Save Egypt’s Jewish heritage and assets now (JERUSALEM POST OP-ED) By LYN JULIUS 04/04/12)
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In the wake of the “Arab Spring,” what does the future hold for the
vestigial Jewish community in Egypt? The future is bleak – and
getting bleaker. Most recently, there is disturbing proof of a
government takeover of Jewish assets by stealth.
The tiny Jewish community in Alexandria – a collection of perhaps a
dozen elderly widows all once married to non- Jews – no longer runs
its own affairs, a member of a Jewish family now living in England
discovered on a visit to Egypt in March. Control of its substantial
assets has slipped into the hands of the Egyptian government.
To his horror, the visitor found that the Muslim former doorman of
the Nebi Daniel synagogue has taken over the leadership of the
community from the nominal head, Yousef Gaon.
Abdel Nabi collects the community’s rents. (They are worth millions
as the community invested heavily in property.) He has a new car and
is living well.
The Nebi Daniel synagogue, the jewel in the crown of Egypt’s once-
glorious Jewish heritage, is the only functioning synagogue in Egypt.
Abdel Nabi intruded into the visitor’s conversation with Yousef Gaon
and asked to see a document which proved his relationship with a
relative whose death certificate he was seeking.
The visitor showed Abdel Nabi the copy of an “Elam Warassa,” his
family’s successoral document.
“Ah!” Abdel Nabi said, without even reading the document, “this is a
copy, I need the original.”
When the visitor later asked Gaon for an explanation, the erstwhile
leader told him: “I am nothing now in this office.
Abdel Nabi is the government’s eyes and ears. He directs everything
and I can’t say anything.
I have resigned but the powers that- be don’t accept my resignation.
I’m sorry, I cannot help you.”
The question of who will manage Egypt’s remaining synagogues and
Jewish community assets when the last Egyptian Jew has died – an
issue which has been preoccupying Egyptian Jews in the diaspora for
some time – now becomes redundant.
There have been two different approaches: The Historical Society of
Jews from Egypt, based in the US, has sought to remove as much of
Egypt’s Jewish heritage as can be transferred out of the country. The
European-based Nebi Daniel Association has preferred to negotiate
with the Egyptian government for control of Jewish community
registers on the ground. A particular sore point is that Jews have
been denied access to communal records and archives.
The Abdel Nabi episode has heightened concern for the 56 Torah
scrolls that were used by the 12 to 14 synagogues in Alexandria, now
stored at the Nebi Daniel synagogue.
According to Maurice de Picciotto, the son of a previous head of the
Alexandria community, the government tried to take the sifrei Torah
and place them under the control of the Ministry of Antiquities
as “national treasures,” but until now, the community has managed to
keep possession of them.
“I should have tried to bring them out while my father was still in
charge,” de Picciotto says regretfully.
Levana Zamir, President of the Association of Egyptian Jews in
Israel, says that the Abdel Nabi episode formalizes the takeover of
Alexandria’s Jewish heritage by the Mukhabarat, or secret police.
With the fall of the Alexandria “bastion,” Zamir worries about the
fate of Jewish community assets in Cairo. Unlike Alexandria, whose
Jewish communal leadership sold off all but two of their synagogues
in the past few decades, Cairo still has more than 10 – in various
states of repair and disrepair.
The community’s affairs are managed by the octogenarian Carmen
Weinstein. Convicted of fraud and sentenced to three years in prison
(although she was later acquitted), Mrs. Weinstein is a broken woman
who is less likely now to stand up to pressure from the Egyptian
Then there are Jewish claims to private property in Egypt.
Most famously, the Bigio family has waged war in court for years to
claim damages for the nationalization of the Coca- Cola plant the
family operated until the 1960s.
Some 3,000 cases are said to have been brought before the Egyptian
courts; many properties were nationalized after Jewish families were
expelled or fled.
Families claiming damages are usually given the runaround by the
Egyptian court system over a period of years and sometimes decades.
Meanwhile, any compensation they might get becomes worth next to
nothing as the value of the Egyptian piastre continues to plummet.
One reason that the government has been reluctant to allow Egyptian
Jews permission to make copies of old genealogical and synagogue
registers is fear the records could be used in such cases.
The story repeats itself all over the Arab world, where billions of
dollars worth of Jewish property and assets have been sequestered
The news of the takeover of Jewish community affairs and assets comes
as Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, launches a report
this week aimed at securing recognition and compensation for the
860,000 Jews driven out of Arab lands. The Abdel Nabi episode,
formalizing ongoing state theft, makes action all the more urgent.
Lyn Julius co-founded Harif, a UK association of Jews from the Middle
East and North Africa. (© 1995-2011, The Jerusalem Post 04/04/12)
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