Monday, June 17, 2013
Breifly on Zionism and Egyptian Karaite Jews in the 20th Century
The Karaites are one of the oldest Jewish communities in Egypt, they are the indigenous Jews of Egypt. It is not exactly clear when this group was established, but most of historical narratives concerning it circulated around the 8th century, while other narratives suggest a link to the ancient Essences. The Karaites deny and reject the authority of the Talmud, along with all other rabbinical writings; they believe in no authority but the Tanakh. In 1948, the Karaites constituted about 8% of the Egyptian Jewish population. They were Arabized Jews, assimilated into an Egyptian identity; Karaite Jews never felt any connection to the Sephardim and especially not the Europeanized Ashkenazim. Karaites were a minority inside a minority, an ancient Jewish Middle Eastern group accustomed to the Ottoman millet system that granted them autonomy in their religious and personal affairs. Unlike their Sephardic and Ashkenazi counterparts, Karaites did not hold dual citizenships, a method the Sephardim and Ashkenazim used to secure their interests in the colonized country. Moreover, Rabbinism disassociated itself completely from Karaism, seeing it as un-Jewish, as well as Karaism distancing itself from Rabbinism, thus making it extremely difficult for Karaite Jews to benefit from the rest of the Jewish economy. The Karaites were stereotypically known to be poor and uneducated, sharing the bottom of the social pyramid with their Muslim and Christian neighbors. As for those Karaites who made it into the middle class by working as professional doctors or accountants, they never lost their connection to the community of the poor from which they had come.
INTERVIEWS WITH SAN FRANCISCO KARAITES
In Daly City of San Francisco area, reside some of the last members of the Karaite Jewish community, whom I was able to interview and ask directly about their Zionist activities. Joe Pesach, a Karaite born in Cairo who left Egypt when he was in his early twenties, denied that the Karaites participated in the Zionist movement in any way. He explained Zionism always had to do with “the other Jews” (Rabbinic ones) and that Karaites had few encounters with them.[i] Avraham Massuda, the president of the Bnai Israel Karaite community of San Francisco left Egypt in the late 60’s when he was eighteen years old. He remembers Cairo well, with its mob riots and violence against them. He recalled the Muslim Brotherhoods violence, but nothing of Zionist activity.[ii] It is therefore safe to say Karaites never participated in political Zionism. Although Karaites are known to have a traditionally deep love for Zion, they have always associated Zionism with European Jews. The only recorded case of a Karaite being a Zionist activist is that of Moshe Marzouq, the Zionist saboteur who participated in Operation Susannah, which led to his execution in Cairo. When asked about Marzouq, a Karaite who sacrificed his life for the Zionist ideal of the Jewish homeland, Joe Pesach answered, “Marzouq was a person who lived among European Jews. He worked [with] and befriended […] them—that’s why he was a Zionist. But one Karaite being a Zionist does not mean that all of us were.”[iii] Pesach spoke with such a negative attitude towards Zionism, he actually gave an example of considering a whole family to be criminal just because one member is a criminal, literally comparing Zionism to crime. However, the genuinity of his negativity towards Zionism is doubtful because of the pressure of talking to an Arab Egyptian with a Muslim name, especially since he expressed some strong pro-Israeli views later on in the interview.
In 1937, the Young Karaite Jewish Association began to publish its first newspaper Al Kalim (The Spokesman), which was the most popular Karaite newspaper ever published in Egypt. This newspaper was also the longest Jewish publication to remain, as it was only stopped in 1957.[iv] The significance of Al Kalim lasting for so long is that it is an evidence of how Karaites were the last Jews to leave Egypt. Al Kalim was interested in the cultural and educational aspects of the community. Although Egyptian scholars, such as Siham Nassar, claim Al Kalim sometimes promoted Zionism,[v] Al Kalim never had any Zionist promoting content as it exclusively spoke of the issues of the Karaite community and had no political involvement whatsoever.
It is true most of the Karaite Jews immigrated to Israel after their expulsion from Egypt. However, this emigration should not be looked at as act of Zionism, nor national Jewish sentimentalism. Immigration to Israel was the most economical solution to an extremely poor Arab-Jewish community. It is important to consider that traditional rabbinical views were very skeptic of the Jewishness of those Arabized Jews. In fact, they were not considered Jews at all in many cases, one of the main authorities Rabbinic Jews depended on was the statement of the Rambam that those who reject the authority of the Oral Torah are heretics, also many Rabbanic authorities traditionally described Karaites as Mamzerism "bastards". Thus, they were never included on the Zionist agenda, to the extent that in 1949, the Jewish Agency officially requested from its agents in Egypt to completely halt the Karaite migration to Israel, which did indeed happen for a short period.[vi] This key piece of information gives an explanation as to why the Karaites were the last Jewish group to leave Egypt. In Egypt, the Karaites were a recognized Jewish minority, able to express its identity freely as a Jewish oriental sect. They never had to worry about how to convey their Jewish character, since the collective religious framework of the Middle East recognized them exactly as they identified themselves. However, in Israel, Karaites were not considered Jews by the official rabbinical authorities, which not only meant isolation from the rest of the Jewish Israeli society, but also a series of legal complications. Therefore, it is impossible to find any significant Zionist activity among the Karaite community, nor a trend of migration to the newborn Jewish state. In fact, the chief Karaite rabbi of Egypt, Tovia Babvotich, never encouraged the community to migrate. Knowing these facts explain why more Karaites stayed in Egypt than Rabbinates. It was only when the mass arrest campaign, which targeted Jews, ran by Nasser’s regime after the Suez Crisis in 1956 took place did the Karaites understand their presence in Egypt was no longer welcomed. Many members of the San Francisco Karaite community interviewed stayed long after 1948: Farag Abdulla, until 1959; Joe Pesach, until 1971; Maurice Pesach, until 1968; and Ibrahim Darwish, until 1961. When asked about why they remained so long and why they did not escape the country after 1948 all provided the same answer: “We were hoping things will get better.”[vii] It was only after a series of events, which included the shutting down of the Karaite last newspaper, Al Kalim, and the arrests of community leaders that 40% of the community fled the country,[viii] most of who headed to Israel for economical reasons. A second wave of Karaite immigration took place after Egyptian nationalization measures like confiscating properties of non-Egyptians taken in the early 60’s, which specifically targeted Jews. After the 1967 Six Days War, only less than 200 Karaites remained.[ix]
[i] Pesach and members of the Karaite community, Joe. Interview by author. Personal interview. Daly City, SFO, May 25, 2013.
[iv] Krämer, Gudrun. The Jews in modern Egypt, 1914-1952. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1989: 26.
[vi] Beinin, Joel. The dispersion of Egyptian Jewry culture, politics, and the formation of a modern diaspora. Berkeley: American University in Cairo, 2005: 38.
[viii] Beinin, Joel. The dispersion of Egyptian Jewry culture, politics, and the formation of a modern diaspora. Berkeley: American University in Cairo, 2005: 157.