The Egyptian government is sending Jews mixed signals – The Economist

Posted By on February 23, 2020

The authorities have restored an old synagogue. But do they want it filled?

WHEN IT COMES to Egypts Jewish community, President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi says all the right things. Only a minuscule fraction of the 80,000 Jews who once lived in Egypt remain in this Arab, Muslim country. Nonetheless, Mr Sisi promises a resurgence of local Jewry. He has invited back Jews who were pushed out after Israels invasion in 1956. He has listed dilapidated Jewish cemeteries as heritage sites and spent millions of dollars restoring what was once the worlds largest synagogue, Eliyahu HaNavi, in Alexandria.

On February 14th about 180 Jews of Alexandrian origin returned to rededicate the synagogue. They hammered a mezuzah onto its walls, danced with the Torah scrolls and sang psalms to the tune of Inta Omri, the anthem of Egypts most famous diva, Umm Kulthum. Old men sipped espressos at nearby Caf Delice, still playing Edith Piafs Non, je ne regrette rien, and swapped faded wedding photos taken on the synagogues steps. They cried over memories of leaving Egypt, surrendering their passports and signing documents promising not to return. The service that followed was the largest in the synagogue for 60 years. The men promised to return a year later for a weddingthe first step to rebuilding a community which a century ago attracted more Jews than Palestine.

Security was tight at the event, for good reason. In recent years jihadists with links to Islamic State have targeted another religious minority: Christians. A phalanx of security vehicles with blaring sirens followed the Jews wherever they went. But the authorities also seemed keen to tamp down the celebration. Goons in balaclavas carrying machineguns kept the Jews more or less quarantined. They denied access to Muslims hoping to join their former classmates for the rededication. The American ambassador, who is Jewish, was prevented from attending the Torah reading.

Having spent so much money restoring the synagogue, it may seem odd for the government to mute its reopening. But, despite Mr Sisis words, the authorities remain ambivalent towards Jews and their sites. Egypts synagogues and Jewish cemeteries are perpetually locked. Over a decade ago the government restored the yeshiva of Moses Maimonides, the scholar who founded Orthodox Judaism in Cairo in the 12th century (and served as Saladins physician), but it is closed to the public. There are no signs directing people to the site. Many Egyptians with Jewish ancestry remain fearful of disclosing their origins.

Morocco, another Muslim country, offers an alternative model. Its Jewish community also shrank when the Arab-Israeli conflict was at its peak. But the Jews who remained now practise openly. King Muhammad VI has restored scores of synagogues and regularly hosts the diaspora at festivals where imams and rabbis sing together. Last month he inaugurated a Jewish heritage centre by touching the Torah and praying. It was a first for a commander of the faithful [the royal title] in Islam, says Andre Azoulay, the kings Jewish adviser.

This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline "Welcome back, sort of"

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The Egyptian government is sending Jews mixed signals - The Economist

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