Is Egypt showing signs of rebuilding links? No comment.

Is Alexandria’s Jewish community experiencing a revival? Or is its  Nebi Daniel synagogue, for a time reinvigorated by an Israeli minyan during the High Holidays, destined to be a memorial to a defunct community?  Richard Spencer in The Times puts a positive spin on recent promises by Egypt to restore Jewish heritage, but it’s not convincing. (With thanks: Lily, Boruch)

Alexandria’s sea front and many of its belle époque
mansions were built by Italian Jewish engineers. Round
the corner from the synagogue stood the Maccabee
billiard hall where Lawrence Durrell courted Eve
Cohen, model for the femme fatale Justine in his
Alexandria quartet.

Then everything went into reverse. Waves of hatred
after Israel was established were accompanied by
expulsions under Nasser and by 1970 most Jews had
fled. There can be little doubt that the community is
on the verge of extinction. Or is it? Behind those
high walls on Nebi Daniel Street, something remarkable
is happening.

After the uprising of 2011 the authorities deemed
Alexandria too insecure to guarantee the safety of the
annual Israeli visitation. Shortly after, in a
symbolic blow, the synagogue’s roof fell in. This
year, however, the sound of hammers has rung out.
Renovation has begun, sponsored by the antiquities
ministry, intent on not just repairing the roof but
rebuilding the finest synagogue in the Middle East.

It is a rare good news story for Egypt — at least I
think it is. As with the history of Alexandria itself,
the thinking behind the restoration has many layers.
It was not possible to visit. The ministry referred me
to the state information service, which referred me to
the state security bureau. Letters were stamped. But
even so the army construction company carrying out the
repairs declined.

 The Nebi Daniel (Eliyahu Hanavi) synagogue in Alexandria

The deputy antiquities minister, Hisham Samir, was
happy to meet. He is a brigadier-general, however, who
was less happy at suggestions that the anti-Islamist
President Sisi might be sending a signal. “This is not
political,” he insisted. “We have a legal
responsibility to restore antiquities.” Is Egypt
showing it disavows antisemitism, I asked. “There is
nothing like this at all,” he said, smiling but
ambiguous.

I was given a tour of other Jewish sites by Zahraa
Adel Awad, a guide and trove of information. She said
that the opening to Jews was real, partly motivated by
an investment climate quietly attracting Egyptian-born
businessmen living abroad. Another source said that
the restoration was being funded not by the government
but by three overseas Egyptian-born Jews. Again, it
was hard to establish the truth. The community’s few
representatives were “unavailable”. One, eventually,
admitted they had been asked not to talk to
journalists until restoration was complete.

One man who did was Yves Fedida, 73, whose parents
were married in the synagogue and who played there as
a child. Now living in London (Paris -ed), he maintains a
benevolent watch on Egypt’s Jewish heritage.

He said with a wink in his voice that the ministry
was funding the restoration — but that state coffers
received generous donations. He also returned to
history’s complex layers. “What’s remarkable is how
Egyptian governments, all of them, managed to protect
the synagogues,” he said. “Even during the worst
outbreaks of violence, there were always guards.”

Perhaps the biggest miracle is that 2,350 years after
Jews helped Alexander the Great to build his dream
city, they are still there. Maybe, with the restored
synagogue, some will return. Even if not, they will
have a fitting memorial.

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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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