Fight to preserve Egypt’s ancient Jewish sites
New leader wants the government to recognise that “Jewish temples are like the pyramids and the Sphinx”— an important part of the country’s history
By Lauren Gelfond Feldinger. Web only
Published online: 26 April 2013
The new elected head of Cairo’s declining Jewish community, Magda Haroun, said she will campaign to save Egypt’s Jewish synagogues and other historic sites—but according to reports, she will reject offers of help from Israel, because she wants the Egyptian government to recognise that the sites are an important part of their history. “Jewish temples are like the pyramids and the Sphinx,” she told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram. “They are part of Egypt’s history that cannot be ignored.”
Haroun’s election, following the death last month of 84-year-old Carmen Weinstein, is a good sign for Egyptian heritage, an Egyptian filmmaker told The Art Newspaper. Amir Ramses, whose documentary “Jews of Egypt” was released on 27 March, spent four years researching the country’s Jewish communities and heritage sites. Haroun, a 60-year-old-lawyer, “gets what she wants”, Ramses said. “She is very keen to protect Jewish heritage and keep it a part of Egyptian culture and history, just as [with] any other religious historical heritage.”
Officials have alienated Egyptians from the Jewish part of their historical legacy over the years because of the Israeli-Arab conflict, the secular Christian filmmaker said. Haroun will fight to make the Jewish heritage sites more accessible to the Egyptian public “for the first time…in years”, Ramses said, adding that only the Ben Ezra synagogue in a tourist district is accessible. “It is the Egyptian government’s duty to handle the Jewish history in equality to Muslim and Christian,” he said.
At Carmen Weinstein’s funeral last month, Haroun invited the public to Cairo’s dilapidated Bassatine cemetery to witness the waterlogged and neglected state of the ninth-century Jewish burial site, as she talked about following in Weinstein’s footsteps to protect heritage.
In her inaugural letter published by the Cairo Jewish Community Centre, Haroun described Weinstein’s funeral as a coming together of Muslims, Catholics, Copts, officials, youth and other Egyptians. “All of the above were assembled together to honour the passing of a symbol of the Egypt that was. An Egypt open to people from all creeds, nationality and colour,” she wrote.
The Egyptian intellectual community has supported Haroun’s appointment, because of her family history, Ramses said. Haroun’s father was a founder of Egypt’s Tagammu party, which promotes democratic, humanist and socialist values and has opposed the Muslim Brotherhood.
According to a spokeswoman at the Alexandria Jewish Community Centre, Alexandria is one of only two Jewish centres left in Egypt, with 20 Jews remaining in the city: 17 women and three men aged 70-90. In Cairo, there are an estimated 20 or 25 Jews. Most of Egypt’s tens of thousands of Jews fled between the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and the 1956 Suez Crisis.
The historical remnants of Egypt’s Jewish history—around two dozen synagogues and a handful of cemeteries and Jewish schools around the country—range from being in well-preserved and reasonable condition to “disastrous”, despite some new restoration projects taken on in recent years by the former minister of culture Farouk Hosni, Ramses said.
Haroun told Al-Ahram that she is seeking Egyptian funding for restoration projects and would otherwise turn to Unesco for assistance. The Alexandria spokeswoman said that they are also hoping for Unesco assistance.
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