On October 6, 1981 a dream of peace between Egypt and Israel was fading. It was on that day that the third President of the Republic of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated by a group of military officers who objected to his negotiations with Menachem Begin and Golda Meir for a formal peace treaty between the two countries.
Those who watched President Sadat’s first arrival in Israel were deeply impressed by his friendly smile and his cordial greetings to our Prime Minister and officials on the tarmac who welcomed him warmly to Israel. Aahlan bik, Mr. President. Welcome to Israel.
Like Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat sought to end the wars between the two nations and to strive for a lasting peace between them. Sadat said “peace is more precious than a piece of land…let there be no more wars”.
Since the treaty was signed, relations between the two countries were formal and vacillated between lukewarm and cool. Nevertheless, in spite of disagreements, the peace held firm and ambassadors were exchanged between Cairo and Jerusalem.
In July 1974, several years before the peace treaty was signed, I was in Egypt (under a non-Israeli passport) to visit the remnants of the Jewish community in Cairo. I met with Felix Ischaki, leader of the Jewish community, in his small apartment. He lamented the decline of the once-flourishing Jewish communal life but insisted that Jews were free to worship in the few synagogues.
On a Shabbat morning, I attended services at the largest synagogue still open in downtown Cairo, the Sha’ar Shamayim synagogue on Adly street, the main street in downtown Cairo. The synagogue was built in 1905. On its front and rear doors, large magen davids are engraved. Because it is on the main street (the 5th Avenue or Champs Elysees of Cairo), Egyptians pass by it daily.
On the Shabbat I visited there were two women sitting in upper balconies and only a few men (no minyan) chatting in Arabic. The siddurim were old and had been printed in Austria at the turn of the 20th century. The men looked at me curiously and addressed me in Arabic.
I replied in French that I was a Jew and did not speak Arabic. They wanted to know the purpose of my visit to Egypt and I told them I had come to see the pyramids in Giza and the fabled sphynx, wonders of the ancient world.
As there was no prayer service and the men were not very cordial, I wished them a shalom in Hebrew and I left.
In 1953, Egypt’s first President, Mohammed Naguib, visited the synagogue on Yom Kippur to extend greetings to the Jewish worshippers.
Another famous synagogue, the Ben-Ezra, is located in the Fustat region of Old Cairo in the Coptic district. It was built in the year 882 and contains Torah scrolls written on red deerskin parchment, and
one is rumored to have been brought to Egypt by the prophet Jeremiah when he sought asylum in Egypt.
One of the highlights of my visit was an official invitation to meet with the Minister of Information, Dr. Kamal Abou Elmagd in the main building which houses all the offices of the Egyptian government.
He knew that I was a Jew and asked about my feelings to Israel. He asked me if I was a Zionist.
I replied, “Your Excellency, you are a Muslim and an Egyptian. Yet when you pray, you face Mecca and address your prayers to God in a Saudi Arabian city. Likewise, I am a Jew and I face Jerusalem when I pray, since that is the ancient religious custom of Jews all over the world”.
He smiled and replied, “Yes, I understand”.
At the end of our meeting, he gave me a gift album, “Arab Republic of Egypt” and he inscribed it to me with my name and the comment “with best wishes and a shared hope for a just and permanent peace in the Middle East”.
That seems to be the phrase repeated frequently by Egyptian spokepersons.
On July 18, 1974, in Tel-Aviv, I joined a group of men who were meeting with Shimon Peres, then our Minister of Defense. I told him of my visit in Egypt and expressed my opinion that the Egyptians were interested in a peace with Israel. At least, that is what I heard from several Egyptians.
But Shimon Peres was not impressed and told me, “adoni ha tzair, yesh chalomot aval nidmeh li she zeh lo chalom achshav”… “young man (I really was young then), there are dreams but it seems to me that this is not a dream right now.”
Fortunately, he was wrong. Sadat and Begin made the dream of peace come true.
Now we have a new Egyptian ambassador. Hazam Khairat presented his credentials to President Rivlin and he signed the official guestbook in the frequent Egyptian thought “a comprehensive and a just peace”.
Aahlan Bik, Ambassador Khairat. Welcome to Israel. I hope you’ll be happy and successful here.
However, I think you will find Egyptian falafel tastier than the Israeli ones.