Is it better to see the synagogues that Jews have left behind rot, rather than become a corpse all made up for a wake? In his Unherd review of Dara Horn’s People Love Dead Jews Matti Friedman questions the motives of states without Jews who restore Jewish heritage :
I remember being in the alleys of downtown Cairo a decade ago and coming to the ruins of a synagogue, one of dozens that once housed the religious life of the thousands of Jews who gave this neighbourhood its name. It is still called The Jewish Quarter, even though by the time I arrived in 2009 the actual Jews who had crowded the alleys up to the 1940s had been hounded out by state persecution and mob violence. As far as I knew, the Jewish population of Cairo’s Jewish Quarter on the day I visited was one: me.
The synagogue was named for the philosopher and physician Maimonides, who led the Jewish community here in the 12th century, when Cairo was the most important Jewish centre in the Middle East. The building was nothing but a roofless shell, but I discovered a work crew laying planks in one of the rooms, up to their knees in fetid water. It turned out that the Egyptian government — the same regime that took possession of much of the property of the 80,000 Jews who’d been forced out of the country two generations earlier — was engaged in a restoration project.
A polite young engineer on the site showed me the location of the stand where the Torah scroll was once read. Another man, in civilian clothes but with some vaguely military authority, told me not to take pictures.
There couldn’t be anything bad about the restoration of a synagogue, could there? It was hard to explain why none of this felt right; why I preferred to see the building left to rot, rather than see it made up like a corpse at a wake. I had the same feeling when I saw other journalists refer seriously to the “Jewish community of Cairo”, quoting a woman who was its “President”.
There was no community, just a regime-approved simulacrum designed to allow everyone to pretend that an ethnic cleansing hadn’t taken place, and that something dead was alive. It was Weekend at Bernie’s. At the time of my visit, the Egyptian Government was trying to get one of its officials elected to a top cultural post at the UN, an effort hindered by this same official’s past support for burning Hebrew books. A synagogue renovation couldn’t hurt his cause! The real Jews were long out of Egypt, but their imaginary avatars were still hard at work serving the narrative needs of others.