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The Exodus of Egypt's Jews

Haunted by a tragic history, Egypt's formerly thriving Jewish community recounts its story through Amir Ramses's documentary, Jews of Egypt, which retraces a shameful past most would rather forget.

It is no secret that a majority of Egyptian Muslims have a strong disdain for the state of Israel. With the rise of Zionism, the ongoing occupation (complete with annual outbursts of disproportionate violence against Palestinians), and a history of war with Egypt, it is not difficult to identify the source of their anger. Yet, caught in the crossfire of all the politics and violence were perhaps some of the most patriotic Egyptians; Egyptian Jews.

Looking to learn more about the subject, I took to the World Wide Web to discover a concise history of the Jewish communities that helped build Egypt. Unfortunately, during my research I found it to be deceptively difficult to separate fact from fiction; that is until I stumbled upon the documentary Jews of Egypt, directed by Amir Ramses. Moved by the subject matter, the quality of the production, and the plight of disenfranchised Egyptians, I decided to head down to his studio in order to learn about his masterfully edited documentary, and more importantly, to discover what exactly happened to the Jewish community in Egypt.

Arriving at the studio, I find a young-looking Ramses sitting alone in front of 3 monitors and loads of equipment working on a project. To my surprise, Ramses informs me that Jews of Egypt wasn’t his first major project. At the age of 35, Ramses has quite the impressive resume that boasts 3 full features, 5 shorts, and 3 documentaries. “I started studying at the Higher Institute of Cinema in Giza at the age of 16. By the time I was 19, I was working for Youssef Cahine, who quickly made me his first assistant. While working on Alexandria New York I found myself living in Paris working on the post-production, which is around the time I came up with the idea of filming Jews of Egypt,” explains Ramses.

For four years, the idea rattled around in Ramses's head until finally he decided to take a break from making features and embarked on a journey to create his first documentary. His small team included Haitham El-Khameesy, producer and composer, and Essam Fawzy who provided plenty of support and archive footage to portray the forgotten history. “I was always fascinated by the 30s and 40s of the 20th century in Egypt, the golden era of cosmopolitan Alexandria, how Egyptians from different religions, cultures, and even races were living together in harmony. I would say that back then, the Egyptian identity had meaning,” Ramses explains with nostalgia.

Similar to the Muslim population, the documentary explains that the Jewish community was separated by social classes; Karaites Jews were people who had lived their whole lives in Egypt and couldn’t be distinguished from Egyptians of other faiths. The middle class was split into two; Egyptian Jews who found success in the economy, and another group called Ashkenazi Jews, who were composed of professionals who emigrated from Europe after WWI, amidst the rise of anti-Semitism. The final class was the Sephardic Jews, made up of rich aristocrats who left Spain during the Ottoman Empire, and became leading economists and ministers who helped Egypt enter its Golden Cosmopolitan age. As a religious community they contributed to Egypt’s economy, its politics, and its artistic culture.  

In present day Egypt, you would be hard pressed to find an Egyptian who remembers the different classifications, or even know the difference between Zionism, a political movement, and Judaism, a religion. According to Ramses “the average Arab would consider that a Jew is an enemy, unable to distinguish between [the fact] that Israelis and Jews are not the same thing.”

Ramses places blame predominantly on the media. “The media has contributed to the confusion for the last 50 years. How many times do you use the word Jew instead of Israeli in books and movies? There is a definite confusion, which is why it was important to make the movie for me, to try to erase the confusion.” This miscommunication was a direct result of the aftermath of the creation of the Israeli state in 1948. Caught in the middle of politics were many patriotic Egyptian Jews, including anti-Zionists, who were systematically exiled from the land between 1948 and 1957. The fear at the time was this: now that Israel was a state, many of the Egyptians would instantly become spies, and thus enemies of the state.

In the 40s, political problems, coupled with Muslim Brotherhood attacks on Jews and their businesses created an uncertain and unsafe future. In the early 1950s, many middle-class Jews left because the regime was trying to force them to leave, especially the left wing parties. The most controversial decision that led to a mass exodus was made during the war in 1956.  “Those who left in the 50s were forced to sign documents that would drop their nationality and were told that they could never come back. Even Jews who wanted to leave Egypt for a temporary vacation were forced to sign the document, and up until now Egyptian Jews who signed the document can’t even come back for a visit, while Israeli Jews can,” a baffled Ramses explains.

Despite this travesty of policy, the majority of Egyptian Jews faced with the tough decision of having to find somewhere new to live, opted to move to countries in Europe instead of Israel. According to Ramses, “Only 25% of Egyptian Jews really went back to Israel. Most of them left to Europe, South Africa or the United States. Only 2% had Zionist beliefs. Those who left in 1956 and went to Israel were poor and had no other place to go.”

It is for that reason that many of those interviewed in the documentary are living abroad, detailing their first-hand experience of exile. The way they passionately speak about their memories of living in a tolerant Egypt is touching, and leaves the viewer saddened that we failed to return to a state of acceptance. Even after being forced to renounce their citizenship, prominent Jewish leaders like Henry Curriel formed underground networks to relay information to Nasser in hopes of winning favour, and perhaps regaining his nationality, while saving the country from attacks. Unfortunately Nasser still did not trust him, and despite warning of an incoming invasion, Nasser did not act on the information, resulting in France, England, and Israel invading Port Said in 1956.

Ramses does an excellent job of keeping the film engaging until the very end, and made a point to design it like a feature film, making it easier to follow the narrative. By editing firsthand accounts with recorded facts, he essentially presented puzzle pieces that eventually create a clear picture of some very dark days. The accompanying soundtrack is carefully orchestrated, helping the movie float on harmoniously.

Many of those interviewed live abroad, as Egyptian Jews remaining in Egypt were too afraid to come forward with their tales, resulting in the decision to split the documentary into two parts. “After the first film and the emotionally overwhelming reception of the audience, many of the people who were hesitant to talk changed their mind, and told us that if we decided to make another film, they were not afraid anymore. That’s why the second part was created, and that’s why the second part is only in Egypt. Without the success of the first film, the sequel would have never been created,” Ramses explains.

The second installation has just been released, entitled The End of a Journey, and it has garnered rave reviews. I have yet to see it, but look forward to the insight that Egyptian Jews living in Egypt have to tell. Originally the film was set to be released, but after receiving plenty of positive attention, the authorities decided to try to ban it. “They tried to withdraw the censorship permit we had already gotten. It was weird and illegal, but they tried to do it behind the curtains. They kept stalling for three weeks until the head of the censorship told us that national security didn’t want the film out and they’re stopping them from giving us the permit.”

Despite the complications, Ramses remains optimistic, believing that they will be able to release the film online. He added, “We had a lot of very tempting financial offers after we finished, but they wanted us to remove certain parts, but that was not why we produced the film on our own. But soon enough the film will be on a movie channel, and then on YouTube. Right after Ramadan we might have a theatrical release, and release the DVD for part one.”

Many of those interviewed are very old, and if it weren’t for Ramses would have passed on without this important part of history on record. This documentary should be required viewing for all Egyptians hoping to return to the golden cosmopolitan age. In order to return to those much cherished days, the state must acknowledge the mistakes made in the past, while its people need understand that no country can ever be considered cosmopolitan without tolerance and acceptance.