The second exodus from Egypt

In Israel, thousands of Egyptian-born Jews recall their expulsion from that country during the last century.

Sara Rossano, nee Goldring, the administrator for the Union des Juifs D'Egypte (Organization of Egyptian Jews), is the youngest of six children and the only one born in Egypt. Her siblings were born in Sudan, where her maternal grandfather was chief rabbi. Rossano's father fled to Egypt from pogroms in Odessa. She matriculated in English. "We felt good as Jews in Cairo. My family was well off and lived in a neighborhood with non-Jews, mainly Copts," she recalls. Following the Sinai Campaign in 1956, British and French citizens were expelled. Most of the Jews were expelled because they had no citizenship, recounts Rossano. "Two policemen came to the house claiming we held documents connected to Israel. The building's guard and the grocer were shocked by this and wanted to sign that we had no such documents. We were told to leave the following week. My sister managed to buy the last tickets available to sail from Alexandria." Everything was left behind. Parting from their neighbors and longtime maid was difficult. The Goldrings were humiliated during searches for money and gold. "My brother was a silversmith, so our coats were taken apart. They even rummaged through my mother's medications," she recalls. The family went by boat to Naples, and finally in Israel they were met by a brother and sister who had made aliya in the early 1950s. Rossano has no inclination to visit Egypt. "Although it is an individual decision, many choose not to visit," she says, "yet some former Egyptians do organize tours to Egypt." "The Jewish community in Egypt during the 20th century was the most modern of all the Middle Eastern communities," says Prof. Nahem Ilan, an expert on Jewish communities in the Middle East who is currently editing a book on the history of Egyptian Jews in the modern era for the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem. "It is actually a diverse community made up of migrants. The community grew from 7,000 in the 19th century to 80,000 - an increase caused by migration." The Suez Canal, inaugurated in 1869, had a dramatic effect on world trade. Thousands of migrants from European countries opted for Egypt to improve their financial situation, and Jews also realized that Egypt was a land of opportunity to earn a living. They came primarily from Mediterranean basin countries such as Greece, Italy and Turkey. Iraqi and Syrian Jews from Damascus and Aleppo found a home in Egypt. Yemenite Jews en route to Palestine remained in Egypt where they were stranded. Jews found Egypt a haven from persecution in Russia. Jewish residents in Palestine were expelled by the ruling Turks during World War I. Many went to Alexandria, including the Ambaches, parents of former first lady Aura Herzog and her sister Suzy Eban. Egyptian Jews came to Israel in waves, usually following the wars between the two countries in 1948, 1956 and 1967. Previously, Egyptian Jews came to Palestine not necessarily as active Zionists, but for a place to escape anti-Semitism. "The Zionist movement was peripheral until World War II," notes Ilan. "Unlike their European brethren, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not cause the Jews to become Zionists." "Zionist awareness was next to nothing in those days," recalls Rossano. "When things were going well for the Jews they didn't worry and were not involved in Zionism." The Jews felt so comfortable that until the 1930s some even had dual loyalties - they were Zionists and also members of the Egyptian National Movement. Many abandoned their dual loyalty in the 1930s due to the rise of the Nazis and the Arab revolt in 1936. PROF. ARIE Schlosberg, who heads the Tel Aviv-based Center for the Studies of Jewish Heritage from Egypt, was born in Alexandria where he lived until he was 20. In 1910, his grandparents left Russia for Neveh Tzedek in Tel Aviv, where his mother was born, but as Russian citizens they were expelled to Alexandria by the Turks during Hanukka 1915. By the 1940s, 35,000 Jews lived in Alexandria, comprising 10 percent of the population. Many Ashkenazim were among those expelled by the Turks. "Being an Ashkenazi in Alexandria wasn't an issue. Only after coming to Israel did we become aware of this," says Schlossberg, a psychiatrist, noting that even a thriving Yiddish theater existed in Cairo. About 95% of the Jewish population lived in Cairo and Alexandria, with the rest scattered in Port Said and other towns. Most Jews were middle class, with the wealthy wielding influence in the government and business sectors. Egyptian cinema was created by a Jew, Jacob Sanua. About 5,000-7,000 Egyptian Jews were Karaites, who reject the rabbinic interpretation of the Torah. "Today there are nearly 30,000 Karaites in Israel, with almost all descended from Egyptian Karaites," says Ilan. "Although there have been attempts in Egypt to solve the prohibition of intermarriage between both groups, notably that of Karaite Mourad Farag, it was not successful." In Israel, Karaites live in Ramle, Ashdod, Ofakim, Bat Yam, Beersheba, Kiryat Gat and Jerusalem. Two Egyptian Jews from these communities are buried near each other in Jerusalem's Mount Herzl cemetery: Shmuel Azar was Rabbinic, and Dr. Moshe Marzouk was Karaite. Operatives for Israel in Egypt, they belonged to the spy ring that triggered the Lavon Affair (that caused political upheaval in Israel and forced defense minister Pinhas Lavon to resign), and were executed by the Egyptians in 1954 for their espionage activities. With industrialization, the Jews moved from villages to the cities. "The Jews went through a process of modernization and secularization like in Western Europe," explains Ilan. "Although modernization reached other places, in Egypt the secularization process was quicker and more profound than elsewhere. At the end of the 19th century, many Jewish children did not know Hebrew." But today, says Ilan, Egyptian Jews have integrated fairly easily into Israeli society. "Their attitude was realistic and modern. They looked forward to integrating into Israeli society. They didn't play the ethnic card. The identity of these immigrants as Egyptians is not as strong as other communities toward their native country." About half the Egyptians in Israel are older than 60. "It is important for us to interest the next generation, too. We hold monthly lectures about our heritage, as well as two annual events," says Rossano. The organization published a cookbook, Dishes of Egypt, and has dedicated a corner of its headquarters in Tel Aviv to the memory of Egyptian-born spy Eli Cohen. "Pessah for Egyptian Jews in Israel is when we adapt to each other," says Arie Ohanna, chairman of the Union des Juifs D'Egypte. "We are accustomed to adapting ourselves to every framework. Our children are married to Jews from all backgrounds, and our Seder reflects this." The Center for the Studies of Jewish Heritage from Egypt, headed by Schlosberg, works together with the Department of Middle Eastern Studies in Tel Aviv University. Its purpose is to perpetuate the heritage and culture of Egyptian Jews from ancient times by teaching in academic frameworks and schools, and by granting scholarships. "We give scholarships to high school students and university students learning for all academic degrees," says Schlossberg. Currently, the center is trying to reconstruct historical documents left behind in Egypt by interviewing former Egyptians. To date the center has documented the life histories of 48 individuals. "As with other communities, the second generation is not so interested, but the third generation is showing an interest in their heritage," he says.