Monday, 15 March 2010


The Synagogue of Maimonides - another episode in the murky waters of "être juif" in Egypt

  • Monday, 15 March 2010
  • Fouad GM
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  • During my two-week stay in Cairo earlier this year I came across a newspaper interview with the de facto leader of the Egyptian Jewish Community in Alexandria, Youssed Ben Gadeoun. In the interview, Ben Gadeoun appeared to be struggling between the community's interest-driven attempts to define itself as Egyptian-and-only-Egyptian and the community's security-driven attempts to associate with the Jewish World, or world Jewry - including neighbouring Israel. However, and in a fairly unusual manner, Ben Gadeoun admitted that the Alexandrian Jewish Community imports worshippers to achieve the quorum needed for prayer as well as rabbis to lead it.

    This was just shy of a month ago. Today, the same newspaper ran two articles about the newly-restored Synagogue of Maimonides in the former Jewish Quarter in Cairo, Haret El-Yahud. This time, Al-Masry Al-Youm expressed many people's feelings of dismay at the celebration that took place in the centuries-old synagogue by Israeli diplomats and Israeli rabbis invited by the local Jewish Community.

    The first article reported the ceremony that took place on March 7 and expressed outrage at the "kidnapping" of Arabo-Islamic history and Egypt's heritage in the name of Judaism. Mohammed Aboud wrote in protest, "Egypt owns in the renowned genius of Maimonides more than Israel [...] Egypt's owns in Judaism itself more than Israel [...] for it was in Egypt that Judaism took its first steps with the life of Mosses in the Court of the Pharoah and the influence of the Ancient Egyptian civilisation upon him reflecting upon his leadership of the Israelites, the structure of the Temple in Jerusalem as well as in the resemblance between the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Psalms of the Hebrew Bible." The article came accompanied with a video of the celebration taken from Israeli Channel 2 showing the rabbis praying, dancing and celebrating.

    Outrage soon departed from the logical arguments of cultural imposition and the hijacking of Judaism and Jewish heritage by the Zionist movement and the State of Israel and took a moral dimension: they showed no respect to Egyptians as they drank alcohol and danced, he wrote (not directly quoting). Aboud did, to his justice, mention that alcohol is not prohibited in Jewish law but what he probably doesn't know is that dancing is all but forbidden in Jewish celebratory prayer - from the weekly Shabbat prayers on Saturday afternoons to larger events, Jewish music and dancing is encouraged and was not made up for the purpose of offending Egyptians or insulting anyone.

    What caught my attention though, was his very understandable anger at the Egyptian Jewish Community. "[the colonial project] Israel has alleged and forged mythical relations between itself and Arab lands in the name of Jewish heritage and is claiming guardianship of the synagogue today through the so-called Jewish Community." Aboud then expresses outrage at Karmen Weinstein, head of the Egyptian Jewish Community, for "allowing herself to extend invitations to current and former Israeli ambassadors while excluding the Egyptian citizen who protected the synagogue since the 12th century until its restoration recently."

    Egyptian officials, under whose auspices the synagogue was restored, cancelled the official opening ceremony that had been planned. Each expressed a different reason - perhaps a confused reaction to the surprise Israeli-Jewish celebration on March 7. The second piece published today by Al-Masry Al-Youm addressing the Synagogue of Maimonides portrayed this confused official reaction as Mohammed Aboud and Fathiyeh Dakhakhni report.

    According to Farouk Hosni, Minister of Culture, considered it a "gesture", an "overture". For him, "we restored the synagogue [...] leaving the opening ceremony to them was a gesture, a message that we are not against Judaism, but against Israeli policies."

    Zahy Hawwas, the second man in the hierarchy of cultural projects, restoration and preservation of Egypt's antiquities, had a different opinion. For him, "the cancellation of the official opening came in protest to Israel's policies and its annexation of the Abrahamic Sanctuary in Hebron into Jewish heritage." Hawwas announced that Egyptian authorities will deny the Egyptian Jewish Community control over the synagogue until Tel Aviv retracts from its decision to annex the Abrahamic Sanctuary in Hebron - a step which came in denial of the shared Islamic-Jewish control and celebration of the sanctuary built on the Cave of the Patriarchs.

    To me, it seems like the Egyptian Jewish Community has once again found itself victim to the uneasy balance it has tried to achieve since the creation of the State of Israel - on the one hand, the community aspires to convince Egyptians of its Egyptian-ness, while on the other hand, it finds itself a member of a larger international Jewish community which includes Israel. The community has therefore attracted the wrath many have towards Israeli policies worldwide. On the other hand, Egyptian officials themselves seem to be utterly confused and unsure about their attitude towards Israel and international Judaism. While some are keen on offering gestures of friendship and expressions of tolerance to the international Jewry, others see the latter directly or indirectly connected to Israel and its policies. Egyptian officials are also struggling between the desire to create spaces of inter-faith dialogue and toleration on the one hand, and the desire to hold ground (or pretend to hold ground) in the face of Israeli transgressions in Palestine.

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