Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Egypt's Jewish Problem

Michael Slackman explains why Egypt is rebuilding an ancient synagogue in Cairo:

So why the sudden public display of affection for Egypt’s Jewish past?

Politics. Not street politics, but global politics.

Egypt’s minister of culture, Farouk Hosny, wants to be the next director general of Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. In the context of this conservative Islamic society, Mr. Hosny, 71, is quite liberal, running afoul of Islamists when he criticized the popularity of women wearing head scarves, for example.

But to appease — or please — his local constituency, he said in 2008 he would burn any Israeli book found in the nation’s premier library in Alexandria. He has apologized, but that has done little to end the attacks on his candidacy to lead an organization dedicated to promoting cultural diversity.

So his subordinates sped up the restoration process. After a year of study, the work began in June. They pitched a blue tent, and held a news conference — two, in fact — right inside the old synagogue around the corner from Mr. Badr’s shop. Mr. Badr said that was when he realized that the building with no roof and cemented-over windows was a synagogue.

Roger Cohen, of course, approves the appointment:
Hosny stands at the crux of the cultural challenges confronting us. Let’s get him inside the tent rather than stoke the old anti-Western, anti-imperialist flames — reminiscent of what led the United States to abandon Unesco between 1984 and 2002 — by rejecting him.

And then, with the big U.S. contribution to the Unesco budget as leverage, let’s press him relentlessly to fight the anti-Semitic bigotry poisoning young Arab psyches; favor dialogue; open Arab minds to science and education; and embrace the peace that Unesco was set up to foster by draining the poisonous well from which his own now-regretted venom was drawn.

Hosny's declaration about Jewish books was no slip of the tongue. It reflected the thinking of the Egyptian elite. Egypt has been quite happy to reap the diplomatic benefits of peace with Israel without fostering any meaningful form of normalization. Does Cohen really think that giving Hosny the UNESCO job will give the West leverage to fight the official antisemitism of Egypt, he's hopelessly naive.

And for all the talk of Hosny's sympathy for the Palestinians, there's an easy to miss paragraph in Slackman's article that needs to be addressed:

That was the case for Jews all over Egypt, who with each Arab-Israeli war left or were forced out. There are fewer than 100, some say fewer than 80, Jews left in Egypt today, making the preservation projects all the more important, Rabbi Baker said.

"[L]eft or were forced out?!?!" That's much too casual. The Jews of the Egypt, like those of most Arab countries were forced out. Here's the scoop on Egypt:

Between June and November 1948, bombs set off in the Jewish Quarter of Cairo killed more than 70 Jews and wounded nearly 200.2 In 1956, the Egyptian government used the Sinai Campaign as a pretext for expelling almost 25,000 Egyptian Jews and confiscating their property. Approximately 1,000 more Jews were sent to prisons and detention camps. On November 23, 1956, a proclamation signed by the Minister of Religious Affairs, and read aloud in mosques throughout Egypt, declared that "all Jews are Zionists and enemies of the state," and promised that they would be soon expelled. Thousands of Jews were ordered to leave the country. They were allowed to take only one suitcase and a small sum of cash, and forced to sign declarations "donating" their property to the Egyptian government. Foreign observers reported that members of Jewish families were taken hostage, apparently to insure that those forced to leave did not speak out against the Egyptian government.3

When war broke out in 1967, Jewish homes and property were confiscated. Egypt's attitude toward Jews at that time was reflected in its treatment of former Nazis. Hundreds were allowed to take up residence in Egypt and given positions in the government. The head of the Gestapo in occupied Poland, Leopold Gleim (who had been sentenced to death in absentia), controlled the Egyptian secret police.

The sympathy for the Palestinian is simply a dodge. It's what Arabs use to justify their antisemitism. If displacement was so awful, Egypt would do a lot more than simply fix up an old shul to make things right for the Jews it expelled.

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