Friday, April 19, 2013
Egyptian Jewish leader buried in rundown cemetery she sought to preserve
Rabbi Marc El Fassi, who held the prayers during the service, called her "wonder woman." Known as a powerful personality, she was able to push officials to restore a handful of Egyptian synagogues and the yeshiva where the 12th Century Jewish philosopher Maimonides taught, as well as private Jewish properties. She bristled at Jews abroad who treated the community as if it were dying, arguing with Jewish groups that campaigned to take some remaining Torah scrolls out of Egypt.
"I asked you to come here to see the dump we will bury her in," said Haroun sharply, addressing the media who joined the mourners at the cemetery.
The cemetery's decline mirrors the dramatic changes Egypt has undergone as its population skyrocketed and poverty grew. On the outskirts of Cairo in an area named in Arabic after the gardens that were once there, Bassatine has over the past decades grown into densely populated slum of tightly-packed redbrick apartment buildings that house poor Egyptians migrating from the countryside.
Baker said he is returning to Egypt in May to discuss with the Egyptian government the condition of the cemetery.
The rise of Islamists to political power, including the election of President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, has Egypt's religious minorities, including the large Christian minority, nervous about their future. But several at the ceremony expressed optimism that the tone is actually changing in favor of the Jewish community.
Baker acknowledged that the cash-strapped Egyptian authorities may not have the money to spend on new restoration projects of Jewish buildings and synagogues. But, he said, they have an opportunity to "demonstrate a commitment in deed to having respect for other religions" by at least controlling the sewage in the cemetery.
Roger Bilboul, a French Jew of Egyptian origin who heads the Paris-based Nebi Daniel Association for the heritage of Jews of Egypt, said there are hints of an evolving attitude.
Bilboul also pointed to a new documentary playing in Egypt called the "Jews of Egypt" that documents the community and emphasizes how they are part of the country. Recently, a Brotherhood figure urged Egyptian Jews to return home. The film and the comments started an unprecedented public debate about Egypt's Jewish heritage.
Their departure was fueled by rising nationalist sentiment during the Arab-Israeli wars, harassment and some direct expulsions by then-President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Since then, the tiny community has faced popular perception of ties with Israel, seen by Egyptians as their number one enemy.
Weinstein's death was heavily covered in Egyptian newspapers. Morsi, in a statement published in the New York Times, mourned Weinstein as a "dedicated Egyptian who worked tirelessly to preserve Egyptian Jewish heritage and valued, above all else, living and dying in her country, Egypt."
Weinstein had succeeded her mother in 2004 as the leader of the community. Since the late 1990s, the community has had female heads as the male population dwindled.
Israel's ambassador to Egypt, Yaacov Amitai, addressed the congregation, describing Weinstein as a "distinguished character" who managed to protect the Jewish heritage in Egypt.
Bilboul told The Associated Press he hoped Haroun, who chose her sister Nadia as her deputy, will be more "democratic" than Weinstein "who was forced to be an authoritarian entity" operating in the Egypt of ousted leader Hosni Mubarak.
"She often had very difficult times, and very often lonely times," said Bilboul during the ceremony. "She did so with courage, with intelligence and with a dogged determination."