On My Mind: Keeping the door ajar on Egypt’s Jewry

‘I knew that one day I would be the one that closes the door,” says Magda Haroun, one of Egypt’s last Jews.

June 24, 2013 20:56
Cairo synagogue

Cairo synagogue. (photo credit: REUTERS)

‘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 know.”

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 resources.”

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 says.

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 right.”

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 situation.”

Looking ahead, Haroun wants to ensure the legacy of Egyptian Jewry will live in perpetuity. Muslims and Christians will be the caretakers.

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 rededicated.

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 Maimonides rededication.

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 living.

AJC has established a fund for the maintenance and preservation of Jewish cultural, religious and historical landmarks, including cemeteries, in Egypt.

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 return.

And third was the Carmen Weinstein funeral. These developments garnered much media attention in Egypt, as well as internationally.

“If 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.

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