Bid to Save Cairo Jewish Artifacts

The leading group of Jews of Egyptian descent now living in the United States is stepping up efforts to reclaim Torah scrolls, other religious articles and genealogical records from the Egyptian government, prompted by what it sees as a resurgence of anti-Semitism in the Arab world and the inability of Egypt's tiny remaining Jewish community to provide proper care for the items. The Historical Society of Jews from Egypt (HSJE), a Brooklyn-based non-profit organization has been campaigning for access to its community archives and religious articles for close to 30 years, with little success. Even when the Egyptian government has seemed close to acquiescing to their requests, they say, their efforts have been stymied by a stubborn handful of Cairo's remaining Jews. In addition to reclaiming Torah scrolls, books and other religious articles, HSJE is fighting for access to generations of community archives detailing marriages, births, deaths and other life-cycle events. "This is our history," says Desiree Sakkal, HSJE's president. "It's everything we are." Prior to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, when anti-Jewish sentiment began to rear its head, Jewish life in Egypt was vibrant and multifaceted, with a community numbering around 80,000. Then, in the aftermath of the Sinai campaign of 1956 (in which Israeli forces, aided by Britain and France, took control of the Suez Canal), the Egyptian government proclaimed that "all Jews are Zionists and enemies of the state," and threatened them with expulsion. Joel Beinin, an American Jew who is director of Middle Eastern Studies at the American University in Cairo, has written that "the entire Egyptian Jewish community… was transformed from a national asset into a fifth column." By 1967 and the Six Day War Jews were fleeing in massive waves, largely forced to leave their assets, including religious articles and community records, behind. Today, only around 70 Jews remain in the country, almost all of whom are elderly women. There are no rabbis or kosher butchers in the country, and synagogues are open only on rare occasions. Carmen Weinstein, President of the Jewish Community Council of Cairo and the effective spokeswoman for the country's Jews, has vociferously opposed the HSJE's attempts to remove religious items and community records. Accusing the HSJE of a "propaganda campaign," Weinstein denies their contention that Egypt's remaining Jewish community will be "extinct" in a few years. "Stop sending these insensitive letters, referring to our 'inevitable extinction,'" Wein-stein wrote to the HSJE. "Our heritage is staying in Egypt where it belongs." Back in 1979, HSJE representatives met with Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Osama Elbaz, a top aide to presidents Sadat and Mubarak. According to Sakkal, Elbaz promised to let the group take whatever it wanted. The delegation hired shipping containers, expecting to retrieve archives and religious items. Once in Cairo, Sakkal relates, they were told that they would need a letter of permission from the Jewish Community Council - but Weinstein refused to grant the request. Instead, Weinstein lobbied the Egyptian government to designate the community's religious items and books as "antiquities," which would make their removal from the country illegal. When the HSJE approached the U.S. State Department in 2001 for assistance, they were told that as long as Cairo's Jewish Community Council supported the "antiquities" designation, their hands were effectively tied. Meanwhile, Weinstein has pursued different priorities, fundraising for the upkeep of the historic Jewish cemetery in Cairo and synagogues and calling on Diaspora Jews to throw their efforts behind preservation efforts in Egypt. Yet HSJE continues to assert that, aside from a few Torah scrolls that should be left in Egypt's synagogues for tourists, their religious articles and community records belong with the majority of Egypt's Jews abroad, where they can be properly cared for. Moreover, the group takes offense at the "antiquities" designation, arguing that their religious items are meant to be part of functioning, active communal life. "We plan on using these items," says Rabbi Shimon Alouf, the head of Brooklyn's Egyptian community. "That's exactly the point - they are not antiquities; they do not belong in museums." Alouf and Sakkal point to two recent incidents as further proof that the community's religious items may be in increasing danger on Egyptian soil. In late May, a group of Egyptian-born Israelis who had planned a sightseeing trip in Cairo were told that they were not welcome, after a popular television host began broadcasting rumors that the group intended to reclaim nationalized property. The Al-Ahram weekly reported that the Egyptian government had made it clear that hotels should not host the group, citing security concerns. A few weeks before the incident, Egypt's Minister of Culture, Faruq Hosni - a candidate for the directorship of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) - came under fire for comments he made in front of the Egyptian Parliament. "I'd burn Israeli books myself if I found any in libraries in Egypt," he said. HJSE turned to UNESCO, asking it to intervene, and to take custody of the archives under the Organization's World Heritage protection program. Noting that Egypt's Jews are also referred to as "Israelites," Sakkal says that HSJE views Hosni's comments as incitement to destroy the community's books and religious articles, imbuing the group's efforts with an added sense of urgency. In a letter to UNESCO Director General Koichiro Matsuura, HSJE stated, "We feel that this has provided Mr. Hosni with a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate his …rejection of anti-Semitism." Speaking to The Report from the organization's headquarters in Paris, UNESCO spokeswoman Sue Williams replied, "[Minister Hosni] said this in a national context and we don't interfere in national situations."