Monday, October 26, 2009

Anti-Israelism clouds Egypt's view of Jewish past

Disinterest to outright hostility - that's the spectrum of interest in Egypt in its Jewish heritage, declares this disarmingly frank AP piece reprinted in Haaretz. How sad: (With thanks: bh, Lily)

The warren of slum alleys is called the Jews' Quarter, but no Jews live there. The ancient synagogue still stands, but its roof is gone. The government is renovating it, but is doing so at a moment when anti-Israel feeling is running especially high in Egypt.

The Ben Maimon synagogue exemplifies this country's conflicted relationship with its Jewish past.

The Jewish community that once flourished in the Arab world's most populous nation left behind physical traces ranging from grand temples in central Cairo and Alexandria to a holy man's humble grave in a Nile Delta village. But the modern-day Egyptian view of those relics lies within a narrow spectrum ranging from disinterest to outright hostility.

On a recent morning, teenage workers were busy lugging planks across what was once the Ben Maimon synagogue's sanctuary and pumping out greenish water flooding the dirt floor of an adjacent room.

The bimah, the lectern where the Torah scroll was once read, was visible under plastic sheeting, and a niche in the wall facing toward Jerusalem was all that remained of the elaborate wooden ark that held the scrolls.

Not everyone was pleased about the renovation.

"We are a nation that doesn't have enough to eat and doesn't have clean water," grumbled Mahmoud Fahim, a Muslim who runs a clothing store in the Jews' Quarter. "Why are we paying for these temples to be developed?"

He called it "a superficial act to make Egypt look good to the West and to Israel."

Fahim was touching on a sore point - the failed bid last month by Farouk Hosny, the Egyptian culture minister, to be elected head of UNESCO, the UN culture agency. The minister blamed his defeat on a Jewish conspiracy "cooked up in New York."

Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel. Though the peace has always been cool, the relationship is going through an especially rough patch because of the aftermath of Israel's bloody offensive in Gaza, compounded by the UNESCO affair and Hosny's remarks.

Egypt's Jewish community, which dates back millennia and in the 1940s numbered around 80,000, is down to several dozen, almost all of them elderly. The rest were driven out decades ago by mob violence and state-sponsored persecution tied in large part to the Israeli-Arab conflict, a story repeated across the Arab world.

Egypt and Israel fought a war every decade from the 1940s to the 1970s until the 1979 peace treaty was signed.

Despite that treaty, Egyptian sentiment remains deeply unfriendly to Israel, and anti-Semitic stereotypes still occasionally appear in the Egyptian media.

Some government officials take a more tolerant line.

"Jewish sites are an important part of our heritage, and we place as much importance on the maintenance and development of the Jewish temples as we do to the mosques and the churches in Egypt," said Zahi Hawass, Egypt's chief archaeologist and the official responsible for fixing up the synagogue.

Read article in full

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Speaking of refugees, here's a good report on the complexities inherent in the refugee issue in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It's part of a larger report.