MADA MASR

The Last Seven Jews Of Egypt

A file photo inside Eliahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria
A file photo inside Eliahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria
Mina Thabet

CAIRO — Egyptian Jews are having to face the ugly truth that their community appears bound to vanish.

As recently as 1947, Egypt's Jewish community numbered up to 80,000. Today, by most accounts, there are just seven Egyptian Jews left, most of whom are elderly women in need of daily medical care.

The last time I met Nadia Haroun, one of the last survivors of Egypt's Jewish community, was in November 2013. I remember that day because I met her at the same time as her older sister Magda, the community’s leader.

Jews represent the oldest religious community in Egypt, which has faced a wave of propaganda, defamation and hate speech over the years. That legacy is still felt today through stereotypes and slurs that persist in everyday language.

I was criticized for writing an article in Arabic entitled, "We are sorry, Jews." Some wondered how a Christian could defend Jews, who some blame for taking part in the crucifixion of Jesus. Ironically, many of those critics are Muslims extremists, some of whom themselves discriminate against Christians.

A history of oppression

Unfortunately, Egyptian history is full of violations of the essential rights of minorities and vulnerable groups.

On Nov. 2, 1945, anti-British, anti-Zionist (and anti-Jewish) demonstrations took place in Cairo on the occasion of the 28th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. A synagogue was burned down, 27 Torah scrolls were desecrated, and among the buildings damaged or destroyed were a soup kitchen, a home for the elderly, a shelter for poor transients, the Jewish hospital, the quarters of the Art Society and several Jewish public buildings.

From the outside of Eliahu Hanavi synagogue. Photo: Marcivist

After the 1948 war, a hostile environment against Jews worsened, as they were suspected of acting as a "fifth column" for Israel. After the 1952 coup, Jews were subject to detention, deportation and sequestration. In the mid-1950s, then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser initiated his policy of nationalization, which had a devastating impact on the Jewish community, as it controlled a broad sector of the Egyptian economy. American diplomats noted that sequestration decisions were filed against 539 Jews by name and 105 companies, in addition to Jews covered in the sequential orders filed against British and French nationals.

In November 1956, the regime modified its citizenship and nationality laws in order to keep Jews and other minorities from becoming Egyptian citizens. The situation became more complicated at the end of November, when at least 500 Egyptian and stateless Jews had been expelled from Egypt, not including a considerable number of Jewish citizens from Britain and France. Most of the them were heads of families, and they were ordered to leave the country within days. In most cases, the individual served with a deportation order was responsible for supporting his family, so all members of the family would have to leave the country. This measure led to the mass migration of Jews, who nearly vanished from Egypt.

The last ones

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 medical treatment, Egyptian authorities would only approve an exit visa with no return, so his daughter died without treatment and he never left the country. When he died in 2001, his family had to bring in a French rabbi to perform the ritual prayer for him, because there was no rabbi in Egypt.

The same happened with Nadia, who died in March 2014. I had the honor of attending her funeral. Egyptian state officials did not attend, even though 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 Egypt's Jewish community.

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

Heritage in decay

Despite the fact that Egypt has some of 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.

Photo: David Lisbona

There are also registers belonging to Egypt's Jewish community, 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 this dying community's heritage

Magda once told me about her deepest fear — that after she is gone, what remains of Egypt's Jewish heritage will be lost. I remember her comments at her sister's funeral. She 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. The same hate speech led to the brutal murder of four Shia men in June 2013. 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 create a hostile environment for minorities. Since 2011, at least 40 incidents of sectarian violence have occurred in Egypt. Most of these followed hate speech, which incited the perpetrators to commit the attacks. Since 2011, sectarian violence has taken the lives of at least 100 Egyptians, where the absence of accountability and protection for vulnerable groups has become all too common.

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

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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