The Egyptian government had hoped that the rededication ceremony for the restored Maimonides synagogue, attended by Jews and Israelis, would have been kept private. As soon as the news of the proceedings reached the international media, Egypt found the embarrassment of their association with a Jewish project too much to bear. Former Israeli ambassador to Egypt Zvi Mazel writes:
Altogether 150 people attended the ceremony, among them Itzhak Lebanon, ambassador of Israel, and Margaret Scobey, the American ambassador, as well as a representative of the Spanish Foreign Ministry who read a message from Miguel Moratinos, who heads Casa de Sefarad, a cultural project concerned with Judeo-Spanish culture, history and tradition – after all the Rambam was born in Cordoba. Speeches were short and non-political; repeated thanks were addressed to the Department of Antiquities and the Ministry of Culture, whose heads were conspicuously absent. The rabbis, who had arrived on the morning flight from Israel and were to return late in the evening, prayed, sang and danced with their usual gusto, urging all present to join them in drinking small cupfuls of vodka. At the end all rose and recited the Shema.
Visitors lingered a little longer. For many, being in the very place the Rambam had taught and prayed was a moving experience. All left with the feeling of having taken part in a very special event.
Meanwhile, the Egyptians who had hoped that the ceremony could be held under wraps were in for a rude awakening. Some of the guests had given interviews to various media in the course of the event. Not many hours lapsed before a video was aired on CNN, and later on the news on Israel’s Channel 2; the Chabad Web site published dozens of photos.
The press in Cairo reacted angrily. Articles and editorials found fault with the presence of the Israeli ambassador, simultaneously bemoaning the amount of money squandered on restoring a Jewish site and declaring the fact that it was a purely Egyptian monument.
Zaki Hawas, head of the Antiquities Department, waded into the fray and declared that “‘Ben Maimon’ would not be handed over to the Jews” and that special measures would be taken to prevent Israelis from visiting in order not to offend Egyptian feelings, in view of the Israeli government’s position on the “Ibrahimi Mosque,” the name given by the Muslim to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. He added that he had been surprised by the large scale of the event, the participation of the Israeli ambassador and the fact that alcoholic drinks had been imbibed. Therefore, he said, he had taken the decision to cancel the grand opening planned for March 14.
While it would be difficult to see the logic of his arguments, there is no doubt but that he had little choice in the matter. Celebrating the renovation of what is universally known as a Jewish site without any Jewish presence would have given rise to justified criticism. The minister of culture himself said more reasonably that there would be no point in a new event since the dedicationceremony had already been held by the Jewish community.
Thus did Egypt miss a perfect opportunity to show the world that it was an open and tolerant country while reaping political and economic benefits. It chose instead to denigrate the simple and moving ceremony in order to use it as a tool to condemn Israel. True, the ancient yeshiva and the synagogue have been beautifully restored and will stand testimony to the life and work of the Rambam. Yet there is a lingering bitter taste.
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Egypt finds excuse to cancel Maimonides ceremony