Karaite Jews in Egypt, Israel, and the San Francisco Bay Area
Consequently, orthodox followers of rabbinic Judaism regard them as a breakaway sect, even as they respect and study the outstanding achievements of Karaites in the realm of biblical scholarship and Hebrew grammar. Karaites, for their part, consider themselves to be followers of Judaism in its truest manifestation.
Historians trace the origins of the small Karaite sect to eighth- and ninth-century Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). Karaism, which accepts the supremacy of the Hebrew Bible over post-biblical interpretations, attracted supporters in the realm of medieval Islam, including Damascus, Jerusalem, and Cairo—where they have been a continuous presence since at least the eleventh century. Later, Karaites established communities in the Byzantine Empire, in and around Constantinople, on the Crimean Peninsula, and in the Tsarist Russian Empire.
Karaites once occupied their own separate quarter in Cairo—adjacent to the rabbinic Jewish quarter—with its population estimated at 5,000 as of 1948. Ira Nowinski traveled to Egypt and Israel in 1985, where he photographed Karaites and sites of Karaite religious and historical significance. While in Cairo he also photographed the ancient Ben Ezra Synagogue, in that city’s rabbinic Jewish quarter. He undertook this expedition at the initiative of the Judah L. Magnes Museum, which has long maintained a strong interest in collecting and exhibiting materials relating to “exotic” Jewish communities. Many of his Karaite photos were included in the Magnes Museum’s 1988 exhibition The Karaites: People of the Scriptures.
By the time of Nowinski’s visit, the ranks of Egyptian Karaites had dwindled and their synagogue and cemetery were showing signs of serious neglect. The Israeli communities that he photographed, by contrast, seemed to be thriving and their members had become—outwardly, at least—well integrated into Israeli society. Today, the total number of Karaites is quite small, with estimates ranging up to 35,000 worldwide. The largest concentration is in Israel; most of them are either immigrants who left Egypt starting in the sixties, a small but cohesive community of several hundred Egyptian Karaites settled in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco assisted some of them in their resettlement.
In what sense are today’s Karaites considered to be Jews? The Israeli government, for its part, has taken a pragmatic approach to this question. Thus, under Israel’s Law of Return, Karaites are permitted to immigrate freely and become citizens—and indeed, thousands of them have done so. In addition, like most other Israeli Jews, Karaites are required to serve in the military.
Meanwhile, that country’s religious establishment—Sephardic and Ashkenazic—has adopted the classic orthodox stance: Since Karaites do not accept the strictures of rabbinic law (halakhah), Israel’s Chief Rabbis do not recognize them as part of the Jewish community. This position has serious ramifications in view of the binding authority that the Israeli rabbinate exercises in the realm of religious laws (especially family law) that apply to that country’s Jews. The result is that Karaites possess a bifurcated legal status in Israel—they are Jews in the eyes of the state, and sectarians in the eyes of the rabbinate.
As in Israel, members of the tiny Karaite community in America have adapted well to their new surroundings. Nowinski’s Karaite photos provide fascinating evidence of the processes through which members of a small and relatively obscure subculture, the Egyptian Karaites, become Israelis and Americans.
Israel in the 1980s
Ira Nowinski’s visits to Israel provided him with opportunities to photograph the diverse faces and scenes that he encountered there. Appreciating the diversity of Jewish society in Israel, he photographed individuals and families hailing from many segments of Israeli society—urban and rural, European and Middle Eastern, Jewish and Arab.
Nowinski visited Israel in the second half of the 1980s, a period of accelerating friction between Jews and Palestinians. In 1987 these tensions erupted into demonstrations and violent unrest in what is now known as the First Intifada, or uprising. That Intifada lasted into the early 1990s; the Second Intifada broke out in the autumn of 2000 and continues to this day. The photographs that Nowinski took in Jerusalem’s Old City serve as an indirect reminder of the conflict between two peoples over the homeland that one of them calls Yisra’el and the other, Filastin.