On June 20, 1948, a bomb detonated in the Karaite Quarter of Cairo killed 22 Jews and wounded another 41. As part of a series of attacks on the city’s Jewish population, the event gave a significant push to an ongoing wave of emigration of Jews from Egypt.
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Jews had begun to depart Egypt in 1945, after the so-called Cairo pogrom of November 2 (the anniversary of the issuing of Balfour Declaration), when violent demonstrations by Islamists – including the Muslim Brotherhood -- and nationalists against British policy in Palestine turned their anti-Zionist rage on the city’s Jewish population. The Ashkenazi synagogue, in the Muski Quarter, and several other Jewish institutions were burned down, and a number of shops were looted. The next day, rioting spread to Alexandria. A total of six people were killed, with more than 100 wounded.
Egypt’s Jews thought they could distance themselves from the Zionist movement. Community leaders, including the chief rabbi and the presidents of both the Cairo and Alexandria Jewish communities, publicly repudiated Zionism, and those who were active in the movement went underground.
In 1947, the government, which until then had at least nominally protested anti-Semitic actions, began to take official measures against Egypt’s Jews. Foremost of these were the Company Laws, which set quotas on the percentage of non-citizens, the country’s Jews included, that could be employed by incorporated businesses.
After Israel’s declaration of statehood, on May 15, 1948, matters deteriorated further. Jews were rounded up for Zionist activity, which was now illegal, martial law was declared, and the assets of many Jewish firms were confiscated. These official measures were accompanied by more attacks by Islamists on Jews and their property.
When the bomb went off on June 20 in the Karaite Quarter, the authorities initially claimed that it had been set off by Rabbanite Jews, who constituted the majority of Egypt’s Jewish population. They also blamed it on the accidental detonation of fireworks that had been housed in Jewish homes. But details of the crime were censored in the press, and even the local Jewish newspaper did not fully cover the event.
That terror attack was followed by five more attacks on Jewish sites in Cairo during the summer and fall of 1948: the July 19 bombing of two Jewish-owned department stores, and similar attacks on two additional stores on July 28 and August 1; the September 22 blast in the (Rabbanite) Jewish Quarter, which killed 19 people; the destruction of a large Jewish-owned publishing firm, Societe Orientale de Publicite, on November 12. One source puts the number of Jewish deaths to bombings and other murderous attacks, in July 1948 alone, at 200.
Even had it wanted to, the government was not strong enough to stand up to the Muslim Brotherhood, especially not while war was being fought between Arabs and Israelis to the east. And after Prime Minister al-Nuqrashi did finally dissolve the organization, on December 8, 20 days later, he was assassinated by a member of the Brotherhood.
In 1948, Egypt’s Jewish population stood at about 75,000. According to the Jewish Agency, the number of Egyptian Jews who emigrated to Israel between 1948 and 1951 was 16,514. Another 6,000 Jews departed Egypt for other destinations during the same period. By 1957, the number of Jews remaining in the country stood about 15,000.