In September, a significant event took place in Cairo: the historic Ben Ezra synagogue, an architectural gem with a rich history spanning over a millennium, was re-inaugurated following a year-long renovation. However, this event was marked by controversy, as Egypt’s dwindling Jewish community, which had been responsible for maintaining the synagogue for years, was notably absent from the guest list.
Discovery and Dispute: The Cairo Genizah Incident
Further complicating matters, in February, a significant discovery was made during excavations in a Cairo Jewish cemetery: a genizah, or a collection of sacred Jewish texts that were no longer in use. According to reports from Haaretz, the texts were seized by officials, much to the dismay of the Jewish community. Sammy Ibrahim, vice president of the Jewish community’s organization, expressed frustration over the authorities’ refusal to allow a rabbi to attend the excavation and their subsequent inaction in response to the community’s protests.
First Use Since Renovation: A Symbolic Gesture
Despite the ongoing tensions, the Jewish community utilized the renovated synagogue for the first time since its reopening in an event involving a tour for a group of professors and alumni donors from Princeton University. Ibrahim described this as a demonstration of the community’s ongoing control over the site.
Government’s Stance and Community’s Concerns
Ahmed Issa, the Minister of Tourism and Antiquities in Egypt, underscored the importance of the Ben Ezra Synagogue, a historical structure over 1,200 years old, recognizing it as a key Jewish temple in Egypt. Nonetheless, the Jewish community, under Ibrahim’s leadership, feels that the ministry doesn’t adequately acknowledge their ownership and rights concerning the site. This sentiment was further fueled when their plea for a private gathering at the location was rejected.
Funding and Restoration: Government’s Role
The funding for the synagogue’s restoration came from Egypt’s antiquities authority, following a direct mandate from President Abed Fattah El-Sisi. This approach was particularly significant as it is customary for the financial responsibility of such renovations to be borne by the minority community linked to the site. However, due to the limited size and resources of the Jewish community in Egypt, they appealed directly to President Sisi for assistance, circumventing the usual route through the antiquities ministry.
Egypt’s Jewish Community: A Vanishing Legacy
Once a thriving and diverse community, the number of Jews in Egypt has dwindled to under a dozen, primarily elderly members. The decline began notably after the establishment of Israel in 1948, leading to a mass emigration amidst rising Arab-Israeli tensions. Despite the turbulent history and recent events, leaders like Ibrahim and Magda Haroun, the community’s president, stress that they feel safe and comfortable in Egypt.
Historical Significance and Current Perspectives
The Ben Ezra Synagogue and its Cairo Genizah have been a treasure trove for scholars studying Jewish life. The recent visit organized by Marina Rustow, a leading scholar on the genizah, is a testament to its enduring scholarly value. Despite the 20th-century challenges and recent tensions, the Jewish community in Egypt is determined to maintain its connection to its rich heritage and historical sites.