Photo Credit: David Lisbona / Wikimedia Commons
Entrance to the ancient Jewish cemetery in Cairo, in the poverty-stricken Bassatine slums of the city

It was March 2016, in Cairo and we were four idealists determined to make it work. Dr Omer Salem of Yale and Al Azhar Universities had invited Rabbi Yaakov Nagen of the Otniel Yeshiva, Fullbright Scholar, Dr. Joseph Ringel and myself for non-stop meetings with Egyptian leaders in an effort at conciliation.

We were always navigating the dynamic Cairo traffic. There were no stoplights, which created a certain web of congeniality that connected both cars and pedestrians, as all agreed to ignore the faded paint lines on the street that should have indicated three traffic lanes — but they squeezed in a fourth! Pedestrians tend to thrust themselves into the street anywhere they like, weaving swiftly between the ever-moving cars that slow down but never seem to fully stop. Anything is possible there!

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A certain unspoken harmony reigns in the anarchy of Cairo traffic, and we echoed an impromptu harmony as we refined our approach on our way to each meeting, each one better than the last, that first day out. Redemption was just around the corner! The hour got late, we surrendered at midnight to much-needed sleep.

But it was inevitable that we would find ourselves out of step at some point. No matter how well meaning, cross-cultural work takes us out of our comfort zones, we offend without meaning to, even with the best of intentions.

The question is, how do you react when you hit a wall? Do you retreat to your familiar territory, or attempt to build a bridge?

Part of Salem’s vision is to return the assets of the Egyptian Jews and invite them back to Egypt. A renewed Egyptian Jewry would right the historical wrong of the expulsions of Jews from Arab lands in the mid-twentieth century, revitalize Islam in its ideal state as accepting of the People of the Book, and improve the economy, and he urges his Muslim Arab brethren to follow suit in every Arab state. A well-meaning vision that bred a clash.

The ancient Jewish Cemetery in Cairo

Magda Haroun, president of the dwindling Jewish community, informed us of the sorry state of the ancient Jewish cemetery in Cairo, located in the Bassatine district.

Migrants from rural areas had squatted in and around it, using cemetery vaults as living spaces and workplaces. Marble grave markers were stolen. The former head of the Egyptian Jewish community, Carmen Weinstein, evicted the squatters and built a wall around the area. However, densely-packed slums continue to endanger the site due to its being used as a dumping ground for trash, with poor sewage systems that overflow into the cemetery itself.

“I cannot just build a wall,” Ms. Haroun said. “The whole area needs renovating. If the Egyptian Jewish Diaspora would assist us in renovating the Bassatine slums, then the residents there will be the first to take care of the Jewish cemetery.”

Philanthropic efforts from the world Jewish community would build healthy bridges with the residents of Bassatine, who will take pride in their local historic landmark as they benefit from tourism. The Jewish community will be seen as an ally and caring neighbor. Such a philanthropic act would surely mend relations in the Middle East, between Muslim and Jew, between Israel and Egypt.

Yehuda Stolov of the Interfaith Encounter Association comments, “It is important that the Jewish community involve itself in holistic approaches to preserving its sites and artifacts in the Middle East. Contributing to the renovation of the Bassatine district can be a wonderful example of such mutually beneficial endeavors.”

But . . . the Torah Scrolls

Ms. Haroun told us that when she has requested assistance for the slums, she has been told, “We also need to save the Torah scrolls.” And saving the Torah scrolls, she’s been told, means exporting them to lands with vibrant Jewish communities where they will be used.

Ms> Haroun, however, believes the Torah scrolls should remain in Egypt. “They will remain here, and should the synagogue close, they will go to an Egyptian museum. They are treasures of Egyptian Jewish heritage and we will not part with them,” she maintains. This is part of her demand that the Egyptian population recognize and respect the flourishing Jewish community that once was. To this Egyptian Jewish leader, removing the scrolls would be tantamount to erasing a vibrant history about which the aging Jewish population, numbering six, reminisces.

But traditionalists feel the Torah scrolls are meant to be used, not placed in a museum, no matter how fancy and honorable the display. This obviously was a sore point with Salem and he piped in, “They should remain here and Jews should return here. Jews always had it better under Muslim rule than they had in Europe…”

I felt Salem to be out of line. The cemetery is in danger; who will really care for the Torah scrolls? Also, excuse me, but Jews were evicted from their beloved homes in Arab lands, and here he was expostulating about some return of Jewry, as if the last half a century of expulsions could be easily swept under the carpet.

The idealist that got a Rabbi, a Jewish professor, and a Hareidi-religious correspondent on this trip was off on his own tangent. A Muslim jealously guarding Torah scrolls. Absurd! My annoyance was rising. “Let us handle it, this should not be coming from you.” I directed.

Suddenly we were ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ . Who had stepped out of line?

I was at once touched and offended that a traditional Sunni Muslim would jealously guard my Torah scrolls. This was not his area, let the Jews handle this.

Salem likewise was in his home country on his home turf protecting Egyptian treasures that could be a key back to a better time and thus a better future, and here I was ordering him to pipe down.

This was his country, not mine. Those were my Torah scrolls, not his!

I put my feelings on paper that night: “The harmony that I so enjoyed yesterday has slipped out of my hands.” So we hit a wall. Well, we had to take that risk.

Why not just leave it at that? Just proves all these efforts are futile, let’s remain divided, emphasize where we differ, why even care at all?

Let’s take a break from my travelogue and admit a collective flaw we have in humanity. Disliking the ‘Other’ has its upside. It preserves your identity, can be used to prevent assimilation, intermarriage, or self-improvement. If the Other has little worth, who really cares if he is, say, more polite than I and I could learn a thing or two. You do not “race for virtue” with one who is unworthy; in this sense, prejudice helps you relax.

Within a people prejudice is a nifty way for blocking out other streams we want to avoid. Inflammatory rhetoric does indeed exist in the Orthodox Jewish media against the non-Orthodox, and vice versa, but we do not protest when our stream engages in it.

Tajfel and Turners’ Social Identity Theory, put forth in 1979, discusses identity based on perceived belonging to a social group. They hold that identity can be a positive force in building self-esteem, but there lurks the danger of discrimination based upon who is perceived to be within a group and who is perceived to be outside that group. Groupings need not be based on race or religion, but can be transitory states such as belonging to a club or a sports team.

But people inevitably have an identity, and there are a variety of clashing identities everywhere. Is all lost? No way. One need not fear a strong religious or ethnic identity when seen in the light of the seven Noahide laws; in Jewish tradition these basic laws render the variety of religious expressions worldwide acceptable as long as they hold to these seven categories of standards.

Nineteenth century Italian Rabbi Eliyahu Benamozegh, in his magnum opus, “Israel and Humanity”, discusses the necessity of diversity. He compares it to groups of craftspeople who gather to build a palace for the king. The varied talents of the carpenters, bricklayers, engineers, and so forth are essential in the project; the diet, clothing, and training of each group necessarily differ. Mixing of talents and techniques between groups would reduce the specialty needed to create the most perfect palace. The goal of them all is the same.

And we find in the Qur’anic verses in Surat al-Maeda, 5:48:
To each among you have we prescribed a law and an open way.” (ie, variety in religious expression is assumed. Here we have one of the many sources for the Islamic acceptance of the People of the Book). “If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to Allah; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which ye differ.”

Not only will there be variety, there should be variety: varied human races and faiths lead ideally to a race for virtue, a competition in piety and humanity.

Thus, both Islam and Judaism possess strong frameworks for both group identity as well as tolerance.

The stronger your identity, the less you need your prejudices to protect you. The more you love God and His Teachings, the more you do what is right and simply avoid what is wrong.

But the fear that permeates our people – fear of assimilation, of losing one’s identity, of outright sin, may tip the balance, and negative rhetoric reigns again.

To love a variety of people in a world in which we are scattered means that part of your heart is in exile. You will miss people that you do not have easy access to. To love or respect an Other means that you are held to standards that you may need to strive for.

Even when identical teachings exist both in Judaism and Islam, I find it refreshing and inspiring to hear beauty echoed in each set of Scriptures.

Rabbi Nagen would repeatedly quote his favorite Mishna throughout the trip: “The most beautiful Mishna in the world is – ‘He who kills one person kills a whole world, and he who saves a life saves a world.’ This is also in the Qur’an. This celebrates our common humanity, our individuality, and the sanctity of life.”

You need the one-on-one contact. It opens the heart and makes you stronger in your path. And you need to risk the friction that inevitably arises among peoples and personalities. You may indeed hit a wall; what next?

Salem also felt the rift, and came up with a proposal: “The Torah scrolls can be lent out to the Egyptian Jewish Diaspora, to be returned with the return of Egyptian Jewry to Egypt and/or the re-establishment of a Jewish community in Egypt.”

Sometimes you have to hit a wall, feel the rift, in order to build a new bridge.

As for renovating the Bassatine slums: I love the idea. Any takers?

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