Religion & Beliefs

The Cynicism Behind Restoring Jewish Synagogues in Arab Countries

Are we witnessing a new vogue in restoring Jewish sites in the Middle East? The renovated Maimonides synagogue in Cairo will be officially inaugurated in March to much fanfare. The Maghen Avraham Synagogue in the heart of Beirut is being … Read More

By / January 27, 2010

Are we witnessing a new vogue in restoring Jewish sites in the Middle East? The renovated Maimonides synagogue in Cairo will be officially inaugurated in March to much fanfare. The Maghen Avraham Synagogue in the heart of Beirut is being rebuilt. Across Morocco and Tunisia, holy sites and synagogues are getting a facelift.

What is going on?

Nobody can pretend that these restored sites are ever going to be working synagogues. Like Hitler’s project for a Jewish Museum in Prague, they are monuments, perhaps not to an extinct race – most Jews escaped from these countries with their lives – but an extinct Jewish civilisation and way of life in Arab countries, predating Islam by a thousand years. Once spruced up, these synagogues will be nothing more than symbols. They will never again become the beating heart of a revived Jewish community. Fewer than 50 Jews live in the whole of Egypt; mostly old ladies married to Muslims or Christians. Ditto in Lebanon, the home of Hezbollah and Bourj al-Barajneh, where anyone openly identifying as a Jew risks life and limb.

There are two main reasons why Arab countries might suddenly show an interest in their Jewish heritage.

First, synagogues are good public relations for the regime in power. The unsuccessful candidate to head UNESCO, Egyptian culture minister Farouk Hosni, played on the restoration of the Maimonides synagogue to distract from his antisemitic slips-of-the-tongue about burning ‘Israeli’ books.

No matter if the country has no more Jews, a synagogue restoration project advertises ‘Arab tolerance’ and pays lip service to pluralism. "Look, we even have Jews here!" it proclaims. "Tolerance of Jewish cultural remains can be exchanged for Western goodwill and aid without necessitating any messy engagement with actual Israelis," as one journalist puts it.

The second reason is that Jewish sites bring in tourist dollars. Money spent on the Maimonides synagogue will be money well spent: Maimonides is set to become a top Cairo attraction, alongside the Ben Ezra synagogue, home of the famous Geniza.

The Spanish, who unceremoniously rid themselves of their Jews 500 years ago, have already cottoned on to the fact that a Jewish heritage can be a nice little revenue earner. Jewish centres, with very little about them that is Jewish except the odd weatherbeaten Hebrew tombstone and star of David, seem to have sprung up in almost every town in Spain.

There is something rather cynical in the fact that Arab governments who threw their Jews out, stole their assets and destroyed their cultural and religious sites – or let them go to rack and ruin – are ready to make money out of a Jewish heritage they consider belongs to them. And the height of chutzpa, it seems to me, is that they are prepared to go cap in hand to Jewish communities abroad asking them to fund restoration projects out of their own pockets.

In fairness, the Egyptian authorities are sinking substantial public funds into the Maimonides synagogue. But this project is exceptional. A Jewish philanthropist in Geneva donated one million dollars for the restoration of the Art Deco Cairo synagogue in Adly Street. The Egyptian Antiquities authorities only contributed a small sum towards a facelift for the synagogue’s 100th anniversary. Another one million dollars was given by a Jewish donor in the US to pay for the restoration of the Ben Ezra synagogue.

Lebanese developers are only contributing ten percent of the cost of renovating the Maghen Avraham synagogue – the rest must come from private Jewish donors.

I once argued with a well-known British journalist that donations from Jews to restore synagogues in Arab lands were a kind of modern-day jizya or poll tax, extracted from dhimmis by their overlords. She retorted that, jizya or no, it was better that a synagogue building should testify to the fact that a Jewish community once existed – and often thrived – in these countries. If synagogues were not restored, she said, there would be nothing to tell people that Jews ever lived there.

For every restored synagogue, dozens have fallen into disrepair, are being used as gyms or offices, or are being converted to mosques.

At the end of the day, I suppose she is right.