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October 28, 2016 / 26 Tishri, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘community’

Community Currents – July 8, 2016

Wednesday, July 6th, 2016

Jewish Press Staff

A Meeting with Magda Haroun, Head of Egypt’s Jewish Community

Sunday, July 3rd, 2016

Hard to believe our trip to Egypt lasted only four days given all the meetings we jammed into it. Dr Omer Salem hosted Rabbi Yaakov Nagen of the Otniel Yeshiva, Fulbright Scholar Dr Joseph Ringel and myself for a tour of Cairo in March 2016, to help develop personal relationships, so needed between our peoples.

We assumed that theology was the real stumbling block between Muslim and Jew, and expected to enter into theological debate. We found, however, that the overriding concern of those we met was the quality of life for their Arab brethren in the Holy Land.

We also learned that misinformation abounds in Egypt concerning the various philosophies that led to the founding of the state of Israel. We frequently heard this phrase, ‘Israel was founded only to be a Jewish state.’ This is inaccurate both from a religious perspective and from that of the founders of modern Zionism. The Torah has an extensive framework for the inclusion of the non-Jewish “ger toshav”, based upon Talmudic tractate Avodah Zarah 64b -65a, and Leviticus 19:33-34: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not taunt him. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native from among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt, I am the Lord your God.”

Regarding the oft-repeated statement, ‘Israel was founded only to be a Jewish state’ – Dr Joseph Ringel shares: “when I began learning Arabic, I was exposed to this perception in the Arab world.” And he was inspired to educate himself further. “The chief theorists for the Zionist movement, Theodore Herzl and Asher Ginsberg (pen-name: Ahad ha-‘Am) held that Arabs had an important rule to play in Jewish society in the land of Israel and demanded they be treated equally. Aspects of religious Zionism had a strong universal element believing that Zion would become the harbinger of the messianic age and the conduit for divine blessing to flow to the entire world. Socialist Zionists regarded Zion as a place to create an ideal equality between all classes and ethnicities – Arabs included. The fact that less conciliatory voices exist does not mean Zionism as a whole is tainted; indeed, the existence of violent people in any national or religious movement does not mean the entire movement is tainted.”

We thus need to ensure we are educated about the rights of the non-Jewish residents of the land of Israel, as enshrined both in Torah and in modern Zionist thought.

Most importantly, we must ensure these rights are a reality. This closes the loop with the above noted concern expressed to us in Egypt – the condition of their Arab brethren in the Holy Land.

Dr Ringel adds, “the point of dialogue is to face various perceptions, shedding light upon who we are, and learning from each other.”

Here is one example:

Magda Haroun, President of the Egyptian Jewish Community

Magda Haroun deserves credit. The head of what remains of Egypt’s Jewish community, she openly maintains her Jewish identity at self-sacrifice, and reminisces about a cosmopolitan, tolerant Egyptian past, the memory of which she insists must be preserved.

She graciously hosted us at the Shaarei Shamayim synagogue, Adly Street, Cairo. Hesitating a little before this small group of kippa-clad and scarf wearing orthodox Jews, she said, “I have views you probably will not agree with.” Rabbi Yaakov Nagen wisely responded, “we want to hear your views, if we wanted to hear only what we agree with. we could have stayed at home.”

First, some stories of Magda defending her Jewish identity in the face of rejection. When she was a child in school, the teacher denigrated Jews. The entire class turned to look at her, and she walked out. As a young adult, she requested a birth certificate, and the officials demanded her full contact information. When she asked why, they responded – “for security reasons,” as they suspected every Jew of spying for Israel. She refused to furnish the information, and left without a certificate. 1

She told us that upon her divorce, she retained her Jewish identity despite the threat that her husband, as a Muslim divorcing a non-Muslim wife, could take custody of their daughters at any time. She thus did not admit that she could not afford the girls’ expenses when he witheld financial support. She refused to give up her Jewish identity, even to rid herself of the constant threat she would lose her daughters.

Magda Haroun holds onto her dream, and her dream is this: Egyptian society will reclaim its cosmopolitan and tolerant heritage. Dr Ringel shared, “I studied the history of Jews in the Islamic world, and I know Egyptian Jews, some of whom were expelled, some of whom had traumatic experiences but some of whom have very strong memories. What I love about Egypt’s history is that it was such a beautiful culture. Egypt was a refuge for Jews from Yemen and from Russia, from Syria and Iraq. Yiddish was spoken here, both Karaites and Rabbinites lived here, and they all got along.”

Magda nodded enthusiastically, we were on the same page. She added, “Egypt was the land of refuge for people suffering all over the world. Look at Musa Ibn Maimon (Maimonedes), he was on the way to Palestine but he came through here and stayed here and died here.”

And she offers an inspiring humanitarian proposal. One of the Jewish cemeteries is under threat of falling into disrepair and neglect. It is located in the middle of the Bassateen slums. Magda’s dream is to get the Jewish community worldwide involved in renovating the slums, developing its schools and parks. “I cannot just build a wall around the slums. When the area will be developed, the residents of Bassateen will be the first to take care of the Jewish cemetery.” And they will feel positively about Jews as well.

I was in the company of visionaries. A great moment. Then we started getting out of step on two subjects: Magda’s view of the state of Israel, and the future of the remaining Torah scrolls in Egypt. But hang on, getting out of step during efforts at dialogue is to be expected.

Divisions in her School; Seeing her Relatives Emigrate

Regarding her view of the state of Israel, I wish to provide a bit of context first. Magda described what it was like as a child to suddenly have her schoolmates divided along religious lines. She studied in a French school, a lycee, and never knew who was Christian, Jew or Muslim, until they started imposing religion in the schools, after 1956. Then, they were divided up and sent to different classes to learn their own religion. No classes for Judaism, Magda was sent to the detention room.

Magda continues, “It was painful for me to see my relatives leave Egypt. They left for two reasons, the founding of the state of Israel and the rise of pan-Arabism. My father was a humanitarian, he loved humanity, in front of G-d, in front of each other, we are all equal. I never learned to make a difference

between black, white, poor, rich. When we were all divided up along religious lines at school, I said to my father that my Christian friends know what to do to make G-d happy, my Muslim friends know what to do to make G-d happy, what am I supposed to do? He led me to the mirror and said, ‘if when you look at yourself in the mirror, your eyes do not go down in shame, you know you have hurt no one, then you are making G-d happy.’ ”

Loyalty to Your Country – Even When that Country Betrays You

Magda made a statement that I would hear as a sentiment shared by other Egyptian Jews in days past: ”I was born in Egypt, I will live in Egypt and I will die in Egypt.”

That tenacity of identity and loyalty did not prevent the expulsion of the Jewish community from Egypt in the late 1950’s. Dr Ringel elaborates: the expulsions began under Nasser, following the 1956 war. Many Jews who lived in Egypt were not Egyptian citizens, as most of the Jews (with the exception of the indigenous Jewish population) hailed from foreign countries, which included Ottoman lands, Eastern Europe and Italy. Egypt was under de facto British control until after World War ll, despite some local autonomy, so that it made sense for these often multi-lingual families to acquire European passports. In addition, once autonomous Egypt began registering its population for citizenship, there was some discrimination against non-Muslims. In 1956, Nasser nationalized all foreign assets, and the fact that many Jews still only had European passports, despite their having lived in Egypt for a number of generations, made the expulsions easier to implement.

Magda said that a member of the Muslim brotherhood, Mr Essam El Eryan, did express regrets about the expulsions. “I thanked him for opening the Pandora’s box, but it is going to be very difficult for Jews to return, they left and put their roots in other countries already.”

And now there were six. Not six thousand or six hundred, but six Jews left in Egypt. But Magda was holding on, echoing a proud (though not very effective) Egyptian Jewish sentiment, determined to preserve the cosmopolitan ideal.

Haroun’s Demand: Egypt Must Honor its Jewish Heritage

When she became leader of Egypt’s Jewish community in 2013, Magda gave interviews in Egyptian newspapers and on television, with the conviction that Egyptian society be aware of its former thriving Jewish society and that the nation’s remaining Jews should be respected. She told us, “I walk in the streets and people know I am a Jew.” When I asked, “Do you feel safe in Egypt?” she responded adamantly “Of course I do!” She admits her sense of security is not shared by the other Jews who remain. “They are afraid of being suspected as spies for Israel.” So her stance is part reality, part ideological determination.

Magda said, “I have asked for help from Jewish communities around the world to preserve the Bassateen area because it is part of the heritage of this country. They want something in return.” She paused, her tone foreboding, grim, “they want the Torah scrolls.”

Dr Ringel explained, “they are afraid the Torah scrolls will go into disuse” and added that in order to achieve conciliation, the challenge of preserving both the Torah scrolls and the Jewish cemeteries should not be linked. Keep the issues separate. (He emphasizes that he was speaking as a private citizen in reaction to the information presented to him at the time and not representing any side.)


Dr Joseph Ringel with the Torah scrolls

Dr Joseph Ringel with the Torah scrolls

Keeping issues separate is probably a good rule of thumb in conciliation work. Right the wrong, improve a situation, without bartering. Deuteronomy 16:20 – “Righteousness, righteousness you shall pursue so that you will live and take possession of the land that Hashem, your G-d, gives you.” The pasuk does not say to pursue justice as long as you get something in return. Psalm 43:15 – “Seek peace and pursue it.” According to the Midrash: “Seek peace, and pursue it means that you should seek it in your own place, and pursue it even to another place as well.” (Leviticus Rabbah 9:9)

Magda Haroun and the State of Israel

Magda does not take money from Israel nor does she use a Rabbi from Israel. Her position against Zionism is part of her conviction in a cosmopolitan, varied society, and that a state in the modern age

should not be based on religion. “Maybe it made sense in the sixth century, but not today.” And she joined in the street protests in Cairo, 2011, against an Islamic government.

Her stance may also be influenced by the fact that, according to physician and author Dr Wakif Moustafa, “There are still laws on the Egyptian statute that criminalize Zionism and, should any Egyptian citizen declare themselves a Zionist, they risk losing their citizenship.”

Her boycott of Israel may well soften. Sure makes me feel bad. Indeed, Egyptian leaders such as Dr. Aly ElSamman call for the softening of the tatbia – boycott – of Israel. “Tatbia is not logical or ethical, we have a peace agreement.” 2

As the tide changes and there are increased calls in Egypt towards warmer relations with Israel, perhaps the relations between Israel’s Jews and the remaining Egyptian Jews can warm up as well.

Magda’s view of the state of Israel was a challenge to me, though it must be understood that it is a nuanced view, and as Rabbi Nagen said, “if we wanted to hear only what we agree with, we could have stayed home.”

And a further challenge waited in the wings – see next article: Hitting a Wall, Building a New Bridge. You Need to Take that Risk.

{This two part article emphasizes the process of conciliation and its challenges, it is not an exhaustive piece on Ms Haroun’s views and personal history.}

For more information on Magda Haroun, see:



See also:

Egypt: The Elusive Arab Spring, Dr. Wakif Mustafa, Gilgamesh Publishing 2014

Rights of the Ger Toshav in the Land of Israel: http://www.wikinoah.org/index.php?title=Ger_Toshav

Rebecca Abrahamson

Community Currents – July 1, 2016

Wednesday, June 29th, 2016

Jewish Press Staff

The Community Well

Monday, June 27th, 2016

Back in the olden days, people used to gather around the community well and collect their water.

Due to poor infrastructure planning, and unexpectedly low regional rain, some communities in the Shomron find themselves returning to those olden times, gathering around the modern version of that ancient watering hole.

Video of the Day

Community Currents – June 24, 2016

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016

Jewish Press Staff

Community Currents – June 17, 2016

Wednesday, June 15th, 2016

Jewish Press Staff

Community Currents – June 10, 2016

Wednesday, June 8th, 2016

Jewish Press Staff

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/community/community-currents/community-currents-june-10-2016/2016/06/08/

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