Fearing attacks, Jews in Egypt cancel public Hanukkah celebrations

Cairo’s dwindling community, numbering only five native members, decides not to hold candle-lighting in a city synagogue, amid growing antisemitism

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Illustrative: The president of the Egyptian Jewish Community, Magda Shehata Haroun, talks during an interview with AFP at the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue in Cairo, also known as Temple Ismailia or Adly Synagogue in downtown Cairo on October 3, 2016. (Khaled Desouki/AFP)
Illustrative: The president of the Egyptian Jewish Community, Magda Shehata Haroun, talks during an interview with AFP at the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue in Cairo, also known as Temple Ismailia or Adly Synagogue in downtown Cairo on October 3, 2016. (Khaled Desouki/AFP)

The small Jewish community in Cairo has decided not to hold celebrations of the Hanukkah festival in one of the city’s synagogues, amid the ongoing war in Gaza.

The decision came due to the prevalent anti-Israeli sentiment in the Egyptian capital, according to a source from the community quoted by the Kan public broadcaster.

“No one is preventing us from celebrating. The point is that the mood in Cairo is very bad, because of the war,” the source said.

Cairo’s native Jewish community is believed to number no more than five living members, all of them women. A handful of Jews are also believed to remain in Egypt’s second largest city, Alexandria.

Up until the 1950s, about 80,000 Jews were estimated to be living in Egypt. Today, the community resorts to inviting Jewish expats and diplomats to attend religious services and festivals, in order to gather the ten men required for Orthodox prayer.

The Cairo community, led by its leader Magda Haroun, held a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony last year in one of its synagogues.

People attend the opening of Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria, Egypt, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020, three years after the Egyptian government started the renovations of the synagogue originally built in 1354. (AP Photo/Hamada Elrasam)

Cairo used to be home to 12 synagogues, some of which date back centuries, but most of them were sold as the community progressively lost tens of thousands of members and ran short of funds for their upkeep. The Egyptian government in recent years has stepped in to preserve Egypt’s ancient Jewish heritage.

In August, Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly and Tourism Minister Ahmed Issa attended a ceremony for the re-inauguration of the 9th-century Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, once home to the famous Cairo Geniza, after an extensive restoration project.

In early 2020, the 14th-century Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Alexandria was rededicated following a three-year, multi-million-dollar project. The rededication ceremony attracted 180 members of the Egyptian Jewish diaspora, marking the largest Jewish prayer gathering in Egypt for decades.

Three weeks before the October 7 onslaught by Hamas in southern Israel, the Jewish community in Cairo, both native members and expats, celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, in one of the city’s synagogues.

Hostility to Israel and antisemitism on the Egyptian street have been on the rise since the start of the IDF operation in Gaza to eradicate Hamas. Anti-Israel rallies have taken place several times in Cairo, at least once following calls of incitement by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.

Egyptian protesters shout anti-Israeli slogans during a demonstration to show solidarity with Palestinians, in front of the Journalists Syndicate in Cairo, Egypt, October 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Two Israeli tourists were gunned down in a terror attack in Alexandria on October 8. Arabic media reports indicated that the shooter was a local policeman.

Egypt has had a cold peace with Israel since the 1979 peace treaty. The two countries maintain diplomatic relations and cooperation in security, energy and economic matters, but anti-Israel sentiment is rife, the depiction of the Jewish state in Egyptian media is almost invariably negative, and people-to-people contacts are scarce.

Still, ties between the two countries have flourished behind closed doors since Sissi came to power in a military coup in 2013. Cairo has helped negotiate most of the ceasefires between Israel and Hamas since 2008.

Israel launched an offensive aimed at destroying Hamas’s military and governance capabilities after Hamas’s October 7 massacre, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel from Gaza, killing some 1,200 people and dragging over 240 hostages into Gaza. The vast majority of those killed, amid acts of horrific brutality, were civilians — including children and the elderly.

Egypt has also played a pivotal role in negotiating the release of 105 civilians from Hamas captivity in Gaza during a recent seven-day truce: 81 Israelis, 23 Thai nationals and 1 Filipino.

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