Deep within Cairo’s old city lies the key to the collapse of Egyptian Jewry

By Alastair Beach, April 19, 2013
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A shoeshiner at work on Haret al Yahud — Jewish Alley — in Cairo’s old city (Photo: Getty images)

A shoeshiner at work on Haret al Yahud — Jewish Alley — in Cairo’s old city (Photo: Getty images)

inside the ancient warrens of Cairo’s old city, and not far from the great walls erected by the medieval Fatimid dynasty, lies Haret el-Yahud — the Jewish Alley.

The neighbourhood was long ago drained of its Jewish character but it is linked to one anomalous fact of great historical significance.

For it was here, on the edge of Cairo’s Jewish quarter, that the man who oversaw the collapse of Egypt’s Jewry — Gamal Abdel Nasser — was raised. Egyptian demagogue Nasser was Britain’s arch Middle Eastern nemesis and bête noire of the neighbouring state of Israel.

Last weekend, almost 95 years after the birth of the nationalist icon, it was announced that Carmen Weinstein, the long-time leader of Egypt’s Jewish community, had passed away.

A tireless and redoubtable woman, it was Weinstein who for years worked relentlessly to deal with the consequences of the Jewish flight that began under the rule of Nasser.

An obituary published after her death noted how the 82-year-old, who had been inspecting the renovation of a Cairo shul just a day before her death, had once praised the Egyptians for their “tolerance and hospitality” in helping to preserve the famous 9th-century Bassatine cemetery in Cairo.

Yet the truth about the modern Jewish community in Egypt is much more nuanced — a fact most starkly symbolised by the layer of sewage that now covers part of the Bassatine grounds.

Last month, the director Amir Ramses released a documentary that detailed the history of Egypt’s Jewry during the 20th century.

In one telling scene, an elderly man is shown saying how much he admires the popular Egyptian singer Leila Mourad. After being told by his interviewer that she was Jewish, he quickly changes his mind.

The clip was a neat distillation of the sentiments which today’s Jewish community — numbering no more than a few dozen — are often faced with.

Under the strident leadership of Weinstein, Egypt’s remaining Jews often came together for religious occasions such as last month’s Pesach.

The government has also carried out a number of high-profile synagogue restorations over the years.

Yet figures from the Egyptian Jewish diaspora nevertheless complain of official reticence when it comes to preserving the community’s cultural heritage.

Rabbi Andrew Baker, a representative of the American Jewish Committee, told the JC how he once discussed the possibility of a museum for Egypt’s Jewry with a former minister of culture. “He told us he supported the idea,” said Mr Baker. “Then he put his finger to his lips and said, ‘shush, don’t tell anyone’.”

Yves Fedida, a Paris-based Egyptian Jew who runs the Nebi Daniel Association that works to preserve Jewish communal assets, said he has tried to convince the Egyptian authorities of the need to safeguard Jewish records from the period of Ottoman rule. “It’s a fundamental part of our identity,” he said. “But you get approval from someone and then security says no.”

This week, the Egyptian Jewish community elected its new leader, Magda Haroun, the 60-year-old daughter of one of the country’s most famous left-wing politicians.

But, given the current President’s previous record on religious harmony — Mohamed Morsi once described Zionists as the descendants of pigs and apes — it seems that, for many Egyptians, the nation’s Jewry will continue to be little more than an inconvenient truth.

Alastair Beach is a Cairo-based journalist

Last updated: 10:45am, April 19 2013