The announcement that the Egyptian government will be funding the repair of the nineteenth century Eliyahu Hanavi (Nebi Daniel) synagogue in Alexandria has elicited a rare piece in the Guardian, a newspaper not noted for its coverage of the plight of Jewish communities in Arab lands. The writer, Ruth Davidson is to be commended for putting the issue in the context of Egypt's discriminatory treatment of all minorities. See my comment below: (With thanks: Nelly, Alec, Adam and Stan)
“This is a great project for all Egyptians,” said one engineer, who
declined to give his name. “The project should last an entire year.
We’ll be restoring the entire building,” said another, identified only
Yet this handful of engineers was the largest group of visitors the
neglected synagogue has seen in some time. The move to restore the
building, as well as other Jewish sites in Alexandria, comes after
months of pressure from Jewish exiles around the world, fearful that the
city’s diverse past would otherwise be erased.
Alec Nacamuli, a member of the Nebi Daniel Association campaigning to
protect Egypt’s Jewish heritage, welcomed the move, adding that the
organisation has been “more aggressively” pushing for the restoration of
Eliyahu Hanavi since the ceiling collapsed because of water damage.
Nacamuli, whose grandfather was the president of Cairo’s Jewish
community, is now exiled in London from his native Alexandria. “There
have been some frustrations,” he said of the efforts to get the Egyptian
authorities to heed the needs of Egypt’s Jewish diaspora.
has a poor track record of protecting its religious minorities and
their houses of worship, notably the country’s largest religious
minority of Coptic Christians, who make up an estimated 10% of the
Security around Alexandria’s synagogue is so tight partly because of
fears after a recent spate of Isis assaults on Coptic Christian
long-awaited law in 2016 clarified the rules around church building and
provided some aid to the beleaguered Christian minority, although
observers such as Human Rights Watch argued
that the state has done little to protect Christian citizens from
violent attacks. In a country where religion is marked on each citizens’
identity card, Egypt’s Shia and Bahai minorities also face daily
persecution and are prevented from building places of worship.
But Egypt’s Jewish past is more fraught with geopolitical sensitivity
than other minorities. Once a community of almost 80,000, numbers began
to dwindle after the creation of Israel in 1948 sparked conflict
between Egypt and its new neighbour.
This resulted in increasing pressure on Egypt’s Jewish citizens,
including incarceration. About 25,000 Jews were formerly expelled in
1956, after being presented with a one-way travel document to leave and a
demand to cede their property to the government. The number of Jews in
Egypt is commonly estimated to be fewer than 50.
Covert efforts to upgrade the country’s synagogues in 2009 were met with widespread reports in the international press that the true motive was Egypt’s push for then-culture minister, Farouk Hosny, to lead Unesco.
Egypt is once again running to head the United Nations’ cultural and
heritage body after nominating former politician and ambassador Moushira
Khattab in 2016. But it insists there is no ulterior motive for the
Read article in full
My comment: the article fails to point out
that the legal responsibility for repairing and maintaining Jewish
houses of worship falls on the community in question. However,
there are so few Jews in Egypt (fewer than 13, not 50 as stated in the
article) that it is absurd to expect the tiny community to bear the burden. Moreover, the Egyptian government has made a virtue of
necessity, given that the Jewish community head, Magda Haroun, an
anti-Zionist, has opposed accepting
foreign funding on the grounds that most Jewish associations abroad
interested in making donations are groups supportive of
Israel. The article suspects the underlying motive for Egyptian funding
is to bolster the candidacy of the former politician and ambassador Moushira
to be head the United Nations’ cultural and
heritage body. There are two other motives: the restoration of the
grandiose Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue will boost tourism (the Ben Ezra
synagogue in Cairo is already a popular attraction) ; state funding will
legitimise Jewish sites as state property. Already, movable heritage,
such as communal records and Torah scrolls, have been declared to be Egypt's
patrimony, frustrating the long-running campaign by the Nebi Daniel Association to ensure their accessibility to diaspora Jews.