Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Jews in Egypt

For my exams a couple years ago now, I developed a syllabus for a course that I would have loved to take but have never seen offered: "Jews in Ancient Egypt." If anyone is interested in this subject, I would highly recommend Joseph Mélèze Modrzejewski, The Jews of Egypt: From Rameses II to Emperor Hadrian (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995) [Les Juifs d’Egypte, de Ramsès II à Hadrien (Paris: Editions Armand Colin, 1992)]. This is perhaps the most comprehensive and readable guide. Modrzejewski bases his observations in papyrological and evidence, but uses other types of documents to fill in the overall picture. He covers everything from biblical stories, the military colony of Elephantine, and Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt to reminiscences of Egyptian Judaism in late antique Egyptian papyrological documents, Rabbinic Judaism, and Christianity. Perhaps his most interesting chapter is on the LXX. One of my interests in the subject was, especially in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, how Egyptian Jews, who by that point revered the Torah (in LXX form), combined their life in Egypt and the problem of the sacred text that claimed they should leave and move into the promised land. I fascinating and productive tension, I think.

Today, an Op-Ed contributor to the NYTimes, André Aciman, has noted in recent discussions of the Middle East (such as Barack Obama's speech in Cairo) the complete absence of any reference to Jews (outside of Israel) who have, until the 20th century, inhabited prominently Muslim lands, such as Egypt, despite the criticism of the Egyptian government's treatment of Coptic Christians.

And yet, for all the president’s [Barack Obama's] talk of “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world” and shared “principles of justice and progress,” neither he nor anyone around him, and certainly no one in the audience, bothered to notice one small detail missing from the speech: he forgot me.

The president never said a word about me. Or, for that matter, about any of the other 800,000 or so Jews born in the Middle East who fled the Arab and Muslim world or who were summarily expelled for being Jewish in the 20th century. With all his references to the history of Islam and to its (questionable) “proud tradition of tolerance” of other faiths, Mr. Obama never said anything about those Jews whose ancestors had been living in Arab lands long before the advent of Islam but were its first victims once rampant nationalism swept over the Arab world.


Mr. Obama had harsh things to say to the Arab world about its treatment of women. And he said much about America’s debt to Islam. But he failed to remind the Egyptians in his audience that until 50 years ago a strong and vibrant Jewish community thrived in their midst. Or that many of Egypt’s finest hospitals and other institutions were founded and financed by Jews. It is a shame that he did not remind the Egyptians in the audience of this, because, in most cases — and especially among those younger than 50 — their memory banks have been conveniently expunged of deadweight and guilt. They have no recollections of Jews.

In Alexandria, my birthplace and my home, all streets bearing Jewish names have been renamed. A few years ago, the Library of Alexandria put on display an Arabic translation of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” perhaps the most anti-Semitic piece of prose ever written. Today, for the record, there are perhaps four Jews left in Alexandria.

When the last Jew dies, the temples and religious artifacts and books that were the property of what was once probably the wealthiest Jewish community on the Mediterranean will go to the Egyptian government — not to me, or to my children, or to any of the numberless descendants of Egyptian Jews.

It is strange that our president, a man so versed in history and so committed to the truth, should have omitted mentioning the Jews of Egypt. He either forgot, or just didn’t know, or just thought it wasn’t expedient or appropriate for this venue. But for him to speak in Cairo of a shared effort “to find common ground ... and to respect the dignity of all human beings” without mentioning people in my position would be like his speaking to the residents of Berlin about the future of Germany and forgetting to mention a small detail called World War II.

As the book mentioned above will inform, Jews (or perhaps more accurately Judeans) have been in Egypt since at least the sixth century BCE, with the military colony at Elephantine. They remained and grew in numbers and significance in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Their numbers dwindled quite a bit in the early second century CE, after Egyptian and North African Jews revolted against the Roman government (the revolt failed), but they held a tentative presence (as papyrological evidence shows). The community boomed again in the middle ages and onward. The rest is recent history. We should note, moreover, that the rise of nationalization in the twentieth century also created the nation of Israel; one cannot extricate the rise of the state of Israel and the rise of Islamic nationalism (as well as Euro-American involvement in this process).

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