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August 14, 2015  RSS feed
Front Page

Text: T T T

In pivot, Egypt’s leaders, citizens are warming to Jews, Israel

By JACOB WIRTSCHAFTER
JTA news service


Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, center, meeting a six-person delegation from the American Jewish Committee in July. 
Photo courtesy of Ken Bandler Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, center, meeting a six-person delegation from the American Jewish Committee in July. Photo courtesy of Ken Bandler CAIRO — It’s been a particularly challenging summer for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi. Within one week in late June and early July, his attorney general was assassinated in the upscale Cairo suburb of Heliopolis and an Islamic State affiliate launched a two-day siege in the North Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid.

But just days after the bloody Sinai battle, Sisi put aside two hours to meet with a delegation from the American Jewish Committee, the global Jewish advocacy group, and then delivered a matter-of-fact account of the meeting to the state-run Middle East News Agency.

The conversation revolved around regional terrorism threats, the stalled peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, the nuclear deal with Iran and the preservation of Egyptian Jewish heritage, according to the AJC’s director of government and international affairs, Jason Isaacson, who led the delegation.

The AJC meeting at the presidential palace came at a time when Egyptian attitudes about Jews are changing. Egyptians are reassessing 1950s-era nationalization policies that squeezed out the Jewish community and other ethnic minorities.

The word “Jew” is used less frequently as a curse word, and the historical TV drama “Jewish Quarter” was a breakout hit during Ramadan. The series cast the Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood as a greater threat to Egypt’s unity and security than the Jews and, sometimes, even the Zionists. Past TV series during Ramadan have traded in negative tropes and stereotypes about Jewish “treachery” and hostility, so “Jewish Quarter” represented a major departure.

“I find more tolerance,” said Isaacson, referring to the period since Sisi came to power in 2013. “I find more respect for Israel and more feeling of commonality between Egyptian and Israeli strategic concerns with common attitudes towards Hamas, especially toward the connections between Hamas and other extremist groups.”

Officially, fewer than eight Jews remain in this capital city – all of them elderly women. The community’s leader, Magda Haroun, last month opened the heavily guarded and rarely used Shaar Hashamayim synagogue in downtown Cairo for an interfaith Ramadan Iftar event, the daily break-fast meal during the holy month. (There were some 75,000 Jews in Egypt before 1948, but in the 1950s the Jewish population was largely stripped of citizenship and assets by then President Gamal Abdel Nasser.)

The meeting also coincided with a warming trend between Sisi, the strongman who leads the world’s most populous Arab country, and Israel. In June, Egypt appointed Hazem Khairat as its new ambassador to Tel Aviv. Sisi’s predecessor,

Mohamed Morsi, long affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, had recalled the previous ambassador in November 2012 after the Israeli Air Force struck and killed a top Hamas military commander and launched an eight-day offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Israel’s war last summer in Gaza threw in sharp relief just how far from favor Hamas, founded as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, has fallen in official Cairo since Sisi’s ascent to power. As Israel’s Operation Protective Edge unfolded, Egypt’s state-sanctioned TV stations specifically deployed the term “terrorist” to describe Hamas-launched missile attacks on Israel. And in the wake of increased activity in the Sinai by affiliates of the Islamic State, the Israel Defense Forces’ Southern Command and the Egyptian Army in Sinai are increasingly sharing intelligence on the movement of for-profit weapons smugglers and ideologically motivated militants.

If any one figure in Egypt deserves credit for the contemporary shift in attitudes, perhaps it is Amir Ramses, whose recent two-part documentary project “The Jews of Egypt” and “End of a Journey” explores the rise and demise of the Jewish communities of Cairo and Alexandria between the late 19th century and the middle of the 20th century.

Ramses, a middle-class Muslim from Cairo, battled official censors here under the administrations of both Morsi and Hosni Mubarak, and Islamists were particularly rankled by the documentary’s revisiting of the “Balfour Day” riots instigated by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1945. They coincided with the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the 1917 letter declaring Britain’s intention to set up a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Yet last year, Ramses’ films were screened in Egypt to critical acclaim.

Ramses said he was intrigued by stories from his grandparents about Jewish, Greek and Italian neighbors whose different foods and folkways added an international flair to the metropolis — a flair that is now decidedly absent.

“The big picture I am trying to draw,” he said, “is an image of the pre-1952 society through the window of the diversity of a cosmopolitan way of living in Cairo.”


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