The restoration of this one synagogue connected to Maimonides, once court physician to the Fatimids, was not prompted by some sudden deep realization of the need, culturally and politically, to recognize, at least by allowing this one synagogue to be rebuilt, that for thousands of years Egypt had had Jews living in the land, that the last of them had been finally expelled or driven out by unspeakable insecurity, their lives made intolerable, by Nasser. But let’s be fair, for the attacks on Jews in 1941 whipped up by Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and the grandfather of Tariq Ramadan, were not just on Jews alone, but also on Copts. And to continue the fairness theme, when Egyptians attacked non-Muslims in 1952, killing dozens of them, including eleven British citizens, Jews were not singled out.
And to be fair, after the Colonels’ coup that toppled fat Farouk and the ancien regime, and then Nasser rid himself of Colonel Naguib and the others and became the Supreme Leader, and decided to seize the property of the many different “non-Egyptian” Egyptians, some of whom were the descendants of families that had lived in Egypt and contributed, for centuries, to the economy, it wasn’t only Jews who suffered, but Greeks, and Italians (few may recall that the poets Cavafy and Ungaretti were both born in Alexandria), and others too of those sometimes described in old books as “Levantines” of indeterminate origin. The Egyptian government seized the property of all of these hundreds of thousands of people, accumulated in some cases over the centuries. We can all see how the Egyptian economy started to flourish as soon as those awful “foreigners” were out of the way.
The idea for this synagogue renewal should be obvious: the Egyptian government wanted to pretend that it really was not quite the fomenter of antisemitism (and, not unrelated, anti-Americanism) in its vigilantly monitored media, that it is. It wanted to get some good press, and it wanted as well to do something that might attract tourists. What better idea than to fix up, after centuries of neglect, the synagogue associated with Maimonides, court physician during the Fatimid Dynasty, the one associated with the Kurd Saladin.
Two people are mentioned by name in the article: Farouk Hosny and Zahi Hawass. Both deserve a little attention.
As to Farouk Hosny, Egypt’s Minister of Culture, what do we know? We know that for quite a while Farouk Hosny had been dreaming and scheming to become the head of UNESCO. He and the Egyptian government organized a campaign on his behalf. The fact that he had a long record of saying all kinds of “insane” things about Jews and Israel, and that this would-be head of UNESCO proudly declared that if he found any books by an Israeli in Egypt he would personally burn them, did not endear him to many, though the Arab and Muslim bloc stayed resolutely behind him. So he made much of the fact that he was a supporter of this repair-and-refresh-the-synagogue project. Could such a person harbor anti-Jewish sentiments, have said those things that were attributed to him, if he supported this synagogue project? In the simple-minded view of Farouk Hosny and his handlers and promoters, why of course not. What better and cheaper way to win friends and influence people, and to show that all that other stuff he was caught saying and writing didn’t amount to a hill of beans, because…well, because of the synagogue he was grandly willing to allow to be repaired. Perfect camouflage for his long record of “nearly insane” statements.
Among those statements is the one he made in May 2008, in answer to a Muslim Brotherhood member of Parliament questioning cultural ties (what ties?) to Israel. Farouk Hosny said, “I’d burn Israeli books myself if I found any in libraries in Egypt.” He had invited Roger Garaudy, formerly a stout Stalinist but latterly a convert to Islam with a line in Holocaust denial, to speak in Cairo. When this, and much more, came out, what did Farouk Hosny do? Oh, he hemmed, and he hawed, and he explained, and he explained away. But even the Anti-Defamation League, not exactly famous for being aggressive under its current management, declared that Farouk Hosny “has a long record of stymieing cultural relations with Israel, promoting censorship in Egypt, and making harsh anti-Israel and anti-Jewish statements.” In 2001, Farouk Hosny had described Israeli culture and “inhuman” and even before that, in 1997, said that “the Israelis do not stop claiming that they built the [Egyptian] pyramids… This proves that Israel has no history or civilization…”
This was the man who on July 30, 2007, was nominated by the government of Egypt to succeed Koichiro Matsuura as Director-General of UNESCO.
A campaign led by Claude Lanzmann and Elie Wiesel was joined by many others; they said that a victory for Farouk Hosny “would be an obvious provocation so transparently contrary to the proclaimed ideals of the UN that UNESCO would not recover.” And it was not they alone. Reporters Without Borders said that “this minister of Hosni Mubarak has been one of the main actors of censorship in Egypt, unfailingly trying to control press freedom as well as citizens’ freedom of information.” It’s of note that his exploitation of the synagogue business, to burnish his credentials, or rather to forge his credentials, as someone who was not merely one more smilingly sinister antisemitic “minister of culture,” was seen through even by a reporter for The New York Times, Michael Slackman, who in a report in September 2009 explained:
Egypt has slowly, quietly been working to restore its synagogues for several years. It has completed two projects and plans to restore about eight more. But because of the perception on the street — the anger toward Israel and the deep, widespread anti-Semitism — the government initially insisted that its activities remain secret.
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 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.
In the West, Farouk Hosny fooled few, and his candidacy was defeated, and a Bulgarian lady elected in his stead. Here is how the Egyptian press reacted, characteristically, to this defeat:
“America, Europe and the Jewish lobby brought down Farouk Hosni,” read a headline in an independent daily newspaper, Al Masry Al Yom. The foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, criticized “international Judaism and Western powers” in a television interview. Mr. Hosny himself helped stoke those sentiments, saying, “There was a group of the world’s Jews who had a major influence in the elections who were a serious threat to Egypt taking this position.” […]
“He did not take an anti-normalization stand until the end,” said Hossam el-Hamalawy, an independent Egyptian blogger and journalist. “The moment he lost he came back and started saying some of the most foul anti-Semitic statements against the Jews, confirming what the West had said about him.”
Mr. Hosny lost his bid for Unesco, but tried to turn that into a victory at home, returning as a victim, and for the state-run media a hero. The charges of a Western, Jewish-Zionist conspiracy may have been amplified by a government eager to limit its embarrassment after having staked its credibility on Mr. Hosny.
So even The New York Times took note of how Farouk Hosny’s sudden interest in this synagogue business seemed to coincide exactly with the period of the run-up to the election of a new head for UNESCO. But Farouk Hosny ultimately lost to a Bulgarian, and his enthusiasm for the project was not quite as it had been before. However, after a period of nursing his considerable amour-propre back to life, by blaming you-know-who, he decided once again to support completion of the synagogue as a way to…. Well, to attract tourists, to attract money, and to show the West just how advanced and tolerant and wonderful he, and Egypt, are, just in case there’s an opening in some international agency for something to do with “culture.” He’s not stupid.
And then there’s the other fellow. You know him. It’s Zahi Hawass. He’s the publicity-hound, the man always trying to squeeze the last bit of gold from museums and museum-goers when he grandly deigns to lend some mummies, or even the gold and other artifacts discovered by Howard Carter in the tomb of Tutankhamen. He’s an entrepreneur, and a schemer, someone eager to wring the last bit of money from any exhibit using Egyptian artifacts. The Cairo Museum, so Western Egyptologists have told me, is not at all like museums in the West; its museological standards are low. The Museum itself was started by a Frenchman, Mariette, and until the day before yesterday, everything in it was supplied by Western – chiefly English – archeologists. I was told it is more like a warehouse than a museum, with things stored helter-skelter.
But Zahi Hawass appears frequently on the world stage, and no one who knows the real situation – that is these Egyptologists – dares to openly discuss him and the quality of his stewardship, because they need continuous access to Egypt and its antiquities, and can’t cross him. I know of at least one academic Egyptologist who gave it up, because she could not stand the working environment in Egypt, the being constantly being squeezed for money, from the baksheesh-boys to the Egyptians higher up, and she has moved her interest further down the Nile, beyond the fourth or fifth or sixth cataract, and become, so I’ve heard, an expert on ancient Ethiopia. In a sense, she had a cataract operation, when the scales fell from her eyes.
Here’s just a sample of Zahi Hawass to be found here:
Zahi Hawwas, head of the Egyptian Antiquities Council, wrote in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that the “Jews of Palestine” are murderous by nature: “The concept of killing women, children and elderly people… seems to run in the blood of the Jews of Palestine. [In fact,] it seems to have become part of the false faith of this people, who is tormenting us in our [own] homeland.
“When I speak of the Jewish faith, I do not mean their [original] faith, but the faith that they forged and contaminated with their poison, which is aimed against all of mankind… The only thing that the Jews have learned from history is methods of tyranny and torment – so much so that they have become artists in this field. They have done to the Palestinians what Pharaoh and Sargon [of Akkad] did to the Jews…”
You get the idea. Same old, same very very very old.
Those who keep placing high hopes in Egypt should ask themselves what Egypt has done, over the past 40 years, to fulfill its side of the Camp David Accords. Has Israel been allowed to participate in the Cairo Film Festival? In Book Fairs? In anything at all? Does Egypt encourage Egyptians to visit Israel (as the Israelis so dearly wish), or does it do everything it can to discourage from doing so, and what’s still worse, does nothing to prevent those who do go from being subject to all kinds of physical threats for doing so?
Does Mubarak ever visit Israel, as a neighbor with whom he signed a treaty of peace, or has he, over the past forty years, come to Israel only once, for the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin, and has refused to come on any other occasion, though invited many times to be an honored guest? Remember, Israel scrupulously fulfilled its side of the bargain; it gave up tangible assets. It gave back to Egypt the entire Sinai (as it had done in 1956, only to see all of the solemn promises Nasser had made to the Great Powers ignored, with the last ones breached in mid-May 1967), together with sixteen billion dollars (in 1979 dollars) of infrastructure, which included roads, and the tourist complex of Sharm el-Sheikh (now a major source of foreign currency for Egypt), and three airfields built by Israel, and oilfields discovered and developed by Israel. And in return all it asked for was that Egypt cease hostile propaganda, and encourage, through tourism, and such things as film and book festivals, a friendlier attitude toward Israel and its people. What happened instead is that the Egyptians refused to allow Israelis to participate in events, attacked Egyptians who wanted a real peace with Israel, refused to allow Egyptian officials save for the Ambassador to visit, much less stay for a while, in Egypt. And in the government-controlled media, the people of Egypt were force-fed a steady of antisemitism, the apotheosis of this being the television series based on “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” that was put on a year or two ago.
Perhaps, with that further information, you will be able to better understand that what is being presented by Egypt, in stopping the celebration of the synagogue’s opening, as a justifiable reaction to supposed misdeeds by people cavorting inside the synagogue in unseemly fashion — what nonsense — is nothing of the kind. It was to be expected. And of course Egypt feels it can do this with impunity because, at the very same time, the Obama Administration tells the world that Israel is behaving badly, what with letting a project to build apartments in Jerusalem, one that has reached the fourth of seven stages, has deliberately announced in order to “insult” Biden, and then Hillary Clinton, treating Israel like a vassal state, spent nearly an hour on the phone berating Benjamin Netanyahu (I can imagine him gritting his teeth and bearing it).
Just a little more information. Just another angle from which to look at things.
It always helps.