Save Egypt’s Jewish heritage and assets now

In wake of “Arab Spring,” what does future hold for the vestigial Jewish community in Egypt?

Cairo synagogue (photo credit: REUTERS)
Cairo synagogue
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 stealth.
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.
Abdel 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.
The 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 seeking.
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.”
When the 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 you.”
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 redundant.
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 and archives.
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.
Levana Zamir, 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 government.
Then there are Jewish claims to private property in Egypt.
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 urgent.
Lyn Julius co-founded Harif, a UK association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.