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Egypt’s recorded history goes back to about 4000 B.C.E. A close neighbor of Israel, Egypt has been linked with Jews and their history from the beginning. The patriarchs all stayed in Egypt for various periods of time. Bondage in Egypt and the Exodus mark the beginnings of Jewish history. Historians believe that the first Hebrew migration to Egypt probably took place during the rule of the Semitic Hyksos dynasty of the 18th to 16th centuries B.C.E. The Tel El-Amarna tablets, discovered in 1887, show that the Pharaohs had set up governors in many towns of Canaan, evidence of their domination of the country. One of the Amarna tablets is a letter from the ruler of Jerusalem. In it, he complains to Pharaoh that the Habiru, or Hebrews, are invading and conquering the land.

Relations between Egypt and the Jewish people continued throughout the period of the Jewish Monarchy. Solomon married an Egyptian princess and made a trade treaty with Egypt. After Solomon’s death, when the northern tribes broke off and established their own kingdom, the Pharaoh Shishak came to their aid by attacking Jerusalem. Two centuries later in 608 B.C.E., Josiah, King of Judah, died in battle at Megiddo when he tried to block the march of Pharaoh Necho through his territory. Josiah’s son Jehoahaz ruled Judah for only three months. The Egyptians deposed him and set his brother Jehoiakim on the throne.

After the First Temple was destroyed in 586 B.C.E., the exiled prophet Jeremiah found Jewish colonies in Upper and Lower Egypt. Papyri, discovered in Elephantine, an island on the Nile, describe the life of its Jewish colony and its Jewish temple in the 5th century B.C.E. After Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 B.C.E., Jewish immigrants streamed into Egypt where they prospered and established themselves under Hellenist rule. The Alexandrian Jewish community grew until in time it numbered almost one million; in Alexandria, a great Hellenistic Jewish civilization developed (See Hellenism). Jews spoke Greek and tried to work out a viable compromise between Jewish and Greek culture. The philosopher Philo is the best known representative of this movement. During the Syrian oppression of Judea, the refugee High Priest Onias founded a Temple in Heliopolis, a city near the Nile. At this time in the 3rd century B.C.E., the Bible, translated into Greek at Alexandria, known as the Septuagint version, came to exert a great influence, serving both the Jews of the Hellenistic period and the rising Christian Church.

At the same time, the security of Egyptian Jewry was threatened by a great deal of antisemitic feeling among the Greek population. Sometimes Greek riots and attacks on the Jewish community had to be stopped by the governing Roman authorities. Developments in Judea also influenced the security of Egyptian Jewry. Refugees from the Judean revolt against Rome stirred up a Jewish rebellion in Egypt in 72 C.E., and again in 115-117 C.E., when Alexandrian Jewry was massacred.

As the Roman Empire became Christian, the situation of Egyptian Jewry deteriorated. In 415 C.E., Alexandrian masses, inflamed by Bishop Cyril, broke out in violent riots and forced hundreds of Jews to undergo baptism. During the following two centuries, the Alexandrian Jewish community dwindled in importance. With the Arab invasion of 639 the situation improved slightly. Under Moslem rule, the community, centered mainly in the new city of Cairo, became Arab in character and culture. Documents found in the Cairo Genizah, a storehouse of worn-out books, describe in detail the life of the community. Though the traditional Moslem code treated Jews as inferiors, Jewish cultural life reached a high level. Saadiah Gaon, the greatest scholar of his day, was a native of the Fayyum in Egypt. The Jewish community came to be governed by an exilarch, and significant academies of learning were established. Except for the period of bitter persecution under Caliph Hakim from 995-1021, conditions were favorable. When Maimonides arrived in Egypt in 1165, the great scholar found an appreciative Jewish environment. Maimonides became court physician to the Sultan Saladin, and a number of his great works were written during this period. Maimonides took a leading part in Jewish life in Egypt, and his descendants were dominant there for a long time.

After the Turkish occupation of Egypt in 1517, the Egyptian Jewish community managed to sustain itself, but did not achieve economic or cultural advancement. It was not until the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 that economic prosperity and Western influence reached the Jewish community, then numbering about 75,000. Many Jews became wealthy businessmen, even pashas and senators. The majority, however, remained poor peddlers and craftsmen, segregated in the Jewish quarters of Alexandria and Cairo. During World War I, many Jews from Palestine fled to Egypt to escape Turkish persecution. Their influence and the development of Arab nationalism stirred Egyptian Jewry from its lethargy. They began to migrate to Palestine and Europe, and the community declined. Many Egyptian Jews who had European citizenship also suffered because of the general anti-European reaction of the period, and because an anti-Zionist policy had been adopted.

After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the position of the Jews in Egypt became increasingly difficult. Jews were arrested and robbed. After the Sinai Campaign of 1956 President Gamal Abdel Nasser passed a law that in effect deprived all Zionists of Egyptian citizenship. Jews were imprisoned and expelled for security reasons. Large numbers of Jews were able to immigrate to Israel by way of Europe.

In 1967 and again in 1973 (See Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War), Egypt went to war against Israel with the avowed aim of destroying the Jewish state. In November 1977, Anwar el-Sadat, who had succeeded Nasser as president of Egypt in 1970, surprised the world with the announcement that he would visit Israel and discuss the possibility of peace with the Jewish State. He arrived in Jerusalem late on November 18, 1977, and on the next day addressed the Knesset. This marked the beginning of peace negotiations between Egypt and Israel. In September 1978, Sadat met with Israel’s prime minister Menachem Begin under the auspices of U.S. President Jimmy Carter at Camp David, Maryland., to draw up a framework for a peace treaty. A formal peace treaty, the Camp David Accords, was signed in 1979 by Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat, and Jimmy Carter. However, Sadat was assassinated in October 1981 by Arab fundamentalists who opposed his policy of Israeli-Egyptian rapprochement. Despite the treaty, relations between Israel and Egypt have remained strained under the leadership of Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak. The Peace Treaty between Israel and Egypt, however, has endured.

Common public opinion in Egypt has often shown signs of antisemitism. The government, however, trying to maintain a lukewarm diplomatic composure, has appeared to assist Israel with matters along the Egyptian border, pushing Palestinian leaders toward peaceful resolution, supporting the Israeli disengagement from Gaza settlements, and blocking the escape of terrorists from th
e Gaza region. The Peace Treaty between Israel and Egypt continues to endure, but it is a cold peace. After an al-Qaeda bomb killed 31 tourists at the Hilton in the Egyptian resort town of Taba in 2004, a rare cooperation between Israel and Egypt was exhibited when groups from both countries helped in the rescue and hospitalization efforts.

Currently there are only about 100 Jews in Egypt. The Cairo synagogue has been recently restored and was reopened in 2005 as a monument for some 1,200 years of Jewish history.

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