In the wake of the “Arab Spring,” what does the future hold for the vestigial
Jewish community in Egypt? The future is bleak – and getting bleaker. Most
recently, there is disturbing proof of a government takeover of Jewish assets by
The tiny Jewish community in Alexandria – a collection of
perhaps a dozen elderly widows all once married to non- Jews – no longer runs
its own affairs, a member of a Jewish family now living in England discovered on
a visit to Egypt in March. Control of its substantial assets has slipped into
the hands of the Egyptian government.
To his horror, the visitor found
that the Muslim former doorman of the Nebi Daniel synagogue has taken over the
leadership of the community from the nominal head, Yousef Gaon.
Nabi collects the community’s rents. (They are worth millions as the community
invested heavily in property.) He has a new car and is living well.
Nebi Daniel synagogue, the jewel in the crown of Egypt’s once-glorious Jewish
heritage, is the only functioning synagogue in Egypt. Abdel Nabi intruded into
the visitor’s conversation with Yousef Gaon and asked to see a document which
proved his relationship with a relative whose death certificate he was
The visitor showed Abdel Nabi the copy of an “Elam Warassa,” his
family’s successoral document.
“Ah!” Abdel Nabi said, without even
reading the document, “this is a copy, I need the original.”
visitor later asked Gaon for an explanation, the erstwhile leader told him: “I
am nothing now in this office.
Abdel Nabi is the government’s eyes and
ears. He directs everything and I can’t say anything.
I have resigned but
the powers that- be don’t accept my resignation.
I’m sorry, I cannot help
The question of who will manage Egypt’s remaining synagogues and
Jewish community assets when the last Egyptian Jew has died – an issue which has
been preoccupying Egyptian Jews in the diaspora for some time – now becomes
There have been two different approaches: The Historical
Society of Jews from Egypt, based in the US, has sought to remove as much of
Egypt’s Jewish heritage as can be transferred out of the country. The
European-based Nebi Daniel Association has preferred to negotiate with the
Egyptian government for control of Jewish community registers on the ground. A
particular sore point is that Jews have been denied access to communal records
The Abdel Nabi episode has heightened concern for the 56
Torah scrolls that were used by the 12 to 14 synagogues in Alexandria, now
stored at the Nebi Daniel synagogue.
According to Maurice de Picciotto,
the son of a previous head of the Alexandria community, the government tried to
take the sifrei Torah and place them under the control of the Ministry of
Antiquities as “national treasures,” but until now, the community has managed to
keep possession of them.
“I should have tried to bring them out while my
father was still in charge,” de Picciotto says regretfully.
President of the Association of Egyptian Jews in Israel, says that the Abdel
Nabi episode formalizes the takeover of Alexandria’s Jewish heritage by the
Mukhabarat, or secret police.
With the fall of the Alexandria “bastion,”
Zamir worries about the fate of Jewish community assets in Cairo. Unlike
Alexandria, whose Jewish communal leadership sold off all but two of their
synagogues in the past few decades, Cairo still has more than 10 – in various
states of repair and disrepair.
The community’s affairs are managed by
the octogenarian Carmen Weinstein. Convicted of fraud and sentenced to three
years in prison (although she was later acquitted), Mrs. Weinstein is a broken
woman who is less likely now to stand up to pressure from the Egyptian
Then there are Jewish claims to private property in
Most famously, the Bigio family has waged war in court for years
to claim damages for the nationalization of the Coca- Cola plant the family
operated until the 1960s.
Some 3,000 cases are said to have been brought
before the Egyptian courts; many properties were nationalized after Jewish
families were expelled or fled.
Families claiming damages are usually
given the runaround by the Egyptian court system over a period of years and
sometimes decades. Meanwhile, any compensation they might get becomes worth next
to nothing as the value of the Egyptian piastre continues to plummet. One reason
that the government has been reluctant to allow Egyptian Jews permission to make
copies of old genealogical and synagogue registers is fear the records could be
used in such cases.
The story repeats itself all over the Arab world,
where billions of dollars worth of Jewish property and assets have been
sequestered without compensation.
The news of the takeover of Jewish
community affairs and assets comes as Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny
Ayalon, launches a report this week aimed at securing recognition and
compensation for the 860,000 Jews driven out of Arab lands. The Abdel Nabi
episode, formalizing ongoing state theft, makes action all the more
Lyn Julius co-founded Harif, a UK association of Jews from the
Middle East and North Africa.