At this upscale Cairo café, Sam and Amira, brother and sister, are the last two
who would be seen as Jewish. They walk, talk, and discuss their country with as
much confidence as any young Egyptian professional.
They say they don’t
get many questions about their ethnicity: their parents gave them names that are
common in Egypt, not identifiable as Jewish.
“Egypt is a strange
country,” Amira says, “because while we have seen so much anger toward Israel,
and rightfully so, at the same time even those people who find out we are Jewish
have little problem hanging out and dealing with us.”
Amira works in
Egypt’s Smart Village, an international IT complex just west of Cairo. She is a
call center specialist, part of a team that works for a US corporation and
serves North American users.
“Work is great,” she says. “I speak English
and Spanish, so my language skills are useful. Nobody in the office even
questions my religion, because they don’t know. I mean, who would, with
Amira as my name? It’s a great name to have, really, especially if you are
Most of Sam and Amira’s ancestors in Egypt – at least the
recent ones – fled the country following the founding of Israel, then the
crackdown on Jewish businesses and the Jewish community in general with the
ascension of President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956.
But Sam and Amira’s
family has never taken Egyptian citizenship.
Though Sam and Amira seem
Egyptian in every sense of the word – they have lived their entire lives in
Cairo, speak Arabic, and joke like Egyptians – they hold European
“This is probably a large part of the reason why our family
was able to stay in the country and not face the crackdown that came in the
Nasser era,” says Sam. When the pogroms against the Jewish community began in
earnest in the early 1950s, the government went after those business-owning
families who were officially documented as Jews; Sam’s was not.
TO rough estimates, the Jewish community in Egypt numbered around 80,000 in
Today, after the attacks and the exile forced by the Egyptian
government, fewer than 100 documented Jews remain in Egypt. But Amira and Sam,
because they are not documented, don’t count in this estimate. “We have a few
friends who are in positions similar to ours,” Sam explains, “living and working
in Egypt as residents but technically not Egyptian.”
Egyptian Jews are
now scattered across the globe, but their historical connection with the country
is old and strong. Jews have lived in Egypt continuously since post-Exodus Jews
were documented there in the 7th century BCE.
As late as the 1920s and
1930s, there were Jews who were integrated into the political and intellectual
life of the country: Jewish figures were part of the struggle against the
British, who continued to dominate the country after it was nominally declared
independent in 1922. One of these figures, Murad Beh Farag, was a co-author of
the first Egyptian constitution, adopted in 1923. He was an outspoken opponent
of the idea of a Jewish state.
But the history of the Jewish community in
Egypt has been filled with intrigue, exile, and uncertainty. The most recent
chapter, since the establishment of Israel, has been especially
There have been more than 50 years of anger – attacks and forced
exile by the government and widespread antagonism from the general population
for the Jews’ alleged connections with the Israel.
In 2004, as documented
by Rami Mangoubi in the Middle East Times
, nearly all of the Jewish males in
Egypt were jailed or forced into exile for their purported connections with Tel
Aviv and the Jewish occupation of Palestinian lands after 1967.
removal of long-time Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak in February, 2011, times
are changing in Egypt once again.
The country is coming to terms with its
new democratic future, one fraught with tensions born of the struggle between
conservatives and liberals vying for control of the world’s largest Arab
The recent demonstrations at the US Embassy have occupied the
attention of Americans; but in Egypt itself, optimism is growing after a
tumultuous 18 months.
Sam and Amira think Egypt can once again be the
tolerant and open society it once was. Amira hopes that in the new Egypt, the
country’s Jewish history will become more widely known. She says, “I really
think that Egyptian Jews had a great role in the formation of this country, and
it has been lost sometimes as a result of the anger toward what Israel does to
Palestine; so I think that if people can start talking honestly about our
participation in Egypt, it will help see the return of many Jews in
“Egyptians are welcoming people by cultural heritage and our
upbringing,” Sam adds. “So, I don’t think it is out of the question to be able
to have a flourishing Jewish society as part of the greater Egyptian culture. It
isn’t as if we are foreign to the country. We have a long history of
living with Muslims and Christians.”
He says he knows dozens of Egyptian
Jewish families, living abroad for decades, who would love the opportunity to
return to their native Egypt. “Even after all these years, with the tensions and
even with Israel, I believe there are opportunities to have a strong Jewish
community here once again.”
In fact, Amira believes that people like her
and her brother can be instrumental in showing Egyptians that Egyptian Jews are
Egyptian first and have no love for what Israel is doing to the
“At first glance, too often people think ‘Jew’ and
immediately think we are supporting Israel. This is not the case, and trying to
tell our history and show how we were mistreated can do a lot to end this
misunderstanding,” she says.
Sam and Amira finish their coffees and offer
to pay for all the drinks at our table before they head back into Egyptian
society.The writer is a seasoned journalist and the editor-in-chief of
Bikya Masr, usually based in Cairo, Egypt. This article first appeared in
Jewish Ideas Daily and is reprinted with their permission.