‘I knew that one day I would be the one that closes the door,” says Magda Haroun,
one of Egypt’s last Jews. Numbering 80,000 more than 60 years ago, today only 14
remain. “It is sad and very heavy to bear.”
Haroun became president of
Egypt’s Jewish community in April, following the passing of longtime community
leader Carmen Weinstein. She comes with a dual commitment – enable the remaining
Jews, mostly elderly and in need of assistance, to live in dignity, and ensure
that the door on this historic community’s legacy will always be left ajar. To
that end, she vigorously is making arrangements for the preservation of
cemeteries, synagogues and other Jewish heritage sites.
“It is my duty as
a Jew and as an Egyptian,” says Haroun. She has spoken a lot with Egyptian
media, reinforcing the historical fact that Jews have always been integral to
Egyptian society. “We don’t want secrecy about Jews. Egyptians have to
Her immediate concern is finding ways to give the older Jewish
women in Cairo “an easy end of life.” Ideally, she would like to establish a
home where they could live together, and receive medical attention and social
support. Three of the nine women in Cairo are in need of hearing aids and two
require cataract surgery. The other three Jews in Egypt, one man and two women,
also elderly, live in Alexandria, the Mediterranean city that was home to the
country’s second largest Jewish community.
“Our community economically is
worse than the economy of Egypt,” says Haroun. “We have no
The Egyptian government had provided a $1,000 monthly stipend
for the Jewish community, but that lapsed following the revolution that brought
down the Mubarak regime. Haroun recently sent a letter to the Ministry of
Welfare requesting resumption of this vital assistance, and is optimistic that
the government will restore the monthly allowances. “The Egyptian government
should help these ladies who chose not to leave Egypt and are alone,” she
She also is seeking support for sustaining religious practice. “We
asked the government to provide a rabbi and kosher food,” says Haroun. “I want a
rabbi 24 hours a day, all year long. It is our constitutional
Though not raised in a religious home – Haroun attended synagogue
only on major holidays – she is deeply committed to assist, however she can. She
lived abroad for 12 years for business reasons in Kuwait, Hong Kong, Tokyo and
Istanbul, but returned home to Cairo in 1992. Egypt, she told me on a recent
visit to the US, is her home.
The Egyptian Jewish community, once one of
the largest in the Arab world, fell victim to the hateful politics of Arab
leaders who punished local, centuries-old Jewish communities in vengeful
response to Israel’s independence.
“One of the mistakes of the Arab
regimes was to throw them away, to push the Jews through the open door,” says
Haroun, who was born just days before the 1952 Nasser revolution. Most Jews left
Egypt unwillingly after 1948 and the rise of Nasser, with additional waves
exiting after the 1956 and 1967 wars.
“The Six Day War was terrible for
us,” says Haroun. “I had Egyptian friends. Some of them died. On the other side,
I had relatives who might have killed them. It was a very complicated
Looking ahead, Haroun wants to ensure the legacy of Egyptian
Jewry will live in perpetuity. Muslims and Christians will be the
Only a few years ago there was some hope the Egyptian
government would spearhead the preservation effort. In March 2010, the
refurbished Maimonides yeshiva and synagogue in Cairo was
The project was an Egyptian government initiative, led by
Dr. Zahi Hawass, then the antiquities minister. Hawass had plans to restore
other synagogues in Cairo and Alexandria.
“They even endorsed our
proposal that one of the restored synagogues should serve as a Museum of
Egyptian Jewish Heritage, a place that would tell of the long, rich history of
Jewish life in Egypt,” Rabbi Andrew Baker, AJC’s director of International
Jewish Affairs, wrote in The International Herald Tribune on the eve of the
Those hopeful plans were shelved following the
overthrow of the Mubarak regime and the dismissal of Hawass. Today, all
synagogues are closed, says Haroun, noting the absence of tourists visiting an
Egypt still enmeshed in economic and political uncertainties, and the lack of a
budget for caretakers.
Nonetheless, she wants to resume preservation of
all synagogues in Egypt, including one built in the 9th century at Mahalla
el-Kubra in the Nile Delta.
On a recent visit to Cairo, Rabbi Baker went
to Bassatine, one of the world’s oldest Jewish cemeteries, and found squatters
living in dwellings erected over graves, sewage streaming and livestock grazing.
It was difficult to reach some of the original gravesites, and, as Haroun points
out, many are unmarked. She wants to assemble a list of all Jews buried there
and place it on a monument at Bassatine.
“Can we preserve the cemetery as
a cemetery is the big issue,” says Haroun, adding that it is imperative to get
funds to clearly demarcate between the cemetery and where Cairo residents are
AJC has established a fund for the maintenance and preservation
of Jewish cultural, religious and historical landmarks, including cemeteries, in
Haroun cites a few recent events that, together, give her hope
that the topic of Jews in Egypt is getting attention. First was the release of a
documentary film Jews of Egypt, produced by a leading Egyptian filmmaker. Second
was the invitation from a Muslim Brotherhood official to Egyptian Jews to
And third was the Carmen Weinstein funeral. These developments
garnered much media attention in Egypt, as well as internationally.
we make Egyptians aware that this heritage belongs to the country, they will
preserve it,” says Haroun. “That’s my only hope.”
The writer is the
American Jewish Committee’s director of Media Relations.