Gudrun Kramer, Minderheit, Millet, Nation? Die Juden in Agypten, 1914-1952 (Minority, Millet, Nation? The Jews in Egypt, 1914-1952) (Wiesbaden, 1982).
Up to now, the history of the Jewish community in Egypt has been known only to a few specialists. Some periods have been analyzed quite well — for instance, the tenth to thirteenth century (S. Goitein) and the nineteenth century (R. Fargeon, J. Landau). Gudrun Kramer has now provided a marvelous study covering the 1914-1952 period. She made extensive use of archival material and numerous interviews from the oral history section of the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at Hebrew University, and ones she herself conducted. The selection of secondary sources is quite representative.
She divides the community into three groups. The old, established Jewish community — some 8 to 10,000 persons in 1920, living mostly in the harat al-yahud quarter — was assimilated to the Arab environment, poor and socially declassed. The second group comprises the Qaraites, the famous Jewish sect dating back to the eighth century, who also lived in a special Cairo quarter. Kramer estimates their number as high as 6,000. The rest are Jews who emigrated to Egypt, mostly in the nineteenth century. Sephardim of Italian and Spanish origin started coming to Egypt in 1859 and numbered about 30,000 in 1920. Some 7,000 Oriental Jews lived in Alexandria and some Delta towns. Most came to Egypt in the late nineteenth century from the Maghrib or from Yemen. The Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim emigrated to Egypt at the turn of the century. This community of about 6,000 lived mainly in Cairo.
The Jewish community was as heterogenous as Egyptian society. About 5 percent were upper class, mostly French- or Italian-speaking Sephardim. They controlled most of the wealth of the community. Sephardim, but also Ashkenazim and Oriental Jews, made up the middle class, about 35 percent of the Jewish population. The overwhelming majority lived in abject poverty. Kramer’s interesting analysis of the various fields of Jewish entrepreneurship provides fascinating glimpses at the histories of those families belonging to Jewish high society.
After 1839, the Jews were regarded as a millet — an independent religious group with special laws regarding family status. This helped to promote some wealthy families into very high social positions as a religious minority protected by the state. The male Jewish population of Cairo (about 30,000 in 1920), who paid the annual arikha contribution, elected a communal council whose president was effectively head of the community. As growing social dissociation and differentiation contributed to the dissolution of the Jewish community, many of the wealthy families were integrated into the commercial and entrepreneurial sphere of Egyptian society.
The Jewish community would have shared the fate of the rest of Egyptian society — division into traditional sectors and a colonial sector — had not unique political developments tended to reintegrate its different components. Kramer describes the impact of Nazi propaganda in Egypt beginning in 1933, and the anti-German boycott movement that followed. The uprising in Palestine (1936-1939) led to a second wave of politicization based on the Jewish middle class; most of Jewish high society stood aside. The first riots against Jews in Cairo’s harat al-yahud took place in 1945.
Kramer’s account of the events of the next seven years is extremely valuable. Growing anti-Jewish sentiment in parts of Egyptian society, identified with Islamic fundamentalist and nationalist political groups, only starts in the postwar period. The Egyptian government’s first assault against the Jewish community began with the internments of May-June 1948. In the summer of 1948, anti-Jewish actions reached a climax, but they never reached the level of organized pogroms. Still, in 1948, the large-scale emigration of mostly poor Jews began. By 1952, about one quarter of the Jewish community had left the country. The poorer families left for Israel; the upper class preferred the US, Europe or Australia. In spite of some economic and political restrictions, many Jews could retain their positions in Egypt until 1956. In the aftermath of the Sinai war, even Jews of Egyptian nationality were expelled, together with many Europeans; only some 3,000 Jews remained in Egypt. Today, the Jewish community there numbers in the hundreds.
There are also some criticisms to make of this very valuable study. First, I doubt whether a history centered on political elites is appropriate for interpreting the history of Egypt’s Jews: The Jewish community is treated in a very differentiated manner, while Egyptian society appears as a monolithic bloc. Kramer tends to simplify the complex social movements in Egypt after 1914. In particular, she neglects the social dimension in her treatment of the Egyptian nationalist movement. Other social developments that led to the so-called Islamic fundamentalist groups, and the social history of anti-Jewish activity as part of the anti-European phenomenon, are not considered. It would have been impossible to treat all these in detail, but the author could have tackled these aspects more cautiously and discretely. Secondly, the social situation of the Jewish community and that of the different Egyptian social groups are susceptible to more comparison than Kramer allows. Nevertheless, I consider this book a model for the analysis of analogous questions in social history, not only because of Kramer’s accuracy and eloquence, but also because of her scrupulous approach to this thorny feature of Egyptian history.