First Published: 2013-04-16

 

‘Jews of Egypt’ examines Jewish community legacy

 

Egyptian-directed documentary on Egypt's Jews restores faded memories seeks to unearth facet of that history.

 

Middle East Online

By Mostafa Aboul Ezz - CAIRO

By the turn of the 21st century, Egypt's Jews had become a faded memory

There was a time when a constellation of Jewish Egyptian stars shone on the country's arts and music scene, and when streets in Cairo and Alexandria brimmed with Jewish shops.

But by the turn of the 21st century, Egypt's Jews had become a faded memory, their synagogues empty and their old neighbourhoods offering scant testimony to a once-thriving community.

"There was a play, in the 1950s I think: 'Hassan, Morcos and Cohen'," said Magda Haroun, one of Egypt's few remaining Jews.

Hassan is a Muslim name, Morcos a common one among the large minority of Coptic Christians and Cohen is Jewish.

In 2008, a movie entitled only "Hassan and Morcos" was released, on the tragic follies of sectarianism.

"People must speak up so it doesn't just become 'Hassan'," Haroun, born in Alexandria in 1952, said.

But the chances of running into a Cohen in Cairo or Alexandria are now no more than 200 in 84 million. That is what's left of a community that once numbered an estimated 80,000 souls.

Community leader Carmen Weinstein herself died on Saturday at the age of 84, Haroun said, with a new head to be elected after she is buried in Cairo's Jewish cemetery.

When Egypt fought an unsuccessful war along with other Arab states to crush Israel after its founding in 1948, many Egyptian Jews were pressured to leave or expelled outright.

The legacy of their community has been examined in an Egyptian-directed documentary called "Jews of Egypt," which brought a melange of artists, activists and journalists to a screening at an upscale Cairo cinema last month.

The film, which seeks to unearth a facet of that history, starts with street interviews with passers-by on the topic of Jews.

"They are enemies of Islam," a man tells the camera.

Another says: "They were condemned by God."

The documentary flashes back to grainy old footage of a bygone age when the winsome Leila Mourad -- a derivation of Mordechai -- dominated the silver screen, and Jews were among the leaders of political parties.

The documentary was shot in Egypt and France, where a small community of exiled Egyptian Jews hangs on to its past, and director Amir Ramses said it is a case study in what he calls "the marginalisation of the other".

Now conflated with the Israeli-Arab conflict, whose beginnings coincided with the Egyptian Jewish community's decline, the subject of Egypt's Jewish heritage has been all but suppressed in the country.

"Jews were mixed, whether intentionally or not, in the Arab-Israeli conflict. They were in the grinding mill," Ramses said.

As Ramses found out, even bringing out a documentary on the subject would require a fight.

Its screening in several other cinemas was delayed pending the approval of a national security service, Ramses said.

When the service finally approved the documentary, Ramses said the culture ministry's censorship board asked him to introduce it with a disclaimer that it was a work of "fiction".

In the documentary, Ramses interviewed Jews born in Egypt but forced to leave in the decade after the 1948 war. They spoke of peremptory expulsions and a rise of anti-Semitism coinciding with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"It was moving," said one movie-goer after the show, painter Hani Hussein.

A pivotal event for Egyptian Jews was the 1954 Lavon Affair, named after then Israeli defence minister Pinhas Lavon, blamed for recruiting Egyptian Jews to bomb Western targets in the country in order to embarrass then president Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The plot was uncovered when a defective bomb in a conspirator's pocket gave out smoke and alerted police, who arrested him.

The final straw came two years later, when Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt after Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, in which British and French investors held major shares. Most of Egypt's Jews were forced to leave.

Magda Haroun recalls that her father, famed lawyer Shehata Haroun, volunteered to sign up with the Egyptian army, but when security officials showed up at their house they had come to arrest him.

Decades later, she says slurs against Jews have become commonplace, in classrooms and on the street.

"But we won't leave," she insists. "This is our country."

 

Fierce fighting rocks Yemen as peace hopes fade out

Soldier kills comrades in Tunisia barracks shooting

US accuses Iraq forces lacking will to fight IS

Fukushima nuclear plant wins Qatar contract

Nobel Prize-winning John Nash killed in car crash

Hezbollah urges broad support for ‘existential battle’ in Syria

Olmert sentenced to eight months for corruption

Blow to Yemen peace efforts as UN conference postponed

Weakened by war, Syria regime appears ready for ‘de facto partition’

Iran army ‘needs bigger budget to counter IS’

Saudi Shiites refuse to be provoked by deadly mosque bombing

Iran denies agreement on inspection of military sites

Emirati aid shipment arrives in Yemen port city of Aden

GCC denies air campaign against IS terrorists has failed

Tripoli leaders use migrant issue as they yearn for recognition

‘Islamic State’ takes full control of Iraq-Syria border crossing

Saudi king vows to punish those behind bombing at Shiite mosque

Sudan's Islamists protest against el-Sisi

Saudi mosque attack intended to fan sectarian tension

Islamic State claims Saudi mosque bombing

Israel solicits Platini to sway FIFA

Islamic State reinforces ‘caliphate’ with control of borders

Israeli deputy FM: 'All of it is ours'

Iraqi forces to launch Ramadi offensive

Tunis asks Rome to extradite terror suspect

Suicide bomb attack on Saudi Shiite mosque

Saudi-led coalition warplanes pound Sanaa outskirts

Shebab gunmen raid Kenya village

Kuwait businessman Khorafi dies at 75

IS fighters attack Iraq forces east of Ramadi

Obama offers Tunisia closer security ties

Yemen air strikes continue as Iran calls for talks

Israeli court orders release of Khalida Jarrar

Netanyahu meets with Arab leader Ayman Odeh

U.S. sanctions two companies linked to Iran's plane purchases

Iran supports Yemen talks, denounces foreign interference

IS militants call for attacks on Egypt's judges

11 killed in fresh Libya violence

Assad regime losses in Syria

Obama looks to bolster Tunisia's democratic gains

Turkey opposition unveils plan to build new 'mega-city' in Anatolia

Iraqi prime minister seeks Russian support against Islamic State

Iraq's Sunni tribes feel distrust towards Baghdad after Ramadi fall

Morocco illegal migrant arrest fuels Italy row

Qatar ‘failing to deliver’ on promised labour reforms