Egypt’s ban on Jewish festival is a reflection of nation’s attitudes

Jewish pilgrims light candles at the site of the tomb of Rabbi Yaakov Abuhatzeira in Egypt's Nile Delta in 1999. The annual festival honoring the 19th century rabbi once drew thousands.
Jewish pilgrims light candles at the site of the tomb of Rabbi Yaakov Abuhatzeira in Egypt’s Nile Delta in 1999. The annual festival honoring the 19th century rabbi once drew thousands.
(Enric Marti / Associated Press)

Not so long ago, this time of year would have brought the echo of songs and chants to the winding streets of this somnolent village in Egypt’s Nile Delta — joyous celebrations honoring a 19th century Jewish sage.

In its heyday, the festival drew thousands of Jewish pilgrims paying tribute at the tomb of Rabbi Yaakov Abuhatzeira, a revered Moroccan holy man who died in Egypt while on a pilgrimage to what is now Israel.

Although the celebrations had been all but extinct for a few years, an Egyptian court in December formally outlawed the festival marking the rabbi’s birth date, which this year would have fallen on Jan. 10, the 19th day of the Hebrew month of Tevet.


The Alexandria administrative court that imposed the ban also moved to strip the shrine of its government designation as a cultural monument, though it was not clear whether it had the jurisdiction to do so.

The vicissitudes of the shrine in many ways echo the fate of Egypt’s Jews, once a large and vibrant community that dwindled to a few dozen after Jews were expelled en masse and their property seized in the 1950s and ‘60s.

With arched windows and Hebrew lettering on a plaque and the tomb, the mausoleum is guarded now by Egyptian security guards who aggressively fend off any visitor who does not have written permission to visit. The controversy surrounding the site — a simple stone structure atop a bare dirt knoll, flanked by rutted streets where chickens peck amid heaps of garbage — also speaks volumes about the peculiarity of Egypt’s relationship with Israel.

The two countries have had a peace treaty since 1979, and their militaries and intelligence services cooperate closely on security matters, particularly in the volatile Sinai peninsula. But a virulent strain of anti-Semitism runs through Egyptian society, and the shrine, however humble, has been a lightning rod for that sentiment.

Egyptian columnist Neveen Emara praised the court ruling in a commentary this month, describing the mausoleum’s stature as a site of pilgrimage as a “Jewish nail” in the wall that is Egypt. Younis Makhyoun, a well-known politician and Islamic preacher, was quoted in Egyptian news reports as hailing an end to the “nightmare” of Jewish celebrations at the site.

A former parliament member from Beheira province, where the tomb is located, said Jews had desecrated the area with their commemorations. The ex-lawmaker, Farouk Maqrahi, also questioned whether Abuhatzeira was even Jewish — a theme echoed in other screeds against the festival over the years.


The court ruling cited what it described as outraged local sensibilities over the annual festival, saying villagers objected to the mingling of men and women and celebrants’ drinking of alcohol, both frowned upon by observant Muslims.

But in Damatieh, a ragged village on the outskirts of the larger city of Damanhur, several residents said that though tight security associated with the event had caused inconvenience, they did not particularly object to a once-a-year event.

“There was never a problem, and we never complained,” said Hanan Emara, who lives near the shrine and was carrying an armload of silage for feeding livestock. “We are Muslims and they are Jews. We have our celebrations, and they have theirs.”

A neighbor who identified herself as Umm Reda concurred. “We didn’t like the guns and the security, but they should let them come,” she said.

Even before the court stepped in, attendance at the festival had fallen off sharply after Egypt’s 2011 uprising against dictator Hosni Mubarak and the turmoil that followed. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, culminating in the election in 2012 of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, in effect marked an end to the celebrations, said Rabbi Yehiel Abuhatzeira, a scion of the rabbi’s dynasty who is now the municipal rabbi of the Israeli town of Ramle.

“Since Morsi came to power, Jews from Israel have not gone,” he said.

By mid-2013, Morsi was out from office, toppled in a popularly supported coup by the then-defense minister and now-President Abdel Fattah Sisi. But even under a government considered far friendlier to Jews — Sisi met last week with Ronald Lauder, head of the World Jewish Congress — there was no move to revive the annual tradition, with Egyptian officials citing security concerns.

“With Sisi, we were told that they have no problem in principle, but that they want to eradicate several cells of extremists first, and they can’t take responsibility for a group of Jews at this point,” Abuhatzeira said.

An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, Emmanuel Nahshon, said Israel was studying the court ruling and weighing the possibility of raising the issue with Egypt.

“This is a sensitive issue — after all, this was a court ruling and there is the matter of judicial independence,” he said. “But we are considering asking that this be viewed from a broader perspective.”

Abuhatzeira, the sage’s descendant, presided over the festivities at the shrine during the 1980s, after the peace treaty but before the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, which broke out in 1987. He recalled freedom of movement that seems unimaginable now, with busloads of pilgrims crossing the Egyptian frontier at Rafah, in the Gaza Strip.

“Until the intifada, the festival was huge,” he said. “We’d organize a big tent with tables and chairs, and I would receive thousands of people from 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. There was prayer and study, as well as singers and a band.”

In later years, with a curdling of the relationship with Egypt amid a second Palestinian uprising and fighting in the Gaza Strip, the festival dwindled in size and fanfare. Abuhatzeira, who now presides over annual commemorations in Israel, said he hoped to visit the mausoleum again one day, if only for quiet contemplation.

“All we ask is to pray in memory of the sage,” he said. “But we don’t know. Whatever is decided in heaven.”

Special correspondent Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Twitter: @laurakingLAT