple of years ago, after 40 years of silence, 15 of my high school friends found each other, thanks to the Internet. We had a wonderful and emotional reunion in Paris. We came together from Australia, Brazil, Israel, Europe and the States.

We had started new lives in our adopted countries, continued our education, worked, married, some of, us intermarried, had children and moved on!

How did we arrive to that restaurant in Paris? How did we lose touch with each other and get scattered all over the world? Were we refugees? To tell you that story, I need to give you a brief history of Egypt.

“Masr Um El Donya” - Egypt is the mother of the world, the Egyptians are fond of saying. It’s strategic location at the crossroads of Africa and Asia; make it a main route for trade and commerce. The Nile River flows through the desert, to the golden sandy beaches of the Mediterranean and gives life to Egypt. On its fertile banks and in its delta, crops and the best cotton in the world is grown.

The Pharaohs established a celebrated civilization. Then, Egypt was overrun by wave after wave of invaders: the Greeks, the Romans, the crusaders, the Arabs, the Turks, the French and the British. They all left their imprint and a tolerant cosmopolitan society evolved.

In the late 1800’s a Frenchman, Ferdinand the Lesseps helped build the Suez Canal

Egypt became a British protectorate. Britain’s World War II victory at El Alamein (just west of Alexandria) stopped the German’s North Africa Campaign.

The French and the British helped shaped the destiny of the Jewish community.

How about the Jews of Egypt? Each Pesach we recount the story of their Exodus. Moses led them out.

Why did they come back? One reasons is, it was a land where one could make a living.

The Genizah documents discovered in the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo, confirmed there has been a continuous Jewish presence in Egypt.

Jews fled the Spanish inquisition to other European countries and to the Middle East. On their way east to Turkey, some settled in the Italian city of Livorno. Remember Livorno.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and in the beginning of the 20th century, Jews from Turkey, Greece, Lebanon, the Syrian cities of Damascus and Aleppo made their way south to Egypt in search of safety and jobs.

Egypt’s King Fuad was protective of the Jewish community. He allowed Zionist organizations, youth and Maccabbi sport groups, and Alliance Israelite schools to function openly.

His son, King Farouk followed the same path.

Egyptians often said: Muslims and Jews come from the same root: we have the same father, we are all descendants of Abraham.

The community was thriving.

By the mid 1940s it numbered about 100,000, mainly in Cairo and Alexandria.

We lived in apartments, were neighbors with Muslims, Christians and other ethnic groups. We were free to choose where to reside. Few owned houses or land… mainly because they were not easily or quickly disposed of! There was a Jewish quarter: Ha’rt el Yahood. Was located in the poorer section of Cairo.

The majority of the Jews of Egypt were merchants, some jewelers or bankers. They owned stores and factories in textile, furniture and many other industries.

They had Muslim or Christian business partners and employees. Given a choice, Arabs preferred working for Jews, because they were treated better!

Funds were raised through tax assessments for individuals and businesses, the auctioning of synagogue honors and other social events. Some very similar to sisterhood Donor lunch! The ladies of the fund raising committee would gently persuade businessman to give, very generously.. My mother was on the committee…and, my mother does not take no for an answer!

The Jewish Hospital in Cairo and the one in Alexandria provided the best medical care..

Alliance Israelite Schools were free and open to all religious denominations. The community ran orphanages and old age homes and helped Jews in financial need.

Arabic public schools were available but most of us attended French or British private, boys or girls, schools, where we received a first class education. Those who needed extra discipline were sent to the very strict Franciscan nuns and the boys to the Jesuits!

Not me! I went to the Lycee Francais!

My classmates were Jewish, Muslim and Christians girls. We went to each other homes to do our homework and to socialize.

Upon graduation, boys were encouraged to attend the American university in Cairo, or to study in England, France or the United States. They returned as doctors, pharmacists, lawyers, teachers and engineers.

Young women rarely worked outside the home. They married in their late teens or early twenties…it was often an arranged marriage…(that’s the original J Date!) A dowry was paid by the bride’s parents and sometimes, in the Ketubah, there was a clause for a counter dowry, a sum to be reimbursed by the groom in case of divorce! Intermarriage was rare.

Most of the community was Sephardic with its own traditions.(but this is for another day!) Synagogue services were orthodox. Men would daven downstairs and the women were seated in the upstairs gallery…sometimes chatting so loud that the rabbi would stop the service and say: Ladies, we are trying to pray!

Afternoon Hebrew school, as we know it did not exist. A Chacham would prepare boys for their bar mitzvah and beyond.

Girls received their Jewish education from their parents and by example. Unfortunately,

it was not extensive. And definitely no Bat Mitzvah!

I furthered my Jewish education thanks to the women of Sisterhood,, to my children’s Hebrew studies and last but not least, to my husband.

Social life was swinging! Restaurants, movies, theatres, clubs were open to all.

As teenagers, we danced to the tunes of the Hit Parade and the top ten!

And of course everyone followed the latest dress fashions from Europe or America.

Business was booming, Life was great, the Sun was shining and indeed Masr was Um el Doniya!

But there was a dark side to Paradise.

Although Jews had resided in Egypt for centuries, Jews born in Egypt were not given the Egyptian Nationality. They could take on their parents nationality, that is French, British, Greek and so on.

If the parents did not have any nationality, well then, they were stateless, citizens of NO country. They needed to renew their residency permit every year in order to stay in Egypt.

They had no right to vote, hold office and were barred from certain jobs. There was a glass ceiling in many professions. In fact they were Ibn el Dhimma, a protected minority whose rights where not the same as the rest of the population.

In order to travel outside the country, they had to apply for a Travel document. They needed a visa to get out of and a special visa to RETURN to Egypt.

A few Jews, prominent in business and in the community were granted Egyptian nationality, but it won’t be of any use later on!

In addition, Egypt was not a democracy. No opposition party was allowed. The press was censured. Newspapers were often published with blank spaces if they deviated from the official party line.

Phones were routinely tapped and mail read. We knew, we were watched by the by the secret police.!

In order to get accurate information, we would listen in our darkened homes, to the short wave BBC News and immediately change the dial setting at the end of the program.

We kept a low profile. The mezuzah was affixed inside the apartment’s door, not outside…A Magen David or other religious item, were out of sight under our shirts,

One never, ever, offered a political opinion or criticized the regime.

But, we could live with these restrictions!

With the creation of the State of Israel and the war of 1948, the clouds grew even darker. All Jewish organizations were outlawed, their doors sealed with a red ribbon and wax imprint: Forbidden!.

Jews were beaten, some killed in riots, some hanged as spies. Others were expelled outright or arrested and imprisoned without a trial, on the mere suspicion of being Zionists.

Forgotten the fact that Jews and Muslims had the same father….we were now, Yahoodi Sahyouni, Kalb Ibn kalb, Zionist Jews, dogs, sons of dogs,

In 1948/49 some left for Israel via Cyprus. But the majority remained in Egypt, hopeful that the crisis would pass!

The clouds kept on gathering! Egyptian nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism (that is the Muslim Brotherhood who is still powerful today) were on the rise. The nationalists wanted to rid Egypt of foreign dominance especially the British. The fundamentalist were incensed by the decadent, un-Islamic life style of King Farouk

In Jan. 1952, major riots erupted in Cairo. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets and torched every business owned by foreigners. If you were a Jew and a foreigner, you had two strikes against you.! Major department stores, the size of Filenes and Macy downtown, owned by Jews, were reduced to rubble. When order was restored, Cairo was in ruins….

On July 26, 1952, an army junta let by General Nagib, exiled King Farouk and declared Egypt a Republic. That year, at the Rosh Hashanah services, 2 army officers, in full dress uniform, came to the beautiful white marble Main Synagogue in Cairo, and to Nebi Daniel synagogue in Alexandria and offered, “Greetings of peace for the new year on behalf of the Egyptian government”.

Big sigh of relief in the Jewish community! We can stay! No problems!

Four years later, July 26, 1956, Gamal abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Nasser kept all the revenues collected by the French. He needed funds to build the new Aswan dam and for other projects. In addition, Israeli ships were no longer allowed to use the Canal. Britain lost its foothold in Egypt.!

In the fall of 1956, France, Britain and Israel attacked Egypt, regained the Suez Canal. And won the war. The Egyptians sank ships in the Canal and made it inoperable.

Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, demanded the withdrawal of the allied forces.

They did …Egypt claimed victory…The U.N. forces came, and one of the consequences of the Suez War was: the beginning of the end of the Jewish community in Egypt.

All French and British nationals and many were Jews had 2 weeks to leave the country,

All their assets were frozen; businesses and homes were seized and sealed. They were allowed to leave with suitcases and 50 pounds per person…about $150 each.

My husband’s parents, my in laws, lit the 8th Hannukah candle, left their apartment intact, closed the door and headed to the airport.

Before boarding the plane or ship, men, women and children were bodily searched and their entire luggage thoroughly examined, to ascertain they were not taking any valuables with them.

Jews falsely denounced by their employees as Zionists languished in jails or detention camps for months without trial. Some were deported, in handcuffs. Within 48 hours they packed a bag and left all their wealth behind...

Sometimes, businesses were seized just because they were Jewish owned.

One day, my father walked into his office. An army officer was seated at his desk and was now in charge! No one could move a paper clip without his permission!

The handwriting was on the wall. The Jews were no longer welcome.

The mass exodus began. People would greet each other: What nationality are you? Where are you going and when?

Families were scattering! I have relatives in 3 continents and 6 countries!

Jews were selling everything they owned at bargain basement prices to raise funds for their departure.

The next step: Finding a country that would accept them!

Remember the city of Livorno? …Once again, it came to the rescue. A major fire had destroyed all its archives. Suddenly, many Jews in Egypt “remembered” they had ancestors born in Livorno and were able to obtain Italian citizenship

Even leaving Egypt was an arduous process. Once a visa was secured to a new country, one had to obtain an exit visa from the Egyptian government. Even the lucky few who had an Egyptian passport had to give it up. They left as Stateless. The final step was the signing of a document stating that one was “voluntarily” leaving the country, “voluntarily” giving up the residency permit and never intended to return.

Jews with a foreign passport could get visas to other countries, such as, France, Italy, etc. But half the Jews of Egypt were stateless. They had no nationality.. No European country would accept them. Only Israel welcomed them without reservation and helped them resettle.

A few were allowed to enter the States, with the help of the HIAS and other Jewish agencies. First, they had to wait up to a year in Europe for their visas, crowded in one hotel room per family! No cooking allowed in the room.

Immigration was open for Canada, Australia, Brazil and other Latin American countries.

Starting over in a new country was extremely difficult.

Imagine a family, just like yours or mine, grandparents, middle-aged parents and young children, arriving in Canada in January, never having seen a snow flake! Or in Brazil not knowing a word of Portuguese?

At our reunion in Paris, we asked each other: Where we egytian refugees? The answer was a resounding NO…we never saw ourselves as refugees… We were Jews expelled from Egypt and we had to start a new life!

Jewish agencies, communities, synagogues and private citizens helped, offering jobs, and funds. It was heart warming to see Jews were helping Jews.

The first order of business was to secure housing, enroll the kids in school and exhort them to study, study some more and get a job and become somebody!

Parents had to find work to provide for their families…

Sometimes creative resume writing helped. . Stockbrokers became insurance salesmen, manufacturers wine experts! Some greatly succeeded, other barely scraped by. Returning to Egypt was not an option.

A good sense of humor also helped!

After spending a year in France waiting for his US visa, a friend landed in Boston. Thrilled at his new found religious freedom. “Finally, here no one will ask or care if I am Jewish,” 2 days after his arrival, he is at Newton Wellesley hospital with acute appendicitis. The admitting nurse eventually asks: Do you have Blue Cross? Frozen with fear, he replies…”I do not have a cross, I am Jewish!”

Regardless, the surgery was very successful!

Following the ’67 and ‘73 wars with Israel, the remaining Jews were forced to leave.

When we lived in Egypt, the population numbered 22 millions. Now it is 70 millions.

It is sad to note, there is a whole generation of young Egyptians who may have never seen or interacted with a Jew. The only Jews they know are the gross caricatures portrayed in the Arab government controlled media,

Today, there are less than 200 Jews left in Cairo and 40 in Alexandria. Most are old and infirm.

The last 2 Jewish young women remaining in Alexandria came out of Egypt on September 10, 2001. Esther and Racheline Balassiano are here with us.

Soon, what Pharaoh set out to do will become reality. There will be no Jews in Egypt.

We have lost a way of life and our homes, our family and friends are scattered, but we have not lost our identity. We have become part of the Jewish community we live in.

The Jews expelled from Egypt and their children are doing well and are going from strength to strength.