Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

A Monumental Test for Egypt

December 31, 2012 8:18 pm 2 comments

The monument of Rabbi Ya'akov Abuhatzera. Photo: Diarna.

The first big test of how Egypt’s precarious new government is going to deal with Jews will take place at a little-noticed event next month, when pilgrims from around the world traditionally gather at the shrine of a Moroccan mystic buried in the Nile Delta.

A few crumbling sarcophagi—and a contingent of Egyptian security officers—surround the monument of Rabbi Ya’akov Abuhatzera, on the outskirts of the town of Damanhur. The structure is a renovated version of the original domed building, whose red stone may be seen through cracks in the yellow plaster overlay.

Within the shrine’s single room lies the rabbi’s tombstone with its Aramaic epitaph. The space is pervaded by the smell of hay hanging from the chandelier and scattered about the floor, suggesting that the shrine may at times be repurposed by local farmers.

The festival marking the anniversary of the rabbi’s death is the only commemoration dedicated to a Jewish figure in Egypt. For the past decade, a coalition of Islamists and leftists led a campaign to ban Jews from the shrine. In 2004, an Egyptian court revoked the site’s historical designation, and in 2009, the pilgrimage was restricted. Last year it was canceled, and 25 terrorists allegedly plotting to attack pilgrims were arrested.

The tomb of Rabbi Ya'akov Abuhatzera. Photo: Diarna.

Lost amidst the controversy over access are the monument’s occupant – and his famous grandson. Ya’akov Abuhatzera, known as Abir Ya’akov (“Prince Jacob”), was born in Morocco’s southeast Tafilalet region early in the 19th century. Abir Ya’akov is credited with building a following on the edge of the Sahara through his ascetic practices, communal leadership, and authorship of mystical texts. Apparently sensing his own mortality, he set out at an advanced age on a trek across the Maghreb towards Jerusalem.

En route, he reached Damanhur, south of Alexandria. The city’s embattled Jewish community had endured a succession of pogroms in the 1870s over false accusations of ritual murder, reverberations of the Damascus blood libel. During his stay, the rabbi emerged as a figure revered not only by Jews but also Muslims, who deemed him a wali, or holy man. After he died of illness on January 4, 1880, his shrine soon became a pilgrimage destination for Muslim as well as Jewish Egyptians.

Ya’akov’s grandson, Yisrael Abuhatzeira—known as the Baba Sali, or “Praying Father”—augmented his family’s spiritual patrimony with an austere piety that distinguished him even within the universe of Moroccan “saints.” With no publications to his name, he led an obscure existence in the labyrinthine Jewish quarter of Rissani, Morocco, until settling in the 1950s in the southern Israeli town of Netivot (until recently a regular target of rocket fire from Gaza). So great was the Baba Sali’s subsequent fame that today in many Jewish communities his visage vies for ubiquity with that of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe.

For decades, due to restrictions imposed under Gamal Abdel Nasser, the historic pilgrimage to Damanhur was blocked. Those seeking to celebrate the anniversary of Abir Ya’akov’s death had to do so remotely, often at his grandson’s compound in Netivot.  Peace between Israel and Egypt re-opened the shrine to visitors. Suddenly, Jewish pilgrims to Damanhur were able to enter the actual place of burial to celebrate a festive meal, sing songs of praise, and light devotional candles. Kissing the tomb, some would place atop the gravestone a bottle of water in the belief that the rabbi’s sanctity might be transferred to whoever subsequently imbibed the liquid.

More recently, the shrine’s around-the-clock security detail has been known to subject visitors to intense scrutiny. Several years ago, photographer Joshua Shamsi went with a friend to document the site for Diarna, an online museum that digitally preserves Middle Eastern Jewish heritage sites. The pair was detoured to the local police station for hours of interrogation before being rushed back to the rabbi’s grave. Allowed inside for all of ten minutes (long enough to document the haunting setting in stark photos), they were then conveyed to Alexandria by military escort.

In the years before the 2011 cancellation, activists had organized mass demonstrations against the pilgrimage. They lodged court cases, called for stones to be thrown at pilgrims, and threatened to kill Jewish visitors. Indeed, though the shrine is one of the holiest sites for Moroccan and Egyptian Jews, many Egyptians view the pilgrimage as an unwelcome vestige of the Camp David Accords.

With the annual January pilgrimage just days away, the looming question is what Egypt’s new Islamist leadership will decide? On the one hand, the governing Freedom and Justice Party is, according to its election platform, pledged to support the “spread of moderation and renunciation of violence and sectarianism.” On the other hand, President Morsi’s recent “amen“ to a prayer for the destruction of the Jews augurs ill for freedom of religion in Egypt. The ruling Islamists are fighting to enshrine a controversial new constitution, which claims to recognize the religious freedom of Egyptian Jews. A decision to block the annual January pilgrimage to Damanhur will foreshadow the regime’s true sentiments.

All the while, the mystical Moroccan rabbi still lies buried in a small Nile Delta cemetery, denied visitors yet surrounded by armed guards. The only safe and sure way to visit him is a virtual pilgrimage via the Diarna online museum. There, visitors of all creeds are welcome any time.

Mr. Guberman-Pfeffer is a Tikvah Fellow, and curates Diarna.org, a geo-museum dedicated to Middle Eastern Jewish life.

2 Comments

  • Muslims have failed the tolerance test everytime they have taken it..starting in 627 when Muhammad ordered the decapitation of 900 unarmed Jews at Quarayza….Muslims celebrate Quarayza just as National Socialists celebrate Auschwitz…As Winston Churchill wisely wrote in 1948 in THE GATHERING STORM : MEIN KAMPF was the new KORAN..There was no tolerance at Auschwitz….there was no tolerance at Quarayza…case closed.

  • As they say…..”those who forget history are condemned to repeat it”

    Let this weigh doubly so for the Jews and those who seek their subjugation or annihilation…..and Morsi seeks exactly that.

    Never ever turn your back on the Ickwan….ever.

    Regards, Don Laird
    Edson, Alberta, Canada

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Blogs Sports Two Decades Before Cleveland’s First NBA Title, LeBron James Walked Onto a JCC Court

    Two Decades Before Cleveland’s First NBA Title, LeBron James Walked Onto a JCC Court

    JNS.org – The seed for the city of Cleveland’s first professional championship in a major sport in 52 years may have been planted at the Shaw Jewish Community Center on White Pond Drive in Akron, Ohio, nearly 20 years ago. That’s when a tall, lanky kid from Akron named LeBron James walked onto the hardwood court and changed the game of basketball forever. Coach Keith Dambrot, now the head basketball coach at the University of Akron, conducted those sessions that attracted […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs North American Studios Look to Israel for Next Animation Hit

    North American Studios Look to Israel for Next Animation Hit

    JNS.org – In 2008, Yoram Honig was a producer and director living in Jerusalem, fresh off his first international hit, when the Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA) came to him with a challenge: build a film industry from scratch in Israel’s capital. “When we started here, was nothing in Jerusalem,” he said during an interview in his office in the Talbiya neighborhood. Now, the Jerusalem Film and Television Fund, which Honig heads as an arm of the JDA, pumps 9 million shekels […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Sports Olympic Gold Medalist Gabby Douglas to Wear Leotard With Hebrew Letters in National Competition

    Olympic Gold Medalist Gabby Douglas to Wear Leotard With Hebrew Letters in National Competition

    Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas will wear a leotard bearing Hebrew lettering when she competes at the P&G Gymnastics Championships over the weekend. Douglas’ Swarovski-outlined outfit will feature the Hebrew word “Elohim,” meaning God, on its left sleeve. The Hebrew detailing honors the athlete’s “rich heritage of faith,” according to apparel manufacturer GK Elite, which produced the leotard and released a preview of it on Wednesday. The company said Douglas’ sister, Joyelle “Joy” Douglas, created the Hebrew design. The outcome of the P&G Championships will help […]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports British World Heavyweight Champion Should Be Banned From Boxing for Sounding Like Hitler, Says Ukrainian Competitor

    British World Heavyweight Champion Should Be Banned From Boxing for Sounding Like Hitler, Says Ukrainian Competitor

    Britain’s world heavyweight champion, Taylor Fury, should be banned from boxing for making Nazi-like comments, a former world champion from the Ukraine said on Thursday, ahead of their upcoming match. “I was in shock at his statements about women, the gay community, and when he got to the Jewish people, he sounded like Hitler,” Wladimir Klitschko told British media, according to Reuters. “We cannot have a champion like that. Either he needs to be shut up or shut down in the ring, or […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Rabbi Shows Cooking Skills and Humor on Chopped

    Rabbi Shows Cooking Skills and Humor on Chopped

    Rabbi Hanoch Hecht just made television history; but, unfortunately, he couldn’t have his rugelach and eat it too. Hecht became the first rabbi to compete on the hit show “Chopped,” where contestants are forced to use four random ingredients in their recipes, and have 20-30 minutes to create an appetizer, a main course and a dessert. A contestant is eliminated after each round. Hecht, 32, said that while the dishes and utensils were new, the kitchen was not kosher, so he couldn’t taste […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Music Orthodox Entertainer Stars in Pepsi Max Commercial as New Face of Company’s Israel Campaign (VIDEO)

    Orthodox Entertainer Stars in Pepsi Max Commercial as New Face of Company’s Israel Campaign (VIDEO)

    Orthodox singer and entertainer Lipa Schmeltzer is starring in a new Pepsi Max commercial for the company’s campaign in Israel. The commercial begins with a bunch of Jewish men eating at a restaurant, when Schmeltzer walks in and tries to decide what to order. An employee at the obviously Israeli eatery offers him a variety of foods, but the entertainer in the end decides on a bottle of Pepsi. Everyone in the restaurant then joins him, drinking Pepsi Max and dancing to […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Book Reviews Jewish Author’s ‘Messy’ Draft Transforms Into Rock Star Novel on Amazon

    Jewish Author’s ‘Messy’ Draft Transforms Into Rock Star Novel on Amazon

    JNS.org – “Writing is a messy process,” says author Elizabeth Poliner. “People who don’t write fiction would be surprised to see what early drafts could look like.” But readers wouldn’t know “what a mess it was for the longest time,” as the Jewish author puts it, when reading Poliner’s critically acclaimed latest book, As Close to Us as Breathing. The volume garnered Amazon’s “Best Book” designation in March 2016 as well as rave reviews from the New York Times,W Magazine, NPR, […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Sundance Tour Features Short Film About Elderly Jewish Woman’s Decision to Eat Bacon for First Time

    Sundance Tour Features Short Film About Elderly Jewish Woman’s Decision to Eat Bacon for First Time

    The Sundance Film Festival Short Film Tour, which started on Friday in New York City, features a mini-documentary about an elderly Jewish woman whose journey away from Orthodoxy leads her to taste forbidden food for the first time in her life. In Canadian director Sol Friedman’s Bacon & God’s Wrath, Razie Brownstone talks about ending her lifelong observance of keeping kosher as her 90th birthday approaches. The recently declared atheist said the discovery of the search engine Google spurred a lapse in her Jewish faith and made her decide to […]

    Read more →