The king is dead, long live the king. Or in the case of Cairo’s Jewish community – the queen is dead, long live the queen.
Carmen Weinstein, 82 (or according to some reports, 84), who led the community over the last 15 years, was buried on Thursday but her successor had already been chosen on Monday.
The chain-smoking Magda Haroun, 61, was unanimously elected leader of the Cairo Jewish community merely two days after Carmen Weinstein passed away.
Why the unseemly haste? Rumour has it that Magda was voted in to out-maneuver Carmen’s boyfriend Yousri, who would have liked to be the next leader of the community.
The fact that Yousri is a Coptic Christian, not a Jew, does not seem to have been an impediment. A convert to Islam, Yousef Ben Gaon, became leader of the Jewish community of Alexandria (although he is since thought to have reverted to Judaism). More worrisome is that Yousri is suspected of having very close links with the Egyptian secret police, or Mukhabarat.
What makes the leadership of the community such a sought-after prize? Not its paltry size: the Cairo community is said to comprise just 21 mostly elderly Jewish women. The Alexandria community amounts to just five women and one man. Apart from organising ceremonial Passover and Rosh Hashana seders for the benefit of visitors and with a rabbi imported for the occasion, the new leader will primarily be the custodian of Egypt’s Jewish heritage. With her, the community will certainly die out.
But the vultures are circling: the Jewish community has untold assets in real estate. Its synagogues may be crumbling but they stand on prime property in Cairo and Alexandria. The sprawling Bassatine cemetery, where Carmen Weinstein was buried and which she fought to salvage from squatters and vandals, used to be on the outskirts of Cairo; now it occupies precious acreage virtually in the centre.
Then there are the thousands of homes and businesses seized from or abandoned by Egypt’s 80,000 Jews in their mass exodus. Egypt’s worst nightmare is that the Jews should return and claim it all back. In the meantime, property deeds are being forged and false ownership claims made. Such is the secrecy and confusion surrounding Jewish-owned property that a court case was brought against Carmen Weinstein herself in 2010: she was accused of fraudulently acquiring property. Weeks before her death, she was cleared of all charges.
An energetic and feisty leader, Carmen Weinstein can be credited with preserving Cairo’s Jewish heritage as best she could. Her legacy will notably be the magnificent Maimonides synagogue, restored mainly with Egyptian government funds. Careful not to ‘rock the boat’ with Egyptian authorities, however, she was hardly a champion of diaspora Jewish rights. She never fought for restitution. She never supported diaspora Jews’ pleas for access to their communal records, or for the release of Jewish artefacts. The Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities now controls the fate of some 13 Cairo synagogues.
According to Levana Zamir, president of the Association of Jews from Egypt in Israel, Carmen Weinstein used warmly to welcome Egyptian Jews living in Europe or the United States coming to visit their synagogues in Egypt. But she was somewhat frosty towards the 37,000 Egyptian Jews and their descendants living in Israel. “She used to say that these are Zionists who betrayed Egypt by making Aliyah, and that she had nothing to do with Israel,” says Levana Zamir. “There was always the fear that the Egyptian authorities would accuse her of ‘normalization’.”
We will never know what part, if any, Carmen Weinstein played in sabotaging the so-called roots trip by some 40 Egyptian Jews from Israel and around the world. The trip was cancelled in 2008 after rumours spread that these Jews were coming back to reclaim their property.
One can understand why the remaining few Jews in Cairo should be eager to show their support for Magda Haroun, rather than allow the secret police to take over. This process, some believe, has already begun in Alexandria, where the head of the community, Ben Gaon, appears to be acting as a rubber stamp for the authorities.
Although Magda Haroun has spoken of the need to safeguard Egypt’s Jewish heritage, she seems more of a lightweight than her busy, prominent lawyer sister, Nadia. One of her main pastimes is ‘arts and crafts’. We do not know if she converted to Islam to marry her first husband. Her second husband is a Gentile. She has a daughter from each marriage. Her sister, Nadia, may play a key role behind the scenes.
One can expect that the new leader will continue to declare her first loyalty to Egypt. Her father, Maitre Shehata Haroun, was an active leftist who was opposed to the partition of Palestine and against Zionism.
He was among several hundred Jews arrested in June 1967, following the Six-Day War, and made to serve a long term in prison. When the time came for him to be released – on condition he left Egypt and directly boarded a ship out of the country – he refused to leave. He said: “I am Egyptian, and I want to stay on in Egypt until my dying day.” Maitre Haroun (1920-2001), was the founding member of the Tagamu Party along with other leading Egyptian politicians.
In an interview on Egyptian TV a few weeks ago, Magda recalled that when another sister, then six years-old, was very ill in the early 1960s, doctors said that she could be cured only in Europe. But in order to be able to take her out of Egypt, her father was asked to give up his Egyptian identity – as all Jews were then asked to do. His Egyptian passport would be stamped with the notorious ALLER SANS RETOUR: he would not be allowed to return to Egypt after his daughter was cured. So Maitre Haroun decided not to leave Egypt and not to give up his Egyptian identity. He stayed with his daughter in Cairo. She died from her illness some months later.
It takes a certain fanaticism to sacrifice one’s daughter to one’s country: it remains to be seen if Magda is her father’s daughter, and how far she is willing to stand up for Jewish interests.