Egypt's New Interest in its Jewish Past

  • August 5, 2015

There has been much discussion about  the recent Egyptian TV drama The Jewish Quarter, which depicts the Jew­ish com­mu­nity in Egypt in the 1940s through a love story between a Jew­ish woman and a Mus­lim Egypt­ian army offi­cer.

ADL noted that despite some expectations that it would depart from the usual anti-Semitic canards typically found in Ramadan-period productions, The Jewish Quarter divides Egyptian Jews into two categories:  “good” Jews and “bad” Jew.  The good Jews are loyal to Egypt and sup­port its war against Israel while Zion­ist Jews, are depicted as wicked, liars, evil and try­ing to betray Egypt.

At the same time, as flawed as The Jewish Quarter is, it appears to reflect a new interest among Egyptians in its once-thriving Jewish community.

Examples include, the 2012 Egyptian-made film, Jews of Egypt , which documented the  history of the community and a number of recent articles which have examined the Jews’ historical role in the country’s success.

the jewish quarter egypt

“No one can deny the role played by Egypt’s Jews throughout its history, a role considered vital and important”, noted one article published in Egypt’s Al-Wafd newspaper (July 21), adding that “They’ve always been part of Egyptian cultural and social fabric”. Other newspapers go even further in their superlatives as they invoke prominent Egyptian-Jewish figures from the past, such as legendary singer Layla Murad (who later converted to Islam and was outspoken in her criticism of Israel),  a feature about whom was recently published in the country’s Al-Yawm As-Sabi newspaper (July 13): “She is the voice of love in her days, in ours and in every day”, says the article. “She is capable of bestowing upon you positive energy through which to face life’s futility; capable of making you sense the beauty of life; and capable of creating a new heart between your ribs, one that will know a new meaning of love and life.”

Why is there now this renewed interest in Egypt’s Jewish community of seven decades ago?  An article published (July 18) about The Jewish Quarter TV series in Egypt’s most widely circulated daily – Al-Ahram – suggests one possible answer, which is that it’s not about the Jews in and of themselves. Dr. Hala Mustafa writes, “Naturally, this isn’t a historiography of Jewish presence in Egypt, but rather a demonstration of one feature of Egyptian cultural liberal legacy. It is characterized by diversity, wealth and pluralism in their fullest sense and exceeds the immediate political context. Jews were only part of a bigger system which embraced citizens of non-Egyptian origins and foreign emigrants, such as Greeks, Italians, Armenians, French and others. This naturally led to a mixture of Western and Oriental cultures, eventually producing a distinct tolerant Egyptian culture.”

It seems that in the midst of Egypt’s tremendous instability, with the country’s leadership moving from secular to Muslim Brotherhood and back again to a secular regime; fighting Islamic terror in Sinai; struggling over the country’s very ethos, the Egypt of the 1940’s simply represents a more liberal and tolerant country that some long for in these times of religious extremism and Islamic political awakening.

Whether this new interest will endure, much less translates to a new approach to Jews and the Jewish State, remains to be seen.