The narrative of the lone Jewish woman leader standing strong against the forces of history is irresistible, of course, but it should not be forgotten that she was controversial.
By Maurice Chammah
Earlier this month, Carmen Weinstein, who for decades had led Egypt’s dwindling Jewish community, died at her home in Cairo. She was 82. Obituaries ran in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. But the irony was she never in her life granted these publications interviews. Lucette Lagnado, a Wall Street Journal reporter and a bestselling-memoir-writing Egyptian Jew herself, wrote of Weinstein, “I found her tough, acerbic, abrasive, combative-and brave. I tried to woo her, citing my background as a fellow Cairene-Jew. But she had no use for journalists and regarded us with suspicion.”
I profiled Weinstein for The Revealer last year, and found that she took an interest in me only because I had written about a Passover seder on my own blog, and had not told her I had a journalistic interest in her community (the difference between a blog and a more official publication seemed clear to her, if not to me). One afternoon when my mother was visiting me in Egypt from the U.S., we had all shared a coffee in the back office of her family’s print shop in downtown Cairo, near a McDonald’s and dozens of clothing stores. Her desk was piled high with stacks of paper that framed her queen-like, austere presence. As I told her how my father, a Jew, had left Syria — choosing the path she had always refused, leaving a place of birth because it was no longer welcoming — I detected some warmth and understanding. And I do mean “detected.” You really had to be paying attention.
She had a reputation for having a very tough shell, which in numerous articles written since her death has become a major point of her glorification. The narrative of the lone Jewish woman leader standing strong against the forces of history is irresistible, of course, but it should not be forgotten that she was controversial. She essentially staged a coup to gain control of the Jewish community while the former leader was out of the country. She feuded with the Brooklyn-based Historical Society of Jews From Egypt, over whether the community’s artifacts properly belonged in Egypt or the U.S.
Last year I learned that other older women in the community were afraid of speaking to researchers about their heritage for fear that Weinstein would somehow retaliate against them (I never learned how, though they were clearly afraid). When I asked her if she would like help to tell the community’s story, she was eager to change the subject. She stood strong to keep the community from being represented falsely, but often that meant keeping them from being represented at all.
Some speculated that her caution was due to the country’s turn towards Islamic leadership and what it might mean for the Jews (you can still buy the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” off the street in downtown Cairo). Others speculated she didn’t want anyone to know just how small the community had become, because it would give credence to the idea that Egypt’s Jews were basically extinct. She regularly estimated the size of Egypt’s Jewish community to be in the hundreds, when numerous others tended to speak of dozens. There is much intermarriage, and it is impossible to know for sure. “Exactly how many Egyptian Jews are left is a point Weinstein, scholars and other activists sharply debate,” the magazine Egypt Today explained in 2005. “The figures range from Weinstein’s assertion as head of the community that the number is in the 100s, to a low of 20 claimed by an Israeli scholar who says there are eight in Alexandria and 12 in Cairo.”
As it becomes clear just how few Jews are left, there is nostalgia for a once-thriving Jewish community from many quarters. President Mohamed Morsi released a statement, saying Weinstein “was a dedicated Egyptian who worked tirelessly to preserve Egyptian Jewish heritage and valued, above all else, living and dying in her country, Egypt.” The new president of the community, Magda Haroun, is the daughter of a man who fiercely opposed Zionism, according to Egyptian newspapers, but she has said that her main goal would be to “preserve the Egyptian Jewish heritage…to give it back to Egypt, because it belongs in Egypt.” Last month, a documentary on the Jews of Egypt started playing in several Cairo cinemas, after the Morsi government lifted a ban. All of these events have the ring of nostalgia, of recognizing the fact that the end has really come.
In death, Weinstein becomes a legend because the community is nearly gone, not in spite of it. She’ll be remembered as the last standard-bearer of an alternative narrative to the dominant one about 20th century Arab Jews, in which they all left for Israel and America after being kicked out of their homes.
In certain ways, though, her glorification will ring strongly with the narrative foundations of political Zionism. These include two tenets: 1. The Jews are dying out in Arab countries, and 2. They have responded by becoming tough and determined.
Weinstein herself always bristled at the suggestion that Jews are unwelcome in Egypt. She believed in the idea that the Jews would always have a place, whether under Mubarak or a new government.
At the same time, though, she fixated on the inevitable end of Egyptian Jewry. She titled the community’s online newsletter “Bassatine News,” after a cemetery in Eastern Cairo that she took particular care to keep sacred and untouched. The Times reported that she would pay squatters to leave the grounds. Now, this is where she has been laid to rest.
Maurice Chammah is a writer and musician in Austin, Texas who studied journalism in Egypt as a Fulbright student, 2011-2012. More about him at http://www.mauricechammah.com. He writes regularly for The Revealer.
With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.