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Fate Sealed for Egypt's Jews

Lee Smith

Outside of Israel, the Jewish community of Alexandria is perhaps the Mediterranean’s oldest, dating back to Alexander the Great’s founding of the city in 332 B.C. But this year, there may not even be High Holiday services at the city’s last remaining synagogue, Eliahou Hanabi, also known by its street address, Nabi Daniel.

The Egyptian press first reported that government authorities “ordered the cancellation” of this year’s Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur celebrations. But the synagogue’s caretaker, Youssef Gaon, explained that there would be services. “The only difference,” he said, “is a rabbi and cantor who usually lead the services were denied entry to the country.”

Apparently they were not granted visas for security reasons. That shouldn’t come as a surprise: The Muslim Brotherhood-led government is incapable of providing security for anyone—from ordinary Egyptians who have endured a crime wave of epic proportions since Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February 2011 to Americans based in our Cairo embassy, which is currently being mobbed by Islamists. Only a year ago this month, the Israeli embassy was also besieged; its staff was lucky to escape alive.

Given the small size of the city’s permanent Jewish community—according to one Egyptian paper, four men and 18 women, almost all of them between their 70s and 90s—these guests were crucial in order to create a prayer quorum. As the blogger Elder of Ziyon put it: “For the first time in some 2,000 years, Alexandria will not have a minyan.”

But while some see this episode as the end of Jewish life in Egypt, it is in fact the coda to a tragic story of what was once a thriving Jewish community in the Middle East—and for the past 50 years has existed primarily as a memorial to the past.

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Yves Salama, now an IT entrepreneur in New York, was born in Alexandria but left with his family in the middle of the 1967 war. He remembers his bar mitzvah at Nabi Daniel in 1963. “It was a beautiful synagogue, at its height. In 1956, there were maybe six synagogues open in Alexandria, but they were closed one by one, until only Nabi Daniel was left.”

Salama last visited Egypt five years ago to see his Uncle Max, who was the caretaker of the synagogue until his death in 2008. “My understanding,” Salama told me, “is that the celebrations during the High Holidays were largely a result of the Israeli consulate in Alexandria. Otherwise Nabi Daniel is more of a museum.”

The troubles for Alexandria’s Jews began in 1948. With the creation of the state of Israel, and the subsequent Arab-Israeli war, almost a quarter of Egyptian Jewry—around 80,000 people, concentrated mostly in Cairo and Alexandria—fled the country under severe pressure, many of them settling in Israel. After the Free Officers’ Revolution overthrew King Farouk in 1952, the new government made efforts to reach out to the Jewish community. But that posture changed when Gamal Nasser took control. After the 1956 Suez Crisis, Nasser expelled some 25,000 additional Jews. The 7,000 or so Jews who remained after 1967 were subject to arrest and more expulsions, until the community ceased to exist as anything but a relic.

So, who were the Jews that stayed? “I wondered about this for a long time,” said Lucette Lagnado, the author of two celebrated memoirs about her family’s expulsion from Cairo and their subsequent troubles, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit and The Arrogant Years. “The answer is that many of them are women who married Coptic Christians or Muslims and adopted those confessional identities. After their spouses died, they came out as Jews.”

Still, some who stayed didn’t marry out and remained publicly committed to their Judaism. Salama’s Uncle Max, for example, helped restore the Nabi Daniel synagogue, repairing its roof, entrance steps, and cemetery walls. Two things sustained Jewish worship and devotion in Egypt after the forced exodus: the efforts of Israel’s diplomatic corps in Egypt, and, much more important, the Egyptian government’s desire to show Washington that it took the Camp David accords seriously. The fact that Cairo is not offering any accommodations to Egypt’s tiny Jewish community in order to placate Washington this year augurs ill for future relations between Egypt and Israel, the state that absorbed the energies and talents of the Jews that the Arabs once envied and admired, but finally exiled.

Lagnado blames this turn for the worse on the revolution. Ever since the Tahrir Square protests began, Lagnado told me, “I’ve had a horrible knot in my stomach. It was clear quickly that Egypt was going to be led by a Muslim Brotherhood regime.”

Other Egyptians aren’t so sure that there’s been a big change in the public’s attitude toward Jews since current president Mohamed Morsi took power. “We are anti-Semitic; why should the president be less anti-Semitic?” Amr Bargisi, senior partner at the Egyptian Union for Liberal Youth, told me on the phone from Cairo.

Bargisi, a vocal critic of his countrymen’s anti-Semitism, believes that the fundamental issue predates the revolution. “There has long been an effort to efface all traces of Jewish life in Egypt.” He notes, for instance, that even when Mubarak was still in power, the 2010 reopening of the Maimonides synagogue in Cairo was not well received. “When the images hit the Egyptian press they showed that Jewish ceremonies weren’t grim—so Egyptians were unhappy.”

Bargisi’s colleague Samuel Tadros agrees that the mainstream of Egyptian society regarded Jewish rituals with suspicion long before the Brotherhood came to power. “There are two issues that stir the anger of the Egyptian public,” said Tadros, a fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. “The first is that there’s this popular Egyptian conception of what Jews do when they gather for celebrations—they drink, have sex, etc. The second is that Egyptians believe the Jews will use these festivities as a foothold to retake parts of Egypt.”

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There are good reasons for the Jewish state to miss Mubarak: He was attentive to the sensibilities of his superpower patron, Washington, which meant that he kept the peace with Israel. And while American policymakers did not often feel strongly enough to voice complaints about anti-Semitism to Egypt, when they did, the Mubarak regime walked it back. For instance, in the wake of the hateful 2002 Ramadan television serial Rider Without a Horse, Mubarak’s political adviser Osama el-Baz contributed a three-part series in one of the government’s official newspapers criticizing anti-Semitism.

Still, the Egyptians who lived under Mubarak’s decades-long reign were every bit as anti-Semitic as the electorate that brought Morsi to power. The difference is that Mubarak saw Jewish issues, Jewish artifacts, and synagogues as chips to be used in his bargaining with the United States. But this is the kind of balancing act between Washington, Cairo, and Jerusalem that sustained the peace treaty for more than 30 years. For in the end, it is not fear of Israel that will keep Egypt from waging war, but fear of what the Americans might do.

Morsi apparently doesn’t care about appeasing the Americans in this regard, and it seems that the White House is applying little pressure—even as it plans to provide Egypt with another $1 billion aid package. If the United States blinks when an Egyptian mob scales the walls of its embassy in Cairo on the anniversary of 9/11, there is little chance that the White House is going to stick its neck out for a handful of elderly Jews in Alexandria.

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