“As a part of Egypt’s history, it is very important to preserve Jewish monuments and antiquities in the country, especially since the latter are being smuggled out of local synagogues.” Those were the words of Magda Haroun, head of the Jewish community in Egypt. Ms Haroun was recently hosted by Ihab al-Kharrat on the talk show Gussour (Bridges) broadcasted by the Christian TV channel Sat7.
“Synagogues in Egypt still include an invaluable heritage of holy books and items such as carpets which need much care to preserve, and have to be protected against burglary,” Ms Haroun said. The Jewish cemetery in Basateen on the outskirts of Cairo, she said, has been plundered and robbed, and part of its land used as a makeshift shortcut for vehicles to reach the highway close by.
Ms Haroun is still in possession of a deed for a land that was once donated by the rulers of Egypt to the Jewish community in 400AH, almost 1100 years ago.
Only seven Jews in Egypt
The Jews are an old people with a history that goes back some 4000BC, Ms Haroun said, but much of their heritage is threatened because of lack of interest and shortage of funds.
In Egypt, the Jewish community looks after its synagogues and pays their guards through the revenue that comes out of renting three Jewish-buildings owned by the community to the Ministry of Education which uses them as schools. This revenue is insufficient to finance the caretaking of the synagogues and the expenses of the Jewish community which is composed of no more than seven individuals the youngest of whom is in in his sixties. “In the 1950s,” Ms Haroun said, “Jews in Egypt numbered some 100,000 when Egypt’s population stood at 20 million. The current situation is tragic because it means that soon enough there will be no Jews left in Egypt.”
Through a phone call, Muhammad Abul-Ghar who heads the Egyptian Democratic Party, proposed the establishment of a museum for Jewish heritage, or turning synagogues that have gone out of use into museums to preserve their historical value.
It was natural that Ms Haroun would be asked for her comments on the TV drama series Haret al-Yahoud (Alley of the Jews) currently running to rave reviews and very high viewership. She replied that despite a number of historical errors the drama was a positive step towards improving the image of the Jews who for more than half a century have been stereotyped in a very negative light.
Ever since the establishment of Israel and the Arab-Israeli war in 1948, the Jews in Egypt were subject to discrimination, Ms Haroun said. Many of the poorer Jews left to Israel, while the more affluent left to Europe and the US where they started new lives. Those who stayed on till the Six-Day War between Egypt and Israel in 1967 were especially maltreated. All Jewish males upward of the age of 18 were arrested and imprisoned for no apparent reason; her father who was a lawyer was imprisoned, and a friend who was a student at the American University in Cairo was also imprisoned for three years then stripped of his nationality and forced to leave Egypt.
“All this because the value of accepting the other has been severely diminishing,” Ms Haroun said. She called upon the Copts and any other minorities in Egypt to remain in Egypt so they don’t face the same destiny as the Jews. “Egypt should work on rooting the value of accepting the other,” she said, ‘otherwise young people will grow up in a community that knows no pluralism and will be unable to fathom difference.”
Ms Haroun believes that the return of Egypt’s Jews is not likely because several generations have now settled down and established themselves in other countries. “It is hard to leave a well-established life and return to Egypt, especially at this time when the entire region is fraught with instability and insecurity.
“But I will remain here,” she said. “This is my homeland, the only place in the world where I find my rest. I will go on living here and will die here, to be buried alongside my brother and sister.”
7 July 2015