(RNS) Egypt and Israel aren’t your typical neighbors with an occasional across-the-fence feud.
The complex relationship between these two nations and peoples that began more than 3,200 years ago is one of the world’s oldest sagas. The Bible alone contains more than 600 references to Egypt.
With the recent overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt and Israel are writing a new chapter in their long history. A lot of people want to know what comes next, but trying to predict the future of the Middle East is a fool’s errand.

The early history between the two nations, however, is well known:
A famine in Israel forced the Patriarch Abraham and his wife to seek relief in Egypt; fearing for his life, he chose to hide their marital bond. (In the Christian New Testament, Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus also sought sanctuary in Egypt from the murderous King Herod.)
Abraham’s great-grandson, Joseph, was sold by his jealous brothers into Egyptian slavery; over the course of several centuries, the Hebrews in Egypt became numerous and were enslaved. But freedom finally came. Each spring Jews commemorate the Passover, when the Hebrew slaves, under Moses’ leadership, fled Egyptian bondage.
Both the Exodus and the former slaves’ later entry into the Promised Land remain a paradigm of liberation for oppressed people everywhere.
Even so, other chapters of the Egypt-Israel relationship reveal important interactions that are often forgotten.
The truth is, Jews lived in Egypt long after the Exodus. Written records from the 5th century B.C. Jewish colony of Elephantine — an island in the Nile River — have been unearthed by archeologists, revealing a creative community complete with a house of worship dedicated to the God of Israel.
During the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C., the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, known as the Septuagint. By the first century A.D., an estimated 1 million Jews were living in Egypt including Philo, a renowned philosopher of Alexandria. His theological insights remain an important part of the world’s religious thought.
More than a thousand years later, in the 12th century, Moses Maimonides was the personal physician for the Islamic rulers of Egypt. In addition to his medical practice, Maimonides was also the spiritual leader of the Egyptian Jewish community. His most famous work, A Guide for the Perplexed, written in Arabic, has influenced many theologians, including Thomas Aquinas.
In the 1930s and 1940s, both Cairo and Alexandria were literary centers for writers and poets, many of them Jewish. Lawrence Durrell’s Justine, the first of his Alexandria Quartet, and Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit capture the extraordinary richness of a cosmopolitan Egypt.
The Egyptian government’s official campaign of anti-Semitism following the creation of modern Israel; the four wars between the two nations in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 forced most Egyptian Jews to flee the country and seek liberty elsewhere.
In 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat flew to Israel to address the Knesset. A peace treaty was signed in 1979 between a democracy that yearned for a real peace and the world’s most important Arab country — which was also an authoritarian state that continued to spew virulent hatred of Jews and Israel.
Israelis became accustomed to what has been termed a “cold peace;” something far better than a “hot war.” For his daring diplomacy, Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by the Muslim Brotherhood. He was succeeded by Mubarak until his regime fell on Feb. 11.
Now as we are strain to see the future between Egypt and Israel, the words of the late Israeli statesman Abba Eban (whose wife was an Egyptian Jew) uttered in 1956 have special meaning 55 years later:
“Our signpost is not backward to belligerency, but forward to peace,” Eban said. “Whatever Israel is now asked to do for Egypt must have its counterpart in Egypt’s reciprocal duty to give Israel the plenitude of its rights … Egypt and Israel are two people whose encounters in history have been rich and fruitful for mankind. Surely they must take their journey from this solemn moment towards the horizons of peace.”
– A. James Rudin, Religion News Service
(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, is the author of the recently published Christians & Jews, Faith to Faith: Tragic History, Promising Present, Fragile Future.)
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