9/7/09

hate 4 folks that we havent even met?

CAIRO — Egyptians generally do not make any distinction between Jewish people and Israelis. Israelis are seen as the enemy, so Jews are, too.


Restoration work being done last month at a synagogue where Moses Maimonides once worked and studied in Cairo.

Khalid Badr, 40, is pretty typical, asked his feelings about Jews, he replied matter-of-factly. “We hate them for everything they have done to us,” Mr. Badr said, as casually as if he had been asked the time.

But Mr. Badr’s ideas have recently been challenged. He has had to confront the reality that his neighborhood was once filled with Jews — Egyptian Jews — and that his nation’s history is interwoven with Jewish history. Not far from his shop, down narrow, winding alley once called the Alley of the Jews, the government is busy renovating an abandoned, dilapidated synagogue.

In fact, the government is not just renovating the crumbling, flooded old building. It is publicly embracing its Jewish past — not the kind of thing you ordinarily hear from Egyptian officials.

Zahi Hawass, general secretary of the Supreme Council of Antiquities said, who in the past has written negatively about Jews because of the clash between Israel and the Palestinians. “It is part of our heritage.” 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 anger toward Israel and the deep, widespread anti-Semitism — the government initially insisted that its activities remain secret.

“They told us ‘We are doing these things, but you can’t tell anybody about it,’ ” said Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee. “This was such a reverse of what we experience in Eastern Europe, where governments don’t do much but want to present the picture they are doing things. In Egypt they were doing things, but, ‘Shhh, don’t let anybody know!’ ”

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

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.

“The irony is they have done something,” Rabbi Baker said. “It goes back at least several years now. They didn’t want to do it in a formal relationship with us. They said, ‘We accept this as our responsibility to care for our Jewish heritage, so we will do things ourselves.’”

For Egyptians like Mr. Hawass, who seems most comfortable around Pharaonic tombs and mummies, speaking about Egypt’s Jewish past with pride has required a degree of finesse. Mr. Hawass has in the past refused a suggestion by the American Jewish Committee to consider building a small museum to house Egypt’s historic Jewish artifacts, as the government has done to preserve many of Egypt’s Christian artifacts.

“As Muslims or as Christians, it might not be ours, but as Egyptians it is ours,” Mr. Yousef’s son, Sameh, 27, said of the synagogue after sitting quietly for much of the conversation. “It may not be our religion, but as a building it is our heritage.”

Mona El-Naggar contributed reporting.

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