January 6, 2010
Visits to Rabbi’s Tomb Raise Ire in Egypt
Every year, hundreds of Jews from around the world make a pilgrimage to visit the tomb of a revered rabbi in Egypt’s Nile Delta, located near the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria. This year, tensions between the Israelis and the Palestinians almost spoiled the holy event, scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 9.
Moroccan-born Rabbi Yaakov Abuhatzeira, who died in 1879, is the grandfather of the late Israeli Kabbalist Yisrael Abuhatzeira, better known as the Baba Sali. The tomb of Rabbi Yaakov, who is also known as Abir Yaakov, has become a place of pilgrimage for many hundreds of Jews. Most of the pilgrims arrive from Israel and receive the protection of local security services.
As the date neared for this year’s commemoration of the death of Abuhatzeira, Egypt’s main political movements expressed outrage at their government’s decision to allow Jewish devotees to come to Egypt at a time of high tension between Palestinians and Israelis.
“Visits by Jews shouldn’t happen while Israel continues to impose a choking blockade on the Gaza Strip,” said Mohamed Awad, a member of Egypt’s main protest group Kefaya (Enough). “By allowing these people to come here, our government is betraying the cause of the Palestinians,” he told The Jewish Journal in an interview.
Abuhatzeira’s devotees view him as a pious mystic and miracle worker. He was traveling from Morocco, his country of origin, to the Holy Land when he fell ill and died in the Egyptian village of Damitoh, about 75 miles north of Cairo. A tomb was made for him inside a chamber in the area.
Jewish pilgrims have come to Egypt to visit the tomb and commemorate the death of the rabbi every year since Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.
In recent years, however, Egypt has limited the number of Jewish visitors to the tomb, citing security reasons against the background of increasing tensions between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
In 2009, Egypt denied entry to Jewish pilgrims, because Abuhatzeira’s death anniversary coincided with Israel’s offensive against the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the Islamist movement of Hamas. Egyptians held nationwide protests against the Israeli offensive.
Late last month, just before the 2010 commemoration of Abuhatzeira, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak reportedly accepted a request from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hold the commemoration and allow an unlimited number of visitors this year, according to Israeli newspapers.
Near the site of Abuhatzeira’s tomb, thousands of black-clad Egyptian policemen were deployed to guard the event and offer protection to the Jewish pilgrims.
Villagers living near the tomb say they were told to stay home and avoid coming near the place of the celebration.
But such measures haven’t stopped talk in the Egyptian media about the need to prevent this celebration, a demand that rises each year at this time. Some Egyptians have taken the matter to the courts.
In 2001, Mustafa Raslan, an Egyptian lawyer, filed suit against the Egyptian government for allowing Israeli nationals and Jews to come to Egypt for the commemoration. The court ruled to ban the ceremony, ostensibly reacting to public outrage at the event.
Raslan has filed another case to move the remains of Abuhatzeira from Egypt altogether. A verdict is expected in about two weeks.
“We’ll continue to challenge these celebrations and see what happens,” said Gamal Muneib, an Egyptian political activist, who staged a protest against the event together with scores of other activists on Tuesday. “We’ll prevent the buses carrying these Jews to the site of the tomb, even with our bodies,” he added.
Muneib and others have recently formed a new movement to lobby against the Jewish celebration. The movement, called “Over My Land They Won’t Pass,” aims to pressure the government to ban the Abuhatzeira event.
This is a tense time for relations between Egypt and Israel, especially at the public level. A few weeks ago, Egypt started building an underground steel barrier at its border with the Gaza Strip, according to official statements, to block tunnels through which weapons are smuggled. Gaza has been subject to an Israeli blockade since Hamas took over in 2007.
The generally held view in Egypt is that the barrier will choke Hamas and the 1.5 million residents of Gaza, and many believe it is being built at Israel’s behest.
The barrier has ignited a plethora of protests and critical newspaper columns over the last few days. To many in this populous country, Egypt is washing its hands of its role as the big sister of the Arabs, as one columnist put it two days ago.
This sentiment, alongside memories of wars between Egypt and Israel, are being channeled toward the Jewish pilgrims for the Abuhatzeira event.
Despite this, Cairo Airport has seen the arrival of hundreds of Israelis and Jews from Europe and elsewhere over the last few days. The Associated Press reported that as many as 290 arrived at the Cairo airport last Sunday, Jan. 3.
But future visits could be in jeopardy. One Egyptian MP, Zakaria al-Ganayni, plans to raise the issue during the next sessions of the Parliament. He says he will question the government about allowing the Jews to come here to celebrate.
“I’ll also demand a public referendum on the anniversary itself,” he said. “If Egyptians vote ‘No’ to the visits of the Israelis here, we can abolish the event altogether,” he added in statements to the press.
Absent from his mind perhaps was the fact that, prior to the 1952 military coup that toppled the monarchy here, Egypt used to boast a large Jewish community.
The Egyptian capital is home to several Jewish synagogues and many Jewish antiquities, which act as a testament to the harmonious life this country used to have before the coup.
Al-Qotb (“The Writer”) is a pseudonym for The Jewish Journal’s Egyptian correspondent.