The World Jewish Congress hosted Magda Haroun, President of the Jewish Community of Cairo, and Professor Yoram Meital of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev on 24 November 2020 for the most recent installment of WJC WebTalk series for a discussion of the state of contemporary Egyptian Jewry, and the steps the local community is taking to safeguard its diverse heritage in collaboration with the Egyptian government.
Egypt’s Jewish community is almost entirely concentrated in Cairo and comprises predominantly elderly citizens, a demographic which Haroun views as an existential concern. Haroun noted that she believes it to be her obligation, as both a Jew and as an Egyptian citizen, to preserve historic Jewish sites for the posterity of the nation.
Professor Meital, who is a leading researcher on Egypt’s Jewish community, spoke about Jewish history as an intrinsic part of the Egyptian national ethos. He noted Egypt’s significance in the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish faith, adding that no country is mentioned in the Bible more than Egypt, and that while the community’s size fluctuated over the centuries, there has always been a noteworthy Jewish presence in Egypt. Speaking to the community’s history, he stated “we are speaking here about a community that has seen everything in the history of the Jewish people.” Meital further noted that during times of rising antisemitic sentiment and violence in Europe, many European Jews were able to find refuge in Egypt’s large cities, citing as example the pogroms in Chișinãu, Moldova in 1903 and Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, where significant numbers of Eastern and Central European Jews fled to Egypt.
Both Haroun and Meital commented on the extensive archival materials that have been found in Egyptian synagogues dating back to about the time of Maimonides, or almost a millennia ago. Haroun added that she hopes to establish the first Jewish Library in Egypt in one of the community-owned schools in downtown Cairo to house these historic documents. as pieces of shared Jewish-Egyptian heritage.
Haroun spoke about the evolving relationship between the Jewish community and the Egyptian government, expressing gratitude to Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi, the Ministry of Antiquities, the Ministry of Endowments, and the Ministry of Transportation for their continued dialogue with the Jewish community. Specifically, the government was instrumental in the renovation of the synagogue in Alexandria. In noting the respect the government has displayed for the Jewish community, she stated, “it cost millions of Egyptian pounds [to renovate], why would they do it if they didn't believe in it, which is beautiful by the way” Moreover, she referenced a poignant example of this collaboration, pointing to the expansion of the Ring Road that encircles the cities of Cairo and Giza and runs directly through one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in the world, the Bassatine Cemetery in Cairo.
The Jewish community of Cairo worked alongside the Egyptian government to bring in Ashkenazi Orthodox rabbis to ensure that the expansion of the Ring Road through the cemetery is conducted in accordance with Jewish law. The Ashkenazi rabbis worked alongside laborers from Upper Egypt, and Haroun mentioned how delighted she was to watch European Jews and Arabs working side-by-side towards a shared goal, despite linguistic, religious, and cultural differences.
Haroun concluded the WebTalk by expressing her pride in being an Egyptian Jew and her optimism for the future of Jewish preservation efforts in Egypt. When asked how the community’s projects can serve as a model for other Jewish communities in the Middle East, Haroun proudly noted, “we are already serving as a model.” Haroun conveyed that she is looking forward to collaborative efforts with the WJC to assist in the preservation of these important pieces and places of Egyptian-Jewish heritage.