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Behind the Headlines Alexandria’s Jewish Community

A little old man with clear blue eyes interrupted the flow of conversation suddenly and asked: “Is there a way to bring Jews here?”

For a moment it seemed as if he was joking. Sitting at the quiet Eliahu Hanavia Synagogue shortly after Premier Menachem Begin held the mincha prayer last week, one might have expected a different question, about prospects of allowing the 250 Jews of Alexandria to immigrate to Israel or at least come for a visit. But the main concern of Elli Danon, 75, was the future of the Jewish community in Alexandria. He wants it to survive after him, but he can see plainly that it is slowly dying.

The Jews of Alexandria do not suffer, neither from the government nor from their Arab neighbors, said Danon. It is time that is their worst enemy. The rabbi is almost 90, “and he is not of much use. We have to accept him, as they say in French, for the mieux” –the time being.

Danon describes himself as a “Yorn Kippur Jew.” Although he is one of the six members of the local Council, he does not care much for religious ceremonies. When this reporter called up his sister, Bekki Nahmias, in Jerusalem, to pass his regards, she asked, astonished: “Are you sure it was my brother? You met him at a synagogue?”

‘SOMETHING SHOULD BE DONE’

Perhaps this is the reason that he speaks in very down to earth terms. He mentions the beautiful 19th Century synagogue, the old -age home the community maintains and other buildings and says: “All these are worth millions. What will become of them when we disappear? Something should be done.”

He does not know, though, just what should be done. “Perhaps they should send us rabbis…. Perhaps we can turn the old-age home into a rabbinical seminary.”He does not know who would teach there but then he says, “I could give them free lessons of law.”

Danon is a member of the first graduating class of the Hebrew University Law School in 1924 When Acting Foreign Minister Butros Ghali of Egypt was once asked about him, he referred to him as the “Israeli among us.” Indeed, Danon was born in Jerusalem and even though he never returned to that city after 1925, he speaks Hebrew fluently, switching from English to Hebrew, and then to French and Arabic without difficulty.

He came to Alexandria in 1925 to work as a counsel on the Court of International Justice of the League of Nations. Now he lives on his pension, alone in an eight room apartment in downtown Alexandria. A bachelor, he has no family in Egypt. He does not hold Egyptian citizenship but says he has no purpose in leaving the country. He is happy here with his friends, none of them Arabs.

“I am the only Jew in the building. When I first moved in they were all Europeans but they have slowly moved out and now all my neighbors, as well as the landlord are Arabs. My landlord lives on the third floor. Once a year I go up to him, pay my rent in advance, and that’s it.”

His friends are either Jews, Italians or Greeks, remnants of the large European community that used to live in Egypt. In the morning he meets in a coffee house with a group of pensioners and cracks jokes. In the evening he goes to the French Cultural Center. He is also a member of the Attalier, a center for artists and writers. He himself wrote three books in French. “I feel as a foreigner,” he admits, after almost 55 years in Egypt. “We have a quiet peaceful life here,” said Clement R. Setton, president of the Jewish community. “But it is boring. We feel too alone; too separated from the Jewish world.”

WAVES OF EMIGRATION

The Jewish community of Alexandria used to be one of the more flourishing Jewish communities outside of Israel. Jews first settled in Alexandria at the beginning of the Third Century B.C.E., according to Josephus Flavius, in the time of Alexander the Great. They have always been a driving force behind the city’s economy, which as the country’s main seaport, was based on trade with the outside world.

But in recent times the Jewish community suffered three waves of departures. On the outbreak of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, relations with the Arabs worsened. Several Jews were placed in detention camps and there were several assaults on the Jewish community by the local population. A bomb was thrown into a synagogue in July 1951. Many left for Israel. When President Gamal Abdel Nasser assumed power in February 1954, many Jews were arrested on charges of Zionism, Communism and currency smuggling.

After the Sinai campaign in 1956, there was a large exodus of Egyptian Jews. The 1960 census showed only 2760 Jews in Alexandria of a community that once numbered 100,000 Jews. After the Sixday War about 350 Jews, including Chief Rabbi Nafusi, were interned in the Abu Za’Bal detention camp, known for its severe conditions.

Today there are only 100 men and 150 women; many of the men married non-Jewish women. “There is no Jewish life here,” said Danon. “Even though I am a member of the Council, I come here every fortnight.” The benches in the synagogue are marked with the names of members of the community. Each Jew has his own seat, but they hardly ever occupy it. Danon carefully avoided any political comments.

Danon was well acquainted with Israeli politics, although not quite up to date. Only minutes after Begin stood in the synagogue praying, Danon commented: “Abba Eban and the other group (Labor Alignment) deserve to take part in the peace process. They have worked on it for years.”

Danon observes the scene from afar, from the point of view of a Jew who has lived with Arabs most of his life. Yes, he would like to come to Jerusalem, visit the family, see the city he was born in — but he would not stay. He feels like a foreigner. But he wants to stay in Alexandria. His only real concern is the community, what will become of the community?

Danon walks with me out of the synagogue, and I ask him to pose for a photograph. At first he refuses. “I am not photogenic.”Then he poses, for the record, a little old man, with lively blue eyes, a symbol of a once great community that is slowly disappearing.

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