Magda Haroun: Last caretaker of Egypt's dwindling Jewish community?

Dina Ezzat, Wednesday 24 Apr 2013

Succeeding the recently deceased Carmen Weinstein, Magda Haroun may turn out to be the once-thriving Jewish-Egyptian community's final custodian

Leader of Egyptian Jewish Community Magda Haroun (Photo: Ayman Hafez)

She is the new head of an ever dwindling community whose presence is either overlooked, forgotten or shrouded with a veil of mystery, ambiguity, forbidden nostalgia and inhibiting suspicion.

Magda Haroun, however, is a lady who carries the weight of a unique personal legacy and the responsibility of much heritage, which is at once both emotional and cultural.

Haroun is barely into her first month as chairperson of Egypt's small and ageing Jewish community, whose exact numbers she still needs to learn. She will probably be the last chairperson of this community, given the fact that there are only scores of elderly Jewish ladies left in this country and that she and her sister Nadia, both of whom are approaching their 60s, represent the youngest of Egyptian Jewry.

"I was just telling Nadia that we will probably be the last two, and one of us would go and let the other close the door on that long, rich and diverse story of Egyptian Jewry," Haroun told Ahram Online in an interview following her unanimous election as chair of this community that had been an integral part of Egyptian society, indeed of Egyptian culture, until the declaration of the state of Israel over six decades ago.

A shrinking demographic

According to Jacques Hassoun's Histoire des Juifs du Nil, in 1948 there were about 76,000 Jews in Egypt. By 1967, the number of this wide and diverse community – whose members lived comfortably in many governorates, assumed all types of jobs and were represented in parliament, government and constitution-drafting committees – had fallen to a mere 2,000.

Hassoun's book, which was translated into Arabic by the legendary Youssef Darwich – a lawyer who willingly converted to Islam to ensure that he was indistinguishable from mainstream Egyptians so that he might defend their rights – was printed by Al-Shorouk in 2007. It was a time of growing interest in this chapter of contemporary Egyptian history, part of a wider public interest in Egypt prior to the 1952 Revolution.

This month, this interest was renewed with the demise of Carmen Weinstein, the 'Iron Lady' of the Jewish community who kept things in check and made sure to follow up on the maintenance of a once rich heritage of houses, stores and synagogues. Weinstein passed away earlier this month, and she was bid a farewell that showed a new interest in this community.

This interest about the Jews of Egypt, however, was not enough to draw people to the funeral, which was attended by the Israel ambassador to Egypt.

On that day, and as she looked at the wide and diverse group of Egyptian citizens present in the Adly Street synagogue, Haroun realised that she needed to work hard to keep the "Jewish-Egyptian heritage intact so as to be able to once turn in the keys to this nation; this heritage is ultimately an Egyptian heritage; it belongs to the Egyptian people."

Haroun knows that it will not be an Egyptian Jew who will look after this heritage once she and her sister are no longer there. She is convinced, as she told Ahram Online, that none of those Jews who left Egypt would come back to live here and look after this heritage.

"Those who are gone have been away for far too long to come back; they have their lives elsewhere. They might come back out of nostalgia and their children or grandchildren might come back out of interest, but ultimately it is the people who live in this country who will ensure this heritage is protected," Haroun asserted.

The Israel factor

According to the book 'The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry' by historian Joel Beinin, most Egyptian Jews who left Egypt between the years 1948 and 1967 went to Europe and the US – with less than 30 percent of the community leaving to Israel, where they did not necessarily stay on. 

The years between 1948 and 1967 were very hard for Arab countries. The state of Israel was founded as ‘a homeland’ for Jewish people, with Jews from many Arab countries, including a few from Egypt, migrating there.

Israel was built against the backdrop of Zionist groups' massacres of Palestinians, with whole villages wiped out.

The active Egyptian Jewish rejection of Zionism was missed in the midst of the overwhelming images and news of the Palestinian 'nakba' or catastrophe.

The animosity grew bigger with harsher and more painful experiences, whereby Egyptian territories were occupied during the wars of 1956 and 1967 – the latter particularly being devastating.

According to Hassoun's book, the reflections of Darwich and accounts by Albert Arie, an elderly Jew who converted to Islam to marry a Muslim woman, Egypt was home and Israel was the embodiment of Zionism – something that should not be there in the first place.

This was exactly the sentiment of yet another member of this leftist-Francophone group of early 20th-century Egyptian Jews: Shehata Haroun, Magda's own father.

In the 1950s, Haroun declined to take his leukaemia-suffering daughter Mona, an infant at the time, overseas for medical treatment because he declined to have a 'no return' stamp on his passport – something that many other Jews agreed to when they left Egypt.

This was especially the case in the 1950s, after the 1954 Operation Susannah, in which some Egyptian Jews had been involved in espionage for Israel, and the 1956 'tripartite attack' by France, the UK and Israel against Egypt in retaliation for President Nasser's nationalisation of the Suez Canal.

"My father never told me about Mona; her name was not uttered in our house – not by him and not by my mother; they must have been hurting so much," said Haroun.

Identity crises

It was only when Haroun was in her 20s that she coincidently learned of an elder sister who had passed away and was buried in the Jewish cemeteries at Bassatine so that the family of leftist and secular Jewish Egyptian lawyer Shehata Haroun could stay in this country.

"I was visiting a maternal aunt in Paris and we were looking at some old photographs of me as a kid because I never got to see these pictures at home, and suddenly I saw a picture of me and a bigger me," Haroun recalled.

When she came back to Cairo, she never brought up the subject with her father. "I just felt very sorry for the sorrow he had to go through," she said.

Haroun is, however, aware of other moments of pain that her father and her family had to go through in the 1950s and beyond.

In 1967, as Egypt was coming under attack by Israel, Haroun's father called up the chairman of the lawyers syndicate and said he wanted to join the Egyptian army to defend his country against foreign aggression.

"That was exactly my sentiment too," Haroun recalled. "I was thinking that among those who are fighting on the other side there might be close or distant relatives, but as far as I was concerned, Egypt was attacked and whoever attacked Egypt was the enemy."

Arriving at her downtown home amid Israeli hostilities, Haroun found her father sitting in the middle of the living room with a small bag of a few clothing items and talking to an officer. "I was so happy because I thought that I was lucky enough to catch him before he went to the war and I told him that I wanted to go with him," Haroun remembered.

A sad look in the eyes of the father and a quick remark in French from her mother disclosed the sad news: Shehata Hoaroun was not going to the front to help defend Egypt, as he had wanted, but was being arrested.

The arrest of Jews during the 1967 war, according to Hassoun's book, was done in parallel with the arrest of Muslims – especially Muslim Brotherhood members – and Copts. And violations during imprisonment were something that all those rounded up were subject to, just as sympathy was something that they all shared beyond any faith, borders or political disagreements.

Together, as the book and other historians' accounts reveal, they followed news of the attack by what most of those in jail perceived as 'the enemy' of Egypt.

For Haroun, Israel "is still the enemy." "There is no logic in building a state for the followers of one faith; there is no logic there. Why can’t we all live together? In this country we all lived together; our diversity was a source of strength," she laments. "But this is something of the past now; it was another time and another era."

Growing up Jewish

For Haroun, the past is full of memories. Many of them, she insists, are beautiful memories of growing up in an intellectual environment and attending the French Lycee in Cairo's Bab Al-Louq, where she was known for being the mischievous one.

Haroun's Jewishness was not an issue – given the secular nature of her father and the norms of the time regarding interacting faiths. But inevitably, it had to come through. It came in a mild version when she joined Christian girls who were separated from their Muslim counterparts for religion class and she realised that she was not Christian.

"I was not allowed to sit in with either group. I was sent to the place of the school where girls who were caught doing something wrong were sent to for punishment," Haroun recalled with a smile.

The tough moment, however, came in the wake of the 1967 war, when a teacher of history referred to the Israeli attack against Egypt as a 'Jewish' attack. "I remember the girls turning back to look at me on the last seat of the class, where I always chose to sit to avoid the direct attention of teachers; I remember standing up and leaving class."

On that day, Magda went home with her eyes full of tears and with a wish that she told to her father to not let her go back to school. "He looked at me and said: 'Magda, do you know that this discrimination that you just faced today is something that Arab Palestinians are faced with almost every day at Israeli schools? Do you think they will all stop going to school?"

The following day, Haroun recalls, she went to school and her father got her teacher, through a letter to the headmistress, to apologise for unwittingly confusing Jews and Israelis.

The apology by Haroun’s teacher there and then did not mean that the inevitable confusion would not prevail, and that more and more of the already downsized Jewish community would leave.

"I remember that one day my aunt came with her children and my grandmother came. I remember my cousin and I were playing and running around and hiding behind the sheets that my grandmother and my aunt were holding across each from a side [a traditional Egyptian way of tying sheets properly] and then they were gone. I remember the dwindling presence of Jewish girls from school. Elene was the last to disappear; they kept leaving and nobody talked about it," Haroun stated.

End of an era

Today, Haroun seems to hold no grievances. "We go by in our lives and we keep losing things. We keep some memories and we are lucky if we manage to keep those until we go," said the daughter of a man who died in 2001 after having suffered from Alzheimer's, which stripped him of the many details of a very rich life and kept him asking if he was "still in Egypt" or not.

Those Jews, mostly elderly ladies, who are still in Egypt now, are unlikely to go anywhere.

"There is this lady who for the past 15 years since her mother died keeps saying she is preparing her luggage to go join relatives in San Francisco, but since 1997 she has been saying that she had only packed seven out of 15 suitcases. She will never go and I don’t think she ever wanted to go," Haroun said.

Making sure that the members of the Jewish communities are well looked after is the chief task that Haroun must attend to now. Another is to make sure that Jewish monuments are well maintained and kept "by Egyptians."

Haroun also needs to work on the documentation of this community whose years are fast dwindling.

"One day, not far away, there will be no Egyptian Jew living in this country, but there will be a legacy of Egyptian Jews who were like other people, good and bad, rich and poor, observant and secular – but they were there; and their cemeteries and synagogues – like their memoires and pictures – will still be there," Haroun concluded with a deep sigh.

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