Egypt’s tiny Jewish community clings to heritage

Sunday 07/05/2017
Fading past. President of the Egyptian Jewish Community Magda Shehata Haroun stands at the Sha’ar Hashamayim Synagogue in Cairo. (AFP)

Cairo - Once a flourishing com­munity, only a handful of Egyptian Jews, mostly elderly women, remain in the Arab world’s most populous country, aiming at least to preserve their heritage.

Egypt has about a dozen syna­gogues but, like many of the country’s monuments, they need restoration. Part of the roof of a syn­agogue in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria caved in last year.

In Cairo, a bustling street lined with old hotels and shops leads to an imposing stone building mod­elled after an ancient Egyptian tem­ple: The Sha’ar Hashamayim syna­gogue, built around 1900.

Inside, Magda Haroun carefully unrolls Torah scrolls kept in the synagogue’s ark.

The synagogue is mostly empty these days but Haroun, 65, said she remembers when its benches were filled with worshippers, including her late father Shehata Haroun, a celebrated lawyer.

Haroun carries the title of presi­dent of Cairo’s Jewish commu­nity — six elderly women, includ­ing herself and her mother — and says her task is to preserve a centuries-old heritage.

“It’s my duty, for future genera­tions,” she says.

Her mother Marcelle Haroun, 91, cries when she discusses her com­munity’s fading past.

“According to the stories, Jews lived in Egypt since the pharaohs. Do you want to make centuries of history vanish?” she says.

There were 80,000-120,000 Jews in Egypt up until the mid-20th century.

They had an impact that far ex­ceeded their numbers in trade and even cinema, with actress and singer Leila Murad dominating the silver screen in the 1940s and 1950s.

The Arab-Israeli war of 1948 led to the disintegration of the commu­nity, with many leaving Egypt or be­ing forced out under the regime of president Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Today, the Jews of Egypt are esti­mated to number 18, with 12 of them in the coastal city of Alexandria.

Magda Haroun’s dream is for Jew­ish artefacts to be seen by the pub­lic, perhaps in a planned museum of Egyptian civilisation.

Officially, the government now makes no distinction between Pharaonic, Islamic, Coptic and Jewish heritage and the Antiqui­ties Ministry has come up with the funds to fix the roof of Alexandria’s synagogue.

“The (Antiquities) minister prom­ised me that a museum of civilisa­tions will open, representing all the civilisations of Egypt,” said Magda Haroun.

The Egyptian civilisation muse­um opened in February with a small exhibition but there are no definite plans for displaying Jewish arte­facts in it.

However, Minister of Antiquities Khaled el-Enany said that in early 2016 he set up a committee to list “all the Jewish monuments and Jewish collections that are in the synagogues”.

On a public level, many Egyptians still have a mixed view of their Jew­ish compatriots.

“It remains a complicated ques­tion,” says Amir Ramses, who made a 2013 documentary, “The Jews of Egypt,” on the community’s history.

“Mentioning the Jews in Egypt was a taboo,” he said.

Just screening the film in Cairo cinemas was a struggle before he eventually obtained clearance. When it was shown, the Culture Ministry requested that it be intro­duced as a work of the director’s “imagination” rather than a docu­mentary.

Although the tiny community has been spared recent attacks by jihad­ists targeting Christians, the Sha’ar Hashamayim synagogue was at­tacked in 2010. An assailant hurled a suitcase containing a homemade bomb at the synagogue’s entrance, causing no damage.

Some in the community prefer to keep a low profile.

The head of Alexandria’s Jewish community, Youssef Gaon, want­ed to be quoted as little as possi­ble when interviewed by Agence France-Presse.

Gaon simply said he “trusts” the Egyptian government will help re­store the country’s Jewish heritage.

(Agence France-Presse)