Egypt: Politics of Jewish preservation

The New York Times reported on Egypt’s foray into its Jewish past.

In its “Cairo Journal” section, reporter Michael Slackman offered a different view of the ongoing renovation, restoration and preservation projects relating to Egypt’s Jewish history and community.

Slackman writes that Egyptians generally don’t make distinctions between Jewish people and Israelis. They are both seen as the enemy.

Tracing the Tribe feels that despite the politics that might be advancing these projects, the possibility that genealogical and community records may be finally made accessible to those who have been clamoring for them for decades, and the preservation of Jewish heritage, it’s all worth it.

Perhaps the true worth of these projects is not why these things in Egypt are being done – to possibly serve political ends – but the end result itself.

One could even liken it to the Prague Jewish Museum which began life as a supposed collection of artifacts representing a dead people, according to Nazis. When so much else was destroyed, that collection was preserved and commemorates a people who survived despite the tragedy and murder of millions.

However, the question also arises of what happens to these projects if Hosny is passed over as UNESCO head? Tracing the Tribe will continue to watch the situation closely.

According to the story, an Old Cairo kiosk snack-seller, Kahlid Badr, 40, whose views are pretty typical, has recently had his ideas challenged.

But Mr. Badr’s ideas have recently been challenged. He has had to confront the reality that his neighborhood was once filled with Jews — Egyptian Jews — and that his nation’s history is interwoven with Jewish history. Not far from his shop, down another narrow, winding alley once called the Alley of the Jews, the government is busy renovating an abandoned, dilapidated synagogue.

In fact, the government is not just renovating the crumbling, flooded old building. It is publicly embracing its Jewish past — not the kind of thing you ordinarily hear from Egyptian officials.

“If you don’t restore the Jewish synagogues, you lose a part of your history,” said Zahi Hawass, general secretary of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, who in the past has written negatively about Jews because of the clash between Israel and the Palestinians. “It is part of our heritage.”

Egypt has slowly, quietly been working to restore its synagogues for several years. It has completed two projects and plans to restore about eight more. But because of the perception on the street — the anger toward Israel and the deep, widespread anti-Semitism — the government initially insisted that its activities remain secret.

American Jewish Committee director of international Jewish affairs Rabbi Andrew Baker said they were told the Egyptian government was doing these things but to keep it secret. This is opposite to Eastern Europe, where the governments shout these projects aloud to try to change the old picture.

The answer is not street politics, but global politics according to Slackman, and chalks it up to the fact that Egyptian minister of culture Farouk Hosny wants to be UNESCO’s next director general. Hosney is 71, considered liberal, and has criticized women wearing head scarves. However, in 2008, he also told his local supporters that he burn any Israeli book found in the Alexandria library, even though he apologized.

After a year, work began in June 2009 inside an old synagogue around the corner from Badr’s kiosk. It is a historic place, named after Moses Maimonides (physician and scholar Rabbi Moses ben Maimon) who was born in Cordoba, Spain in 1135, and then moved to Alexandria and Cairo, working and studying in the temple until his death. Supposedly it was last used in 1960 and some say the work was ordered to quiet Hosny’s detractors.

“The irony is they have done something,” Rabbi Baker said. “It goes back at least several years now. They didn’t want to do it in a formal relationship with us. They said, ‘We accept this as our responsibility to care for our Jewish heritage, so we will do things ourselves.’”

The claim that what they are now undertaking is not for the Jews per se, but for their own heritage.

The story goes on to detail Egyptian Jewish history and the words of those who moved as young children to the neighborhood, touching on Israeli history and more. From the Jewish standpoint, there are very few Jews – Baker says fewer than 80 – left in Egypt and preservation projects are even more important.

Some area residents, says Slackman, have begun to see beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is a good thing.

Read the complete article at the link above for much more.

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