Rabbi in Cairo Day 2
Day 2: Monday May 18,2009
A Rabbi in Egypt
Two major events today: a meeting with the Grand Mufti of Egypt and a visit to Shaarey Shamayim, the only synagogue in Cairo that still functions as a synagogue. The meeting with the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Ali Jama’a, the highest Muslim authority in Egypt took place at Dar al Iftah, the central location of the religious courts of Egypt. The Grand Mufti is the head of Dar al Iftah. Like everywhere else in Egypt we were so graciously welcomed into a room with couches and offered tea. We spent the next two hours talking with Ibrahim Jamin, a personal assistant to the Grand Mufti while we waited for the Grand Mufti – “who is on his way and will be here shortly”- to arrive.
Mr. Jamin spoke English fluently having spent eight years in the United States. He was friendly, honest and a very skilled public relations professional. He explained the history and structure of Dar al Iftah, which was very interesting and so similar to the process of Jewish religious courts and teshuvot, answers to practical Halachic questions.
After his description of the process of Islamic law, I asked him about the relationship of the Grand Mufti to the Jews of Egypt. His response began the same way as many others in the Arab world by making a distinction between the “political” and the “religious”. On a “religious” level there is full acceptance of the Jews, on the “political” level it is much more challenging because of the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Reflecting on his own experience as a child growing up in Egypt (probably in the 60’s) he said that what he knew about Jews was shaped by reading the Protocols of Elders of Zion. I was shocked. “Everyone I knew read the book and we all assumed that it reflected the truth about the Jews,” he added. He immediately acknowledged that he knew it was a forgery but said that many Egyptians regarded it as an accurate description of the Jews. While the Protocols was a well known text for him already as a child, several members of our delegation had never even heard of it. My new beloved friend, Imam Fawzi, told me after the meeting that several years ago a person in his community had given him a copy but he read only a page or two when he realized it was a fraudulent document written to promote hatred of Jews.
After the story about the Protocols, Dr. Jamin added that the attitude of the Egyptian people to the Jews is also shaped by the fact that Egypt has fought in three wars against Israel in which many Egyptian families lost loved ones. Lastly, the continued aggressive actions by Israel like the Gaza War exacerbated the hostility towards Jews. E
I followed up by asking him what the Grand Mufti has done to counter hatred of the Jews in Egyptian society as distinct from the attitude towards the State of Israel. He pointed to a statement that the Grand Mufti had issued to counter Holocaust deniers. During the Gaza War, the Grand Mufti issued a statement in response to some articles denying the Holocaust. He said publicly that the Holocaust did happen and added that what Israel was inflicting on the people of Gaza was another “Holocaust” He said the Grand Mufti was committed to fighting anti-Semitism but he couldn’t do it when the people were inflamed by actions of the Israeli government.
He was defensive when I said that it is almost impossible to be Jewish and live in Egypt. He claimed that Jews are fully accepted and the only challenge was the political issues related to the Arab-Israel conflict.
After close to two hours with Dr. Jamin, the Grand Mufti arrived. He came in said some nice words of welcome, asked us if we had any questions and before we had caught our breath, he got up to leave. Someone suggested a photo. I realized that this was the only an opportunity I may have to say anything to him again in my life. I introduced myself as a rabbi and said what an honor it was to meet him. I told him that it was a great source of sadness to so many Jews that the relatively warm relationship between Muslims and Jews in Egypt had dissolved into so much hatred. I added that there were many rabbis and Jews who wanted to do all we can to restore relations so that we, the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael, would once again see God in one another. I ended with InshAllah (May it be Allah’s will). He responded with a warm handshake, said how pleased and honored he was by our visit, and left.
For the Muslims in our group, even though the meeting was so short, it was a very important encounter filled with meaning. Over the two short days here our group has developed a deep love for one another and I was delighted for them. For me it was much more complex, another sobering reminder of how much antagonism there is towards Jews in Egypt.
When we left the room I noticed a really stunning Arab carving on the wall. My Muslim friends told me it is a list of the 99 names of God. In my mind it was a Muslim shiviti (the Jewish meditation object with the names of God and/or verses from Torah). I wanted to buy one and at night we had dinner with some of the leaders of the Society that we had met the previous night. Doha, a member of the group, offered to take me to a store that sold them. I didn’t like any I saw in the store and then realized that I wasn’t sure I wanted one unless it was really beautiful. As we were paying for a few small items, the owner asked Doha if I was a Muslim. She hesitated then said she didn’t know. I was silent, not sure what to say. When we left the store she told me that she feared that if she told him that I was Jewish that he would just tell us angrily to leave the store. I wondered what would have happened if I had just said I am Jewish. What is the worst that could have happened? He may have got angry. It may have had ramifications for Doha. What else?
We were once slaves in Egypt, now there are almost no Jews left in Egypt and after many centuries of a thriving community the people of Egypt hate the Jews. Until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved it is only likely to get yet worse. At dinner Mohammed, an amazing man who served as our interpreter asked me to help him learn Hebrew and offered to help me with learning Arabic. I really trust Mohammed. He is a beautiful soul who is determined not to perpetuate the conflict. Maybe there is some hope. InshAllah. B’Ezrat Hashem (With God’s help), maybe with a lot of God’s help.
Oh yes, the visit to the synagogue, but that may be the subject of my next report.