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January 15, 2020 9:41 am

In Arab Countries, Restoring Synagogues Means Never Saying Sorry for Past Crimes

avatar by Lyn Julius / JNS.org


The interior of the Eliyahu HaNavi synagogue in Alexandria, Egypt. Photo: World Monuments Fund.

JNS.orgLast week, to much fanfare, the largest synagogue in the Middle East was reopened in Alexandria, Egypt. Some 300 guests, including Egyptian Antiquities and Tourism Minister Khaled al-Anany, were on hand for the festive occasion.

The event made headlines from the United Kingdom to China — but only The Jerusalem Post pointed out that just three Jews were in attendance.

According to reports, only a handful of Jews now live in a country which once boasted 80,000–100,000. (Israeli diplomats and Egyptian-born Jews living outside the country are planning their own celebration next month, but these visitors will be returning to their homes in Israel, Europe, and the United States after the party.)

The Eliyahu HaNavi synagogue will never again host Jewish weddings or bar mitzvahs, nor will it ever muster a minyan. It will be no more than a museum to an extinct community, and a perfunctory tourist stop.

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The media coverage of the event was typical of a trend hailing the restoration of Jewish buildings in countries with no more than a handful of Jews as somehow indicative of pluralism and tolerance in the Arab world. Even Jews fall for the fantasy, grateful for the slightest acknowledgement that members of the Tribe once lived in these countries.

“I’m very proud of what my country has done, and it symbolizes living together — today there is no difference between Egyptian Muslim, Christian, and Egyptian Jew,” gushed Magda Haroun, leader of the Cairo “community” of two Jews. “It is recognition that we have always been here and that we have contributed to a lot of things, just like any other Egyptians.”

No journalist covering the restoration story bothered to ask why a once-glorious community has been reduced to a handful of souls in Cairo and Alexandria, the youngest of whom (Magda herself) is reportedly 67.

“Nearly all left after the founding of Israel in 1948 and during subsequent conflicts between the two countries,” The London Times reported. (Yet Egypt also divested itself of other non-Egyptians: Greeks, Italians, Maltese, and Armenians.)

Not a word about the proximate causes of the Jewish exodus: bombings of Cairo’s Jewish quarter, overnight expulsions, months and years spent in putrid jails for no other crime than being Jewish, torture and reported rape of Jews taken prisoner in 1967 as “Israeli POWs.”

The Egyptian restorers did a magnificent job at Eliyahu HaNavi, even laying a glass floor over the remains of an earlier synagogue they discovered during their work. The Antiquities and Tourism Ministry undertook the $4 million project following the collapse of part of the women’s gallery and a staircase three years ago.

Recently, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi declared his intention to spend $71 million on restoring Jewish sites, but the brief was hurriedly redefined to incorporate the repair of Coptic, Islamic, Pharaonic, and Roman as well as Jewish sites, lest anyone ask why so many of this country’s scarce resources were funneled into preserving the heritage of its erstwhile enemies.

It is surely better to preserve Jewish heritage sites in Arab lands than to let them crumble into disuse or be converted to other purposes, as has happened right across the Arab world. But el-Sisi wants to show he is in control. He turned down outside offers of help and funding from Jewish individuals and organizations. If Jews come back to live in Egypt, he has promised, Egypt will build synagogues for them.

Jewish communal property in Egypt is viewed as part of the national heritage. The Egyptian government alone is responsible for it, as it is for for the preservation of Tutankhamen’s tomb. No longer will Jews have any input, and Egypt’s last links with its exiled Jews will be severed. This policy of nationalization extends to the creeping appropriation of movable property over a century old, such as Torah scrolls and libraries. These are now being registered as “protected.”

But no Jewish scribe or archivist remains in Egypt to curate and maintain these treasures. Most galling of all, the communal records, essential to establishing a Jew’s identity wherever he may be in the world, have been declared antiquities. They remain out of reach, and Egyptian Jews are not even able to get photocopies.

Four million dollars is a small price to pay for ethnic cleansing. There is never any need to apologize. Restore a few buildings abandoned by their owners, and pocket the tourist revenues. It’s a win-win situation.

Lyn Julius is the author of Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight (Vallentine Mitchell, 2018).

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