Egypt ban on Jewish pilgrims followed years of dwindling attendance
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Egypt ban on Jewish pilgrims followed years of dwindling attendance

Fears over security and bureaucratic hurdles have kept Israelis and other Jews away from festival at Rabbi Yaakov Abuhatzeira’s grave in Nile delta

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Worshipers pray the the tomb of Rabbi Israel Abuhatzeira, known as the Baba Sali, in Netivot, January 22, 2007 (photo credit: Almog Sugavker/Flash90)
Worshipers pray the the tomb of Rabbi Israel Abuhatzeira, known as the Baba Sali, in Netivot, January 22, 2007 (photo credit: Almog Sugavker/Flash90)

Responding to an Egyptian court decision banning an annual Jewish festival in honor of Moroccan Rabbi Yaakov Abuhatzeira, a descendant of the rabbi told The Times of Israel Tuesday that Jews have been avoiding the event in northern Egypt for years over security concerns.

On Monday, the Administrative Court of Alexandria banned the annual festivities, previously attended by hundreds of Jews at Abuhatzeira’s gravesite in the Nile Delta city of Damanhur, where the rabbi was buried in 1879 en route to the Land of Israel.

Local residents in Damanhur had complained of alcohol consumption, mingling of men and women, and strict security measures disrupting their normal daily lives at the site, which was declared an Egyptian cultural monument by the Culture Ministry in 2001.

Born in the Sahara oasis of Tafilalt in 1805, Abuhatzeira, known also as Abir Yaakov, was a renowned kabbalist and Jewish scholar.

The grave site of his grandson, Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira — known as Baba Sali — in Netivot is one of Israel’s most visited Jewish holy sites.

But Yaakov Yehudayoff, a descendant of Abuhatzeira’s who had been organizing Israeli group travel to the site since 1989, said that Egypt has become too dangerous for Israelis and Jews in the aftermath of the popular uprisings in the country, commonly referred to as the Arab Spring.

“This year the Egyptian embassy [in Tel Aviv] gave out visas, but I didn’t consider going,” Yehudayoff said. “The consulate would either hold the visas until the last minute, or reject applications for the festivities, saying that Cairo did not agree.”

“One isn’t [religiously] permitted to go to a dangerous place,” he added. “The city of Damanhur is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and is very hostile. There’s no point in going.”

In December 2010, the last time a large group of 550 Israelis traveled to Egypt, they were met with signs reading “death to the Jews.”

Egypt’s Nasserist party launched a campaign titled “You shall not pass on my land,” calling on the government to disallow any “Zionist” presence in Egypt.

The group visits in Egypt were always heavily guarded by Egyptian security, Yehudayoff recalled, noting that in some cases the Israelis were asked not to travel to certain sites.

‘In the early years, the Egyptian consulate would just wait for us to bring our passports for approval. But from year to year it became increasingly difficult to deal with them’

“Last time we went, there were literally battalions of Egyptian army and police,” he said.

“In the early years, the Egyptian consulate would just wait for us to bring our passports for approval. But from year to year it became increasingly difficult to deal with them. In recent years they would interrogate us, ask for lists of names, and finally provide the visas a day or two before the trip. They made it very difficult to visit the gravesite.”

Emanuel Nahshon, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, told The Times of Israel that his office is “studying the Egyptian ruling, and hoping that Egypt continues to allow freedom of worship as it has in the past.”

Official Israel is hoping that the government of Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, considered more sympathetic to the Jewish state than its Muslim Brotherhood predecessor, will overturn the decision of the local administrative court.

The annual celebrations were meant to take place on January 9, 2015. But Yehudayoff said he has recommended Jews inquiring about travel to stay away.

“People just called me from Paris, asking where the key [to the site] is. I told them I suggest they don’t go,” he said.

Yehudayoff said it’s frustrating to be barred from a holy site, where the prayers of believers are reputed to be miraculously answered.

“It’s well known that holy places that work miracles are difficult to get to,” he said.

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