In spring 1935, the Jewish community of Egypt celebrated the 800th anniversary of the birth of one its renowned figures: Musa ibn Maymun, also known as Maimonides. An edited collection published in Alexandria concluded this occasion, which aimed at projecting Jewishness into the public sphere. Browsing through the book, the linguistic diversity of its contents catches the eye and reflects the heterogeneous composition of the Jewish community. Most of the pieces are written in French, the lingua franca of the colonial Mediterranean, while others are printed in Italian, Arabic, Hebrew, and Yiddish.
The commemorative events in honor of Maimonides took place at the Eliyahu HaNavi synagogue. They were initiated by David Prato (1882–1951), Alexandria’s Chief Rabbi at the time, who later spoke at the adjacent community school in front of some 2,000 distinguished guests, including Prince Omar Toussoun Pasha, cousin of King Fu’ad and patron of the event, the Spanish Consul, the city’s deputy governor, and many more.
In his speech, delivered in Italian and printed in the volume, Prato evoked a fraternal bond between the Jewish and the Egyptian people based on historical grounds. For Prato, Maimonides’ intellectual work signified the shared ground of the Universal: a rational, enlightened human thought nourished by the environment of al-Andalus, where Maimonides was born, and rooted in the tradition of the Jewish people as it blossomed in Fatimid Egypt, where Maimonides spent most of his life. According to Prato, it was Egypt’s continuous hospitality – »today as in the times of Maimondes« – that provided the fertile soil for intellectual innovation. Prato even knew to connect the anniversary with the concurring celebration of Pessah, which commemorates the biblical Exodus from Egypt: the liberation from Pharao’s slavery was a reminder that Moses was born in Egypt and lived there for eighty years; the Torah thus »retains in spirit and form non-erasable traces of Egyptian civilization.« Even after their Exodus, he continued, Jews quickly returned to Egypt and created intellectual treasures for mankind such as the works of Philo of Alexandria and the first translations of the Bible into Greek and Arabic. Maimonides only crowned this bond by restoring Egypt as the center of diaspora Judaism.
The anniversary celebration in 1935 captured the hopes and aspirations of the local Jews. The interwar period, sometimes remembered as the golden age of Egyptian Jewry, brought prosperity and political consciousness to a community composed mostly of migrants and their offspring from the Mediterranean basin and beyond. Attracted by economic incentives following the opening of the Suez Canal and the cotton boom or arriving in search of refuge and alluring civic rights, a prospering community of Jews with various backgrounds, languages, and customs established itself between colonial rule and Egyptian aspirations for national autonomy and self-determination. During that time of nation-building, Jewish intellectuals and community leaders promoted a politics of becoming Egyptian. At the same time, they saw themselves confronted with different visions of the nation, inclined either to territorial or supranational conceptions.
The Palestine question and the rise of fascism in Europe cast a shadow over the Jewish future in Egypt. Prato, however, pleaded to remember the secret of the East, its ability to foster peaceful coexistence between people from different origins and religions, a coexistence that was guaranteed by enlightened leaders like Egypt’s monarch King Fu’ad. On this premise, new men »like Moses, Jeremiah, Philo, Saadia, and Maimonides will arise and return humanity to the path of light and not of darkness, to the path of peace and not of destruction.«
Such a Messiah-like figure did not arise in the years to come and the successors of the king had different visions for the country and its minorities. The edited volume of Maimonides’ anniversary reads in retrospect like a tragic outcry for awareness of the fragile status of the Jews in Egypt and beyond. The document displays memories of past days of coexistence in a present fraught with inequalities and tension; it illustrates the efforts of Egyptian Jews to imagine a golden age in their turbulent colonial present. Eventually, the liberation from colonial occupation, the establishment of the State of Israel, and the expulsion of around 80,000 Egyptian Jews during the Nasser period brought an end to the millennial bond of Jews to their homeland Egypt.
Today, in our post-colonial present void of hopes for prophetic leaders, there is hardly a Jewish community left in Egypt to discuss its future. Nevertheless, the old Eliyahu HaNavi synagogue in Alexandria, where Maimonides’ anniversary had been celebrated in 1935, was freshly renovated in 2020 to host »Egypt’s largest Jewish prayers in decades.« Magda Haroun, the head of Egypt’s remaining Jewry, is optimistic that the legacy of the once thriving community’s neglected sites can glow in new splendor as accessible spaces for the Egyptian public: »I hope [Egyptian] synagogues will soon be open to everyone, and I hope they will remain places to nourish the mind and soul.«
However, another round of evoking imagined golden ages could not silence the memories of the painful end of the once thriving community. An open reflection on the shared history is necessary, one that would balance memory of wonderful moments with less bright ones and with a pinch of conscious forgetfulness. In light of the increased interest in this history, the Egyptian public merits an encounter with its past, and Jewish spaces of memory like the Eliyahu HaNavi Synagogue might provide a promising site for that encounter.
Jonathan Hirsch is a PhD Candidate at the Selma Stern Center for Jewish Studies Berlin-Brandenburg. His project focuses on historiographic efforts of the Jewish community of Egypt in the interwar period | j.hirsch(at)selma-stern-zentrum.de
Cover Photo: L’Aurore, 26 April 1935 (from the collection of the National Library of Israel).