Monday, March 08, 2021

Where should the Mosseri Genizah collection go next?

Posted on the 'Egyptian Jews' Facebook page, a link to a podcast entitled 'Whose Genizah?'reveals a little-known aspect of the Cairo Genizah story.  The podcast, a 43-minute professionally- produced programme by  Kerning Cultures, was remarkable for having been made by a group of Egyptian non-Jews. It is fascinating for reflecting contemporary attitudes about national heritage, the colonial past, and  has curious parallels with another contentious story - the Iraqi-Jewish archive.


Inside Cairo's Ben Ezra Synagogue

The Cairo Genizah is that trove of discarded documents bearing God's name discovered in a small room in the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fostat, old Cairo. in  1897. Some 193, 000 fragments, many dating back to the Middle Ages, were found by the Talmudic scholar Solomon Schechter and shipped off to Cambridge to become the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Unit.

But Schechter left some 17,000 fragments behind. They were collected together by Jacques Mosseri, a member of a prominent Egyptian banking family with a keen interest in education. The programme makers, projecting perhaps their fashionable distaste for the  colonialist exporting to the West of what they consider to be 'Egyptian heritage', explain that Mosseri dreamed of setting up a Jewish library or museum in Egypt. This  would have housed the  Mosseri collection and other Jewish memorabilia. But his idea met with little response.  

When Jacques died suddenly in 1934 aged 50, the Genizah manuscripts followed his widow to the south of France in tea chests and cardboard boxes. A scholar from the Israel National Library, Israel Adler, came looking for one of the family heirlooms, the Mosseri Bible. The Bible had been stolen by the Nazis, but what Adler did find was the Genizah material in the family kitchen. Mrs Mosseri gave Adler just two weeks to put the documents on microfilm before transferring them to a bank vault. Eventually the  Mosseri collection was loaned  to the Taylor-Schechter Collection in Cambridge for 20 years. Most documents have now been restored and digitised. But where should the Mosseri collection go next?

While the Israel National Library would seem to be the logical choice,  Jacques Mosseri's descendants  are resistant to the idea, saying that the collection should not go to Israel until there was peace in the region.' That was a bit like saying 'When pigs fly' or, to use an Egyptian expression,  Bukra fil mishmish.  'I don't won't the collection to be bombed, ' protests Jacques' grand-daughter Anne Mosseri Marlio, showing little faith in Israel's capacity to look after its own treasures. 

Was Egypt any more secure? the question was not asked.  Should it stay in Cambridge ? The UK was tainted with its colonial past. There is a consensus, says Ben Outhwaite, head of the Cairo Genizah Unit, that the collection should return to the Middle East.

Had he lived, Jacques might well have considered Israel as a home for the Mosseri collection, but of course there was no Israel at the time. Nor could he have anticipated that Egypt's Jews would have been thrown out.  Yet the Egyptian programmers struggled with the idea of giving the collection to Israel, Egypt's mortal enemy, pointedly disregarding  the 1979  Israel-Egypt peace treaty.  

The makers had to admit that the Egyptian-Jewish community 'was finished', to quote the leader of the tiny band of Jews still in Egypt, Magda Haroun, although US  scholar of  Egyptian Jewry  Joel Beinin was allowed to blame Jews for their own exodus,  glossing over anti-Jewish persecution and violence in 1948. The seminal event, he said, was  the 1954 failed bomb plot ordered by Israel's defence minister, Pinhas Lavon, Operation Suzannah, which turned every Egyptian Jew into an enemy agent.

But someone on the podcast did make the point that the Egyptian government could not have a claim on the Mosseri collection since it was Jewish private property. The state did nothing to create or preserve the collection. This argument could equally be applied to  the Iraqi Jewish archive, the random collection of documents, correspondence and books belonging to the Iraqi-Jewish community. The archive was shipped out to  the US for restoration; the State department has undertaken to  send it back to Baghdad in 2021, although the Jewish community there is extinct.

The Genizah is Jewish heritage, but the  podcast turns it into a controversial and politicised issue, fuelled by the Mosseri descendants' ambivalence towards Israel. Thankfully there is a solution: it's called digitisation. Scholars will access the collection through their computers: more than half  of Jacques' collection is already online. All that is needed in the money to digitise the rest.

To hear the podcast click here.(43 minutes)

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