Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Frustrating Fate of the Record Books of the Jews from Egypt

This article originally appeared in the October 2016 edition of Kosher Koala, the journal of the Australian Jewish Genealogical Society.  It is reprinted with permission from the author to help spread word about the situation with these records.

Dani Haski, guest author

Community registers in Alexandria.
Photo credit:  Association
Internationale Nebi Daniel
In July 2016, the newspaper Egypt Independent reported the death of Lucy Saul.  Saul’s passing reduced the official Jewish population of Cairo to just six old and increasingly frail women.  In an interview with the BBC a couple of years ago, Magda Haroun, the nominal head of the Cairo Jewish community, voiced her anguish at what would happen to the cultural legacy of this once thriving community.  Unfortunately, Mrs. Haroun proved to be just as resistant as her predecessor, the late, formidable Carmen Weinstein, when it came to facilitating access to the large library of community registers housed in the various synagogues to those who have been fighting for decades to preserve this rich heritage, so her lamentations were somewhat disingenuous.

Then, in early April 2016, Mrs. Haroun gave the libraries of the Adly, Ben Ezra, and Abbasseya synagogues, in their entirety, to the National Archives of Egypt.  She did this without consulting any of the organizations which had been fighting to digitize and preserve these records.  Upon receiving these assets in Cairo, officials from the National Archives descended on the community in Alexandria, which had shown no such desire to surrender its heritage.  M. Ben Gaon, the community leader, was pressured to hand over its collections to the archives as well.  These included personal religious and civil identity registers dating back to 1830.  Placing these records with the Egyptian Archives has not so far improved access.  Those fighting to save them are concerned that the records will simply disappear into this vast collection, much like the Ark of the Covenant at the end of the Hollywood movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, never to be seen again.

Egypt and the Jewish people have a history going back to before Moses.  In more recent times, Egypt was home to a thriving and successful Jewish community, numbering more than 80,000 through the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries.  In synagogues across the country, the day-to-day lives of the community—births, bris and bar mitzvahs, marriages, divorces, and deaths—were dutifully recorded by hand in hundreds of leather-bound registers.  No one foresaw the tumultuous turn the 20th century would take.  Sadly, after World War II and with the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the fall of the monarchy, and the Suez crisis in the 1950’s, the community was forced into what many today call the Second Exodus.

For individuals with roots in Egypt, it has been an increasingly frustrating and difficult exercise to access those vital genealogical records, records which are more than historical curiosities and can actually be crucial in matters of religious identity—often being the only way some people can verify their Jewish status for religious purposes.

Yves Fedida (left) of Nebi Daniel with
M. Farouk Hosni, former Egyptian
Minister for Culture, in 2010.
Photo credit:  Association
Internationale Nebi Daniel
The Association Internationale Nebi Daniel, based in France, has been working tirelessly for years for the opportunity to access, digitize, and preserve these record books.  It was close to success in 2010, having secured a letter from the then Culture Minister, M. Farouk Hosni, acknowledging the legitimacy of its claim.

And then came Tahrir Square.  The Arab Spring in Egypt threw the whole project back to square one. Hopes were once again raised with the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood administration, but after fruitless attempts to revive negotiations through official channels, Yves Fedida, from Nebi Daniel and the Heritage of Jews in Egypt Facebook page, initiated a Change.org petition addressed directly to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the current Minister of Culture, M. Helmy Namnam, exhorting them to urgently authorize:
  • scanning of all existing Jewish archives, particularly religious and civil identity records, and making the scans freely available;
  • donation to various Jewish community synagogues across the world of some of the 150 Torah scrolls which fall outside the 100 years Egyptian Antiquities rule;
  • restoration of the existing synagogues and cemeteries—in particular, the Bassatine cemetery in Cairo, one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the world—giving easy access both virtually and on the spot;
  • development of a comprehensive inventory of the remaining communal assets and of a plan for their preservation; and
  • creation, within one of the existing synagogues, of a museum of Egyptian Jewish heritage, which would encourage tourism.
A copy of the petition, which has, to date, gathered more than 1,500 signatures, was also sent to the Egyptian Ambassadors in France, Great Britain, Italy, Switzerland, Israel, Canada, the U.S.A., Brazil, and Australia.  Not a single diplomat has responded.  (I contacted the Egyptian Consul-General to Australia in Sydney for comment, but, at the time of publication, none has been forthcoming.)

The main concern of Egyptian authorities appears to be a perceived threat of reparations being demanded by descendants of Jews who were expelled and whose businesses and properties were confiscated.  The reality is that none of the registers in question has any connection to property ownership and cannot be used for this purpose.  Separate cases for reparations have already been prosecuted in the Egyptian courts and settled by individuals.  There is, in fact, no good reason to withhold permission for access to, and preservation of, these records, particularly when Nebi Daniel has committed to footing the bill for the whole exercise, ensuring positive PR and media coverage for the Egyptian government, and leaving the physical registers in Egypt.

The Egyptian government is not blind to the value of its Jewish cultural heritage.  In 2010, the government invested almost 8.5 million Egyptian pounds (US $950,000) in restoring the Maimonides Synagogue in Cairo and opening it to the public as a museum.

As recently as early September this year, a report in Al Monitor quoted the current head of the Islamic and Coptic Monuments Department at the Ministry of Antiquities (who is also responsible for Jewish antiquities), M. Saeed Helmy, as saying, “I know very well that the Egyptian monuments—including the Jewish antiquities—capture the attention of people all around the world. Therefore, I’d like to make it clear that Egypt pays considerable attention to its monuments, whether they are Islamic, Coptic or Christian .
. . . However, we need the support of the countries that are interested in cultural heritage in order to protect these great antiquities.”

Collection of the Jewish community registers might have been an unwritten part of this response, as on June 11, the Ministry announced the formation of a special committee, with Helmy as its chair, to take stock of Jewish antiquities and register them in the ministry’s records—an activity undertaken several times already by previous Antiquities ministers.  But he admitted that, with the drastic fall in tourism revenue, the country had scarce funds to achieve its goals.

Community registers in Alexandria.
Photo credit:  Association
Internationale Nebi Daniel
But should the community registers be classified as antiquities or as artifacts?  Their importance lies more in the information they contain than in the physical books themselves.  Unfortunately, the Ministry has consistently ignored repeated offers of financial assistance from Association Internationale Nebi Daniel specifically to preserve these books and to help raise money for other preservation activities.  It appears that this very public show of attention to part of Egypt’s recent history might simply, once again, be mere lip service, as it coincided with Helmy’s meeting with the U.S. cultural attaché in August 2016.

So what is to be done?

Egypt claims it wants to preserve these artifacts and records but cannot afford to.  Members of the diaspora have repeatedly offered to help raise money and to pay for the preservation, digitizing, and indexing of important community registers, on the proviso that these records are available to the international community.

Are the Egyptian authorities deaf?  Have the messages been lost in translation?

Or is the Egyptian government simply telling the international community what it wants to hear while continuing to do absolutely nothing?

Disclaimer:  My father was a refugee from Egypt. I have a personal stake in wanting to access his records, along with those of his parents and grandparents, so that I can understand more of my family’s history.

©2016 Dani Haski. All rights reserved.

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