Egypt's Jewish community has elected Magda Haroun, 60, as new leader of the tiny Jewish community. She is the daughter of Chehata Haroun, a well-known nationalist and founder of the left-wing Al Tagammu Party. He was known for his anti-Zionist politics and his defense of Egyptian Jews against accusations of having greater loyalty to Israel than to Egypt.
Magda Haroun vowed to protect the country's Jewish heritage and care for the dwindling, elderly community members. She succeeds Carmen Weinstein, who died last Saturday at the age of 82. Weinstein was known for her efforts to preserve synagogues and a Jewish cemetery. "My new priority is to preserve the Egyptian Jewish heritage ... to give it back to Egypt, because it belongs to Egypt," Haroun said.
Haroun was born in Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city. She attended school in Cairo, and graduated from Cairo University with a degree in applied arts. She runs a patents and legal affairs firm with her sister Nadia. She says she considers herself Egyptian before Jewish as she was born and raised in the country.
On Wednesday, meanwhile, Carmen Weinstein was laid to rest in a rare public ceremony. Diplomats from the United States and Israel joined about 100 mourners at a ceremony, partly broadcast on one private television channel, at the Sha'ar Hashamayim (Gate of Heaven) Synagogue in downtown Cairo. Weinstein was buried later at the Bassatine Cemetery, Cairo's only active Jewish burial site, which she had helped safeguard against vandalism during her lifetime. On its English-language website, the state-owned Al Ahram newspaper called her "The 'Iron Lady' of Egypt's Jews".
Only around 40 Jews remain in Egypt today. "I will continue taking care of them, socially, medically, gathering them for the holidays, and burying them with dignity," Weinstein's successor Haroun said. She was unanimously elected as community president at an extraordinary general assembly meeting held on Monday, following Weinstein's death. The remnants of Egypt's Jewish community are split between Cairo and the Mediterranean city of Alexandria that was also once a thriving multicultural and cosmopolitan hub.
Considerable hostility persists in Egypt, where radical preachers and others regularly denounce both Israel and Jews in general. However, Haroun said that Egyptians were kind-hearted and what ultimately mattered was social interaction. "If you treat others well, you will be treated well," she said.
Haroun dismissed any fears from the rise of Islamists to power in Egypt after the 2011 overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising: "The community size is still the same, and they keep dying one after another, what's the difference?" But she said that the ensuing political turmoil around the community had made members fearful. "Don't forget that most of the community is elderly women and housewives, uninvolved in everyday life," she added. "When they see the intolerance around them, they become more anxious."