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Courtroom troubles and money woes plague Cairo’s last Jews

Sarah Mishkin
September 21, 2010
A policeman guards a former Jewish community center next to Cairo's Vitali Madjar synagogue.(Sarah Mishkin)
A policeman guards a former Jewish community center next to Cairo's Vitali Madjar synagogue.(Sarah Mishkin)

In the upscale Cairo neighborhood of Heliopolis sits a stately three-story brick building that once housed a community center for the Vitali Madjar synagogue. Its doors now sit slightly ajar, and its glass windows are short a few panes. But the building remains a testament to the flight and expulsion of nearly all of Egypt’s Jewish population after the country’s 1952 revolution and the ensuing wars with Israel—and a symbol of the ongoing chaos in which those remaining have been left.

In mid-July, Carmen Weinstein, the 80-year-old president of the Cairene Jewish community, was convicted and sentenced to three years in jail for property fraud committed while selling the Heliopolis building, which is owned by the community. The court accused Weinstein of attempting to sell the property without having the legal authority to do so. Weinstein has since been caught up in a bizarre case of accusations and counter-accusations. At its heart is the predicament facing Egypt’s remaining Jews—a group that has dwindled from an estimated 80,000 before 1952 to 50 mostly elderly widows today—as they manage their cultural inheritance neglected by their own government. Who is responsible, now and after that community fades, for the synagogues and homes left behind during the exodus? And who should be?

Jewish claims to private property in Egypt are notoriously sensitive, since many properties were nationalized after Jewish families were expelled or fled after the 1952 revolution, and the government is wary of families claiming damages. Most famously, the Bigio family has waged war in court for years to claim damages for the nationalization of the Coca-Cola plant the family operated until the 1960s. Leaders of the Egyptian-Jewish Diaspora have been trying for years to make copies of old genealogical and temple registers, but they say the government has been reluctant to give them permission for fear the records could be used in such cases.

In contrast, since becoming the community’s president in 2004, Carmen Weinstein successfully lobbied the Egyptian authorities to maintain old synagogues, which won her praise from Jewish leaders abroad, including from Andrew Baker, a rabbi with the American Jewish Committee who has worked with Weinstein. Money, says Baker, remains tight, often too tight to provide for the upkeep of Jewish cemeteries on the city’s outskirts. The government, cash-poor and antiquities-rich, can only afford to maintain so many synagogues unlikely to earn the tourism revenue that Pharonic and medieval sites generate. (Jewish sites, when open to visitors, also require greater outlay for armed guards, given the sometimes virulent local anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.)

Cairo has been left in a unique position. Unlike Alexandria, whose Jewish communal leadership sold off all but two of their synagogues in the past few decades, Cairo still has more than 10—in various states of repair and disrepair.

But private property once held by Jewish families poses a different type of problem as it often has unclear ownership—in part because of the politically controversial nature of attempts by those families to claim old property. In a case unrelated to Weinstein’s conviction, two well-connected members of the Egyptian parliament were accused last year of forging deeds to property that had been owned by long-gone Jewish families and then using those fake deeds to swindle millions from investors.

That’s the context in which Weinstein’s actions are scrutinized. Tried in absentia, she was found guilty of defrauding the plaintiff, Nabil Bishay, during a deal to sell him the building for 3 million Egyptian pounds, about $500,000. According to the court’s verdict, when Bishay went to close the deal, he discovered that Weinstein had refused to transfer the title to him or return the down payments he had paid. Perhaps more disconcertingly, the court also ruled that Weinstein lacked the power of attorney to sell the community’s buildings, and its ruling was vague on who would have that right. Authorities don’t dispute that the community owns the land, but rather that Weinstein is the legal executor.

The case against Weinstein comes on the heels of a scandal in which two members of Egypt’s parliament had indeed forged documents that they then used to improperly and illegally sell Jewish property they did not own. According to reports in the local press, MP Yehia Wahdan—a former chief of Zionist and Israeli Affairs for Egypt’s State Security—approached investors beginning in 2006 to solicit funds to buy deeds to 12 homes left behind by Jewish families that he claimed Weinstein wanted to sell. Investors, most of them Egyptian, checked the deeds and soon realized that they and the signatures on them, from a supposed representative of the Jewish community, were fake. Government investigators attributed the forgeries to Badir Amr, a contractor and in-law of Wahdan’s.

Amr in turn accused MP Mohammed Abd El-Nebi of duping him into paying 1 million Egyptian pounds ($200,000) to buy land that turned out to be an old synagogue in Harat El-Yahud. Today, two policemen guard that synagogue, and its exterior wall has been bricked up. Ultimately, investigators cleared both MPs of charges in the synagogue deal, but Amr was sentenced this spring to five years in prison for fraud, and he is still on trial in Cairo for other aspects of the case.

In a government investigation made public this April, Weinstein was cleared of any involvement in the cases involving the MPs, although media reports say that she was unable to testify at the trial. Court officials tried to deliver a summons but apparently were told by her building manager that Weinstein had been away in a hospital since the prior week. Weinstein maintains close relationships with foreign diplomats, and rumors of her declining health seem substantial.

Members of the Jewish community, not surprisingly, have rallied to her defense. Raouf Fouad Tawfik, secretary of the Jewish community and general manager of its synagogues, says that, in all of these cases, it was never Weinstein who did anything wrong. He called both Bishay’s documentation and the man himself a “fraud” and said that the community will appeal the decision this autumn. According to Tawfik, Bishay had worked with Weinstein previously to buy other properties once held by the Jewish community in Harat El-Yahud, the old Jewish Quarter. In this case, Tawfik said, the businessman tried to defraud them.

More importantly, though, Tawfik intends to argue that records kept by the community show that its president has the right to sell non-religious properties on its behalf. And that it is essential that she retain this right, since funds are needed to support aging members and maintain synagogues, including Shaar HaShamayim in Cairo’s downtown, as well as the expansive Bassatine cemeteries, whose once-marble-fronted mausoleums lie on the capital’s outskirts. The community, which oversees all religious Jewish Sites and organizes holiday observances for Cairo, is governed by a president and a board who operate within established bylaws that, according to its chronicle, date back hundreds of years.

But Weinstein has missed most of this official back and forth, while remaining the source of much local controversy and speculation. Tawfik declined to comment on the cause of Weinstein’s absence during the trial. According to an employee in the office of the community, Weinstein was traveling outside of Egypt at the time of trial and for a period following it. Hussein Salah, covering the case for a local independent daily, said Weinstein knew of the case beforehand but refused his attempts to discuss it with her, although a close friend of Weinstein’s said she was unaware of the trial as the summons was sent to an incorrect address “where no one had been living for half a century.” That friend, who asked not to be identified to avoid being implicated in the case, said Weinstein has been in Cairo and attended Rosh Hashanah services at the two synagogues still in use.

“An 80-year-old woman who walks with someone to help her could not have ‘escaped,’ ” she wrote in an email.

Others concur. “[Weinstein]’s really done her best to try to shoulder the burdens of this community almost by herself,” said Rabbi Baker. “It’s not an easy thing to do. I have no reason to doubt her honesty or integrity in any of this.”

But the case is about more than the intentions of an aging community leader. In a rare interview with local daily Al-Masry Al-Youm in February, Weinstein’s interviewer expressed incredulity that the president of the Jewish community did not know more about Jewish-owned private properties The community’s holdings and responsibilities, Weinstein responded, are limited to its institutional buildings, its schools, synagogues, and cemeteries—more than enough work. No comprehensive list exists describing private lands and homes once owned by Jews, and creating such a list, she said, would be nearly impossible.

“How can we know and count them?” Weinstein asked the interviewer. “Do you know how many Jews were living here in Cairo?”

Sarah Mishkin is a former Cairo-based journalist who now lives London, where she writes for The Financial Times.

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