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Egyptians and their leaders are warming to Jews, Israel

Egypt's President Sisi smiles upon arrival at Khartoum International AirportEgypt’s President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. (photo credit:REUTERS)

Egyptians are reassessing 1950s-era nationalization policies that squeezed out the Jewish community and other ethnic minorities.

CAIRO — It’s been a particularly challenging summer for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi. Within one week in late June and early July, his attorney general was assassinated in the upscale Cairo suburb of Heliopolis and an Islamic State affiliate launched a two-day siege in the North Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid.

But just days after the bloody Sinai battle, Sisi put aside two hours to meet with a delegation from the American Jewish Committee, the global Jewish advocacy group, and then delivered a matter-of-fact account of the meeting to the state-run Middle East News Agency. The conversation revolved around regional terrorism threats, the stalled peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, the nuclear deal with Iran and the preservation of Egyptian Jewish heritage, according to the AJC’s director of government and international affairs, Jason Isaacson, who coordinated the delegation.

The AJC meeting at the presidential palace came at a time when Egyptian attitudes about Jews are changing. Egyptians are reassessing 1950s-era nationalization policies that squeezed out the Jewish community and other ethnic minorities. The word “Jew” is used less frequently as a curse word, and the historical TV drama “Jewish Quarter” was a breakout hit during Ramadan. The series cast the Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood as a greater threat to Egypt’s unity and security than the Jews and, sometimes, even the Zionists. (Past TV series during Ramadan have traded in negative tropes and stereotypes about Jewish “treachery” and hostility, so “Jewish Quarter” represented a major departure.)

“I find more tolerance,” said Isaacson, referring to the period since Sisi came to power in 2013. “I find more respect for Israel and more feeling of commonality between Egyptian and Israeli strategic concerns with common attitudes towards Hamas, especially toward the connections between Hamas and other extremist groups.”

Officially, fewer than eight Jews remain in this capital city — all of them elderly women. The community’s leader, Magda Haroun, last month opened the heavily guarded and rarely used Shaar Hashamayim synagogue in downtown Cairo for an interfaith Ramadan Iftar event, the daily break-fast meal during the holy month. (There were some 75,000 Jews in Egypt before 1948, but in the 1950s the Jewish population was largely stripped of citizenship and assets by then President Gamal Abdel Nasser.)

The meeting also coincided with a warming trend between Sisi, the strongman who leads the world’s most populous Arab country, and Israel. In June, Egypt appointed Hazem Khairat as its new ambassador to Tel Aviv. Sisi’s predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, long affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, had recalled the previous ambassador in November 2012 after the Israeli Air Force struck and killed a top Hamas military commander and launched an eight-day offensive in the Gaza Strip.


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