The Jews of Egypt
The Egyptian Jewish community was formed by a distinctive process of historical accretion. At its core were indigenous Arabic-speaking Rabbanites and Karaites with a Judeo-Arabic culture, including some who claimed to trace their residence in the country to the pre-Islamic era. They resided primarily in Cairo's Jewish quarter, in the port district of Alexandria, and in several provincial towns. Indigenes composed perhaps 20,000 of the 75,000–80,000 Jews in Egypt in 1948 (only 65,639 were recorded in the 1947 census, but this is commonly regarded as an undercount).
Because the Karaites are a relatively unknown group, I say a bit more about them in introducing the Egyptian Jewish community than I say about its other component elements. The Karaite Jews of Egypt were part of a small minority within Judaism who reject the validity of the Talmud as a source of Jewish law. Karaites date the beginnings of their community to the late second temple period and identify with non-Pharasaic (Essene and Sadducee) currents of religious thought and practice of that era. The term Karaites (kara’im) was first applied to followers of ‘Anan ben David (ca. 754–75), who broke with the leadership of the Jewish community in Mesopotamia and established himself in Jerusalem. By the ninth century, when the Karaite rite was consolidated, the community was well established in Fustat (subsequently incorporated into Cairo). The Karaites have had a difficult and often antagonistic relationship with Rabbinic Judaism since the Egyptian rabbi and scholar Sa‘adya ben Yosef al-Fayyumi (882–942) declared their doctrines heretical. However, before the modern era, disputes between the two rites were regarded as internal to the Jewish community. Egypt has long been an important Karaite center. During the medieval Tulunid (868–969) and Fatimid (969–1171) periods, the Karaites were a particularly robust and vibrant community, at times even stronger than the Rabbanites. Subsequently, their numbers dwindled sharply. There were only some 5,000 Karaites in Egypt in 1948.
In the modern era, the estrangement between Karaites and Rabbanites intensified after Lithuania and Crimea, where Karaites had settled since the twelfth century, were conquered by the Russian empire. In 1795, Catherine II exempted the Karaites from the double tax imposed on Jews and allowed the Karaites to own land. In 1827, the Crimean Karaites, like their Tatar neighbors, were exempted from military service. Because the Karaites were not subjected to the discrimination and oppression directed against Rabbanites in imperial Russia, they eventually came to be seen as a separate non-Jewish community.
The distinction between Karaites and Rabbanites sharpened in 1939, when the German Ministry of Interior declared that the Karaites were not Jews after consulting with orthodox Rabbanite authorities, who may have been motivated by the desire to save the Karaites from destruction by the Nazis. Karaite rabbis concurred with this conclusion, and they too may have been seeking to avoid persecution. During the Nazi era, the Karaites of Poland, Lithuania, and Crimea were not treated as Jews.
Despite ambiguities about the Jewish identity of the Eastern European Karaites in the modern era, in Egypt there was never any doubt that the Karaites were Jews. There were certainly tensions between Karaites and Rabbanites over questions of religious law and practice. Traditionally, both communities banned marriages between the two rites. The last Karaite chief rabbi of Egypt, Tuvia Babovitch (r. 1934–56), was personally committed to the view that Karaites who married Rabbanites thereby excluded themselves from the community. He also upheld the ban on conversion to Karaism against the wishes of some members of the community. In contrast, Murad Farag (1866–1956) and his proteges among the young Karaite intelligentsia openly called for intermarriage and closer Karaite-Rabbanite relations. Though they did not succeed in formally changing Karaite religious law, they did influence the Karaites to strengthen their ties to the Rabbanite community.
The general tendency during the twentieth century was toward closer cultural and social relations between the two Jewish communities. The traditional Cairo neighborhoods of the Rabbanites and Karaites—harat al-yahud (the Jewish quarter) and harat al-yahud al-qara’in (the Karaite Jewish quarter)—were adjacent to each other. Rabbanites and Karaites worked in some of the same trades in the surrounding neighborhoods. Dr. Musa (Moshe) Marzuq, a Karaite executed for his role in Operation Susannah (see “Operation Susannah” later in this chapter), worked in the Rabbanite hospital, which many Karaites used because their community did not operate its own medical facility. The Karaite community made an annual contribution to support this hospital. Maurice Shammas, a protege of Murad Farag, wrote for the Rabbanite Arabic newspaper al-Shams (The sun) between 1946 and 1948 and then for the Karaite biweekly al-Kalim (The spokesperson) before he emigrated to Israel in 1951. Neither the state authorities nor the members of the two Egyptian Jewish communities ever considered the Karaites anything but Jews.
The beginning of the Sephardi (Spanish Jewish) community in Egypt is associated with the arrival in 1165 of Maimonides, who was then fleeing from the intolerant al-Muwahhid regime in Spain and Morocco. After their expulsion from Spain in 1492, many Sephardim were welcomed in the Ottoman Empire, and some settled in Egypt. In the modern era, Sephardim made their way to Egypt from the Ottoman cities of Tunis, Aleppo, Damascus, Izmir, Istanbul, Salonika, and even Jerusalem to take advantage of the economic opportunities generated by the cotton boom of the 1860s and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.
Among the Sephardim, there were social distinctions among those who had passed through Corsica, Italy, or the Ottoman territories on their families' journeys from Spain to Egypt. Sephardim were the most prominent elements of the Jewish social and business elite. The largest single section of the Egyptian Jewish community—“the confused Jewish masses,” as one Israeli historian called them—was composed of Sephardim of the middle strata. They were politically quietist, concerned primarily about the well-being of their families, and generally satisfied with their relatively comfortable lives in Egypt.
The Ashkenazi (Eastern European Jewish) Egyptian community was entirely a product of the modern era and the arrival of Jews fleeing persecution in Europe in the nineteenth century. From 1865 on, the Ashkenazim of Cairo maintained a separate communal organization. They were geographically concentrated in the Darb al-Barabira quarter, where Yiddish was spoken in the streets until the 1950s. The community maintained a Yiddish theater group and a Yiddish program on the Egyptian state radio until the 1950s. The more established and generally wealthier Sephardi community looked down on the Ashkenazim as social inferiors.
The multiplicity of religious rites does not exhaust the heterogeneity of the Egyptian Jewish community. In any case, most were not scrupulously observant, though most observed the traditional festivals and the rites of passage. Many Jews were multicultural and multilingual, but some social status was attached to speaking Arabic, Judeo-Spanish, Italian, Yiddish, or French at home. The cosmopolitan character of the Jewish community, especially its commercial middle and upper classes, is captured by the casual remark of a son of an upper-middle-class Sephardi family holding Italian citizenship that emigrated from Anatolia to Alexandria in the nineteenth century in describing the ambience of his family: “We spoke French and English in school, Italian at home, Arabic in the street, and cursed in Turkish.”  Alexandrines were typically more cosmopolitan than Cairenes. However, there were also thousands of indigenous, poor, Arabic-speaking Jews in Alexandria whose existence has generally been ignored because the cosmopolitan and commercial elements of the community were so prominent. Even in Cairo, except in harat al-yahud, where the language of the school and the home was Arabic, it was rare to find monolingual Jews. Among cosmopolitan and Europeanized middle- and upper-class Jews, intermarriages with Christians and Muslims were not uncommon.