The background of the Jews in Egypt cannot fail to capture one's imagination. Those interested in genealogical pursuits will find that, in this century alone, many interesting events have passed through Egypt. From biblical slavery, to prosperity, to expulsion by Nasser in the 1950's, the Egyptian Jews have survived throughout a vivid and event- filled history, unparalleled by their fate in any other nation. My own interest in genealogical history of the Egyptian Jews came about in a rather roundabout way. Having been inspired to research my own family history, I had managed to trace my Ashkenazic Russian maternal grandfather's past to the city of Ogilev-Podolsk on the Dnieper River in the Ukraine. In the course of my investigation, I discovered that his surname, Nashpitz, was quite unique: a telephone book search at the library revealed that apparently there are only eleven Nashpitz listings in the entire world! I wrote to all of those that were not known to be close family of mine. I found, to my great suprise, that each and every one of them could trace their names back to this same Ukrainian city.
One of this previously unknown cousins I unearthed was Ollie Nashpitz, born in 1939 and living in Chicago. It was through him that I learned the fascinating story about his particular branch of the family and its connections with the Jews of Egypt. He told me that his grandfather, Schmuel had a son named Hoskel, who became a wealthy businessman. In 1913 Hoskel set out with his family on an expensive cruise, sailing from the Russian port of Odessa. The pleasure cruise was supposed to stop at various ports on the Black Sea and then sail onward into the Mediterranean. Shortly after the ship had set forth into the Black Sea, however, the world was plunged into World War I. The nations of Europe scrambled to make their, alliance and the Black Sea was blockaded. No country would allow this yacht to dock and discharge its passengers. The family sailed from port to port for many months, becoming increasingly more desperate, until finally they were granted safe haven in Egypt, the only country that would take them in. Besides being displaced, they were soon due for an even more devastating blow: word from home informed them that the Russian government had confiscated all of Hoskel's property, leaving him penniless. This now impoverished Ashkenazic family was thrown upon the mercy of the established Sephardic Jewish community of Egypt, who fortunately embraced them with open arms and provided them with refuge. The family remained in Egypt for several generations, until 1956 when Nasser expelled them, along with virtually all of the other Egyptian Jews. Ollie, then 17 years old, made his way with his family to the United States and ultimately settled in Chicago. They remained there, not aware of the existence of other surviving Nashpitz relatives. They were astounded to receive the letter I sent them around while in my search for my own Jewish roots. I was deeply moved by this story of their family's experience, and it made me curious to learn more about the history of the Jews of Egypt.
The Jews have had a long and tumultuous historical relationship with Egypt. First to accept Jewish refugees in Biblical times, Egypt was also the first country to imprison, oppress and persecute the Jews. Raphael Patai describes these events. He describes as "prototypical events which were to occur again and again in the course of the long history of the Jews" (Patai 127). And yet, Jews returned to Egypt as early as 586 BCE, despite the specific Biblical injunction which states explicitly that they never have returned to Egypt- the only country so designated (Deut.17:16; cf Hosea 11:5) . Nevertheless, judaism has managed to survive in Egypt through countless power shifs and political changes, sometimes adapting to existing cultural structures, and other times barely managing to survive abuses of the worst sort.
One of the highest points of jewish existence in Egypt occurred early in history, including the centuries following the invasion of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE. Combined cultural influences between the Jews and Greeks led to the development of a hellenistic judaism, much as the Jews later became integrated into Egyptian society and created a type of Arabic- Jewish culture ( Ausubel 223). The Egyptian Jews pursued and excelled in the fine arts, philosophy and literature: hellenistic culture and religious virtues, and during this period, the Jews prospered, building many synagogues and temples (Patai 128).
Unfortunately, this period did not last long; the onset of the Roman and later Christian influences in Egypt would bring with them a rising anti-semitic sentiment throughout the second and third centuries CE. The Jews tried to resist, but were overwhelmed; at the same time, the jewish community itself began to atrophy through emigration and intermarriage. It was not until the Arab conquest ( 640 CE) that the Jews began to regain their social and cultural strength. From 640 to the late 900s, Jews owned and ran their own universities, served in the courts, and saw a period of relative economic prosperity. From 969, the Fatimid caliphs ruled Egypt as part of what was known as the Ayyubid empire (969-1250), and the Jews continued to flourish in cultural and political spheres, gaining recognition at court and the right to self- rule ( Patai 129). In 1301, however, the new Mameluke rulers, who formally had been slaves, began a campaign to identify and exterminate non-Muslims. The Jews, along with others including the Christians and Samaritans, began to flee or were executed until their numbers were diminished to less than 900, a far cry from the estimated 12-20 000 who flourished in the mid- twelfth century ( Patai 129). After 1492, as a result of their forced expulsion from Spain and Portugal, the Sephardim of the Iberian Peninsula began a mass emigration to Egypt. In the ensuing years, many Jews gained high posts in the Ottoman (Turkish) courts which ruled at that time, and the Jewish finance minister ( the" chelibi") was officially regarded as the political leader of the Jews (Patai 129). At the same time, the Jews of North- West Africa (the Moghrabim) began to move into Egypt, and the Jewish community gradually became more complex.
In the meantime, the Turks grew less tolerant of the Jews, and when Egypt tried to break free of Turkish rule, the Jews suffered. Nevertheless, the Jews continued to resist pogroms, persecution and economic containment's, including the heavy taxation enforced by governor 'Ali Bey during the emancipation, in his attempt to reestablish the old Ayyubid empire in 1768.
Napoleon's influence in Egypt, between 1798 and 1801, led to yet another difficult time for the Jews. While he appeared to support the Jews in their desire to reestablish their homeland in Palestine, much of his activity was, in fact, deleterious to the Jewish community. Once again, heavy taxes and violence emerged, and in particular, Napoleon was responsible for destroying an Alexandrian synagogue (Patai 130). But the retreat of the French brought upon a sudden surge in the overall European population in Egypt, and Jewish numbers began to rise once more. New legislation protected the Jews and gave them new privileged status, tax exemptions, and legal protection as foreign nationals. With these reforms came a new growth in the economic and cultural roles of the Egyptian Jew. Among the most noted Jews of this period was Ya'qub Sanu' (Sanua) , a satirist playwright who achieved prominence until his expulsion in 1878 (Patai 130).
1881 brought the British to Egypt and, with them, came an increased tolerance, which helped to raise the Jews to a new level of prosperity. A form of economic and cultural renaissance followed, during which time many elegant homes and temples were built, schools were established, and ultimately, the Jews in Egypt began to surpass the native Egyptian in both education and cultural integrity (Patai 130); By 1917, the numbers of Jews in Egypt had risen to 60 000 most of whom had been deeply affected by European influences. Most had been educated in foreign schools and spoke Arabic only as a second language, and the Jewish community was understood to be entirely distinct from Egyptian or Arabic cultures. Although only slightly more than half of those Jews living in Egypt could truly be called foreigners, nearly all Jews considered themselves to be separate from the social and cultural concerns of the Egyptians (Patai 132). This short period of continued prosperity lasted until 1937, and although some anti- Semitc opposition existed, it had little effect on the progress at that time. After 1937, however, anti- semitic activities in Egypt increased, and many of these activities were linked to the campaigns of the Palestinian Jews. Suddenly, anti-semitic violence was no longer considered to be simply a political maneuver for the personal gain of the rising political power, but instead was regarded as a symbolic act of retribution (Patai 132).
An increase in legislated forms of oppression made it illegal for non- nationals to hold high political, economic or educational posts (geared toward the largely foreign Jewish population) and contributions were " solicited" for the Egyptian army. Political leaders, such as Chief Rabbi Hayim Nahum, were forced to make statements declaring the Egyptian Jews as obliged to protect Egypt from Zionism (Patai 133). v In 1947, there were 65 639 Jews in Egypt. According to Nathan Ausubel, these Jews could be categorized into four distinct components by 1951: "Arabic- speaking Jews of old Egyptian ancestry, Berber Jews [nomadic tribesmen, ed.], the Sephardim of Spanish- Portuguese stock, and Ashkenazim, or central an eastern European Jews" ( Ausubel 224). At the same time, Egypt was home to the largest body of Karaites, descendants of eighth century Jews who split from the main body of Judaism. These groups varied from each other because of their different cultural and historical pasts, and yet the Jews of Egypt, as a whole, held together as a distinct people. The many foreign influences, including Jewish immigrants who had come from abroad, resulted naturally in some internal conflicts based on cultural differences and a wide range of religious convictions. Furthermore, the integration of the Jewish people into the commercial and cultural fabric of Egypt took its toll. This resulted in a decrease in the intensity of religious beliefs among the later generations. Nevertheless, the Jews' propensity for seeing themselves as a part of "the Hebrew Nation" foreign nationals, with a separate culture and religious background, has helped them to maintain their overall unification. From the early - twentieth century ntil the expulsion of the Jews in 1956, Jewish customs and beliefs fell by the wayside and many from my cousin Ollie's generation had lost sight of the meaning of Judaism. These events culminated in the Sinai Campaign of 1956. Causing the final new exodus of Jews from Egypt. Thousands of Jews had their possessions confiscated and thousands more were arrested. Between November 1956 and September 1957, 21 000 Jews were expelled from Egypt, and by 1960, only 8500 remained. By the end of the Six-Day War in 1967, only 800 Jews were left in Egypt, and in 1980 less than 300 were known to exist in the country which had been the home of generations of Jews for over three thousand years (Patai 195). Just because the Jews have been expelled from Egypt is no reason to forget about their long and lustrous past in that country. Their history stretches back to biblical times, and is peppered by relations with the many countries and cultures who subsequently gained power there. Certainly a great deal remains to be learned about the life of the Jews over those thirty-two centuries.
Ralph .G. Bennett
For those interested in tracing any aspect of Jewish ancestry throughout the ages in Egypt, the following can provide information to help you in your search :
If you like to learn more about the history of the Jews in Egypt, the following references are a good place to start:
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