Open Zion

04.15.13

Egyptian Jewish Leader Fought To Keep Heritage At Home

When the late Carmen Weinstein asked "Why do they hate us?" a few days ago on the pages of the Jewish Community in Cairo website, she was not referring to her fellow Egyptian compatriots, as one might suspect, but to her co-religionists abroad. Spurred on by the publication of an article in an Israeli newspaper, which recycled a number of clichés about Egyptian Jews, Weinstein argued back with characteristic passion against those who "find untold satisfaction in characterizing the Alexandria and Cairo Jewish communities as finished and done with, and that the state forbids us from celebrating our high holidays!"

This was not the first time Carmen, as she was known to everyone, wrote such an article, nor was it the first time that members of the diaspora had sought to recycle the lachrymose "Out of Egypt" tale of the community’s demise. For much of her life Carmen Weinstein fought the pernicious misperception that there were no Jews left in Egypt.

Never shy of controversy, Carmen, who inherited from her mother her politics and position as president of the community, long insisted that the historic artifacts of the community in Egypt must remain in Egypt. Diaspora groups such as the French Association International Nabi Daniel and the Brooklyn-based Historical Society of Jews From Egypt  continue to lobby for the removal of sefarim, or holy books, from Egyptian synagogues and have them exported abroad. But for Weinstein this would amount to no less than the erasure of a chapter of Egyptian and Jewish history. As her mother, Esther, once wrote, "Taking the Jewish sefarims, books, records... out of Egypt because there are very few of us left is tantamount to saying Egypt should demolish the Pyramids and the Temple of Luxor because there are no pharaohs left."

Aside from her battles against historical amnesia abroad, Carmen also left a record of impressive achievements at home. Under her aegis as community president, several synagogues were listed by the Supreme Council of Antiquities and successfully restored. Most well-known among them was the Maimonides Synagogue, which was flooded after the 1992 earthquake and reopened in 2010. Less famously, the synagogue of the Karaite sect in Abbasiyya was also restored under her tenure. During those years, and very much driven by Carmen, much of the Bassatine cemetery, considered by the community to be one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the world, was mapped, digitized and restored. The world learned about Carmen and her tireless battles through the excellent Bassatine News website, edited by one of Carmen’s closest friends, the historian, Samir Raafat. He wrote recently to me: "I wanted the world to know about Carmen, her efforts and her mission. She was an unknown soldier." 

Carmen’s death was indeed untimely. It was in no small part as a result of her efforts, her personality and her dedication that the history, and the present, of the Jewish community became known to many of us in Egypt. With the country erupting in yet another round of sectarian violence, Carmen’s voice will be particularly missed. In her battles and in her struggles, there is many a lesson for post-revolutionary Egypt as we grapple with what it means to live in a tolerant multi-faith society.