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Egypt's few remaining Jews celebrate Hanukkah

Hanukkah was celebrated amid tight security in Cairo's Meyr Biton Synagogue. Yet Magda Haroun, head of Egypt's tiny Jewish community, looks forward to the day when all of Egypt's synagogues will be open for prayer and celebrations.
Magda Shehata Haroun talks during an interview with AFP at the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue.

CAIRO — Security was tight in and around the Meyr Biton Synagogue in Cairo's leafy neighborhood of Maadi, as around two dozen guests including diplomats and Jewish expats gathered Monday evening to join a handful of Egypt's last Jews in celebrating Hanukkah.  

"Today, only three Egyptian Jews, all of them elderly women, remain of Egypt's once sizable Jewish community," Magda Haroun, who was elected head of Egypt’s Jewish community in 2013, told Al-Monitor.

"I don't know if you can call me the caretaker of the Jewish community or its undertaker," Haroun joked. "I've buried many members of the community over the years."       

Haroun, who received the guests as they arrived at the synagogue, told Al-Monitor, "I'm really happy to be celebrating Hanukkah with dear friends." She admitted, however, that she found the heavy security presence "disconcerting."

The narrow street where the synagogue is located was sealed off on both ends as dozens of security personnel, far outnumbering the guests, patrolled the area and checked the IDs of those entering the synagogue. 

While there have been no attacks on synagogues in Egypt in over a decade — the last was a botched attack in 2010 by a lone assailant targeting the Shaar Hashamayin Synagogue in downtown Cairo — authorities are taking no chances. Police protection has been increased in Christian and Jewish places of worship across the country after multiple attacks on churches in recent years.   

Some say the heightened security at the Hanukkah ceremony was nevertheless a bit of a stretch, reflecting Egyptian national security's distrust and suspicion of any Jewish gathering. Amir Ramses, director of the documentary film Jews of Egypt, has said that the word "Jew" is in itself a source of paranoia for Egypt's national security — perhaps the result of decades of indoctrination by state media and school textbooks that incite hatred toward Jews.    

The gathering, which included several diplomats, US Charge d'Affaires to Egypt Daniel Rubenstein, Maltese Ambassador Roberto Pace and representatives of the Spanish Embassy in Cairo, among others, was one of two low-key events hosted by the Drop of Milk Association to mark the start of this year's eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights.

A second, less formal celebration was held at the Vitali Madjar Synagogue in Heliopolis on Tuesday, hosting mainly "our Egyptian friends," according to Samy Ibrahim, executive director of the Drop of Milk Association. Ibrahim, whose father, Albert Arie, an Egyptian of Jewish descent, was buried as a Muslim after his death in April 2021, is himself a Muslim.   

The event began with the lighting of the first of eight candles of the menorah, one candle for each night of Hanukkah, by a diplomat with a shammash, which is a ninth "attendant" candle that is used to kindle the other lights. Some of the guests joined her in reciting prayers as the candles were lit.

After the candle-lighting ritual, Kira Weiss, a Ph.D. student in ethnomusicology at UC Santa Barbara in the United States, charmed the guests with a cello performance. Her repertoire consisted of traditional Hanukkah songs such as "O Hanukkah" and "Ma'oz Tzur."

"Hanukkah, Hanukkah, Festival of Lights; candles glow in a row, seven days, eight nights," crooned the guests.

A reception followed in the synagogue garden with the beautifully lit synagogue serving as a magnificent backdrop and where guests were served sufganiyah, which are sugar-coated jelly doughnuts traditionally eaten during Hanukkah.

The Meyr Biton Synagogue, dating back to 1934, was named after an eminent landscaper who worked for the Delta Land and Investment Company and who donated the land for its construction. Its facade and walls are embellished with the Star of David; the letter "B" engraved inside each star is a tribute to Biton, commemorating his family name.  

The Hanukkah celebrations are among the few and rare occasions when Cairo's heavily guarded synagogues — 12 in total — open their doors for celebrations and prayer. Most of the country's synagogues remain closed off to the public, a far cry from the pre-1948 days when Egypt was home to a vibrant, 80,000-strong Jewish community and all synagogues were open and accessible. 

"I'm immensely proud that this celebration is taking place here in Cairo; it is a testament to the tolerance and multiculturalism in Egyptian society," Soraya Bahgat, a women's rights activist and member of the Drop of Milk Association, told the gathering. "Egypt has always been a cradle of civilizations."

While that may have been true of the cosmopolitan Egyptian society of the 19th- to mid-20th century when Jews, Christians and Muslims co-existed harmoniously and Egypt's Jewish community was an important pillar of the country's economic, political and cultural life, things changed dramatically with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 — a year that marked the beginning of the end of Egypt's Jewish population

Egypt's declaration of war against Israel prompted a shift in local sentiment toward the country's Jewish residents. Jewish neighborhoods and businesses became the target of multiple bomb attacks, which, according to historian Joel Beinin's "The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry," were spearheaded by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The political pressure to which Jews were subjected during the Nasser era forced tens of thousands of them to migrate to Europe and the United States. The 1956 Suez Canal crisis (when Britain, France and Israel invaded Egypt in a bid to pressure Cairo to reverse its decision to nationalize the Suez Canal) only served to further fuel the rising nationalist sentiment, prompting the arrests of hundreds of Jews and expulsion of thousands more from Egypt.

Haroun's father, Chehata Haroun, a lawyer and an author, was one of the few Egyptian Jews who decided not to leave Egypt despite his arrest in 1967 for nothing more than being a Jew. Like most other Jews at the time, he was given a choice: Leave Egypt and sign a document pledging never to return, or stay and risk arrest and sequestration of his property and assets. He chose the latter.   

Haroun takes pride in the fact that her family is multicultural. It is the sole Egyptian family consisting of a Jewish mother, a Catholic husband and two Muslim daughters. "Despite the hardships faced by my daughters in the predominantly Muslim society for the mere fact that their mother is Jewish, I consider myself fortunate as our diversity has enriched our lives," she said.

She sees her role as head of the Jewish community to "reconcile Egyptians with their past." "I always say that if you wish to move forward, you must make amends with your past," she said.

Haroun looks forward to the day when Egyptians can visit the country's ancient synagogues just as they visit Pharaonic temples and old mosques. "Our monuments belong to the Egyptian people, not the Ministry of Antiquities," she said.

She worked over the past decade to preserve Egypt's Jewish cultural heritage. Her efforts are already starting to bear fruit. The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities recently announced that the ancient Ben Azra Synagogue would soon open its doors to visitors after the completion of restoration work there.

In November, the Lichaa and Menasha burial sites in Bassatine — the only remaining part of Egypt's Karaite Jewish Cemetery (better known as the Bassatine Cemetery) — were inaugurated after undergoing restoration, thanks to a $150,000 grant offered by the US State Department to the American Research Center in Egypt and the Drop of Milk Association. Additional private donations from the Karaite Jews of America have provided amenities and landscaping for the Garden of Remembrance at the historic site.   

Haroun is grateful for the progress made in "salvaging Jewish heritage sites" and dreams of the day when musical concerts can be held on the grounds of Cairo's ancient synagogues and when Kosher restaurants mushroom across the city.

"We are Egyptians and have to be recognized as such regardless of our faith," said Haroun. "Unless Egyptians learn about the central role played by the Egyptian Jewish community in all spheres — politics, economics, culture and the arts — a chapter of our history will remain forgotten."   

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