Exhibition | Out of Egypt
Karaite Jews Around the World
BY AARON HAHN TAPPER
With, at most, 50,000 community members worldwide, the contemporary Karaite Jewish community make up 0.33% of the global Jewish population of 15 million Jews, some 0.000625% of humanity. Today's Karaites are commonly traced back to medieval Egypt, from where they dispersed to other places in the Middle East, in addition to Europe and Russia.
Artifacts suggest that the largest modern communities of Karaites lived in Cairo, Egypt, up until the "Arab-Israeli" War of 1948 (a war that also goes by other names). Thereafter, during the 1950s, largely as a result of increased political violence that emerged between the government of Egypt and the nascent state of Israel, there was a modern Karaite exodus out of Egypt.
This section of the exhibit describes this history, focusing on Egyptian Karaite Jews, and includes a brief discussion of the pre-modern relationship between Karaites and Rabbanites, the latter group those Jews who accept the authority of the Talmud (i.e., which, historically speaking, has been most non-Karaite Jews).
Worldwide Karaite Communities
Although this exhibit focuses on the immigration story of Karaite Jews who relocated from Egypt to the San Francisco Bay Area, prior to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, after which time Israel became the country with more Karaite Jews than any other, Karaites could be found in many different places, including:
The story of the San Francisco Bay Area Karaite Jewish community begins in Egypt. But to better understand this history, one needs to comprehend the Egyptian Jewish communities more generally, including those who were not Karaite.
Modern Diversity of Egyptian Jews
There was such intra-Jewish diversity in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Egyptian Jewish community that, between 1877 and 1948, they published more than seventy distinct Jewish newspapers and periodicals, including at least twenty-two in Arabic, twenty-six in French, six in Hebrew, six in Ladino, and four in English.
Although some date Egyptian Jewry back to the biblical Hebrews, most date it to the sixth century BCE and the Babylonian Exile. Egyptian Jews lived throughout the country—from Cairo to Alexandria, the Nile Delta to Upper Egypt.
Prior to the mid-twentieth century exodus of Jews out of Egypt, there were a number of distinct subcommunities of non-Karaite Egyptian Jews, such as Romaniotes (who spoke Judeo-Greek), Corfiotes (who spoke a Venetian Judeo-Italian dialect), Francophones (who spoke French), and Arab Jews (who spoke Arabic).
Within these groups some identified as Ashkenazi, some as Sephardi, and some as neither. Occasionally, there were Ashkenazi- and Sephardi-identified Jews in the same subcommunity, such as those arriving from France or Morocco.
As for population size, prior to the 1950s there were about 80,000 Jews in Egypt, about 10,000 of whom were Egyptian citizens. Out of the remainder, some 30,000 were foreign nationals, and the remaining 40,000 were stateless, most of them poor, Arabic-speaking Cairines and Alexandrians. By 1961, all but 10,000 of these Jews had left Egypt, most for Israel and others for Europe, North America, and South America; post-1967 War this number dwindled to less than 1,000. (Note that most Jews who left Egypt after 1948, especially those with enough resources to have a choice, did not go to Israel.) Today’s best estimates put the number of Jews left in Egypt at fewer than fifty.
One of these groups of Jews, Karaites, had been in Egypt since at least the tenth century CE.
For more online resources regarding Egypt's Jewish history, see "Uncovering Egypt's Jewish History"; for more on Cairo's Jewish cemeteries, see "7 Things to Know About Cairo's Oldest Jewish Cemeteries,"; and for more on a specific Cairene Karaite cemetery, see "Tour Leishaa Cemetery," all curated by the American Research Center in Egypt. For a collaborative presentation on Cairo's Jewish cemeteries, Karaite and otherwise, produced by ARCE members and individuals such as David Ovadia, the president of the Karaite Jews of America, who are based in the San Francisco Bay Area, including information about Ovadia's family history, see "Giving Life to the Stones" and a fall 2021 article, "Basatin - Reviving a Forgotten Past," in ARCE's magazine, Scribe.
Joel Beinin, Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry: Culture, Politics, and the Formation of a Modern Diaspora (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 21; Aaron Hahn Tapper, Judaisms: A Twenty-First-Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2016), 128, 224-226.
Egyptian Karaite Jews
The archival images found below portray significant sites for Cairene Karaites, in particular synagogues and cemeteries. For further details on a number of these synagogue photos, taken by Ira Nowinski, see the Stanford University Library's collection "Karaite Jews in Egypt, Israel, and the San Francisco Bay Area."
To read an article on Nowinski's project, see a September 6, 1985 article from the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, now called J., found here.
Pre-1948 Cairene Karaites
Many, if not most, of the Karaites living in Cairo, Egypt, resided in the Karaite Jewish quarter [Ḥarat al-Yahūd], which was adjacent to the Rabbanite Jewish quarter. By the mid-nineteenth century, there were approximately 2,000 Karaite Jews living there; the next largest Egyptian Jewish community, numbering some twenty families, lived in Alexandria, in northern Egypt. Other communities included those in Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra, Aswan, and Port Said, for example.
By the early twentieth-century the Cairene Karaite community had three schools: a boys’ and girls’ primary school and a kindergarten. They also had established classes for teaching Hebrew and Arabic, sewing, helping poor girls get married, and more, as well as sites of communal importance, such as their own cemetery. They were self-sustaining, partially supported by their kosher bakery and a few dozen other plots of land.
By 1937, there were about 5,300 Karaite Jews living in Cairo, which decreased to somewhere between 3,400 and 5,000 by 1947. (Two contemporary scholars, Joel Beinin and Mourad El-Kodsi, for example, have different figures.)
As of the early 1930s the Karaites had two main synagogues, one in the Karaite Jewish quarter and a second in a middle-class Cairene neighborhood, Abbassiya. Most Karaite Jews were not middle class, however; a majority lived in the Karaite Jewish quarter at this time, earning livelihoods as jewelers, silversmiths, opticians, money changers, and small merchants. A minority were members of the socioeconomic upper class.
Joel Beinin, “The Karaites in Modern Egypt,” in Meira Polliack, ed., Karaite Judaism: A Guide to Its History and Literary Sources (Boston, MA: Brill, 2003), 417-430; Mourad El-Kodsi, The Karaite Jews of Egypt: 1882–1986, 2nd ed. (New York: Self-published, 2007), 13-63.
San Franciscan Karaite Jews reflecting on celebrating Jewish holidays in Cairo
Post-1948 Cairene Karaites
As a result of Egypt’s involvement in the "Arab-Israeli" War of 1948 (a war that also goes by other names), things changed significantly for Karaite Jews living in Cairo.
Seizure of Private Property
Although Karaite Jews considered themselves Egyptian and did not publicly support Israel (it became illegal to do so in the immediate pre-1948 era), as part of the government's policy of nationalizing private property, which began in 1954, and with a clear intent on targeting Jews, the Egyptian authorities began seizing hold of Jewish private property, including taking over Cairo’s three Karaite schools.
And yet, despite violent incidents, such as a bomb explosion in the Karaite Jewish quarter that killed more than twenty people, many Karaite Jews wanted to stay put. The community’s religious leader, Tuvia Babovitch, even discouraged emigration to Israel. In fact, between 1948 and 1956 only a few hundred members of the community left for the newly established Jewish state.
Nonetheless, by the mid-1950s, things had shifted considerably for the worse, as a result of a number of factors, including a new Egyptian leader, Gamal Abd Al-Nasser; increased tensions between Egypt and Israel, which culminated in the Suez War of 1956; Karaite involvement in “Operation Suzannah”; and the untimely deaths of Babovitch and one of the community’s (and country's) most renowned Jewish intellectuals, Murad Farag. By the end of the decade, about half of the Karaites who were living in Cairo as of 1937 had already left.
It was during this time in the 1950s and 1960s, with an uptick in 1967—around the time of that year’s war between Israel, Egypt, and other Arab-majority countries, such as Jordan and Syria—that the Egyptian government began imprisoning Jewish men, both Karaites and Rabbanites, largely without any explicit charges. By 1970, only 200 Karaites remained in Egypt.
 Other political events include, but are not limited to “… the October 1954 Anglo-Egyptian agreement on the evacuation of British military forces, the abolition of the communal courts in 1955, the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956, the confiscation of the property of British and French nationals and Jews in 1956 and Belgian nationals in 1960, and the nationalization of large sectors of the economy in 1961-62” (Beinin, Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry, 19).
Beinin, Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry, 179-185; Beinin, “The Karaites in Modern Egypt,” in Karaite Judaism; El-Kodsi, The Karaite Jews of Egypt: 1882–1986.
San Franciscan Karaite Jews reflecting on life in Cairo during the 1948 "Arab-Israeli" War
San Franciscan Karaite Jews reflecting on the 1956 Suez War
San Franciscan Karaite Jews reflecting on the June 1967 War (and the years leading up to it)
For more on Marc Khedr Levy's personal experiences in Abu Zaabal prison during the 1967 War, see here, here, and here. In addition to essays written by Marc, these sites include images of artifacts from his time at Abu Zaabal, including his camp Identity card, a makeshift deck of cards, and an authorization card to raise pigeons, among others. Marc was in this prison for three years.
Karaite Jews in Israel
Israel – Operation Suzannah. Some Egyptian mistreatment of Karaites was due to the Egyptian government’s capture of Musa (Moshe) Marzuq, a Karaite Jew accused of spying for Israel. He was ultimately executed in 1955 for his role in acts of espionage and violence against the state, commonly known as Operation Suzannah, or in Israeli circles as the Lavon Affair.
Along with a handful of other Rabbanite and Karaite Cairene Jews, Marzuq was recruited by Israel’s military intelligence to set up bombs outside important Egyptian and American institutions in Cairo and Alexandria. Ultimately the spy ring bombed an Alexandria post office, the Cairo train station, the United States Information Service library in Cairo, and several movie theaters. All said and done, very little damage came as a result of the bombs, largely because these acts were carried out in an amateur fashion. At the time, the state of Israel denied any and all involvement with these crimes. In January 1955, along with one other member of the spy ring, Sami (Shmuel) Azar, Musa Marzuq was executed.
According to scholar Emanuela Revisan Semi, most Karaite Jews immigrated from Egypt to Israel in 1948-49, 1952, 1956, 1967, and 1973. Yet, in the 1940s and 1950s in particular, their immigration to the newly established Jewish-majority state was far from seamless. (These waves of twentieth-century immigrants aside, it should be noted that there has been a continuous Karaite Jewish presence in Israel since at least the ninth century.)
During the 1950s, even as the Egyptian government was persecuting Karaites for being Jewish and the Israeli government was involving them in espionage operations on behalf of the new Jewish State (i.e., “Operation Suzannah”), the Israeli rabbinic authorities were rejecting some Egyptian Karaite requests to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, maintaining that they were not authentic Jews. On one occasion, in referring to Karaite immigration to Israel, then-Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel said, “Heaven forbid that we should bring this deadly plague into Israel’s vineyard.” Eventually the majority of Egyptian Karaites were granted Israeli citizenship.
Such episodes of intra-communal opposition reflect age-old tensions between Karaites and Rabbanites.
To this day, Karaite Jews in Israel are faced "with the serious problems of lack of legal status, no formal recognition, absence of sufficient government funding, and anti-Karaite prejudice" (e.g., there are separate battei din, or religious courts of law). And even though the Israeli government accepts Karaites as Jews under the Law of Return (not a marginal decision, given the advantages Jews have in the Jewish State), they remain unable to legally marry non-Karaite Jews, which ensures a degree of separation. (Interestingly, the state of Israel made an explicit exception to this law when Joseph Marzuq, the brother of Musa Marzuq, who was put to death by the Egyptian government as a result of “Operation Suzannah,” was granted permission to marry a Rabbanite woman.)
As of 2018, estimates regarding the population of Karaite Jews in Israel ranged from 30,000 to 50,000. Challenges in determining this number come from the fact that the Israeli government does not list Karaite Jews under a separate category of Jewish citizens and the Karaite community abides by a longstanding practice that prohibits conducting a census of their own. A majority are descendants of those Karaites who immigrated to Israel during the 1940s-1960s. The community’s official website can be accessed here.
 Segev, 1949, 144. See also, Sumi Elaine Colligan, “Living Liminality: Karaite Jews Negotiate Identity and Community in Israel and the United States,” in Polliack, ed., Karaite Judaism: A Guide), 451–469.
 Lasker, Karaism, 95.
 For more on a brief selection of the advantages Jews had in the Jewish state at that time, see, e.g., Mordecai Roshwald, “Marginal Jewish Sects in Israel (I),” International Journal of Middle East Studies 4, no. 2 (April 1973), 226–227.
 Roshwald, “Marginal Jewish Sects in Israel,” 232.
Beinin, Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry, 90-117; Beinin, “The Karaites in Modern Egypt,” in Karaite Judaism; El-Kodsi, The Karaite Jews of Egypt: 1882–1986; Moshe Firrouz, “The Karaite Jewish Community in Israel (20th and 21st centuries),” Karaite Archives 1 (2013), 35-44; Hahn Tapper, Judaisms, 128, 224-226; Hahn Tapper, “Notes,” in Judaisms, 137; Daniel J. Lasker, Karaism: An Introduction to the Oldest Surviving Alternative to Judaism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2022); Tom Segev, 1949: The First Israelis (New York: Free Press, 1986); Emanuela Trevisan Semi, “From Egypt to Israel: The Birth of a Karaite ‘Edah in Israel,” in Polliack, ed., Karaite Judaism: A Guide), 431–450; Shabtai Teveth, Ben Gurion’s Spy: The Story of the Political Scandal That Shaped Modern Israel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).
Karaites vs. Rabbanites or Karaites with Rabbanites?
Origins aside, if twenty-first-century Jews know anything about Karaites it is likely along the lines that for centuries they have had ongoing feuds with other Jewish groups, especially Rabbanites, over the question of communal authority.
According to documents from the eleventh through thirteenth centuries that were unearthed from the Cairo Genizah—the largest collection of discarded medieval Middle Eastern Jewish texts ever discovered—Karaite and non-Karaite Jews both agreed and disagreed on a number of things. (A genizah is a bin or room where Jews put sacred texts and objects rather than throw them out.)
On the one hand, for example, in that period it was not uncommon for Jews to leave a Rabbanite synagogue and join a Karaite one, or vice versa, suggesting a lack of strict boundaries between the communities. On the other hand, sometimes these groups disagreed on fundamental components of ritual observance, which usually led to the prohibition of marriage between members of these two Jewish subcommunities. For some Karaites, non-Karaite Jews were the “other,” and of course the converse is also true.
In short, we have evidence reflecting how Karaites both worked with non-Karaites as members of the same Jewish community—as recently as the early twentieth century in Egypt—and fought with them, sometimes resulting in physical violence.
Karaites and Rabbanites - Who is a Jew?
One major distinction between normative (or Rabbanite) Jews and Karaites has been their different definitions of a Jew (interestingly enough, something not focused on in most scholarship on the Karaites to date).
Whereas Orthodox and Conservative Jews define a Jew as someone born to a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism according to halakhah [Jewish law], and Reform Jews (as well as Reconstructionist, Renewal, and Humanistic Jews) widen this definition to include patrilineal descent (in addition to having a more liberal understanding of conversion), Karaite Jews have historically defined a Jew based on patrilineal descent alone. Even today, the chief rabbi of the Karaite community in Israel follows this principle, which some contend was the norm in defining a Jew (or Hebrew or Israelite), in the period leading up to the destruction of the Second Temple, circa 70 CE. Karaite practices regarding ritual conversion are also less strict than those observed by Orthodox and Conservative Jewish authorities.
Identities also exist beyond the borders of a given community, and non-Jews have often played a role in defining the boundaries of who counts as a Jew. In eleventh-century Palestine, for example, when the Crusaders reached Jerusalem, they slaughtered Karaite and non-Karaite Jews alike. The same thing happened in eleventh- and twelfth-century Byzantine-controlled Constantinople.
During World War II, in contrast, when the Nazis began their systematic mass murder of Jews (among other groups), they often ignored Karaite Jews. In places such as German-controlled Crimea, France, Poland, and Lithuania, Karaites were allowed to live (i.e., they were not put into death camps) because they were not perceived by the Nazis to be part of the “Jewish race.” In some of these situations, Nazi authorities even asked non-Karaite Jews (i.e., Rabbanites) to determine the Jewishness of Karaites; such instances point to Karaite Jews’ lives being saved as a result. Yet the Nazi policy was far from consistent. In other places, as in Vichy France, the Nazis did murder Karaites for being Jewish.
 The notion of being “born to a Jewish mother” has become more complicated since the advent of in vitro fertilization, in which case Jewish legal authorities consider a number of factors when determining a baby’s Jewish identity. See Fred Rosner, “In Vitro Fertilization: Legal and Ethical and Considerations,” www.myjewishlearning.com/article/in-vitro-fertilization-legal-and-ethical-considerations.
 Crimea: Warren Green, “The Fate of the Crimean Jewish Communities: Ashkenazim, Krimchaks, and Karaites,” Jewish Social Studies 46, no. 2 (spring 1984): 169–176; —-, “The Nazi Racial Policy Toward the Karaites,” Soviet Jewish Affairs 8, no. 2 (1978): 36–44. France, Poland, Lithuania: Kiril Feferman, “Nazi Germany and the Karaites in 1938–1944: Between Racial Theory and Realpolitik,” Nationalities Papers 39, no. 2 (march 2011): 277– 294; Alexander Lesser, “Don’t Call Us Jews,” The Jerusalem Report, June 18, 1992, 36–38. Vichy France: Donna F. Ryan, The Holocaust and the Jews of Marseille: The Enforcement of Anti-Semitic Policies in Vichy France (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996), 38, cited in Judy Scales-Trent, “Racial Purity Laws in the United States and Nazi Germany: The Targeting Process,” Human Rights Quarterly 23, no. 2 (may 2001): 259–307.
Shaye J.D. Cohen, “The Matrilineal Principle,” in The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999), 263–340; Abraham Danon, “The Karaites in European History: Contributions to Their History Based Chiefly on Unpublished Documents,” Jewish Quarterly Review 15, no. 3 (January 1925); El-Kodsi, The Karaite Jews of Egypt: 1882–1986; Hahn Tapper, Judaisms, 128, 224-226; An Introduction to Karaite Judaism: History, Theology, Practice, and Custom (Troy, NY: Al-Qirqisani Center for the Promotion of Karaite studies, 2003), 225–230.