Dispute Over Cemetery Rages Amid Jewish Decline in Egypt : Transition: Al Basatin, an aging Jewish burial ground, is the unlikely center of an ageless dispute over progress.


On a windy plateau adjoining the vast City of the Dead, 350 crumbling Jewish tombs represent much of what remains of the people Moses delivered out of slavery. Amid the honking taxis and high-rise apartment buildings that now populate the cities of Egypt, the Jews seem destined to disappear from the country forever.

More than 150,000 Jews dominated Egypt’s wealthy merchant class in the early 20th Century. Now, barely 64 are believed to remain. There is in all of Cairo only one Jewish family. The last rabbi left in 1972. There are no bar mitzvahs. There are no weddings.

“The very big problem is when one dies, there is not another born in his place,” said Jacques Jaffe, a 78-year-old former textile merchant who is one of the few native Jews left in Egypt. “The battle will finish because there are no fighters. This is the story.”


Ten years after Egypt’s official peace treaty with Israel, the late President Anwar Sadat’s pleas for the Jews to return to Egypt have gone unheeded, and the aging Jewish cemetery on Cairo’s outskirts has become an unlikely new boiling point for an ageless dispute.

Plagued with choking traffic that for several hours a day virtually paralyzes Cairo, the city’s engineers are in the midst of a $197-million project to construct a ring road to allow much of the regional traffic to skirt the teeming heart of the city.

Several substantial sections of the highway already have been built, including approaches near both ends of the 1,021-year-old Jewish cemetery of Al Basatin, believed to be the oldest continuous Jewish cemetery in the world.

The bulldozers were due to plow into the cemetery last month until a rabbinical delegation from around the world stepped in when Cairo’s dwindling Jewish population proved unable or unwilling to take on the Egyptian authorities over the project.

The dispute--which has drawn in rabbis from Israel, England, France, Canada, Switzerland and the United States, as well as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak--has become a symptom of the chilly peace that has existed between Egypt and Israel in the years since the Camp David accords.

Though the Israeli government has carefully avoided any role in the cemetery dispute, talk of 20 years of war between Egypt and Israel has emerged during talk about the dead, and few--Egyptian or Israeli--express surprise that peace with Israel has failed to rejuvenate Egypt’s dying Jewish community.


“The peace treaty came 10 years too late,” one diplomat said with a shrug.

The Jewish population of the 1930s and 1940s was among the most successful and cosmopolitan in Egypt, dominating Alexandria’s social scene and operating banks, factories and department stores all over Cairo.

But the creation of Israel in 1948 sent the first wave of immigrants out of Egypt to populate the new Jewish state. And the Egyptian revolution and the subsequent 1956 war with Israel created a backlash against Egyptian Jews that sent many of those who remained fleeing for Europe, Israel and the United States.

By the time of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, barely 1,500 Jews remained in Egypt. Their numbers have been dwindling since.

The peace treaty so far has been insufficient to attract Israeli businessmen back to economically troubled Egypt, and many Egyptians have been content to leave it that way. Egypt’s syndicates for lawyers, journalists and engineers still forbid members to have contact with Israel. Egyptian newspapers rail about Israeli leaders’ perceived recalcitrance in settling the Palestinian issue, and, in many cases, still refer to Israel as “the Zionist entity.”

“You can’t really say, ‘Let’s get on with being friendly and forget the past,’ ” explained Hussein Husseini, a well-known Egyptian journalist. “This will not happen, not with this generation--perhaps not with the next.”

Meanwhile, most expect Egypt’s Jewish community to disappear within the next few years, and a new crop of Israeli Jews, most say, probably will not emerge in Egypt unless the troubling Palestinian issue is settled.

On the surface, the cemetery debate has nothing to do with peace treaties, but nearly everyone involved admits that politics has fueled much of the emotional fervor.

For their part, Egyptian authorities say privately that they fear a backlash from their own citizens if they give special treatment to the Jewish cemetery, when nearby Muslim and Coptic Christian graveyards already have been moved to make way for the new highway.

“I think there is no problem, except all the Jews in the world make it a problem,” said Mohammed Raschi Morad, Cairo’s director of reconstruction and overseer of the ring road project.

The matter was about to be resolved a year ago when Cairo’s Jewish community agreed to move the 350 graves to Israel or to a nearby location in exchange for a $31,400 settlement from the government to cover the costs, and provided that a rabbi from Israel perform the appropriate ceremonies to consecrate the new grave sites.

The chief rabbi in Israel appeared poised to approve the plan when rabbinical groups from the United States stepped in and quickly drew support from other rabbis around the world. Last month, former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef issued a statement declaring he had never given permission to transfer the bones buried at Al Basatin and insisted that “the graves must be left intact.”

“We do not intend to take this lying down,” declared Brooklyn, N.Y., Rabbi Herpz Frankel, chairman of the International Society to Preserve Jewish Cemeteries. “The world Jewish opinion is united in this effort to achieve the goal of preserving this cemetery, period. If the Egyptian government brings the bulldozers, they will pay the consequences, I think, frankly speaking.”

A rabbinical committee that toured the site with engineers in November suggests building a bridge over the cemetery, or perhaps a tunnel below it, to preserve the graves.

Morad says he would go along with the plan if the rabbinical group could also suggest where to find the estimated $80 million to $100 million such a diversion would cost. And what, he asks, of the bones buried beneath the pilings of an overpass?

Another plan suggests relocating the bodies and building a fence around the new cemetery at government expense, a proposal that is now tied up in the Egyptian courts.

The aging president of the Jewish community in Cairo died in November, and his successor, Emil Russo, throws up his hands when asked about the cemetery. He says he is leaving it for the rabbis to debate.