What will happen to Alexandria’s Jewish heritage?

 Ben Gaon in the Eliyahou Hanavi synagogue, Alexandria

What will happen to Alexandria’s priceless Jewish heritage now that the community is almost extinct? An international committee should take it over, but when is the right time to start talking to the new regime – and will they even answer? Anna Sheinman investigates for the Jewish Chronicle:

Ben Youssef Gaon is the last Jewish man in Alexandria. As the
president of the Jewish community in the city, he controls huge swathes
of property, including synagogues, cemeteries and commercial and
residential properties, all administered by a large team of Egyptians. A
campaign is under way to stop the property, much of it donated by Jews
fleeing after the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, going to the Egyptian state
when he retires.

In 1937, Egypt’s second city had a Jewish community of 25,000. Now it
has only one functioning place of worship. The imposing Eliahou Hanavi
Synagogue on Nebi Daniel Street had only two men at the erev Rosh
Hashanah service this year, Mr Gaon and an American embassy employee. In
previous years, a minyan from Israel made the trip for the High Holy
Days, but diplomatic relations have deteriorated following Egypt’s
revolution, and some sources say the group were refused visas.

Stored in the synagogue are many precious sifrei Torah. The community
also holds genealogical records and other valuable religious and
cultural material, all of which may soon go to the Egyptian state.

A former cantor at Eliahou Hanavi, 81-year-old Geoffrey Hanson, whose
visa to visit Egypt has been refused for the past five years for
reasons unknown to him, is on a mission to protect the property, which
he estimates as worth 100 million euros.

Mr Hanson, who now lives in Israel, suggests a solution: “A group of
[ex-pat] Alexandrian Jews must come together and say they will run the
community after Mr Gaon.”

Roger Bilboul, president of the Paris-based Nebi Daniel Association,
which acts to preserve Jewish cultural and genealogical heritage in
Egypt, is broadly in agreement. “The idea of creating an international
committee which can take over is something we have put to the
government, but we have never had a response.”

Bureaucratic stumbling blocks have increased following the
revolution, but Mr Bilboul is optimistic. “We need to start knocking on
doors, establishing a relationship with the new people in power. We are
hoping to start by the end of this year.”

But the situation in Alexandria currently is “very, very dangerous,”
says Desiré Sakkal, director of the Historical Society of Jews from
Egypt, which is based in New York. This week, there was a fire on Nebi
Daniel Street, in which book kiosks were burned, showing the level of
anti-cultural feeling in the city. Although he supports the plan in
principle, to act now would be “pure madness,” Mr Sakkal said.

Mr Gaon has himself come in for criticism. His rival for the
presidency, Victor Balassiano, wrote an article for the Historical
Society accusing Mr Gaon of seizing power and changing the locks on the
synagogue while Mr Balassiano was on holiday.

He is also alleged to have converted to Islam, something required on
marriage to a Muslim woman in Egypt. However, Roger Bilboul asserts that
Mr Gaon is now divorced, and has documentation affirming his Jewish
faith.

Additionally, Mr Sakkal said: “Mr Gaon is [allegedly] an appointee of
the Egyptian state, so you have to be very suspicious”. Ben Youssef
Gaon himself was not available for comment.

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This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

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