As a fluent Arabic-speaker, Ksenia Svetlova has been following that Ramadan institution, the TV soap opera. As she explains in the Times of Israel, she is heartened that the Egyptian series Haret al-Yahud marks a change of tone for the better in its portrayal of Egyptian Jews. At the same time the future is bleak. Jewish refugees from Arab countries can take heart that Svetlova, a newly-elected MK, will use her status as head of the lobby to preserve Jewish heritage in Arab countries to defend their rights.
However, this year Egyptian TV presented a new drama. The Jewish Quarter tells the story of a beautiful young Jewish girl, Leila Harun, who is in love with a dashing army officer (a Muslim) fighting for the liberation of Palestine. Israeli aircrafts bomb the city, and residents of the so-called Jewish district — Jews, Muslims and Christians — find refuge in the synagogue. Soon Leila finds out that her brother is on his way to Palestine to fight for the Independence of Israel against the coalition of Arab armies. Leila condemns her brother and says to her parents: “You brought up a Jewish Egyptian, not a Jewish Israeli.”
Meanwhile, activists of the Muslim Brotherhood and “Young Egypt” (an Islamist organization of which Anwar Sadat was a member) try to fight the revolutionary “Free Officers” movement, and attempt to divide Jews, Muslims and Christians and pit them against one another. There is not a single word in the series on how the Jews were denied Egyptian citizenship, and were robbed and expelled from the country — and this is sad, because it heightens the injustice of this tragedy even more.
But at the same time, the glass is half full. The series is notable for its marked change of tone in its portrayal of Jews — albeit not without flaws. For the first time in decades, Jews are represented without horns and a tail; they do not use blood to cook the Passover matzah, nor do they kill children or strive for world domination. They live, love, dream and dance like everyone else. When I compare the series “Harat al-Yahud” and other films and TV series about Jews – for example, “48 hours in Tel Aviv”, “Cousins” and “The Embassy in a Building,” not to mention the anti-Semitic shows mentioned above, there is a genuine attempt to portray Jews as human beings. Despite this, the fact is that Magda Haroun, one of the last Jews in Cairo and head of the Jewish community, made only two comments on the show: that the Jews were not so rich, and that in her time skirts were longer. The show was originally supposed to be aired two years ago, but the Islamist President at the time, Muhammad Morsi, forbid it. Now, with relations between Israel and Egypt improved, the show got a green light.
In Egypt itself, the reaction is mixed. I watched the show online, and found many anti-Semitic comments and insults. Some believe that the show is too sympathetic to the Jews, while others are offended that the handsome officer has chosen a Jewish girl. But there are also others who like what they see. They nostalgically reminisce about old times that will never return — the blend of the cultures, the coexistence, the freedom of speech, the times when Jews were involved in the commercial and cultural life of Cairo, along with other minorities — Greeks, Armenians and Italians.
However, despite The Jewish Quarter’s refreshingly positive portrayal of Jews, the situation is bleak. Today almost nothing is left of the Jewish community of Egypt, and Jewish landmarks are neglected. Synagogues and old Jewish cemeteries may make for an excellent background in a TV series, but sadly these historic sites are crumbling and in dire need of protection and reconstruction. As head of the lobby to preserve the heritage of Jewish communities from Arab and Islamic countries, I will do everything possible to preserve the history of the Jews in Egypt and elsewhere, and to protect the rights of Jewish refugees from these countries. The Jews of the Arab world have a rich culture and an important history that must neither be marginalized nor forgotten. I look forward to working on behalf of these communities.