February 22, 2019 — Cairo, Egypt
American Jewish Committee (AJC) commends Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s decisions to clean and protect the historic Jewish Bassatine Cemetery in Cairo and to make available the country’s Jewish Communal registers.
AJC, the global Jewish advocacy organization, has long called for these and other measures to preserve the heritage of the Egyptian Jewish community, which once numbered more than 80,000 and today is estimated to be fewer than 20.
“Egypt’s commitment to preserve Jewish sites and records is vitally important,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker, AJC Director of International Jewish Affairs, who has visited Cairo regularly to meet with government officials.
Sisi’s decision came after AJC leaders met with Prime Minster Mostafa Kemal Madbouly and Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Anan in Cairo. AJC also has raised these issues in meetings with Sisi in the past. Sisi’s announcement this week followed his meeting with a delegation of Orthodox Jews visiting from New York.
Bassatine Cemetery, which dates to the ninth century, contains thousands of Jewish graves. Neglected for years, most of the inscribed headstones have been looted and squatter’s apartments cover much of the original site. Broken walls leave it unprotected, and garbage is strewn throughout the cemetery.
One day after Sisi’s announcement bulldozers and other equipment were dispatched to the cemetery to begin the clean-up process.
The Communal Registers contain important personal data, including births, deaths and marriages, of the Jewish Communities of Cairo and Alexandria. “For many Egyptian Jews these are the only formal records which might otherwise be inscribed in civil records. And there are cases where they are very important in proving a person’s Jewish identity, for burial or for marriage,” Baker said.
Access to this official documentation is important to the religious life of Egyptian Jews and their descendants around the world. AJC, together with the Nebi Daniel Association of Jews from Egypt, the Jewish Community of Cairo, and the Consistoire of France, has called for a copy of the registers to be deposited with the Chief Rabbinate of France.
AJC expects that Sisi’s decision will lead soon to implementation of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture’s unfulfilled promise to AJC in May 2017 to allow the registers to be copied.
Over the years, Members of Congress also have urged Egyptian officials to address these concerns. A joint letter from Representative Nita Lowey and Senator Ron Wyden to President Sisi was sent two weeks ago highlighting the concerns over the cemetery and registers.
AJC works closely on Egyptian Jewish heritage issues with the Paris-based Nebi Daniel Association; with Magda Haroun, President of the Jewish Community of Cairo; and Samy Ibrahim, Director of the Drop of Milk Foundation, dedicated to preserving Egypt’s Jewish past.