A bittersweet homecoming for Egypt’s Jews

  • >>Declan Walsh and Ronen Bergman, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-02-23 11:24:38 BdST

bdnews24
Doris Wolanski, now 71, shows a photo of herself as a child with her mother on the balcony of their apartment in Cairo during her recent return to the city, Feb 17, 2020. Egypt’s Jewish community, which at its peak numbered 80,000, before they were pressured to leave during the Arab-Israeli wars of the 1950s and 1960s, is now racing toward extinction. (Sima Diab/The New York Times)

Clutching a decades-old black-and-white photo, Doris Wolanski directed a vehicle through Cairo’s chaotic traffic, her gaze trained on the street corners, in search of rue du Metro.

The photo showed an 8-year-old girl and her mother on a balcony overlooking a wide, deserted boulevard. The girl was Wolanski, now 71; the apartment was her Jewish family’s home until they were expelled from Egypt in 1956, during the Suez crisis. Now she was trying to find it again.

The address wasn’t much help — rue du Metro had been renamed — but she hoped that details on the photo might lead her home. Spotting a familiar landmark, she filled with anxious anticipation.

“My stomach is churning. It really is,” she said. “I’m back to that little girl of 8 with my uniform, two pom-poms and a hat. It’s a very strange feeling.”

Wolanski’s mission was part of a much larger homecoming for Egypt’s Jewish community, which at its peak numbered 80,000 and is now racing toward extinction.

Last weekend, 180 Jews from Europe, Israel and the United States travelled to the city of Alexandria on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast to attend religious ceremonies at a historic synagogue that was rescued from ruin. It was the largest such gathering of Jews in Egypt since they were pressured to leave during the Arab-Israeli wars of the 1950s and 1960s.

Egypt’s government paid for the $4 million synagogue renovation — part of a long-standing drive to rescue the country’s crumbling Jewish heritage which President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has stepped up.

Last year, el-Sissi ordered the renovation of a badly dilapidated Jewish cemetery which is one of the oldest in the world.

And he supported a scholarship project, run with the help of an Israeli scholar, that uncovered a rare, 1,000-year-old Hebrew Bible.

But el-Sissi’s embrace of Egyptian Jews is also awkward and laced with contradictions. The visit of 180 Jews took place under a news media blackout, with no coverage in Egyptian outlets, and amid iron-tight security by Egyptian officials who at times outnumbered their visitors.

Although el-Sissi paints himself as a moderate, he has done little to counteract anti-Semitism in Egyptian society, where Jews are often conflated with Israel, and where many young Egyptians know little of their country’s Jewish past — and how it ended.

“I’m full of questions,” said Philippe Ismalun, who fled Egypt after his father was arrested during the 1967 Middle East war. “After so many years of Jews being told that Egypt is not their country, not their home, it was puzzling to see the government spend so much money and effort on renovating the synagogue.”

In part, the answer is politics.

Perhaps 16 Egyptian Jews remain in Egypt — six in Cairo and another 10 in Alexandria, mostly in their 70s and 80s, according to community leaders in both cities. The government says it is rescuing their synagogues and cemeteries so Jewish heritage can take its rightful place alongside Egypt’s Pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic civilisations.

“It’s a message for Egyptians that we lived in a unique diversity — Jews, Christians, everyone — for millenniums,” Khaled el-Anany, Egypt’s minister for antiquities and tourism, said in an interview.

For el-Sissi, though, the good works also cement his foreign alliances. In recent years, Egypt has quietly allied with Israel to carry out secret airstrikes against the Islamic State in Sinai. El-Sissi’s officials were muted in their criticism of President Donald Trump’s contentious plan to resolve the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

Since Trump came to power in 2016, el-Sissi has hosted at least 10 delegations of American Jewish leaders at his presidential palace, apparently viewing them as a vehicle to leverage influence in Washington.

Last February, one of those delegations appealed for his help in saving Cairo’s Jewish cemetery, which had fallen into a woeful state.

Squatters had encroached on the ninth-century cemetery, building houses and stealing its marble tombstones. Sewage pooled in corners, goats roamed between graves, and garbage was piled high in places.

Local criminals used the cemetery as a place to deal drugs or burn the rubber coating from stolen electrical cables, said Magda Haroun, the head of Cairo’s half-dozen strong Jewish community.

“It was in a terrible shape,” said Haroun, 67, whose sister’s grave lies beneath a squatter’s house.

A cleanup started within hours of el-Sissi’s meeting with the American group, she said. It has been continued by A Drop of Milk — an old Jewish welfare organisation now dedicated to rescuing Jewish heritage and composed mostly of Christian and Muslim volunteers.

“We’ve removed tons and tons of rubbish,” she said. “But there’s much more to be done.”

For many of the Jews who returned to Alexandria last weekend, the Shabbat service at the renovated Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue, an imposing neo-Classical structure that officially reopened in January, was an emotional moment.

A cavernous ark holds dozens of Torah scrolls collected from Alexandria’s other synagogues that have been sold to developers. Heavy wooden pews gleam with brass plaques bearing the names of Jewish families since scattered across the world.

Ismalun, who lives in Switzerland, brought along the kipa he wore as a child for his bar mitzvah in the same synagogue.

“It was very moving,” he said.

Yet many could not fail to notice that the news media had been barred from the event and that not a single Egyptian government official had come along. Many said they felt isolated, and it raised a broader question about whether el-Sissi would allow ordinary Egyptians access to the synagogue that his government had so lavishly restored.

“The Egyptian attitude is between ambivalent and schizophrenic,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker of the American Jewish Committee, who noted that he also attended the reopening of a Cairo synagogue 10 years ago, under President Hosni Mubarak, which took place in similarly veiled conditions.

At the same time, there are signs of changing attitudes.

Documentaries about the last Egyptian Jews have received a warm reception from young Egyptians eager to know more. And the government authorised an Israeli scholar, professor Yoram Meital of Ben Gurion University, to help A Drop of Milk catalog thousands of Jewish scrolls and other relics in Cairo’s shuttered synagogues.

Two years ago, that led them to a goatskin parchment in the back of a closet — a handwritten document, dating from 1028, that covers the third part of the Hebrew Bible and is among the oldest copies of the Bible ever found.

“Many people think the final chapter on the Jewish community of Egypt has been written,” Meital said in an interview. “I believe the opposite is true — that its heritage has a future that is beginning now.”

Wolanski, driving around the Cairo district of Heliopolis with her husband and two sons, beamed with delight when she found her old school, St. Clare’s, where she had once been taught by Catholic nuns.

Later she posed for a photo outside a nearby synagogue where her father prayed, as armed policemen looked on.

But she couldn’t find rue du Metro, or her old apartment. She would save it for next time, she said, “when I come back with my grandchildren.”

© The New York Times