The Ramadan series, Haret al-Yahud, has been praised for its surprisingly sympathetic view of Egyptian Jews. However, argues Steven A Cook of the US Council of Foreign Relations, the Jews depicted here serve as just a useful device for Egyptians to imagine a more tolerant society. The film does not attempt to make Egyptians squarely confront the reality of the ethnic cleansing of their Jewish community. As such, the TV series is revisionist.
An Egyptian soldier guarding the walls of the Israeli embassy in 2011(Photo: Mohamed Al-Ghany)
The nostalgia for lost Jewish communities has been a recurring theme
since at least 2012 with the release of Amir Ramses’ documentary Jews of Egypt. The latest installment is the Egyptian Ramadan serial called The Jewish Alley (Haret el-Yahood).
In between, there has been a rediscovery of Jewish life and culture in
Tunisia, Morocco, and Lebanon, where the Maghen Abraham synagogue has
been undergoing a lengthy renovation. It is easy to overstate the case
given Egypt’s recent history of seemingly pathological anti-Semitism,
but Egyptians seem to have gone further than others in the region in
their rediscovery of Jewish life and culture. This should make
well-meaning people feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but what is
happening in Egypt is actually less rediscovery than reinvention.
When Israeli forces reached the east bank of the Suez Canal on the
morning of June 8, 1967, they constituted the largest number of Jews in
Egypt at the time. In the preceding two decades, the vast majority of
their Egyptian coreligionists had fled to Europe, the United States, and
Israel. The largest exodus came after the 1956 British-French-Israeli
attack on the Sinai Peninsula and the Suez Canal zone. A small number
remained, believing their nationalism and anti-Zionism would protect
them. It did and it did not. Crude and vicious anti-Semitism became the
stock and trade of the Egyptian media as well as a long list of
so-called intellectuals who happily blurred the lines between Jews and
At the same time, the remnants of Egypt’s Jewish community
never experienced pogrom–like violence. (Not true - riots erupted in 1948, murdering hundreds of Jews, and there was much damage to property in the Cairo Fire in 1952 - ed) Cairo’s unused synagogues—there
was rarely the required ten people, or minyan, for prayer—were
always well protected. This may have been a cynical effort to draw a
distinction between official hostility to Israel and Judaism, but
importantly, those houses of worship remained as a testament to
Judaism’s past presence in Egypt.
Jews did play important roles in Egyptian commerce, culture, and
politics in the first half of the twentieth century. Ramses, his
producer Haitham al-Khamissi, and the people who brought about The Jewish Alley
want to leverage a sanitized version of this history to make claims
about Egyptian society—especially its once, and future, religious
tolerance and inclusivity. In Jews of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser
and Zionists conspired to make the once allegedly idyllic Jewish
existence in Egypt a nightmare of sequestration, suspicion,
anti-Semitism, and exodus.
This Ramadan, unlike some holiday mini-series
from the recent past that were notable for their anti-Semitic themes,
Jews are portrayed sympathetically, as authentic Egyptians, and as
victims of the Muslim Brotherhood. The profound national trauma of
post–uprising Egypt has some Egyptians looking back to a time when the
country was not locked in an all-consuming struggle with its violence,
Jacobin–like discourse, pervasive repression, and widespread distrust.
Under these difficult circumstances, Jews are a perfect device through
which Egyptians can create a tolerant past if only to give the audience
some faint hope of a more just, open, and less prejudiced future. With
so few Jews left in the country, their history in Egypt is entirely
malleable. It is true that Ramses features Jews outside the country who
nurture fond memories of all things Egyptian, but it is clear that he is
interested in telling a story about Egypt rather than an accurate
reflection of the history of its Jewish population and why it has
dwindled to so few.
It may well be that the hagiography of Egypt’s Jews is part of a new
set of positive myths that will help Egyptians answer questions about
who they are and what kind of society they want. For this then, everyone
should welcome the new interest among some Egyptians in Egypt’s Jews.
Yet that is not enough. In order to build that socially just, tolerant,
and more representative society that Egyptians want, they will actually
have to grapple with and revise a history that only has a vague
resemblance to what they have been telling themselves about their Jewish
brothers and sisters.
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