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.

            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.
[ii] Pesach, Interview by author, May 25, 2013.
[iii] Pesach, Interview by author, May 25, 2013.
[iv] Krämer, Gudrun. The Jews in modern Egypt, 1914-1952. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1989: 26.
[v] Nassar 75.
[vi] Beinin, Joel. The dispersion of Egyptian Jewry culture, politics, and the formation of a modern diaspora. Berkeley: American University in Cairo, 2005: 38.
[vii] Pesach, Interview by author, May 25, 2013.
[viii] Beinin, Joel. The dispersion of Egyptian Jewry culture, politics, and the formation of a modern diaspora. Berkeley: American University in Cairo, 2005: 157.
[ix] Pesach, Interview by author, May 25, 2013.


  1. Should read "no authority but the TaNaKh". As Torah, Neviim and Khetuvim comprise the Miqra that we derive Halakha from.

  2. Part 1 of 2:

    I write to address your blog post of Monday, June 17, 2013 and congratulate you on your interest in the Karaite Community of Egypt. I do note for the record that you were born after the Karaite Jews left Egypt. The late Mourad el Kodsi z’tl, principal of the Karaite School in Egypt, Professor Emeritus of Karaite Jewish University authored Karaite Jews of Egypt 1882-1986 and “Just For the Record of the Karaite Jews of Egypt of Modern Times was a frequent critic of Joel Benin’s works on Egyptian Karaite Jews which appears to be a primary source of your reliance. On page 202 of Just For the Record, the author writes: “In essence, Benin represents the Karaites in a way that in our view is inaccurate. He implies that the Karaite Jewish community is less cultured and less multilingual than the Rabbanite one. Moreover, he underestimates the contributions of two members of the community, Murad Farag and the artist David Husni. He also states wrong facts about both individuals. This he does with disregard without both our community, The Karaite Jews of America, and I have written to him. In addition he refuses to mention the suffering of Egyptian Jews, in particular during and after the Six Day War, when nearly all adult Jewish men were incarcerated in the notorious detention camps Abu Za’bal and Tura for up to three years. This omission is painful and suffering to the entire Egyptian Jewish community, Karaite and Rabbanite.”
    The term “Karaite”, according to Professor Leon Nemoy, is a “term which appears first in the ninth century.” (See, Karaite Anthology p.xvii) which coincided with the emergence of Karaite Sage Benjamin al-Nahãwandi. For sure proto-Karaites existed before that time. Dr. Rachel Kolander recently wrote an article on “The Musical Tradition of the Karaite Jews” in which she states: “According to the Karaite tradition, the community’s origins can be traced back to a dispute between rabbinic sages in the days of Alexander Jannaue (c. 100 B.C.E.) during the Second Temple period. There is no precise information regarding the development of the Karaite community during its initial period…” I find this assertion to be overly optimistic because Tzedokim Jewry (i.e. Sadducees) lived during this period and there is no literature indicating that a movement known as Karaite Jews existed at that time which was separate and distinct from the Sadducees. Rather, I believe, there were factions with Sadducean Judaism that had proto-Karaitic views.

    1. Thank you very much for your interest in my blog, and I really appreciate the valuable information your reply adds to the blog. I have to indicate that first I'm neither a scholar in Karaism nor a Karaite myself, thus I have very little interest in the theological origins of Karaism and the differences between Karaism and Rabbanism. But I also have to emphasis that I have relayed a lot on the interviews I have conducted in the Dally City Bnai Israel synagogue with Egyptian Karaites in Egyptian Arabic. Also, I have never undermined the role Dawod Hosny nor any other Karaite, I totally agree that many prominent Karaites had great contributions to Egyptian culture. Also I'm totally aware with the brutal and violent antisemitism the Jews were exposed to in Egypt and to this you will find two dedicated posts in English and Arabic in my blog. But still I greatly value the information you have provided us with as it is reveal to me how Karaites view themselves.

  3. Part 2 of 2:

    There is no strong link between Karaite Judaism and Essene Judaism. While it is correct to say that Anan ben David acquired some of this views from Essene philosophy (“In many of his innovations and deviations Anan seems to have borrowed his ideas from other sectarians, especially the Essenes and the Yudganites…” Anthology p.10.), Anan was not a Karaite Jew. (See, The Origins of the Karaites, Moshe Gil in pgs 73-118 in HdO – Karaite Judaism: A Guide to Its History and Literary Sources. Edited by Meira Polliack.)
    I was glad to see that you amended your blog to correct the comment that Karaite Jews only believe in the TaNaKh as opposed to just the first five books, but a further explanation is necessary. In a May 22, 2007 article in the Jerusalem Post entitle “Laying Down the (Oral) Law” the now Chief Karaite Rabbi, Moshe Yosef Firrouz is quoted as saying “"There are three main concepts that Karaite practice is based on," explains Rabbi Moshe Firrouz of the Karaite synagogue in Beersheba. "There is the written word of the Bible, logical interpretation, and tradition." Firrouz stresses that one is not allowed to make any sort of rule that contradicts the Torah, and if one gives an explanation for one of the passages, that explanation should not contradict any other part of the Torah either.”

    As to the financial status of Karaite Jews in Egypt, Professor el-Kodsi wrote: “This was the real status of the Karaite Jews of Egypt. This was the real status of Karaite Jews in Egypt. In the Community of five thousand persons, there were no more than one-hundred and fifty persons whom we would consider “poor”. Others would be considered upper or lower middle class persons , and a good number were considered to be rich or very rich.” Page 57.
    However, the raison d'être for my writing a reply was your assertion that Karaite Jews were not Zionists. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Mourad el Kodsi dedicates an entire chapter in his book to “Karaites and Zionism” (Chapter IX). In spite of the fact that the Karaite Jewish community in Egypt considered themselves Egyptian, they nevertheless retain Zionist beliefs. The “Israelite Union” a Karaite publication in Egypt from March 21, 1924 through 1930 “in almost every issue there was an article about the Zionist movement, all over the world, especially in Palestine…” (p. 236). By 1945 a new Karaite Publicatin arose called al-Kalim. Professor el Kodsi wrote “There was no mention of Zionism, or any Zionist movement [fn16.].” The Karaite Jews of Egypt Page 238. This is the era in which those interviewed for your blog piece lived in. Footnote 16 is instructive: “By that time ALL ZIONIST activities were OUTLAWED in Arab countries.” (Emphasis added.) In spite of this fact Karaite Jews remained true to Zionist ideals, the most notable being Dr. Mosheh Marzūq, whose bravery was commemorated by the State of Israel in a postage stamp, and the poet Murãd Farag. In fact Hakham Farag was very active in the Zionist movement and in the 1920’s was chosen to mediate between the Arabs and the Zionists. Karaite Sage Daniel al-Kumisi who lived at the end of the 9th Century and beginning of the 10th wrote urging Karaite Jews to return to Zion. In the later portion of the 10th Century Karaite Sage Japheth ben Eli wrote a poem expressing the desire of every Karaite Jew to return to Zion which states in part:
    Awake, awake ye laggards, living without care and engaged in Idle Play.
    Why deal ye in the vanities of this world?
    Lend ye hand to the Lord and give your longing to his worship, Ye mourners for Zion…
    Thank you for letting me set the record straight.

    1. As for this part I have to utterly disagree. This post was a matter of fact, a small part of a larger paper that deals with Zionism in Egypt and most of the resources I have depended on (including interviews with Karaites) confirmed this story, that Karaites had very little to do with political Zionism. Karaites usually did not share a life experience with other Jews (who were the inventors of political Zionism) to the extent that the Nazi regime in Germany was not able to decide whether Karaites are considered Jews are not till 1945. Also the Jewish Encyclopedia states the Karaites in places like Turkey did not care much about Zionism. The case with Egyptian Karaism was of no difference, Karaites indeed were known with deep traditional love for Zion, but we have no record of any organized Karaite Zionist movement or any political Zionist Karaite publication whatsoever. Some Karaites were indeed Zionists, like Maurice Shammas the disciple of Mourad Farag who used to write for the Zionist rabbinic newspaper Al Shams, but those were very limited in number. Also the Cairo Zionist Federation had no ties with Karaites and very few of the Karaites living in the poor quarter of Haret Al Yahoud were considered Zionists (YT, testimony of Lazare Bianco (interviewed by Shlomo Barad, 6 Mar. 1985).) Also the Cheif Karaite Rabbi in Cairo Babovitch had clear advice for Karaites not to migrate to Israel (YT Bianco; Nelly Masliah, interview, 8 May 1992.) The only well known Zionist Karaite is Moshe Marzouq, who was a member in ha-halutz, and for that case I would like to refer to what Joe Pesach stated about him in the quoted in the original post.
      This sums up, to the best of my knowledge, the relationship between Egyptian Karaites and political Zionism. And also I think that Karaism in general had very poor relationship with Zionism prior to the establishment of the state of Israel and here I would like to refer to a letter to the editor of Al Kalim by Lieto Ibrahim Nunu, on 1 July 1945: 11, encouraging Karaite youth to settle in Jerusalem because only one Karaite currently resided there, and he could not perform his religious obligations alone. This suggestion is framed entirely in religious communal terms and does not use the vocabulary of political Zionism. Also idea is that by 1945 only one Karaite resided in Jerusalem is quite significant.

    2. One aspect of the problematic conditions when dealing with Egyptian Jewish history, is the fact that many Jews whom they had no connection to Zionism before 1948, became fanatic supporters of it after the traumatizing events they witnessed in the Arab lands. The harsh, anti-Semitic atmosphere which led to their expulsion also led many of them to conclude Zionism was always correct and Israel was the safest place for Jewish people to be. Many of the Egyptian Jews interviewed shared my conclusion, such as Mark Levy, an Egyptian Jew who currently live in San Francisco, who informed me that while none of his family had anything to do with Zionism back in Egypt, most of them are now devout Zionists. And as Zionists, some prefer to view history in compliance with their current ideological convictions.

    3. Regarding Karaites and the Nazi Final Solution. Yes, they were officially excluded from the final solution. But that is only part of the truth. First, they were not the only group of Jews excluded. Two other groups, mainstream rabbinical Jews, were also excluded. Second, though Karaites were excluded, in practice, many perished in the Holocaust. About 10,000 were massacred in Krimea in a massacre similar to Babi Yar's.

      Note that in Egypt, the Jewishness of Karaites was never in doubt.

      Regarding Karaites and Zionism. In Egypt, every Zionist current had a presence. Hatikva, now the Israel national anthem, was heard in the streets of Cairo. Karaites were only 8%, and though they contributed financially on an individual basis to Zionist causes (so did some Moslems like Hoda el Sha'arawi), they were not prominent simply because they were, like most Egyptians, apolitical. Nevertheless, they had a love for the future state of Israel, and by faith, for Karaites, there is no such thing as an anti-Zionist Jew.

  4. Very interesting, both the article and the discussions in the comments. Thank you.

  5. Dear Hussein,
    Thank you for your interest in the Karaite Jewish community.
    Regrettably, the article is misleading in more than one way; your anti-Israel bias produces an erroneous historiography. The article needs emendations. Allow me:

    1) Karaites and Zionism: You imply that Karaite Jews had nothing to do with Zionism. It is more accurate to say that Karaites as a group were not active in political Zionism; like most Egyptians, they shunned politics. By faith, however, Karaite Jews believe that a Jew is by definition a Zionist. For them, by faith, an anti-Zionist Jew is a contradiction. When the Zionist leader Haim Weizmann visited Cairo, the head of the Karaite Jewish community was there to receive him. 90% of Karaite Jews left Egypt for Israel, even though they could have come to America. For other Egyptian Jews, the percenage is 40%, still more than any other country but not as high as 90%. Moreover, as far back as the 10th century, Karaite scholars like al Khumesi urged Jews to re-settle the land of Israel, and not wait for the end of times.

    2) Karaites felt Egyptian. That is correct: enthusiasm about Zionism never meant hostility towards Egypt, and that is what Joe Pessah meant to say. They were happy as Egyptians and at the same time and with the same heart, they had affinity for Israel and Zionism. One example is Murad bey Farag.
    His writings indicate a support for Zionism and a love for Egypt. I would say the same about all Egyptian Jews, Karaites or othewise.

    3) Karaites were Arabized: This is a simplistic statement. Yes, they were well integrated into Egyptian society, but unfortunately, pan Arabists and the Moslem Brotherhood saw them as foreigners. Even government institutions would not recognize them as Egyptians. Most Karaites did not have Egyptian citizenship, even though they lived in Egypt for generations, apart from periodic infusion of people that immigrated from Russia, Romania, Turkey, Ukraine, and Iraq.

    4) The article implies that Karaite Jews did not identify with mainstream Jews. Not so, they enjoyed good relations all along. Karaites would attend the Jewish community schools, which were run by the Sephardic Rabbinate. Many of the teachers in these schools were Karaites, and two or three of their principals were Karaites.

    5) Karaite Jews left for economic reasons? Not so. Though they were not as rich as other Jews, the majority were above middle class. A few were poor, but many were goldsmith, and they dominated the sagha neighborhood. A doctor who discovered the first case in a cholera outbreak in the fifties or sixties was Karaite; he was accused of being a spy upon notifying the health authority. A Karaite Jewish doctor became the personal physician of King Senoussi of Lybia. Their synagogue in Abassiya was an impressive building.

    6) While they felt Zionists and Egyptians at the same time, they were also very Cosmopolitan. They attended the Jewish community schools, which were French schools. They also attended the Lycee Francais, College des Freres, Jesuites. One Yom Kippur in the synagogue I heard French, Arabic, Italian (many had Italian ID's) and a few attend Don Bosco), Hebrew (prayer), Turkish, Greek, and English (those who attended AUC used to show their English off).
    One Karaite, a passionate Zionist who graduated from Victoria college, became Wells Fargo's chief economist.

    To be continued

  6. Continuing ...

    6) Your article implies that Karaites are not part of Israeli society even if they reside in Israel. Not so: they join the IDF. A Karaite Jewish engineer who studied at Cairo University won the Israel Defense prize. Later he won a life time achievement award for his work in the Israel defense industry. Another Karaite is a professor at the Hebrew University's Einstein Institute of Mathematics, the only institute of its size on earth that has a nobel prize winner and field medalist.

    7) Karaites and the Rabbinate: Yes, they have trouble with the rabbinate, so they established their own. The government provides help for their synagogues; they now number 20,000 and they have about a dozen synagogues. YOu shoul also be aware that a large number of Jews run into difficulty with the Israeli rabbinate, so that makes them very much Israelis, ironically.

    I visited Ashdod recently, and one of them said: "El Hamd lellah in ihna gena Yissrael" (Thank God we came to Israel).

  7. Tanakh
    first book of Samuel has fifty mistakes.
    second book of Samuel has seventy mistakes.

    first book of Kings has eighty mistakes.
    second book of Kings has one hundred mistakes.

    Tanakh has three hundred mistakes in four books.

    Book of Ezra has thirty mistakes.
    Deuteronomy has sixty mistakes.

    Tanakh has three hundred ninety mistakes in six books.


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