Egypt’s last Jews aim to keep heritage alive
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Egypt’s last Jews aim to keep heritage alive

With their mass-exodus to Israel after 1948, an ancient community that once numbered over 100,000 now counts perhaps 18 souls struggling to maintain empty synagogues

Illustrative: The president of the Egyptian Jewish Community, Magda Shehata Haroun, talks during an interview with AFP at the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue in Cairo, also known as Temple Ismailia or Adly Synagogue in downtown Cairo on October 3, 2016. (Khaled Desouki/AFP)
Illustrative: The president of the Egyptian Jewish Community, Magda Shehata Haroun, talks during an interview with AFP at the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue in Cairo, also known as Temple Ismailia or Adly Synagogue in downtown Cairo on October 3, 2016. (Khaled Desouki/AFP)

CAIRO, Egypt (AFP) – 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 still 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 downtown Cairo, a bustling street lined with old hotels and shops leads to an imposing stone building modeled 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, remembers when its benches were filled with worshipers, including her late grandfather.

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.

The president of the Egyptian Jewish Community Magda Shehata Haroun, left, and her mother Marcelle Haroun, right, pose for a picture during an interview at their home in Cairo on February 11, 2017. (Khaled Desouki/AFP)
The president of the Egyptian Jewish Community Magda Shehata Haroun, left, and her mother Marcelle Haroun, right, pose for a picture during an interview at their home in Cairo on February 11, 2017. (Khaled Desouki/AFP)

“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 between 80,000 and 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.

Taboo

But 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 artifacts to be seen by the public, perhaps in a planned museum of Egyptian civilization.

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.

A picture taken on October 3, 2016 shows a general view of the interior of the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue in Cairo. (Khaled Desouki/AFP)
A picture taken on October 3, 2016 shows a general view of the interior of the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue in Cairo. (Khaled Desouki/AFP)

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

The Egyptian civilization museum partially opened in February with a small exhibition but there are no definite plans as yet for displaying Jewish artifacts in it.

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

But 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 AFP.

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

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