Cairo, Egypt – Over the past 90 years, the population of Jewish Egyptians has fallen from 80,000 to less than 40. Today, just 11 Egyptian Jews remain in Cairo.
Now, with the sudden death of deputy community head Nadia Haroun, Cairo’s dwindling Jewish population faces a daunting struggle to survive.
In the past, Egypt was seen as a safe haven for Jews, absorbing many who were fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe and Russia in the late 19th century. In the early 1920s, Cairo developed a thriving Jewish population in the Darb al-Barabira district, with many Jewish businesses, houses of worship and even schools.
“The Jews were once an important part of society, even as a minority. They were very well-integrated into different sides of society – economically, politically, and artistically,” said Amir Ramses, director of the 2013 documentary The Jews of Egypt. The film traces the complex story of Egyptian Jewish identity, from the beginning of the 20th century to the present.
After the 1948 war with the newly formed state of Israel – and Egypt’s subsequent wars with Israel – the population of Egyptian Jews dropped dramatically. Many were ousted from the country. Those who left by choice, went to Europe, and a few ended up in Israel. A small group remained steadfastly in Egypt, knowing the persecution they would face.
For 50 years, the word Jew was combined with the word Israel, or said in the same context.
During the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser, many Egyptian Jews were expelled from the country for being perceived enemies of the state. Even today, as Egypt continues to stumble through interlocking political, social and economic crises, Israel and Zionism are often tied to conspiracies to subvert and weaken the state. At rallies, some protesters torch the Israeli flag alongside the US flag, and suspicious foreigners are labelled as “Jewish spies”.
“For 50 years, the word Jew was combined with the word Israel, or said in the same context,” said Ramses. “That was somehow played by the Egyptian media, educational system, and the 50s and 60s regime propaganda. Those two words are really stuck together.”
In anticipation of Tuesday’s funeral service for Nadia Haroun, police in black uniforms with automatic weapons slung over their shoulders lined the perimeter of the building. Pick-up trucks with young conscripts holding tear-gas shotguns were stationed along the street leading to the synagogue.
Set back from the street, the Sha’ar Hashamayim (“Gate of Heaven”) synagogue in Cairo is a tall, grey temple with palm trees engraved on all four sides. Completed in 1899, the synagogue was built in a style meant to replicate the grandness of ancient Pharaonic temples scattered throughout the country. The design is also meant to highlight Judaism’s unity with a shared Egyptian past, from early civilisation to the modern era.
The last time the synagogue was full was during the 1960s. Today, it stands as a lone symbol to a forgotten element of the story of Egypt.
Nadia Haroun was the youngest of the remaining community members. A lawyer and architect, she passed away suddenly from a heart attack at age 59. She and her sister Magda Haroun, the president of Cairo’s Jewish community, worked together to manage the affairs of the dwindling group. At her service, family members described her as a voice for the Jews.
“We are all in shock right now,” said Nevine Amin, a close friend of the Haroun sisters.
The remaining 11 members of the community are all women, and the youngest is now in her 60s. Many of the group have converted over time due to marriage restrictions. A Jewish man cannot marry a Muslim woman, but a Muslim man may marry a Jewish woman, so the community has lost many male members who are no longer Jewish on official documents.
In the Bassatine cemetery, among the palm fronds and crumbling tomb markers, Nadia Haroun was laid to rest. Slum-like brick apartments and heaps of trash surround the grounds. It is one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the world, second only to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Once dotted with ornate tomb coverings, locals ransacked the cemetery for marble during a construction boom in the 1960s. Despite efforts by the past Jewish community president, Carmen Weinstein, the cemetery continues to be a dumping ground for garbage.
In order to protect the mourners and the burial, local residents were pushed out of the cemetery area until the grave was sealed. Traffic was blocked on the dusty roads running alongside the cemetery. “They do this for Jews, but not for Muslims?” complained one driver to another as horns blare and cars were backed up for blocks.
On days when nobody visits the cemetery, a state security officer posing as a groundskeeper watches over the graves. While this deters overt acts of vandalism, last year the grave of Carmen Weinstein was desecrated by local youth only hours after family members had left the cemetery and laid flowers on her grave.
Although more than 100 mourners turned up for Haroun’s funeral, the Egyptian Jewish community rarely enters the public consciousness.
“Perceptions aren’t just going to change in the next five years. The day this is going to happen, maybe there will no longer be Egyptian Jews living here,” said Ramses.
As Magda Haroun struggles to preserve the rich history of a fading community, there is now one fewer member to help her protect Jews’ place in Egyptian history.
Due to security concerns amid the ongoing detention of Al Jazeera journalists, we are not naming our correspondents in Egypt at this time.