The Oldest Relationship

Recent rifts between Israel and Egypt scarcely rate a footnote in the long history of relations between these two nations.

Pyramids 521 (photo credit: Ricardo Liberato)
Pyramids 521
(photo credit: Ricardo Liberato)
EGYPT CASTS A LONG shadow over Jewish and Israeli historical memory. The Biblical narrative and accounts from ancient Egypt and other sources attest to complex, frequently hostile interactions going back over 4,000 years.
Few, if any, modern neighboring states can claim such a long shared recorded history.
References to Israel from the Egyptian side are scanty. The earliest mention of Israel as a country comes from a stele erected by the thirteenth century BCE Pharaoh Merneptah: ‘‘Israel is laid waste, his seed is not.” This is what one would expect. Asmall, vulnerable country does not figure greatly in the worldview of a regional power.
Yet Egypt is a looming presence throughout the Hebrew Bible. Even before the period of slavery, it was a place of refuge for the patriarchs in times when famine gripped the land of Israel. And well after the Exodus, Egypt would continue to play a dominant role in Israelite diplomatic and military policy.
INDEED, THE BIBLE TOUCHES ON aspects of modern Egyptian-Israeli relations still relevant today. Intriguingly, it specifically records the popular hostility of ordinary Egyptians towards their Israelite neighbors, even at a time when their rulers were well-disposed to the strangers.
Genesis relates that when Joseph’s brothers dined with him at his Egyptian home even as his welcome guests, they had to eat apart from the Egyptians because the latter could not abide eating at the same table as the visitors. Later, the account ascribes this hatred to a general Egyptian hostility to cattle and sheep farmers, but it was strong enough for Joseph to recommend that Pharaoh let him settle his family in the land of Goshen, away from the Egyptian masses in order not to cause friction.
This pattern has persisted to the present day. The Middle Eastern studies scholar Dr.
Fouad Ajami has dubbed the Sadat and Mubarak policy of maintaining relations with Israel as “the Pharoah’s peace,” which never put down roots among the Egyptian public.
To some extent, the hostility was reciprocated.
Egypt is repeatedly referred to as “the house of bondage,” a period of slavery to be contrasted with the physical and spiritual redemption of the Exodus. But this is severely qualified: “You shalt not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land,” orders Deuteronomy.
There are other indications from the Biblical account that even then, Israelite relations with their taskmasters may have been more complex than one would suspect.
Moses himself was brought up in the Egyptian royal palace and must have known the minds and attitudes of the ruling classes from the inside. He never lived as an Israelite until immediately before the Exodus.
And the people he led, tormented by the prospect of starvation, expressed a longing for the country they had left and the foods they ate when they were slaves. Egypt, then as now, represented security and safety as opposed to an unknown future.
When the future failed, with the final destruction of the Kingdom of Judah in 597 BCE, Egypt resumed its role as a place of safety for the scattered refugees. They viewed it as a place “where we shall see no war, nor hear the sound of the horn, nor have hunger of bread,” to the anger of the prophet Jeremiah, who saw it as an excuse for deserting the worship of the Lord in favor of other gods.
For all that, Egypt became an important Diaspora center. Its Jewish communities developed rapidly after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE, and its fortunes later waxed and waned under Muslim rule. Its best known personality was the 12th century philosopher, religious scholar and physician Maimonides, who ultimately found refuge there after fleeing persecution in Spain.
He was not the only one to seek shelter in the land of the Nile. The expulsion from Spain added to the community’s numbers, and toward the end of the 19th century, some 20,000 Ashkenazi Jews found sanctuary in Egypt from deteriorating conditions in Czarist Russia.
But despite some Jewish support for Egyptian independence from British rule in the 1920s, the community’s fortunes nosedived after Egypt’s failed war against the nascent State of Israel in 1948 and the 1952 military coup against the monarchy.
Egyptian Jews were persecuted as spies and fifth columnists, and they left in an exodus spread over two decades; around half of the 80,000-member community settled in Israel.
Most Israelis, religious or not, participate in the annual reading of the Haggada on the Passover Seder night, commemorating the Exodus from Egypt. This act of remembrance is directed more at the liberation of a new nation rather than the defeat of the cruel Egyptian overlords. Whether viewed through purely Zionist or religious prisms, the nationality of the oppressors is beside the point.
Nonetheless, the prospect of a complete rupture with Egypt arouses in Israel perhaps more than fears of the loss of a much-needed ally against Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the threats posed by Hizballah and Hamas.
Ingrained in our historical experience is the thought that, as much as we have to live independently of our giant neighbor, we cannot live entirely without it either.