Call to safeguard heritage of dying Jews of Egypt

Mina Thabet is a human rights lawyer in Egypt who has served time in jail for his  defence of minority rights in Egypt. Here in Mada Masr he uses the example of the beleaguered Jewish community to explain how hate speech and lack of state protection puts minorities at risk. Jewish heritage must be preserved, he insists. (With thanks: Raphael)

 The Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria (photo: Marcivist)

A small number of Jewish families stayed in Egypt, among them leftist
activist Chehata Haroun and his family. According to Haroun’s daughter,
Magda, when her father tried to fly her older sister to Paris for
treatment, Egyptian authorities agreed only to give him an exit visa
with no return, so he left his daughter to die and never left the
country [13]. When he died in 2001, his family had to bring a French
rabbi to perform the ritual prayer for him, because they did not have a
Jewish rabbi in Egypt.

The same happened with the death of Nadia.

Nadia
died in March 2014, and I had the honor to attend her funeral. Egyptian
state officials did not attend, although they typically attend funerals
of Al-Azhar sheikhs or bishops from the Coptic Church. Nadia left her
older sister Magda alone to carry the burden of the Jewish community in
Egypt.

Early this month, it was the first anniversary of Nadia’s
death, and Magda went to her older sister’s grave along with her current
Christian husband and her Muslim daughters to perform their rites. She
found that a group of youth had desecrated her sister’s grave. They also
insulted her and insulted Judaism [14]. I can’t imagine how Magda felt
about that. It’s very hard for anyone to see his beloved ones insulted
in life and death, just because they had a different religion.

Despite
the fact that we have the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the world, they
have been left vulnerable to desecration and vandalism. Cemeteries are
not the only neglected part of Jewish legacy in Egypt. According to
Magda, there are about 12 Jewish synagogues in Cairo and Alexandria left
without maintenance. The majority were closed because there is no one
left to pray there.

Furthermore, there are registers belonging to
the Jewish community in Egypt, which are part of history that need to be
digitalized and safeguarded. The original written Torah also needs to
be restored and kept in a museum, along with other parts of the heritage
of this dying community.

Magda told me once about her deepest
fear — that after she is gone, what remains of Egypt’s Jewish heritage
will be lost. I remember Magda’s speech at her sister’s funeral. She
just looked in my eye and said, “It’s your history, Mina.” Then she
turned to one of her friends and said, “It’s your history, Mohamed.”

About
six decades of propaganda and hate speech finally led to the end of
this country’s Jewish community. The same hate speech led to the forced
evictions of the Baha’i from Sohag in 2009 [15]. The same hate speech
led to the brutal murder of four Shia men in June 2013 [16]. The same
hate speech led to a swell of sectarian violence against Christians,
with dozens of churches burned down, and dozens more Christian homes and
stores looted since 2011.

Hate speech and lack of equal
protection under the law inside the community creates a hostile
environment for minorities, where violence could be justified. Since
2011, at least 40 incidents of sectarian violence occurred in Egypt
[17]. Most of these incidents followed hate speech, which incited the
perpetrators to commit the attacks. Since 2011, sectarian violence took
the lives of at least 100 Egyptians, where the absence of accountability
and lack of protection for vulnerable groups had become a common
feature [18].

We should learn from our mistakes. We should start
preserving our Jewish heritage and restore synagogues. We should face
hate speech and discrimination. We should stop sectarian violence and
bring its perpetrators to justice.

Read article in full 

Egypt registers Jewish artefacts (Al-Monitor)

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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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