Jews, Alexandria, and Rosh Hashanah

Synagogue—a strange word on the ears of many Egyptians. Many have forgotten—or chose to forget—that Jews have been living in Egypt since biblical times, where they have built synagogues and practiced their religion freely. One of these Synagogues is Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue on Nabi Daniel Street in Alexandria. Built in 1354, then was later bombed by the French during the Egyptian expedition in 1798 and was re-built again in 1836, during Egypt’s golden time, the era of Muhammad Ali. The founder of Modern Egypt was a man of great vision; he was tolerant toward non-Muslims and abolished the Jizya law (extra-tax imposed on non-Muslims), marking a huge step toward the equality of all Egyptians in a modern civil state. later it was formally abolished in the entire Ottoman empire at 1855.

Currently, this beautiful synagogue is the only practicing synagogue in Egypt and is at risk of being turned into a mere antiquity. There are reports that Egyptian authorities have ordered the cancellation of Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur celebrations due to “security concerns.” The synagogue’s Rabbi Abraham Nino-Dayan told the BBC that there have been reports that several Israelis have already been denied permission to attend the festivals. If this true, it will be the first time since 1836 that the festivals will not take place. On the other hand, a security source has denied that there is has been any order to prevent the celebration in the Alexandrian synagogue.  Like on many other subjects, it is difficult to get the facts right in Egypt these days.

During the Mubarak era, the Egyptian authority used to issue visas to Egyptian Israelis to enable them to visit Egypt during the religious festive season.  Now things have changed, and if I were to venture a guess, I think this is the root of the problem; the authorities are likely reluctant to maintain the same practice.

To the average Egyptian, Jews are those evil people who are continuously “plotting” against them and their country, an image that is systematically reinforced by endless movies, soap operas, and programs deliberately blur the distinction between the Jewish and the Israelis. That is a debate for another time; for now, I just want Egyptians to remember that there are 18 elderly women who are clearly loyal to Egypt and choose to live and die on its soil rather than immigrating to Israel, and for their sake, we Egyptians should do our best to help them enjoy the freedom to practice their religion and celebrate their feast.

It is worth mentioning that the Jewish community in Alexandria has been reduced to 18 ladies and 4 men. According to Jewish religious customs, a viable celebration requires “minyan” (10 men). So without  allowing visiting Jews from outside( yes from Israel), it would be difficult to conduct an orthodox religious ceremony.

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is one of the most important religious holidays for the Jews. Let’s not deny these tiny community a “proper” religious practice  in the last working synagogue in Egypt; is that too much to ask?

One last request, please don’t bring Israel, Palestine and politics into this. Please!

Post script:

It is my understanding that Muhammed Ali has abolished the Jizya. However, others have pointed out that it was formally abolished during the ruling of his Saed Pasha  like the rest of ottoman empire in 1855.

About nervana111

Doctor, blogger and Commentator on Middle East issues. The only practising doctor who write in Middle Eastern politics in UK.
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13 Responses to Jews, Alexandria, and Rosh Hashanah

  1. Mueen says:

    Still Naive Ms Nervana, and I wounder why you are so very keen and interested in Israeli and Jews affairs…one day we ” ll know uour motives


    • nervana111 says:

      If naivety is my crime, then it is a crime I am proud of, and if hatred is what i should do, then without any regret, I can not hate. I am interested in humanity, may be that is something that people who are full of hatred can not understand. Finally, why you are interested in my blog , if I am that evil Jews lover?


  2. Dioscorus Boles says:

    Excellent article. It is one of the consequencies of the coming of the Islamists to power; isn’t it? We must expect worse than that.

    I am not sure that the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue was built in 1354 AD as in that year there was a huge Islamist wave across Egypt that resulted in the destruction of hundreds of churches and monasteries, and most probably synagogues also. The other thing which I kindly mention here is that it wasn’t Muhammad Ali (1805 – 1848) who abolished Jiziya – it was Said Pasha (1854 – 1863) under pressure from the European Powers, mainly Britain and France, on the Ottoman Empire, of which Egypt was still part.


  3. Susan says:

    Thank you so much for this, I will share it with others. I am born into a family half Christian half Jewish, and I am now Muslim, just to confuse things. I am passionate about sharing knowledge across faiths. Wherever I travel I visit churches, mosques and synagogues as all are special for me. I have been visiting Egypt since 1993 and tried to get into the Alexandria and Cairo synagogues and been refused entry each time. I nearly had my camera confiscated when I tried to photograph the Cairo one. I believe everyone should have freedom to practice their beliefs (even if some Muslims are against that idea and consider me “bad” because of it). Just as I would hate to see Palestinian culture disappear across the border, I will be sad to see Jewish culture disappear from Egypt, even if many Jews consider they have an adequate home in Israel.


  4. nervana111 says:

    Thank you Disocorus
    I added slink about the history of the Synagogue and when t was built. I also added a post script about Jizya, my understanding ( though I stand to be corrected), it was Muhammed Ali abolished but the formal decree came later in 1855 by the Ottoman Sultan who abolished in the whole empire as part of his reformation plans.


  5. Pingback: Egypt: 18 Jewish Ladies and Four Men · Global Voices

  6. Sandra Lystenstein says:

    According to Jewish religious customs, a viable celebration requires “minyan” (10 men). Alexandria has 18 women but only 4 men. So it can’t hold a festival.

    That is OUTRAGEOUS. Why can’t women hold the festival? Are women less than men? Do women not count as people. And yet Nervana didn’t mention a single thing about that discrimination. Haha, what a hypocrite.


    • Dioscorus Boles says:

      Is that all you saw in that article? Ha!


    • Susan says:

      I agree that is an outdated attitude but it is not just an issue in Judaism. In the wider Egyptian context, this is life. For example, if you marry here you need 2 witnesses. But if one is a woman, you need 3 witnesses – one man and 2 women. When I heard this I was furious, and of course disputed all the reasons / explanations that I was given for this. But if you chose to live by a religion or in a country that is ruled by religious or traditional laws, this is what you get. I choose to live here, I am not happy with those attitudes, but I also know they cannot be changed overnight or simply be being outraged. These things are some of the smaller concerns in the light of all we are trying to change here.

      There are many more “OUTRAGEOUS” issues here that need to be addressed, before we can address smaller instances of discrimination such as this. I can’t speak for the post’s author, but to me it seems that what you perceive as a major issue or lack of concern on her part, needs to be put in context. Yes it is discrimination, and I don’t like it either, but it is not something that needed to be addressed within this post. Addressing the discrimination in any religion can fill entire books, and a blog cannot be expected to approach such issues unless it does so superficially – and that would not satisfy you either I suspect.


  7. Helene says:

    When jews and muslims were chased out from Spain, (1492) , Jews were welcomed in Morocco, and in all the ottoman empire, including Egypt.. Your article gives a taste of what is “welcoming the other”. Whatever the fanatics from every side might said what was once together will never be completly separated: you can’t take off the names of Dawood Hosni or Leila murad from egypt artistic life.


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