Egyptian movie star reveals a Jewish mother

Karim Kassem careful to stress anti-Israel ties.

November 24, 2016 14:25
3 minute read.
Karim Kassem

Egyptian Actor Karim Kassem. (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)

One of Egypt’s best-known young actors has surprised his fans by revealing to a talk show host that his late mother was Jewish.

The move by movie star Karim Kassem has received a positive response. It is seen as a bold step in a society where not only anti-Israel but also antisemitic sentiment is palpable, although Kassem was careful to stress that his Jewish forebears were anti-Israel.

Egypt, which had a Jewish population of more than 65,000 in 1947, today has fewer than 100 Jews, and the associations of most Egyptians with Jews are from media reports of Israelis mistreating Palestinians rather than firsthand experience.

According to a report in the London-based The New Arab website, Kassem, 30, made the revelation recently before a live audience during an interview with talk show host Mona al-Shazly.

“I feel as if I am lucky that I come from a mixed background. My whole life I have observed all religious celebrations, Christmas, Ramadan and Jewish New Year,’’ he said.

While many Egyptian Jews immigrated to Israel as they faced persecution and their situation worsened, Kassem’s Jewish grandfather, Shehata Haroun, refused to do so, condemning Zionism as a racist movement, The New Arab reported, adding that Kassem’s paternal grandmother was a French Christian.

Kassem told the television show that his unique background has given him an ability to accept others and embrace diversity.

“When I was a kid I didn’t even realize,’’ he said. “One day I came home from school and told my sister ‘the Jews have done this and that, they have big noses and are stingy.’ She then told me, ‘Karim. You don’t know. Your mom is Jewish. It was such a shock to me.’”

Kassem told The New Arab that when he was a schoolboy he was ashamed of his Jewish roots, but that he feels good about disclosing his secret.

“The reception has been very positive so far. A lot of people have reached out to me and sent me really beautiful messages, telling me that I should be proud and happy. This experience has given me renewed hope in this generation.’’

According to Encyclopedia Judaica, persecution of Egyptian Jews began after Israel’s establishment in 1948. After Israel’s 1956 Sinai Campaign, hundreds of Jews were arrested, about 3,000 more were placed in detention camps and thousands received notice that they must leave the country within days. With the outbreak of the 1967 war, remaining Jewish officials holding public posts were dismissed, and hundreds of Jews were arrested, according to the encyclopedia.

Jews played an important role in the early days of Egyptian cinema, with director Togo Mizrachi serving as one of its founding fathers. The Jewish singer and actress Layla Murad rose to stardom in the Arab world during the 1940s and early 1950s. She later converted to Islam.

In the view of Egyptian-Belgian journalist and blogger Khaled Diab, the positive response to Kassem’s revelation reflects a nostalgia for a period when Egypt was a more cosmopolitan society and had a thriving Jewish community.

“As multiculturalism comes under increasing threat in the Middle East, Kassem’s revelation taps into a nostalgia for a time when Egypt was more cosmopolitan and diverse. This nostalgia also extends to the once vibrant Egyptian-Jewish community that is now on the verge of extinction.’’ Kassem’s revelation “was certainly a bold step but not necessarily a courageous one,’’ Diab said. “I very much doubt he runs any significant risks by making such a revelation.’’

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