This is my fourth visit to Egpyt's capital and every time here I have found myself, without planning to, standing in Adly Street and gazing up at the grimy edifice of the Sha'ar Hashamayim synagogue. After a few seconds, one of the policemen constantly on guard there orders me to move on. On my first visit, innocently believing the guidebook, I asked to be allowed in, only to be met with a blank stare of incomprehension. The last Jewish visitor to be admitted into Sha'ar Hashamayim was Dan Kurtzer over a decade ago, and that was only thanks to him being the ambassador of a country that gives Egypt $2 billion in foreign aid annually.
I certainly didn't expect this week to find the place open and I wasn't wrong, but during that brief moment before the policeman grunted at me menacingly I thought: So much has changed in Egypt over the last 11 months, in ways we never thought possible, is it outside the realm of possibility that on some future visit I will actually walk through those imposing doors?
This may seem like a silly idea, on two counts. First, there are no Jews left in Cairo so who exactly will maintain the place and pray there? Well, conceivably, Chabad would most likely be happy to operate yet another outpost in its empire, and just as there are no local Jewish communities in places like Thailand and Vietnam, Chabad houses there still do a brisk trade serving Jewish tourists and visiting businesspeople. Why not in Cairo?
But Cairo, and indeed all of Egypt, is rapidly becoming an Islamist state; can there be a viable Jewish presence in a country dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood?
That question will probably not be put to the test in the foreseeable future in Egypt, but it will be interesting to see what happens in the two nations where Islamist-majority coalitions have just been elected, Tunisia and Morocco, which are also where two Jewish communities remain in Arab lands. These few thousand Jews still living in these Maghreb nations are a far cry from the thriving Jewish culture of North Africa, but they are still the only communities to have survived altogether (the final remnants of Yemenite Jewry are in the process of emigrating ).
By and large, it wasn't Islam that put an end to the ancient Jewish communities of Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya and Algeria, it was Arab nationalism and the overspill of the Israel-Arab conflict.
Why did a few Jews remain in the Maghreb? In Morocco's case it was royal patronage, in Tunisia, the regime's adherence to a limited form of French-style citizenship. Will they still be around in another generation? They may be too small to survive already, with a young generation pursuing a future in Israel or France, so far though there have been no signs of tension with the new Islamist administrations.
That there are virulent anti-Jewish feelings in the Arab lands, fueled by real and perceived grievances over Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, cannot be denied. Ultimately, the only guarantee Jews can ever have against persecution is liberal democracy. The correlation over the last two centuries is indisputable. The only countries where Jews have enjoyed a constant upward trajectory in their fortunes, increasing prosperity along with diminishing anti-Semitism, to a level where it has become socially unacceptable, are those countries which continuously improved as democracies: the United States, Britain, Canada and with the exception of the years of Nazi occupation, France.
I don't know who first came up with the saying that to measure a nation, one should first see how it treats its Jews, but it works both ways. Jews have never been persecuted in a real democracy and while they may have thrived at times under despotic rule, it was always on sufferance and it always ended in tears.
Last week I asked in this column how come Israel, which was founded by emigrants from autocratic and dictatorial regimes, managed to be a democracy from day one and I think one possible answer is that the nation's builders instinctively understood that ultimately, democracy will always be good for the Jews. That is why Israel should be so careful now when a temporary majority in the Knesset is trying to tamper with the system.
But democracy is currently under fire around the globe. Tottering financial institutions in Europe and the U.S., economic and social crises and the growing challenge of China are shaking the foundations of Western democracy as they have not been in three generations. Even level-headed commentators like Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times have begun to ask whether the implosion of the euro zone may not be the harbinger of a return to the instability of the 1930s.
Less than two decades after the fall of communism in eastern Europe, a neo-autocratic government is in power in Moscow and Vladimir Putin, who will resume the presidency next year (not that he ever really lost it ), is planning to rebuild the Soviet empire, by fair means or foul. Some Jews applaud this. "Russia is not America, you need a strong leader here," a Jewish leader once said to me in Moscow, and went on to extol Putin's philosemitism. But what if his successor will have less qualms in exploiting the jealousy of the Russian masses against the Jewish oligarchs?
Meanwhile in our neighborhood, the popular overthrow of cruel but relatively stable dictators like Hosni Mubarak may open the floodgates to a far more terrifying alternative, forcing even those of us who are fervent believers in democracy to question whether it is a luxury not every country can afford.
But there really is only one answer to that question. Democracy may be a woefully incomplete system of government but it is the only lasting guarantee. Mubarak ruled for 30 years with an iron fist, ensuring the peace treaty with Israel and keeping the Islamists in their place, but in the end he was toppled and the process is inexorable.
The Islamists will most likely win these long and convoluted Egyptian elections, but in the long run, only more democracy will have any chance of preventing another Iran. Dictators like the Shah and Mubarak - and one day Putin - will all ultimately fall. If the West will not cling to temporary illusions of stability but champion democracy instead, we have a much better chance in the long run.
And the same has to be true for Israel: Jews achieved lasting success only in democratic environments, and the same thing goes for the Jewish state.
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