A bitter taste in Egypt

The rededication of the Rambam Synagogue in Cairo falls victim to cold peace.

rambam synagogue 58 (photo credit: Michelle Mazel)
rambam synagogue 58
(photo credit: Michelle Mazel)
It was a unique occasion. The small yeshiva where 800 years ago Moses Maimonides, the Rambam, taught his disciples had been restored to its pristine state; the synagogue later built on the site, which had fallen into disrepair and had been badly damaged by an earthquake, was once again ready to welcome worshipers.
Egyptian Minister of Culture Farouk Hosny, who had pledged two years ago to renovate three synagogues, had been true to his word. Specialists from the Department of Antiquities had worked long and hard to uncover and duplicate the site’s original colors. The total cost of the project had reached $2 million and the result was spectacular.
All was in place for an impressive ceremony that would have shown the world that Jews and Muslims could rejoice in harmony over a site dedicated to a man held in veneration by both. Maimonides had been the personal physician to Saladin, and for centuries Jews, Muslims and Copts had come to his yeshiva in search of healing. As work was nearing completion, it was agreed with the Egyptian authorities that the small Jewish community of Cairo would organize a dedication ceremony on March 7.
Carmen Weinstein, president of the community, invited Jews from Egypt now living in France, England and other countries as well as a small number of Israelis with special ties to the event such as researchers on the history of the Jews of Egypt and former ambassadors to Egypt. A special invitation had been issued to rabbis of the Chabad movement, for whom the teachings of the Rambam have a great importance; until recently they used to come to the Ben Ezra Synagogue every year at Hanukka.
And then the Egyptians had a change of heart. The head of the Antiquities Department stated that it was an Egyptian site. Let Jews hold a religious ceremony discreetly and among themselves; the official inauguration by the Egyptian authorities would take place a week later. That the decision was both ludicrous and impractical did not occur to them until it was too late.
On March 7, the guests invited by the community made their way to the synagogue. The atmosphere was tense, security personnel and police were present in impressive numbers, surrounding the area and lining the alley leading to the site. The yeshiva and its attendant synagogue are located in what used to be the Jewish Quarter of Cairo.
However, most of the Jews were driven out of Egypt in the ’50s and the ’60s and it has been years since a Jew lived there. The place has turned into a slum; none of its narrow alleys and passageways is asphalted and a layer of tar was hastily applied to the path the visitors would take.
People living there were ordered to close their shops, their doors and their windows and not set foot outside. Security personnel checked invitations and barred journalists from entering. A reporter from a popular daily who tried to interview me was driven away none too gently. A similar fate met a New York Times correspondent. The event was to be kept strictly private – or so hoped the Egyptian authorities. They presumably had not heard of cellphones and other sophisticated recording and transmitting equipment.
Altogether 150 people attended the ceremony, among them Itzhak Lebanon, ambassador of Israel, and Margaret Scobey, the American ambassador, as well as a representative of the Spanish Foreign Ministry who read a message from Miguel Moratinos, who heads Casa de Sefarad, a cultural project concerned with Judeo-Spanish culture, history and tradition – after all the Rambam was born in Cordoba. Speeches were short and non-political; repeated thanks were addressed to the Department of Antiquities and the Ministry of Culture, whose heads were conspicuously absent. The rabbis, who had arrived on the morning flight from Israel and were to return late in the evening, prayed, sang and danced with their usual gusto, urging all present to join them in drinking small cupfuls of vodka. At the end all rose and recited the Shema.
Visitors lingered a little longer. For many, being in the very place the Rambam had taught and prayed was a moving experience. All left with the feeling of having taken part in a very special event.
Meanwhile, the Egyptians who had hoped that the ceremony could be held under wraps were in for a rude awakening. Some of the guests had given interviews to various media in the course of the event. Not many hours lapsed before a video was aired on CNN, and later on the news on Israel’s Channel 2; the Chabad Web site published dozens of photos.
The press in Cairo reacted angrily. Articles and editorials found fault with the presence of the Israeli ambassador, simultaneously bemoaning the amount of money squandered on restoring a Jewish site and declaring the fact that it was a purely Egyptian monument.
Zaki Hawas, head of the Antiquities Department, waded into the fray and declared that “‘Ben Maimon’ would not be handed over to the Jews” and that special measures would be taken to prevent Israelis from visiting in order not to offend Egyptian feelings, in view of the Israeli government’s position on the “Ibrahimi Mosque,” the name given by the Muslim to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. He added that he had been surprised by the large scale of the event, the participation of the Israeli ambassador and the fact that alcoholic drinks had been imbibed. Therefore, he said, he had taken the decision to cancel the grand opening planned for March 14.
While it would be difficult to see the logic of his arguments, there is no doubt but that he had little choice in the matter. Celebrating the renovation of what is universally known as a Jewish site without any Jewish presence would have given rise to justified criticism. The minister of culture himself said more reasonably that there would be no point in a new event since the dedication ceremony had already been held by the Jewish community.
Thus did Egypt miss a perfect opportunity to show the world that it wasan open and tolerant country while reaping political and economicbenefits. It chose instead to denigrate the simple and moving ceremonyin order to use it as a tool to condemn Israel. True, the ancientyeshiva and the synagogue have been beautifully restored and will standtestimony to the life and work of the Rambam. Yet there is a lingeringbitter taste.
The writer is a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt and fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.