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The film highlights a substantial Jewish community in Egypt during the first half of the 20th century for whom Zionism held remarkably little appeal. A heterogeneous mix, Egypt’s Jews had roots in the country that predated Islam. They included Mizrahim, descended from Jews who had lived there since ancient times; Sephardim, who emigrated in large numbers from Spain in 1492, and Ashkenazim, who came to Egypt fleeing persecution in Europe during the 19th century. There was also a community of Karaites — Jews whose forbears had rejected the authority of the Talmud and the rabbis in the early Middle Ages, and who hewed instead to a Judaism based on the Torah alone.
Egypt’s Jews considered themselves full-fledged members of Egyptian society. Those Ramses tracked down in Western Europe, where many ultimately migrated, recall an almost idyllic Egypt in which diverse faiths easily coexisted, particularly in centers like Cairo and Alexandria.
Comfortably ensconced in society, Egypt’s Jews eyed the Zionist project warily. Many were aware of the potential repercussions for them of burgeoning tensions in Palestine. With Israel’s founding, those fears were quickly realized as thousands were expelled and others intimidated into flight.
And yet, the vast majority did not head for Israel. “For us, Israel was the country for the oppressed Jews,” says one émigré in the film who now resides in Europe, “and the Egyptian Jews were not oppressed.” Instead, they headed en masse to places like France and Italy, from where many retained close ties to Egypt. In France, the exiled founder and leader of Egypt’s Communist party, Henri Curiel, even got his hands on a copy of the Israeli-Anglo-French plan to attack Egypt 20 days in advance of the 1956 strike and forwarded it on to President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser dismissed the Egyptian Jew’s warning as implausible.
Except for the opening shots of the film, in which a few Egyptians on the street share their thoughts on Jews and Judaism (“They are damned,” says one; “[They are] enemies of Islam in everything,” inveighs another), Ramses steers clear of the contemporary. “Jews of Egypt” is an ode to a lost past. And yet, implicit in that nod to the past is a searing indictment of the present.
“I guess the comparison is really there without saying it,” Ramses reflected. “And also the contemporary part is the part we’re living, so I guess the film indirectly makes some comparison with the situation that you are already seeing around you and the one you are seeing in the movie.”