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.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Relationships Yossi Vardi Credits Pushy Jewish Mother for His Startup Success

    Yossi Vardi Credits Pushy Jewish Mother for His Startup Success

    Millionaire entrepreneur Yossi Vardi credited his success in start-ups to his Jewish mother continuously pushing him to do better, Daily Mail reported on Thursday. “Jewish mothers are never satisfied and nothing is ever good enough,” he said, adding that his mother, who died 15 years ago, used to compare him with his cousins and say he was “an idiot.” “For most of my life I have been trying to show her I’m not,” he continued. “I keep on trying even now.” Vardi, […]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada Seth Rogen Unveils New Christmas Movie — ‘Will Open on Thanksgiving, Made by Jews’ (VIDEO)

    Seth Rogen Unveils New Christmas Movie — ‘Will Open on Thanksgiving, Made by Jews’ (VIDEO)

    Famed actor Seth Rogen on Tuesday unveiled with typical comic fanfare the trailer for his new Christmas film. The movie “was made by Jews… and opens on Thanksgiving,” Rogen pointed out on Twitter. The Night Before tells the tale of three “ride or die homies” celebrating one last debauchery-filled Christmas Eve reunion before they become too busy to keep up their annual tradition. In an effort to make the night as memorable as possible, they set out to find the “Nutcracka Ball – the […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish History Art Can Inspire Faith; It Can Also Empower Destructive Ideologies

    Art Can Inspire Faith; It Can Also Empower Destructive Ideologies

    A June 2015 art exhibit, “The Transformative Power of Art,” at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, harnessed the universal language of art to convey an important message: “Our fragile Mother Earth faces the devastating consequences of climate change, a defining challenge of our time.” The exhibit also included sixteen portraits of people from all over the world who have “contributed to the common good of humanity in one way or another and have transformed the way we […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Sports Israeli Muslim Cage Fighter Says He’s Proud to Fight Under Jewish State’s Flag

    Israeli Muslim Cage Fighter Says He’s Proud to Fight Under Jewish State’s Flag

    A 32-year-old Circassian Israeli Muslim Mixed Martial Arts fighter from Abu Ghosh says he takes pride in fighting under the Israeli flag, Israel’s Walla reported on Sunday. Like most Circassian Israelis, Jackie “the Punishment” Gosh was born Sunni Muslim. He became observant about eight years ago, and is now scrupulous in following his religion’s tenets, praying five times a day and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. Gosh is also very proud of his Israeli nationality, and sees no contradiction between […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Music New Mark Skinner Documentary Explores Jewish, Arab Rap Scene in Israel (VIDEO)

    New Mark Skinner Documentary Explores Jewish, Arab Rap Scene in Israel (VIDEO)

    A new documentary explores the lives and work of Jewish and Arab rappers in Israel and how the ongoing conflict in the region has impacted their lyrics, the U.K.’s Jewish Chronicle reported on Thursday. Hip Hop in the Holy Land is a six-part series co-directed by Mike Skinner, the British frontman of hip-hop group The Streets, and produced by Noisey, a music channel published by Vice news. The first episode, published last week, shows Skinner meeting with Tamer Nafar, the founder of one of […]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada 49ers Running Back Jarryd Hayne Apologizes for ‘Hurtful’ Jesus Tweets

    49ers Running Back Jarryd Hayne Apologizes for ‘Hurtful’ Jesus Tweets

    New 49ers running back and Australian rugby star Jarryd Hayne apologized on Wednesday for a tweet in which he raised the age-old myth that Jews were historically responsible for Jesus Christ’s death. Reaching out to his Jewish fans, and the chairman of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission, Hayne tweeted: “To the Jewish community @DvirAbramovich #WeAreAllOne.” Underneath, he keenly included a screenshot of a text message to elaborate on his apology: “I sincerely apologize for my tweets on July 1. I […]

    Read more →
  • Theater Israeli Actress Gal Gadot Recalls Being ‘Extremely Surprised’ at Winning Miss Israel Contest

    Israeli Actress Gal Gadot Recalls Being ‘Extremely Surprised’ at Winning Miss Israel Contest

    Israeli actress Gal Gadot reminisced about her childhood in Israel during an interview published in this month’s edition of Vanity Fair. “I don’t remember this, but my mom told me that when I was three they threw a party on the rooftop of the house. They put me to bed, and I heard people coming into the house and no one came to me. I went to the rooftop and took a hose and I started to spray water on everyone, just […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Wounded Israeli Soldiers Unite With American Veterans to Help Their ‘Brothers for Life’ Heal (INTERVIEW)

    Wounded Israeli Soldiers Unite With American Veterans to Help Their ‘Brothers for Life’ Heal (INTERVIEW)

    An Israeli organization is helping wounded U.S. veterans move past their physical and psychological challenges by connecting them with injured Israeli soldiers who understand what they’ve been through. “What we discovered very early is that there’s no ‘professional, psychiatrist, social worker’ or anything like that [or] pills that can come even close to helping a soldier who fought in combat, who was wounded, who lost his friends. No one can help him like another person who’s been through exactly what he has,” Rabbi Chaim Levine, […]

    Read more →