Why is Egypt Intent on Restoring Jewish Heritage Sites in a Country Devoid of Jews?
Pictured Above: Ben Ezra Synagogue, Cairo. Credit: Wikipedia.
By Ariel Ben Solomon
(JNS) The government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi recently announced a multimillion-dollar initiative to restore Jewish heritage sites throughout the country. Soon afterwards, the government backtracked, probably due to a public backlash.
“The Egyptian ministry of antiquities issued a correction saying the $71 million were intended for restoration of monuments of all three religions [Islam, Judaism and Christianity], and not only for Jewish monuments,” Zvi Mazel, Israel’s former ambassador to Egypt and a senior analyst with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told JNS.
“When I heard the news about that the enormous sum, I knew it was fake,” he said.
Egyptian antiquities minister Khaled al-Anani announced in December that roughly $70 million would be spent to restore Jewish heritage sites.
“Cairo has 13 synagogues, but only three of them are active: the Sha’ar Hashamayim Synagogue, the Ben Ezra Synagogue in the Abbassia neighborhood and the synagogue of the Karaite community,” wrote Ynet’s Smadar Perry.
The announcement by Egypt comes as Israel said that it plans to seek at least $250 billion from seven Arab countries, including Egypt, for expelling their Jewish communities following the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.
“The time has come to correct the historic injustice of the pogroms [against Jews] in seven Arab countries and Iran, and to restore, to hundreds of thousands of Jews who lost their property, what is rightfully theirs,” said Israel’s Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel.
Prior to 1948, Egypt was home to between 75,000 and 80,000 Jews. However, the country began to expel its Jews during the 1950s as tensions with Israel heightened. Only an estimated 100 mostly elderly Jews remain in the country today.
According to a report by Haisam Hassanein at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, D.C., “some local political pundits have responded by saying the initiative should not come at the expense of impoverished Egyptians, arguing that foreign Jews should pay for it instead.”
Cairo sees Jews and their organizations “as a gateway to U.S. policymakers,” said Hassanein, going on to point out that many Egyptians—particularly the religious, nationalists and leftists—view Israel “as an intolerable tool of American hegemony in the Middle East.”
Indeed, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi acknowledged for the first time that the Egyptian military is cooperating with Israel in the Sinai Peninsula against Islamic State-affiliated terror groups there.
“The Air Force sometimes needs to cross to the Israeli side. And that’s why we have a wide range of coordination with the Israelis,” El-Sisi told CBS’s “60 Minutes.”
Pompeo to outline the U.S. role in the region
While the notion of restoring Jewish sites in Egypt should be welcome, Jews around the world should not be misled into believing that there is a newfound national fascination of Jewish culture in Egypt, even for the few Jews who remain there. El-Sisi is operating purely based on realpolitik, just as he cooperates with Israel on defense and intelligence issues.
In particular, El-Sisi has been keen on forging close ties with U.S. President Donald Trump, which the Egyptian leader hopes can bolster the country’s fight against Islamic extremists by providing military assistance and also provide critical economic investment. In July, the Trump administration released $195 million in military aid to Egypt after withholding the funds due to the country’s human-rights record and relationship with North Korea.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is also planning to give a major foreign-policy speech in Cairo this week, where he will outline the U.S. role in the region.
The Egyptian masses and the Arab world as a whole are not going to change their attitude towards Israel overnight, and in the meantime, Israel will continue to promote ties with friendly governments both openly and covertly.
It is only a matter of time before no Jews are left in Egypt, and therefore the talk about refurbishing Jewish sites should be put in the proper context. To take care of rundown synagogues is a fine goal, but it should be understood that the effort, in essence, is a public-relations exercise meant to project a moderate view of El-Sisi to the Americans, the world, and mainly, to U.S. Jewish leaders.