Egypt’s ban of Jewish festival raises controversy

Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court upheld a previous ruling prohibiting the celebration of the birth of a Jewish rabbi, which attracts hundreds of Israelis every year, in a move that may in part reflect popular rejection of normalization with Israel.

al-monitor A general view of the ceiling of the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue, also known as Temple Ismailia or Adly Synagogue, Cairo, Egypt, Oct. 3, 2016. Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images.

Oct 7, 2020

Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court upheld Sept. 26 a previous ruling prohibiting the annual celebration of the birth of a Jewish rabbi in Beheira governorate, in the Nile Delta in the northern part of the country.

The court, which is the highest administrative court for administrative appeals in Egypt, ordered removing the shrine in which Rabbi Yaqoub bin Masoud, known as Abu Hasira, is buried, from the list of Islamic and Coptic antiquities in Egypt. In addition, it rejected a request to transfer his remains to Israel, which was submitted by Tel Aviv through UNESCO in 2012.

The court based its refusal to transfer the rabbi's remains because Islam respects the divine religions and rejects the exhumation of graves, and because Palestine is an occupied land and legitimizing the Jewishness of the state must be avoided by keeping this shrine on Arab land.

The appeal was filed by the Egyptian government; the previous ruling thus became final and irrevocable.

The previous ruling was issued by the Administrative Judicial Court in Alexandria governorate in December 2014, before the government challenged it without disclosing the reasons for the appeal.

The Administrative Judicial Court ruling was issued following a lawsuit filed by Egyptian lawyer Ahmed Mohammed Attia, in which he demanded transferring Abu Hasira’s remains to Israel and canceling the annual Jewish celebration that takes place at the shrine.

Following the December 2014 ruling, concerns emerged about its implications on cultural diversity in Egypt and the freedom to hold religious rites. Magda Haroun, head of the Jewish community in Egypt, denounced the court’s decision to ban the celebration of Abu Hasira’s birth, describing it as unconstitutional.

On Dec. 30, 2014, Haroun told the press that the Egyptian Constitution guarantees followers of the three monotheistic religions the right to conduct their religious rites. 

In another statement that same year, Haroun had rejected the decision to remove Abu Hasira’s shrine from the records of Egyptian antiquities and said that this would lead to the demolition of his tomb, even though Abu Hasira has a great position with the Jews of the Middle East in general and Moroccans in particular because he was of Moroccan origin, and it could increase religious tourism.

The Administrative Judicial Court’s decision, which was upheld by the Supreme Administrative Court, annulled the 2001 decision of then-Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni to include the Abu Hasira shrine, the Jewish cemeteries around it and the hill on which it is located, among the Egyptian antiquities.

The court also ordered removing the shrine from the records of Islamic and Coptic antiquities in Egypt because it lacks archaeological characteristics, and informed the UNESCO World Heritage Committee of this decision.

Abu Hasira was a Jewish rabbi of Moroccan origin who lived in the 19th century (1808-1880). He hailed from a large Jewish family, some of whose members immigrated to Egypt and other countries, while others remained in Morocco throughout the ages. Many Jews believe that he is a blessed figure, but some question this narrative.

A celebration of the birth of Abu Hasira is held every year between Dec. 26 and Jan. 2, in a synagogue in Damatyuh village near the city of Damanhur in Beheira governorate. Hundreds of Jews make the pilgrimage to the shrine, especially from Morocco, France and Israel.

In 2001, an Egyptian court banned the celebration, but the Egyptian authorities allowed it to be held annually until 2010.

Since the January 2011 revolution and until now, no programs, grave visits or celebrations have been organized, due to popular rejection. Egypt informed Israel at that time that it was difficult to hold the celebration due to security reasons. Celebrations stopped in 2011, but some were held to a very limited extent in 2018, then ceased again.

Annual celebrations used to take place in Damatyuh village, where the hill where Abu Hasira is buried is located; buses full of visitors used to travel there to hold religious and ceremonial rituals in the vicinity of the shrine. However, the celebration always sparked great controversy, as the citizens of the village, in addition to political forces and movements, expressed their rejection of what they considered normalization with Israel. As a result, security guards would need to be present during the event.

Those who oppose holding the celebration believe the celebrants often engage in activities that violate the values and customs of the rural community in Egypt, such as drinking alcohol, among other rituals contrary to public morals. This was stressed by the Administrative Court in the merits of its ruling when it said that the celebration contradicts the dignity and purity of religious rites.

The Israeli media has always expressed anger at banning the celebration and refusing to transfer Abu Hasira’s remains to Jerusalem.

Prior to all the controversy, the annual official trips from Israel to the shrine began following the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt.

On Sept. 29, Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that the residents of Beheira governorate were overjoyed with the ruling banning the Abu Hasira celebration, explaining that the residents used to suffer under the celebration’s strict security measures that impeded movement inside the village and nearby villages.

Meanwhile, Egyptian experts expressed concern that the decision to ban the celebration would be used to tarnish Egypt's image regarding the freedom to practice religious rites or be exploited politically by Israel.

Ammar Ali Hassan, a professor of political sociology at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor that Egyptians in general do not differentiate between Judaism as a religion and Zionism as a political project through which the State of Israel came to exist, considering that this is a major reason for the popular refusal to celebrate the birth of Abu Hasira.

He added, “Israel presents itself as a state for the Jews, and its exploitation of the Jewish religion as the ideology of the state created this confusion and justified it.”

Hassan noted that although Egypt and Israel have signed a peace agreement, Egyptian society still does not accept the idea of full normalization with Israel. He added that the collective mind of Egyptians refuses to let relations with Israel go beyond an agreement concluded between two authorities to end a state of war between them.

“There are always doubts among Egyptians about whether or not Israel has good intentions toward Egypt. As long as these doubts exist, I do not think that Egyptian society can go beyond normalization of formal relations between the two countries,” Hassan concluded.

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