Egypt’s tiny Jewish community, a frail remnant of a once flourishing minority, held a rare public ceremony on Thursday in memory of its veteran leader, Carmen Weinstein, but the country’s Islamist leaders stayed away.
Weinstein, 82, died last Saturday at her home in Cairo where she was known over the past two decades for leading efforts to preserve the overwhelmingly Muslim country’s Jewish heritage.
Diplomats from the United States and Israel joined about 100 mourners at a ceremony, partly broadcast on one private television channel, at the heavily guarded Sha’ar Hashamayim (Gate of Heaven) synagogue in downtown Cairo.
The Jewish community has struggled to keep the faith alive and maintain its culture after its numbers dwindled to a few dozen members in recent years from some 80,000 in the 1950s.
Most Jews fled Egypt due to attacks on the community during and after the 1956 war, when Israel invaded the Sinai Peninsula along with Britain and France in an attempt to regain control of the Suez Canal.
The exodus began after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the first war between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbours. Jews were also prominent in the Egyptian Communist Party which was outlawed under President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1958.
Weinstein was buried later at the Bassatine Cemetery, Cairo’s only active Jewish burial site, which she had helped safeguard against vandalism during her lifetime.
On its English-language website, the state-owned Al Ahram newspaper called her “The ‘Iron Lady’ of Egypt’s Jews”.
“She was a very dignified woman who was very committed to the existing Jewish community. She was a real asset… She stayed here when many other people left over the years,” said Barry Friedman, a U.S. Jew living in Cairo.
Weinstein’s efforts to preserve the Egyptian Jewish heritage were exemplified by her resistance to the transfer of valuable historical artifacts to the Brooklyn-based Historical Society of Jews from Egypt (HSJE) in 1997.
The artifacts include over 100 Torah scrolls, some dating back more than 200 years, said Desire Sakkal, the director and founder of the HSJE.
“She came back with a letter saying that those items are like the pyramids and the Sphynx and should not be moved. She later turned over the items to the (Egyptian) Department of Antiquities,” he said.
On Monday members of the Jewish Community Council elected Magda Haroun as their new president.
“I want to break down the barriers that have been erected between people of different religions and beliefs,” Haroun said in a speech at the memorial service. “I promise to keep the heritage of Egyptian Jews so we can return it to the Egyptian people…They have to be remembered.”
Islamist President Mohamed Mursi paid tribute to Weinstein in a statement, calling her a “dedicated Egyptian who worked tirelessly to preserve Egyptian Jewish heritage and valued, above all else, living and dying in her country, Egypt”.
The president was on an official visit to Russia on Thursday and no member of the government attended the memorial.
Mursi’s views on Jews were not always full of praise. In a video-taped interview conducted in 2010 and posted on You Tube in January, the president is seen describing Zionists as “blood-suckers, who attack the Palestinians, these warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs”.
Weinstein’s death coincided with an outbreak of interest among Egyptian intellectuals in the country’s Jewish past.
A film called “Jews of Egypt” is showing in three Cairo cinemas after Egypt’s censorship office gave permission last month to screen the historical documentary, following a delay due to reservations by a security agency.
The film depicts changes in Egyptian society’s acceptance of its Jewish minority in the first half of the 20th century