BASSATINE NEWS  the ONLY Jewish newsletter reporting directly from Egypt
A Community Chronicle put out by the Jewish Community Council (JCC) of Cairo since 1995




Egypt's dwindling Jewish community is fighting to stop its artifacts leaving the country
by Royce de Melo
Cairo Times, (Vol 1. Issue 9; June 29-July 9, 1997 P.6)

EGYPT'S JEWISH COMMUNITY is under siege. Not by Arab nationalists or Islamic fundamentalists, but by their co-religionists abroad, Jews who left Egypt decades ago.

The Jewish community in Egypt is dwindling fast, and expatriate Egyptian Jews have made unofficial requests to remove valuable artifacts from their present homes in Cairo's underused synagogues and spirit them out of the country.

Egypt's Jewish community now numbers less than 200 people, almost all of whom are elderly women; there are only four men. Jewish tradition requires 10 men to form a minian, a prayer group. Without a minian, the argument goes, the local community has no use for its sefarim (holy prayer books), and they should be sent out of the country where they can be cared for.

The local community refuses to budge. "We're still in Cairo despite what everybody says," said Carmen Weinstein, (de facto) president of Egypt's Jewish community. "Taking the Jewish sefarims, books and records out of Egypt is tantamount to saying that Egypt should demolish the Pyramids and the Temple of Luxor because there are no Pharaohs left... that France should destroy Versailles and the other palaces because the monarchy is gone."

Weinstein has responded to the pressure from abroad by issuing strongly-worded communiques. She also has shown her contempt for the Egyptian Jews who have left, most notably in an open letter carried in a community newsletter this March: "When I first went to Israel in 1983, I met a lady, elegantly dressed from head to toe with jewels, gloves, etc... Hers was one of the few sensible comments I have heard from a former Egyptian Jew: 'Egypt gave us so much; we deserve our lot because we were too selfish to give her anything in return.'"

Meanwhile, the community here has been upping its profile with a two-day conference on 2-3 June, organized by the Israeli Academic Center, on the Jews of modern Egypt. The main theme was that the community spanned all social classes, not just the upper ones.

"It is amazing that a poor Jew would wear a galabeya with a vest and look like any other Egyptian," said Jacques Hassoun, an Alexandrian Jew turned French citizen.

The Egyptian Jewish community at its peak probably once numbered approximately 80,000, a small percentage of the entire population. Their presence dates back to the last years of the Pharaohs, and thrived during the Hellenic era. Ben Ezra synagogue in Coptic Cairo is considered the oldest Jewish temple in the world dating to 606 BC and is traditionally believed to stand on the spot at which Moses was plucked from the Nile. Jewish numbers in Egypt were boosted in the late 15th century by the arrival of large groups of Jews escaping persecution in Spain.

Later, in the 19th century, as part of the wave of Europeans discovering Egypt there came many more Jews who settled and established shops, banks and other businesses. Local and resident Jews were responsible for the reorganization and modernization of Egypt's finances including the founding of the National Bank of Egypt, the launching of its modern industry (notably a series of sugar manufacturing plants in Upper Egypt), the opening of most of the country's department stores, plus major financial participation in urban developments including Maadi, and Smouha in Alexandria.

At the recent Jewish conference delegates emphasized that Egypt was extremely tolerant of the community. Various Egyptian Jews were accorded the honorifics 'pasha' and 'bey,' and several were elected as parliamentary deputies and senators. Jewish newspapers printed in French and Arabic were freely published.

The exodus of Jews from Egypt mainly to Europe and North America first began with the outbreak of war with Israel.

"After every war with Israel large numbers of Jews left," remarked an Israeli attending the conference. Pressures mounted on the community--Islamists frequently threatened attacks (but never carried them out), while Jews were prevented from holding certain jobs, businesses and political positions. In the late '50s, Nasser closed down the last Jewish school.

Many Jews didn't need any pressuring to quit the country--with nationalization and the advent of socialism, many wealthier members of the community thought that Egypt's economic future looked bleak and decided to take their chances elsewhere. The last big stream to leave Egypt came just after the 1967 war. Of the 3000 or so in Egypt at that time, many went to Israel, other groups to France, Italy, Canada, and the US--not always integrating successfully. Comments Hassoun: "Former Egyptian Jews still reminisce about that bygone era and are left somewhat confused by the rapid changes and developments that occurred in their lives. Egyptian Jews don't understand what happened to them."

Will the remnant of this community eventually die out? Demographics suggest it might, but Weinstein and others insist that it will stay. "Stop sending these insensitive letters, always referring to our 'inevitable extinction,'" she admonishes expatriate communities in her newsletter. "Who can tell what grain will grow and what will die?" And no matter what happens to the community, the sefarim will stay put.

Weinstein is in no doubt of what will happen if the Egyptian community relinquishes care of its relics; in her newsletter she mentions an Alexandrian Jew who bequeathed 100 Egyptian sefarims to various synagogues abroad where there might be minian to pray on them. A few years later, however, he emigrated and discovered that the synagogues had sold most of the items off to private collectors.

To forestall such a fate for Egypt's remaining Jewish artifacts the community has had them classified as antiquities, and their removal from the country is banned by law. Weinstein suggests placing them in a museum, or in storage to be used in services when visiting Jewish tourists or dignitaries form a minian.

Meanwhile, the architectural legacy of Egypt's Jewish community is thriving, with moneys donated from abroad. A few years ago Ben Ezra was completely renovated courtesy of the ex-Egyptian Jewish community in Montreal, Canada. The Bassatine Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of Maadi had a protective wall built around it and there is a scheme afoot to have all the Hebrew inscriptions on its tomb stones transcribed for posterity.

The community may be fading, but the maintenance of the Jewish sites and the apparent academic interests which exist for both Jews and non-Jews alike will keep at least the memory alive.


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