Brave Film Tells Story of Egypt and Its Jews

'Jews of Egypt' Details Long History and Sudden Demise

Lingering Signs: Egypt’s Jews were expelled after Israel’s founding but their long presence remains visible in Cairo’s Harat Al-Yahud, or Jewish Quarter, abutting the city’s famous Al-Azhar Mosque.
Courtesy of ‘Jews of Egypt’
Lingering Signs: Egypt’s Jews were expelled after Israel’s founding but their long presence remains visible in Cairo’s Harat Al-Yahud, or Jewish Quarter, abutting the city’s famous Al-Azhar Mosque.

By Aaron Ross

Published October 15, 2012, issue of October 19, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Sitting in a Cairo coffee shop, with his boyish face and gaunt physique, Amir Ramses looks at first glance like someone half his age. But the prominent 33-year-old film director has already directed three major commercial films and several acclaimed documentaries. His new film, the independently produced “Jews of Egypt,” Ramses says, is his most important feature film to date.

“There is all this offensive, racist stuff you hear about Jews in Cairo,” explains the Egyptian filmmaker as he sips a cup of coffee. “We managed during 40 years to combine or relate the concepts of Jewish, Zionist and Israeli into one word and create an enemy out of that word, although they’re not necessarily related.”

The documentary, about 90 minutes long, premiered the night before his coffee shop sit-down with the Forward, and it will not be mistaken for an olive branch to Israel. A self-described secularist in the mold of Egypt’s most famous director, his late mentor, Youssef Chahine, Ramses opposes Zionism for the same reason he opposes the concept of a Christian or a Muslim state. “I don’t believe that any country in the world should be based on religion,” he says. But he is equally adamant that hostility toward Israel or Zionism is a lousy excuse for anti-Semitism.

The goal of the film, Ramses says, is to disentangle Judaism from Zionism in a country whose enmity for its northern neighbor has long served as the lifeblood of widespread anti-Jewish prejudice. The film does so by recreating the years in which some 80,000 Jews lived in Egypt, mostly in Cairo and Alexandria, amid Muslims and Christians in a cosmopolitan potpourri that seems impossibly distant today. And it does not shrink from describing the brutality with which these natives of Egypt were expelled en masse, as recalled in their own words.

The October 6 unveiling of Ramses’s film at the week-long Panorama of the European Film in Cairo coincided with a hallowed date in Egyptian history. On that date in 1973, Egypt’s army crossed the Suez Canal in a surprise attack on Israeli forces that produced its most celebrated modern military triumph. Even as the film opened, Egypt’s new, democratically elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, was commemorating the attack in a major address before tens of thousands inside Cairo Stadium. But the lobby of the Galaxy Theatre in Cairo’s Manial District, was also packed to the gills, albeit with a smaller crowd, well before the film’s 6:30 p.m. start time. In fact, so many flocked to the theater that organizers had to scramble to organize a second screening later in the evening.

There was a touch of the taboo in the event — a chance to engage a piece of Egyptian history long suppressed and ignored, and vaguely shameful, in contrast to the loud declarations of pride that characterized the larger gathering.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Selma. Nearly 50 years ago it was violent Selma, impossibly racist Selma, site of Bloody Sunday, when peaceful civil rights marchers made their first attempt to cross the Pettus Street Bridge on the way to the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama." http://jd.fo/r50mf With the 50th anniversary approaching next spring, a new coalition is bringing together blacks, Jews and others for progressive change.
  • Kosovo's centuries-old Jewish community is down to a few dozen. In a nation where the population is 90% Muslim, they are proud their past — and wonder why Israel won't recognize their state. http://jd.fo/h4wK0
  • Israelis are taking up the #IceBucketChallenge — with hummus.
  • In WWI, Jews fought for Britain. So why were they treated as outsiders?
  • According to a new poll, 75% of Israeli Jews oppose intermarriage.
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.