By Sherif Elhelwa
Against the backdrop of accusations of religious intolerance being levelled at the Morsi government, the scene in Cairo last week as Muslims participated at the funeral of former Jewish community leader Carmen Weinstein was both incongruous and encouraging. To some, it was an example of growing Egyptian Muslim interest in the dwindling Jewish population, especially since the Egyptian Revolution in 2011.
“This is the first time I have seen this number of visitors and journalists come to the synagogue,” marvelled Magda Haroun, Weinstein’s successor at the Cairo Jewish Community Centre. “I am glad they’re all here, and I would love to see them more often,” she said.
Indeed, with some 100 Muslims in attendance at the funeral along with about “two handfuls” of Jews, the impression of harmony, brotherhood, love and support for each other was also reflected in the eulogies for Weinstein.
Even Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi issued a statement mourning the loss of Weinstein, saying, “She was a dedicated Egyptian who worked tirelessly to preserve the Egyptian Jewish heritage and valued, above all, living and dying in her country, Egypt.”
The Hebrew Kadish prayer for the dead was recited by Moroccan Rabbi Marc Elfassy, who came from Paris to officiate and help provide the needed quorum of ten Jewish men. “We needed 10 Jewish males to attend the service, and I guess God has granted us what we needed. I don’t care if the males present were Muslims or Jews, as long as they loved Carmen. You can’t really tell who is a Jew and who isn’t,” said Elfassy.
Such a gathering would have been unheard of under the rule of president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ruled in the 1950s and 1960s, and other Egyptian governments. But the recent release of an independent film called Jews of Egypt by director Amir Ramses depicting the modern history of Egypt’s Jews has sparked interest in the Jewish community and its fascinating past among the nation’s Muslims.
According to the movie, finally released after outcries from Egyptian liberal movements calling for free speech and media, Jews forced into leaving their own country never felt anything but Egyptian, and continued offering help to the Egyptian government, especially during Egyptian-Israeli wars.
One who nurtured his continued connection to his ancestors’ homeland was present at Weinstein’s funeral. Sam Amiel, an Egyptian Jew who now works in Israel as a senior program manager for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Centre (JDC), attended as a way of connecting to the unforgotten lands of his father.
“I am an Egyptian Jew, the son of Moussa, who left for the United States some 50 years ago. I came back to be part of my heritage,” he said. Adding, “We at JDC proudly send kosher food to Jewish people in Egypt.”
Weinstein’s successor Haroun was also accompanied by Israel’s Ambassador to Egypt Yaakov Amitai, who called Weinstein “a mother with a warm heart for the Egyptian Jewish community.”
After the rituals and speeches, Weinstein’s coffin was transferred for burial in the Jewish Cemetery of Basateen, the second oldest Jewish cemetery in the world. It was a fitting burial place for Weinstein, who worked diligently to restore the cemetery and to ensure it was included under the government restoration program for antiquities. The cemetery had been encroached by trespassers and people living among the headstones. “I hope that our efforts can stop the desecration of Basateen Cemetery,” Rabbi Andrew Baker of the Washington-based American Jewish Committee said at the funeral.
Filling Weinstein’s shoes won’t be easy, but Magda Haroun, also known as Maggy, is continuing the legacy of a modern strong-willed Egyptian Jewish woman. Born in Alexandria 61 years ago, she practiced law at her father’s law firm and is currently a partner with her sister, Nadia Haroun.
The Haroun sisters, the youngest Jewish women in Egypt, were raised in a home where humanitarian values were sacred and love for Egypt intense. “I am the daughter of Shehata Haroun who didn’t know the difference between yellow, white or black. To him, Muslims, Jews and Christians were just human beings. We are Egyptians,” Maggy said proudly.
Shehata Haroun, who died in 2001, believed strongly in human and socialist values and refused to leave Egypt even when its Jews were coerced into doing so. He was a founding member of the Egyptian Communist Party along with other leading Egyptian Muslim and Coptic politicians. However, he was better known for his hostility towards Zionism and Israel’s policies regarding the Palestinians.
While happy about the release of the film, Maggy Haroun is concerned over neglect and ignorance on the part of the Egyptian government and other Egyptians concerning those Jews who remain in Egypt, despite the fact that Egyptian Jews were an influential part of Egyptian society.
“Do people know that the architect who designed and built the famous Omar Makram Mosque was an Italian Jew living in Egypt, by the name of Maria Rossi? Do they know that the famous Egyptian movie star and singer Leila Mourad was a Jew?” she asks. Nonetheless, Maggy herself says, “I am an Egyptian before being Jewish.”
That Egyptian part of their identity was always important to the Jews who settled there, having immigrated from elsewhere. Egypt was a Mecca for Jews around the world escaping persecution in the West, especially during the 15th and 16th centuries when Jews persecuted in Spain escaped to Egypt. A massive wave of Jewish merchants from throughout the Ottoman Empire also immigrated to Egypt when the Suez Canal was opened in 1869.
Not long ago, around the time of the 1952 coup that ousted the last Egyptian monarch, King Farouk, Egypt had a vibrant, rich Jewish culture and Jews were prominent members of the Egyptian society. There were some 80,000 Egyptian Jews in 1952, but that number declined as Egyptian-Israeli relations worsened due to propaganda painting the Jews of the Arab world as conspirators and Zionists. After the Six-Day War, massive numbers of Egyptians were forced to leave in order to escape prosecution for spying by state authorities.
Today, Egypt has 19 synagogues: 10 in Alexandria and 9 in Cairo, but only three remain in operation: in Cairo, the Sha’ar Hashamayim Synagogue; the Maimonidies Synagogue; and the Ben-Ezra Synagogue in the Fustat area near the capital. The Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue on Alexandria’s Nabi Daniel Street was closed for security reasons in 2012, after Egyptian officials there said they could not guarantee worshippers’ safety.
There are two types of Arabic-speaking Jews living in Egypt, believed to total fewer than fifty, according to Haroun and her husband, but no official number is available. They are divided between the so-called Rabbinate Jews in Cairo, who also follow the oral law, and the Karaites in Alexandria, who follow only what is written in the Torah [Five Books of Moses].
The turnout at the funeral gives Maggy Haroun hope to change Muslim and Christian Egyptians’ views about the Jewish community as she tries to continue Weinstein’s legacy. “I don’t feel threatened in my own country, and surprisingly, the Egyptian government, Muslim friends and the system are protecting me,” she said defiantly.
“It’s not fear that we experience here in Egypt. It’s ignorance, ignorance which calls into question our value as human beings and how much we want to live like everyone else, as Egyptians in peace!” she said, adding, “I will do my best to revive this Jewish heritage and restore our legacy as patriotic Egyptians.”
Originally published in The Media Line