A delegation of Egyptian Jews, together with Rabbi Baker of the American Jewish Committee, is on its way to Cairo to talk to the Egyptian minister of culture about gaining access to the Jewish community’s life cycle registers, seized by the state as its own property. However, a plan to set up a Jewish museum in the Heliopolis synagogue to house the registers may make them available for consultation. The community leader, Magda Haroun, may revive the Jewish charity ‘Goutte de Lait’ to curate the registers. Jenni Fraser reports in the Jewish Chronicle (with thanks: James, Maurice):
For years the Egyptian government has banned Jews from consulting vital community registers
Scores of bound volumes, containing every detail of the births, marriages and deaths of Jews from Alexandria and Cairo, which date back to the middle of the 19th century, were once kept in the two main synagogues in each city. But, last year, without prior warning, government officials arrived at the synagogues and took away the registers, which are now stored in the Egyptian National Archives.
Rabbi Andrew Baker of the AJC said: “For many Egyptian Jews these are the only formal records which might otherwise be inscribed in civil records. And there are cases where they are very important in proving a person’s Jewish identity, for burial or for marriage”.
One of the leaders of the Nebi Daniel organisation, Yves Fedida, who is part of the forthcoming Cairo delegation, said that the scattered community of Egyptian Jews — some of whom depend on the information in the registers to prove their Jewish status — had been trying to persuade the government for more than 12 years to allow copies to be made of the contents of the registers.
At first, the government resisted, saying that there was a chance that Jews outside Egypt would use the information for compensation claims. But this was dismissed by the Egyptian Jews as stonewalling, because the registers did not contain details of property ownership.
“Then came the Arab Spring and there was no hope of persuading anyone in the government when the Muslim Brotherhood were in charge”, Mr Fedida said.
Once President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took power, however, there was new optimism, but so far there has been no response either to direct pleas or to a change.org petition to the president.
Rabbi Baker said that although “one problem has been solved by taking the registers into the National Archives, where they will be kept in better physical conditions”, in fact it meant another problem.
“The registers are not just written in Arabic, but in French, Ladino, Hebrew, and even a form of Rashi’s script. So the records cannot be easily read by a National Archives official even if someone applies for his or her family’s details.”
Under the Egyptian Antiquities law, the registers belong to the country — an attitude originally supported by the leader of the tiny remaining Jewish community, a handful of Jews led by Magda Haroun. She made it clear in various TV appearances that her intention was to leave the assets of the Jewish community to the government.
Ms Haroun initially agreed with the government’s position, but appears to have had a change of heart in the last year. She has helped to revive a former Egyptian Jewish charity, A Drop of Milk, and turned it into a heritage NGO whose aim is to curate the remaining Jewish communal assets with the approval of the Ministry of Culture. Plans are in place to transform the former Heliopolis Synagogue in Cairo into a national Jewish museum, with the hope that the precious registers will be available for consultation there.
Mr Fedida said: “We have lost our biggest treasure with the registers. They include, beside the precious records of births, marriages, and deaths, halachic rulings by Egyptian rabbis , who were said to be among the most pragmatic and least dogmatic of all those in the Mediterranean area.”