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A Sabbath in Cairo: Cheering Crowds Welcome Israelis

December 19, 1977
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Thousands of excited Egyptians shouting “Begin Shalom, Sadat Shalom” greeted the Israeli delegation to the Cairo peace conference as they arrived last night for prayers at the city’s central synagogue, the Shaar Shamayim Synagogue on Adly Street.

It was the first time that Eliahu Ben-Elissar, Israel’s chief negotiator, and his fellow Israeli negotiators had made a public appearance. The unanimous and enraptured reaction by the Egyptian public upon seeing them showed the enormous popular support for President Anwar Sadat’s bid for peace with Israel. This support had been shown until now only to Sadat himself on his return from Jerusalem.

But last night’s historic scenes near the synagogue and wherever the Israeli delegation went–unprecedented since the creation of the Jewish State–was a foretaste of what Israeli Premier Menachem Begin himself will receive when he rides through this city or whatever city he and Sadat will meet in some time this week.

The cheering and applause on Adly Street broke out as soon as Ben-Elissar, Meir Rosenne and Maj. Gen. Avraham Tamir, appearing in uniform here for the first time, stepped from their black government limousine.

At first, Ben-Elissar merely waved and turned to enter the synagogue. But he suddenly turned round and crossed to the opposite pavement where the crowd was standing about eight deep. Immediately the happy crowd surged towards him and after a few moments Egyptian and Israeli security men shepherded him back towards the synagogue.


There he was welcomed by the chairman of the Jewish community, 75-year-old Felix Iscaki, a short dapper man in a black suit and a wide brimmed black hat who offered him a sprig of myrtle branches. With the crowds still cheering their support, the Israeli delegation walked up the staircase into the 70-year-old building past its broad imposing facade.

The scenes inside, although no less emotional, were tinged with sorrow. The Egyptian community, which once numbered 120,000 was represented by about 50 mostly elderly men and women, almost a quarter of the number of Jews now in all of Egypt.

As communal leaders recited the end of Sabbath prayers from the “bima,” cameramen and reporters swamped the Israelis as they made their way slowly to the handsome marble steps beside the ark. Meanwhile, on the floor of the synagogue there were more touching scenes as the Egyptian Jews told their visitors about themselves and hope that their 30 years of isolation from Israel and the rest of Jewry is at last ending.

With the prayers finished, Albert Sasson, an elder of the community, greeted the Israelis in Arabic, showering praise on Sadat. After the greeting was read out by another man in Hebrew, Ben Elissar was called up to the bima.


Speaking first in Hebrew he brought greetings “from Zion and Jerusalem.” Amid frequent applause, he expressed his emotions and that of his fellow Israelis at the warm reception given him by the people and government of Egypt, expressing the hope that one day they would return to Cairo as ordinary visitors.

Speaking in French, the common language of most Jews here, he went on: “We are here to negotiate for an end to the war between Israel, Egypt and our other Arab neighbors. And we hope that you too will come to see us in Israel. Le Shana Habaa Biyerushalayim–Next Year in Jerusalem.” One woman expressed her joy more quietly than the rest–by kissing the floor where the Israeli team had stood.

His speech ended, Ben-Elissar moved back to the main door of the synagogue where the crowds, now even bigger, had kept up its cheering and chanting throughout the whole of the service. As the Israelis came out, the crowds surged across the roads, held back only by the cars and buses into which diplomats and journalists climbed for their return to the Mena House Hotel conference center.


During the synagogue service this reporter conversed with several of the Egyptian Jews. Some had difficulty in expressing their emotions at the reunion they were experiencing. Among them were a family of Karaites, of whom there are now only 42 in Egypt out of the 15,000 who were here in 1948. They included Faraj Menashe, secretary of the Karaite community. His wife, Lira, was holding a two-month-old baby daughter.

Most of the Jews said they had relatives abroad, with whom they have kept in touch. Many also told of brothers, sisters and cousins in Israel with whom they had lost contact. They avoided saying “Israel,” referring to it as “chez nous”–the French for “at home.”

For the Israeli visitors, including many journalists who arrived before the delegation five days ago, last night was the most exciting experience of their stay so far. Their reception inside the synagogue had been predictable. However, the outburst of mass enthusiasm on the streets outside completely bowled them over.

They joined in the shouting and clapping as the crowds danced and hammered the side of the buses taking them away. Both Israelis and Egyptians had tears in their eyes, confirming the view that the tide of peace which Sadat released in Jerusalem cannot now be reversed.

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