Jews have lived in Egypt almost continuously for two millennia. In modern Egypt, the Jews had a good knowledge of at least four languages: French, Hebrew, Arabic, and English. Moreover, more than a third of Egyptian Jews spoke Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language. Though they lived in the East, the Jews of Egypt were exposed in the twentieth century to the cultures of both the East and West. They developed a unique brand of multicultural community that bridged between Europe and the Arab world.
Although many of the Jews had been in Egypt for generations, and despite their increasing demands, it is estimated that less than 5% succeeded to obtain the Egyptian citizenship. The rest were either "apatride," meaning with no citizenship at all, or they succeeded to retain a foreign citizenship from one of their ancestors. The great "apatride" majority had no identity cards, and if they wanted to travel they could obtain a "laissez passer," but no passport. The fact that they were not allowed to become Egyptian citizens, was an additional element which promoted their multicultural tendencies.
From the late 1800's until 1948, the Jewish community in Egypt was a vibrant, prosperous, and dynamic element of the Egyptian society and economy. They were considered "welcomed guests." One of the people I interviewed commented: "It was alright to be welcomed guests - but not for 2000 years - I wanted to be home by now!"
Towards the end of World War II, due to internal politics and the growing tension around the Arab-Israeli conflict, their status changed considerably. Under economic pressure and a surge of anti-Zionist propaganda, the Jewish community had to emigrate, leaving all their property behind. Out of the estimated 100,000 Jews that lived in Egypt in 1948, there are only about sixty very old Jews in Egypt today. This means there has literally been a "Second Exodus" which took place in our times (1948 -1967).
In the wake of Egypt's active participation in the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973, Egyptian Jewry emerged as victims of these conflicts. Many were interned in concentration camps in Huckstep in Heliopolis, and in El Tor, in the Sinai Desert, and they were expelled from the country in large numbers. Those who were not expelled, due to restricting work laws and other prohibiting measures by the Egyptian government, understood they had no future in Egypt, and they were compelled to emigrate. The still more unfortunate, who had succeeded to obtain the Egyptian citizenship, were prevented from leaving and became political pawns of the Egyptian regime.
The Jews of Egypt lost all their personal property and communal assets, such as schools, youth movements, synagogues, old age homes, hospitals etc, which have been estimated at millions of dollars. Everything they owned was confiscated by the Egyptian Government, and they were forced to leave with only twenty Egyptian pounds in their pockets. From a prosperous community, they found themselves paupers almost overnight. Several people suffered heart attacks caused by these tragic events and did not even make it to Europe.
The Jews from Egypt feel they have paid a very high price for the State of Israel and they are sad and frustrated that their narrative history is so little known and that their cultural heritage is disappearing.
War causes suffering on both sides of a conflict, as shown by the history of the Jews from Egypt. In these hard times, it is imperative to remember this. Not only Palestinians were uprooted and suffered, but so have the Jews from Egypt and the other Arab countries.
Yet, the multicultural heritage of the Jews from Egypt helped them in their emigration during the "Second Exodus". Their knowledge of languages and of the European culture helped them to integrate in their new homelands.
Another aspect of their multicultural character is their openness and respect toward other cultures. The fact that they had lived in Egypt and that they know the language and mentality of the Middle East bestows on them the possibility of becoming appreciative of the culture of their Arab neighbours. Their cultural heritage can indeed be an educational model and source of openness, tolerance and understanding, which can promote reconciliation, peace and harmony.
Reconciliation in the Middle East, as in other areas of deep-rooted conflict, can benefit from the bridging between nations through their cultural heritage. Culture, literature and poetry, can convey what no political speech can. They are particularly suited for analysing and reflecting fears and mistrust, and for changing them into more positive attitudes. The intercultural approach includes empathy to the "other", and can build up ideological, emotional and psychological motivation, that can help toward the "Sulha" - the full reconciliation between the two conflicting nations.
Prof. Ada Aharoni, 3/June/2004