By Prof. Ada Aharoni
This paper attempts to briefly explore the
multicultural heritage of the Jews from Egypt, as
well as the cultural aspects of their historical
“Second Exodus,” that roughly took place between
1948 to 1967.
I was myself born in Egypt, and have always been
interested in the sociology and history of the Jews
from Egypt, on which I have written four books and
several research papers. I conducted this present
research in the Dept. of Humanities at the Technion
in Haifa, where I found out that one of the most
salient characteristics and qualities of the Jews from
Egypt is their rich and substantial multiculturalism.
The main ideas I’ll be talking about are:
1. The Influence of the symbiotic relations between
Jews and Arabs in the Middle Ages.
2. Multiculturalism in Modern Times.
3. The cultural aspects of The Second Exodus.
4. The advantages of multiculturalism today.
5. What can be done to preserve the rich multicultural
heritage of the Jews from Egypt?
On close examination of major historical periods in
the history of the Jews in Egypt, from ancient times to
the modern era, it is interesting to note that they have
traditionally constituted a bridge between cultures,
and in doing so, have been a significant source of
From the first century to modern times, they were
influenced by open traditions to other cultures, as
documented by the Cairo Gniza, and by the symbiotic
cultural relations between Jews and Arabs in the
Golden Age in Medieval Spain. Two interesting things
documented by the Cairo Gniza is that the Jews in
Egypt were encouraged to know other cultures in
addition to their own, and that girls were allowed to
study in the Yeshivot, as they would be the mothers.
Philo The Alexandrian and
Saadia Hagaon
In the first century, when the philosopher Philo
the Alexandrian (20 BC –
50 AD), wrote
commentaries to the Septuaginta (the translated
Bible into Greek by seventy Jewish scholars 250
years before), he not only introduced Jewish
elements into Hellenic culture, but also
contributed to the bridging between Jewish
culture and the Hellenic world. And in the tenth
century, when Saadia Hagaon translated the
Bible into Arabic, it introduced Jewish
influences and values into Islamic culture, and it
promoted intercultural Jewish-Islamic symbiotic
Moshe Maimonides: Harambam
In the eleventh century, the great Jewish
philosopher, Moses Maimonides, came to Egypt from
Spain as a young man and wrote all his important
philosophical and creative works in Egypt. His
writings were influential not only among the Jews
but also among the Moslems. He wrote both in
Hebrew and Arabic, and sometimes in Hebrew using
Arabic letters, or in Arabic using Hebrew letters. He
was venerated by both Jews and Moslems, under his
Hebrew name: Moshe Ben Maimon, and his Arabic
name: Abu Amran Obeid Illah Moussa Ibn
Maimoon El Cortobi. He is today, at the same time,
the major leading figure in Judaism, and highly
considered by Moslems as an outstanding
contributor to Islamic philosophy.
It is estimated that approximately one third of the Jews in
Egypt in modern times were descendants of the Jews
from Spain, and they retained their rich Jewish - Spanish
heritage. In the “Golden Age” of Medieval Spain, many
famous philosophical, cultural and literary figures were
venerated and admired by both Jews and Arabs.
Among them is the leading poet known by the Jews as
Yehuda Ben Shmuel Halevi, and by the Arabs as Abu El
Hassan El Lawi; and the writer and philosopher known by
the Jews as Shlomo Ben Yehuda Ibn Gabirol, and by the
Arabs as Abu Ayub Suliman Ibn Yehia. There were also
some famous women poets, such as Casmona Bat
Ismail, known by her Arab name as Casmona Bint Ismail,
who was appreciated by both Jews and Arabs. She was
versed in Hebrew and Arabic, and her fine and moving
poetry powerfully revealed the secrets of the universal
hidden soul. (1)
All these historical cultural influences were
transferred and apparent in modern times. In
addition, to their rich cultural heritage, the Jews of
Egypt in the 20th century, were likewise well - versed
in Western cultures and traditions on the one hand,
and in the Arabic culture, values and customs, on the
other. Though their mother tongue and main culture
was mostly French, in addition, they also fluently
spoke and read other languages: Arabic, English,
Hebrew, Ladino (Jewish Spanish), and sometimes
Italian and Greek. This rich cross-cultural heritage
enhanced their openness, appreciation and respect of
the culture of their Arab neighbors
The Webster New World Dictionary describes
“Culture" as: "The development, improvement and
refinement of the mind, interests, manners and tastes, as
well as the arts, literature, language, ideas, history,
religion, customs and skills of a given people in a given
period.” That is, the very basis of a person’s identity.
Multi-Culture - is a conglomerate of cultures, and it
can therefore: mediate and transfer values, ideas, ethics,
information, customs, traditions, interests, emotions,
developments, arts and intellectual refinement, between:
people, generations, nations, and civilizations. The
definition of “multicultural" used in the present article,
is based on all the above. It is an important element in
globalized world today.
The various intercultural traditions and trends from
the past among the Jews from Egypt, were further
developed in various new directions in modern
Egypt. They were usually taught at least three
basic languages: French (which from the time of
Ferdinand de Lesseps who built the Suez Canal,
had become the mother tongue of most of the
Egyptian Jews), Arabic, and English. Boys, and
sometimes girls, were also taught Hebrew (the
language in which they prayed). In addition, many
of them continued to speak Ladino. Thus, though
they lived in the East, the Jews of Egypt were
exposed to the multi-cultures of both the East and
West, and their children were mostly sent to
French, English or Jewish schools. And if they
were sick they were usually treated at the Jewish
Hospitals in Cairo and Alexandria. They ran their
10/3/2015 own institutions, and for the first time since the
times of the Bible, Jews lived an autonomous life.
Dr. Katz with Thea in the Operation Room of
The Artistic and Cultural Scene
The artistic and cultural scene was also highly
multicultural, in the best sense. At the Opera in Cairo
for instance, which was regularly frequented by Jews,
the cultural programs offered included not only the
well-known Om Kulthum, and the Jewish singer Leila
Mourad, but also the peaks of European culture, such
as: The Shakespeare Company from Stratford on Avon,
the Comedie Francaise from Paris, the Royal Ballet
from London, the Comedia del Arte from Milano, and
the Philharmonic from Palestine, conducted by the
famous Toscanini (2). King Farouk, with his wife
Farida, had a special “loge” at the Opera, and he often
attended the spectacular performances presented, of the
of Eastern and Western culture.
Jewish Culture
In addition to this rich multi-cultural array from the
East and the West, Jewish culture and traditions were
part and parcel of the daily life of the Jewish community.
At the synagogues in Cairo and Alexandria, Jews duly
conducted their services, feasted their various feasts,
celebrations and weddings, in great gusto. At the various
Zionist movements, such as the Maccabi-Hehalutz, Ha
Shomer Hatsair, B’nai Akiva and B’nai Brith, Jewish
youngsters learnt Hebrew songs and dances and Jewish
traditions, as well as modern Israeli culture, literature and
history. The Jewish Hospital in Alexandria was the major
Hospital for the Allied Forces during World War II when
was in Alamein. (See To Alexandria).
The fact that most Jews were not allowed to become
Egyptian citizens was an additional element which
promoted their multicultural inclinations. Despite
their increasing demands to become citizens, it is
estimated that merely five percent succeeded to
obtain the Egyptian citizenship. The rest were either
“apatride,” meaning with no citizenship at all, or they
had succeeded to retain a foreign citizenship from one
of their ancestors. They had no Egyptian identity
cards, and if they wanted to travel they could obtain a
“laissez passer,” but no passport. This situation
reinforced further their identification with their
Jewish identity and with Israel.
Openness Toward Other Cultures
The pluralistic education and inter-cultural character
of the Jews of Egypt in modern times, developed in
them values of moderation and harmony, as well as a
basic respect for the “stranger” and other cultures.
Due to this, today, as in the past, it makes them more
understanding and appreciative of the ethnic culture
of the Arabs. The fact that they had lived in Egypt in
the past, and that they know the language, customs
and mentality of the Middle East, make them suitable
partners for the bridging of Jewish and Arab cultures
and for peace negotiations. However, it is a pity that
their special credentials are overlooked, and that they
are not included in the various aspects of peacemaking
between Israel and her neighbors.
Multicultural Facets of “The Second Exodus”
From the nineteenth century until 1948, the richly
multicultural Jewish community in Egypt was vibrant,
prosperous, and a dynamic element of Egyptian society.
Towards the end of World War II, with the growing Arab Israeli conflict, all of this changed, the Jewish community
was uprooted and they were compelled to emigrate, and to
leave all their assets and their cultural heritage behind.
That means, there has literally been a “Second Exodus”
from Egypt, which took place in the 20th century. My
books: The Second Exodus, which coined this term
historically, and From the Nile to the Jordan (2), which are
both based on a research on the Jews from Egypt who
emigrated to Israel, delineates some of the tragedies and
they endured due to their painful uprooting. 17
The multi-cultural heritage of the Jews from Egypt
helped them in their emigration from Egypt during the
“Second Exodus”. Whether they came to Israel (as
about half of them did), or whether they emigrated to
Europe, the US, Canada, South America or Australia,
their knowledge of languages and of various cultures,
helped them to successfully integrate in their new
homelands. They did not plunge into hatred and
despair, though they lost all their personal assets, as
well as all the public property of the Jewish
community, such as: schools, youth clubs, synagogues,
old age homes and hospitals. Everything they owned
was sequestered by the Egyptian Government, and
they were forced to leave with only twenty pounds.
In general, the Jews of Egypt do not harbor hard feelings
towards Egypt or the Arabs. In our research on “The Jews
of Egypt in the 20th Century”, conducted at the Technion’s
“Neaman Institute for Advanced Studies in Science,” the
majority of a sample of 501 Jews from Egypt who were
interviewed, did not bear a grudge against Egypt, and
most of them said they understood that the tragic events
that befell them were due to the leaders and not to the
Egyptian people. (8) When asked why they did not try to
salvage their cultural heritage, many of them emitted a
typical response: “ele fat mat,” - “What is past is dead.”
This response was not considered running away from the
issue or adopting an irresponsible attitude toward their
cultural heritage, but rather as a proof that they were not
vengeful or bitter, and they knew how to stoically accept
the vagaries of destiny and to rebuild their lives.
This conciliatory attitude and the humane link with life
and with society, is illustrated in my following poem
entitled “A Green Week,” - “Gometek Khadra,” a wellknown Jewish -Egyptian blessing. I wrote this poem after
my father died of a heart attack, when he found out that
all his property and assets ntyodstn/ailms-had
been sequestered by the
Egyptian government.
A week like fresh mint
a green week spreading its fragrance
to the roots of being
“Gometek Khadra!” Have a green week!
My father used to bless us
on Saturday nights in Cairo
when he came back
from “Shaar Hashamayim,”
the Gates of Heaven the grand synagogue in Cairo in Adli Street.
Have a green week he beamed
brandishing a fragrant mint branch
over our keen curly heads but don’t keep it merely for yourself
and for your family – that green week,
be sure to give it back to the world
fully blossoming.
Who will give me a green week
now that he’s gone?
Now that the “Gates of Heaven”are shut?
Only peace, only a real
fragrant mint peace.
The emerging global village in the 21st century is one
that tends toward multiculturalism. People travel more
and get in contact with various cultures, and modern
technology such as the Internet and television enable
multiple constructive information, outlets and contacts
between cultures, people and nations.
Extensive research, study and diffusion of the
historical and cultural aspects of the multicultural
Jewish community in Egypt in modern times, and their
“Second Exodus,” can help to promote a reconciliation
between Jews and Palestinians/ Arabs. It would help
both sides of the conflict to discover each other
historically, intellectually and
emotionally, through their joint experiences, and would
give them a chance to empathize with each other.
Realizing that tragedy and suffering were on both sides
of the conflict, and not just on the one side, will enable
acceptance and the openness toward the “other,” needed
for the deep “Sulha” reconciliation. Both sides will be
able to discover that the same fears, frustrations and
deep feelings of wrong and hurt, are shared by all victims
of displacement, who have gone through much the same
trauma of the painful and tragic process of being
uprooted. I have had such an experience lately at the
University of Pennsylvania, when a group of Palestinian
students, after my talk, recognized that wars bring
suffering on both sides, and not only on the one side, and
their attitude toward Israel was substantially changed.
Reconciliation in the Middle East, can benefit from
bridging between nations through cultural exchanges.
The deep levels of mistrust on both sides of a conflict
which have accumulated over the years, should be
reached not only by vehicles of thoughts, but also of
feelings, such as literature and culture, which can delve
into the deep layers of identity, frustration and hurt on
both sides, built over the years . Multicultural bridges of
understanding and respect, can cause an impact, which
no political speech can convey. The inter-cultural
approach and sharing of one’s history, as for instance,
the emigration of the Jews from Arab countries, and the
Palestinians from Israel, is particularly suited for
fears and mistrust into more positive attitudes.24
The intercultural approach includes:
1. A certain identification with the “other”.
2. Comprehension and respect for the other’s culture,
situation and reality.
As we have seen above, this is the manner in which
the Jewish community in Egypt was brought up.
This multicultural attitude can build up trust and
understanding, as well as ideological, emotional and
psychological motivation, and it can increase
awareness and knowledge on both sides, that can
help toward the “Sulha” - the full reconciliation,
not only between the leaders that have signed the
peace agreements, but also between the two people.
There are mainly four ways in which the
multicultural heritage of the Jews from Egypt
can be preserved.
1. Through the Israeli educational system.
2. The building of a Jewish-Egyptian Museum.
3. A Research Institute on the Jews from Egypt,
and the writing and publishing of books.
4. Collecting “Oral History,” and production of
films, videos and television programs, as well as
Internet websites and programs.
1. EDUCATION: There are several benefits that would
ensue from the inclusion of the the history, literature
and the rich cultural heritage, of the Jews from Egypt
in the education system in Israel. One of the uppermost
benefits is the model of a harmonious and rich
multicultural society living in peace with its Arab
neighbors before 1948.
2. MUSEUM: The Jewish artifacts that are still in
Egypt should be collected and made available in a
museum, for tourists and scholars who want to learn
about the history of the Jews from Egypt. This museum
could either be in Israel, the US, France, or even in
Egypt, in case the Egyptian authorities continue to
insist on retaining them.
3. RESEARCH: There should be a provision of grants to
encourage research and creative writing on various aspects
of this harmonious multicultural society. Comparisons
should be made and lessons should be learned from the
past and should be used in the present. The information
that such research could reveal could also be rewarding to
policy makers. It could fulfill an important and overdue
need in both Israel and in the Arab countries, benefiting
them with the model of an open multicultural society
capable of paving understanding, respect and peace.
4. ORAL HISTORY: is particularly urgent, seeing that the
older generations of the Jews from Egypt are disappearing
and taking with them their history, cultural heritage and
memories, into oblivion. Books and films based on this
oral history should be produced.
“In literature as in dreams, there is no death” Isaac
Bashevis Singer
Despite the fact that the Jewish community in Egypt
does not exist anymore, and that its members have
been dispersed all over the world, in Israel and in
other countries - it can still serve as a model
community for the third millennium that tends toward
the multicultural and pluralistic society. Secondly, the
open, peaceful and harmonious multicultural
character inherent in the cultural heritage of the Jews
from Egypt in modern times, can constitute a
significant bridge of understanding, respect and
harmony between Jews and Arabs today.
1) Salim Shashua , The Golden Age: Cooperation Between
Jews and Arabs in Andalusia, Second Edition, 1990, El Mashraq,
Shfaram, Israel.
2)2) Ada Aharoni, The Second Exodus, and the 2nd ed. From the
Nile to the Jordan, chapter 4, “Cairo Opera House,” Lahman,
Haifa, 1994, pages 21 - 28.
3 3) Michael Laskier, The Jews of Egypt, 1920 - 1970: In the
Midst of Zionism, Anti-Semitism, and the Middle East Conflict,
New York University Press, NY, 1992, pages 125 - 164.
4) 4) Jacques Hassoun, Juifs du Nil, Le Seuil, Paris, 1981.
5) 5) Shimon Shamir, ed. The Jews of Egypt , Ada Aharoni,
“The Image of Jewish Life in Egypt in the Writings of Egyptian
Jewish Authors,” Westview Press, Boulder and London, 1987,
6) Ada Aharoni, Research on the Jews of Egypt in the Twentieth
Century, the Neaman Institute for Advanced Studies in Science
(Technion- Israel Insitute of Technology), 1995 - 1996.
7) Mohamed Fawzi Deif, War and Peace in Israeli Literature: The
of Peace in the Poetry of Ada Aharoni,, The Nile
Publications, Cairo University, Cairo, Egypt, 1996, 200 pages.
8) Mohamed Fawzi Deif and Ada Aharoni, Peace Poems: A
Hebrew - Arabic Bilingual Edition , Prof. Mohamed Fawzi Deif,
Lahman, Haifa, 1997.
9) See Ada Aharoni, Not In Vain: An Extraordinary Life, Ladybug
Press, San Carlos, CA., January, 1998.
10) Ada Aharoni, “A Green Week,” Poems from Israel, Lahman
Press, Haifa, 1992, p. 50.