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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Reason for cynicism about Egypt's new love of synagogues

Last month I mentioned that Egypt was restoring an ancient Egyptian synagogue. Even though it sounds like a great idea, I was somewhat cynical as to Egypt's motives.

It looks like my cynicism was correct, even as my guess as to motive was somewhat misplaced:
Egyptians generally do not make any distinction between Jewish people and Israelis. Israelis are seen as the enemy, so Jews are, too.

Khalid Badr, 40, is pretty typical in that regard, living in a neighborhood of winding, rutted roads in Old Cairo, selling snacks from a kiosk while listening to the Koran on the radio. 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 another 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.

“If you don’t restore the Jewish synagogues, you lose a part of your history,” said Zahi Hawass, general secretary of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, who in the past has written negatively about Jews because of the clash between Israel and the Palestinians. “It is part of our heritage.”

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.

For Egyptians like Mr. Hawass, 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.

“If you make a museum like that while Israel is killing Palestinian children, people will kill me,” he said.