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July 18 2013

Interview : Magda Haroun, head of Egypt's Jewish community | Egypt Independent

Interview: Magda Haroun, head of Egypt’s Jewish community

| Egypt Independent

Q: The Ministry of Social Affairs has canceled a grant— of LE90,000 a year—which was previously given to the Jewish community. What do you have to say about this and were you officially notified of it?

A: Nobody notified me of it. I learned of it through the press and when I contacted the Shura Council’s human rights committee, I learned that the decision has not yet been made. Then a friend told me that a Zionist website described the decision as a slap in the face of Magda Shehata Haroun who has always been proud of her loyalty to Egypt. I felt there was a need to fire back and so I sent a letter to the Shura Council’s human rights committee to inquire about the reason why the grant was a secret item of the state budget even though it is an honor for the Egyptian state to be giving attention to the needs of the Jewish community - particularly since they are Egyptian citizens who have chosen to stay in Egypt and away from their families.

Most of the members of the community are elderly women with no source of living. It is not wrong for the state to help them, this is a right they have much like any Egyptian citizen.

In my letter, I said the grant should no longer remain a secret item in the state budget and that it should remain. In addition, I said we had constitutional rights to perform our religious rituals which require that a we have a Rabbi from an Arab country here in Egypt and that we have the food needed during fasting times, as things were under former President Mohamed Naguib.

Q: These are not the first Israeli and Zionist attacks on you. Why do you think this happening?

A: Because I am holding on to my father’s legacy which was perpetually attacked by the Zionist press. Many people do not understand that I belong to my country regardless of my religion. Zionism is a racist movement that discriminates between people on the basis of religion. They do not understand that I am loyal to my country, not Israel. It was our father that nurtured those feelings of fierce loyalty in us.

When someone asks why we have not left the country, I feel provoked. Why would we leave the country and emigrate? And where would we go? Why do some people think that all the Jews should emigrate to Israel? Do all Muslim emigrate to Saudi Arabia?

Q: When your father, Shehata Haroun, was asked to choose between his country and his elder daughter Mona, he chose his country. Can you tell us more about this?

A: In 1954, my sister was diagnosed with leukemia when she was four years old. From what I hear from my family, my father loved her like crazy and he took her along with him to every place he went to. When she got sick, the only treatment available in Egypt was blood transfusion. My father donated blood to her every day because they shared the same blood group. But the doctors said they could not do anything more for her and told my father to to take her to France [for treatment]. He asked for permission to travel but was told he would not be allowed back. He said that nobody should force their will on him and Mona died.

Q: How did you expect the conditions of the Jewish community in Egypt to be, and how did you actually find them, after you became the president of the Jewish community?

A: I used to say a lot that [Haroun’s sister] Nadia and I will be the ones to close the door on the history of Jews in Egypt and my mother used to tell me that Shehata Haroun had prepared us for the day.

He nurtured our feelings of belonging to the country and he taught us about our rights and duties as Egyptian Jews. But the burden is heavy.

I did not mix much with members of the community, only at feasts and funerals. Just thinking about their affairs is difficult because it is all about trouble, from a humanitarian point of view. The elderly live in fear because of the image of Jews being promoted as traitors and spies. They fear people finding out they’re Jews.

I fear I will not be able to provide them with a decent ending to their lives or to fulfill my pledge to safeguard the Jewish legacy and restore it. This legacy is part of me as an Egyptian Jew.

Q: What are the major problems that you face as the president of the community?

A: Besides what I just said, I have concerns regarding the determination of Jewish property. So far, I do not have all the required documents for that and I also fear my position will be politicised even though it is of a purely humanitarian nature.

Q: Many Egyptians frown upon the presence of Jews in Egypt. How do you explain this?

A: This is because Egypt’s history has been falsified, not only with regards to the Jews but also many other things. If a person wants to progress then he or she must know their history well. It is time to correct the path, we have to know our history well. The youth have an opportunity and tools for knowledge which I hope they will use because they are our hope. Indeed, there were Jews in Egypt, most of whom have left Egypt but they did not do so willingly. They were forced to leave and only a few of those who left Egypt went to Israel. The establishment of Israel has put us, Egyptian Jews, in trouble because it is a country built on religious foundations.We paid the price. I hope this does not happen with other communities. I beg those leaving now not to leave because the burden is heavy and the sadness deep to be the one to close the door on the history of a section of the Egyptian society.

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