On February 18, the Anwar Sadat Congressional Gold Medal Commission arrived in Cairo, Egypt, as guests of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, celebrating Congressional passage of the Anwar Sadat Centennial Act.
This delegation’s four-day mission was led by political activist Ezra Friedlander, with cooperation of the American, Egyptian and Israeli governments, and included sensitive security, official protocol and kashrut issues. The 30-member group included Jewish leaders who believe the Begin/Sadat peace initiatives have led to 40 years without an Israeli combat fatality on Egyptian soil. New Rochelle was represented by Eli Epstein and Dr. Marc Berger. Other notable members of the delegation include Tzili Charney, whose husband Leon, z”l, was a significant presence during the 1978 Camp David summit, Isaac Dabah, CEO of Delta Galil, an Israeli company operating in Egypt for 25 years, and Harley Lippman, who led the US-Israel Friendship League. During the mission, Lippman announced the formation of the US-Egypt Friendship League.
The group was formally greeted by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry at the airport. The first stop was an Egyptologist-led visit to Giza’s three remaining pyramids and the Sphinx. Later, Egyptian philanthropist Shafik Gabr, the international chairman of the Gold Medal Commission and a proponent of regional peace and the U.S.-Egypt relationship, hosted a welcome dinner at the ARTOC Center, which featured a kosher buffet. Local officials, diplomats and Egyptian artists participated.
The second day included a visit to the Ben Ezra Synagogue, site of the Cairo Geniza. This ancient shul has become an Old City of Cairo tourist site, as the local Jewish community is virtually non-existent. Sisi recently provided significant government and personal funding to renovate the shul itself. Commission member Rabbi Elie Abadie, of Manhattan East Synagogue, joined with two Persian delegates in a Sephardic song, ignoring the docent’s objections to prayer in the facility. A visit to the grounds of Saladdin’s Mosque and Palace followed, as did a visit to the Egyptian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Anwar Sadat’s grave. The memorial is located opposite the reviewing stand where he was assassinated. Rabbi Abadie chanted an Arabic version of Kel Maleh graveside.
The climax of the trip was a two-hour formal meeting with President Sisi at the Heliopolis Palace. Seated around a grand conference table, each guest was allowed to ask a question on any relevant topic. He spoke only in Arabic and translation was provided. The president took copious notes and responded to every question. Commission Member Joseph Douek, a New York City commissioner of community planning and great nephew of the last Chief Rabbi of Cairo requested of Sisi to reclaim the 150 remaining Torahs in Egypt and to clean up the Jewish cemeteries. Sisi refused the Torah request, as he considers the Torahs Egyptian heritage property, but will allow a sofer to repair them for use by a returning Jewish community, and to release birth, marriage and death records data. Crews began working at the Jewish cemeteries within hours.
Some delegates recounted to the president where they were during Sadat’s historic visit to Israel. Estie Abadie, Rabbi Abadie’s wife, witnessed the Sadat motorcade in Jerusalem during his historic visit. Closing the formal meeting, Rabbi Abadie offered the tefillah for a president and his government in Hebrew and Arabic.
Next, delegates toured private areas of Abdeen Palace, Egypt’s 550-room royal palace until King Farouk was overthrown in 1952. Sadat governed from Abdeen. The fifty room tour included Sadat’s personal office. The group then took a short Nile River cruise on a felucca, a traditional Egyptian wooden sailboat.
Participants returned to Israel on February 20. David Guvrin, Israel’s ambassador to Egypt, coincidentally on board the flight, was briefed on the Cairo meetings. After receiving individual brachot from HaGaon Chaim Kanievsky in his Bnei Brak home, delegates had three official events in Jerusalem. Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin greeted the group at Beit HaNassi, followed by a discussion of the mission with his foreign policy advisor, a tour of the grounds and Mincha in the Presidential Bet Knesset. Next, Ambassador David Friedman received the group at the new U.S. Embassy. Finally, Jerusalem’s Mayor Moshe Lion, inaugurated just two months ago, hosted a city hall dinner. On the final morning, Rabbi Eliyahu Dahan, Israel’s deputy defense minister, focused on Israel’s military strength and the strategic partnership with Egypt.
Despite his concerns about safety and security, Berger said he had a positive experience in Egypt. “I was inspired by the warmth and interest President Sisi showed throughout the meeting,” said Berger. “On day one, we were hiding under baseball caps. The next morning, it was surreal to be walking the streets of Cairo wearing kippot without fear, especially in the presence of Egypt’s President and later in Sadat’s former office.”
Epstein added, “The trip was an eye-opener for both sides. In our short visit we appreciated the central role Egypt plays for the stability of the region and notably for Israel. We also learned about the steps Sisi is taking to stabilize and advance his own country, particularly in areas of education. It was certainly refreshing to see how he received our group and welcomed Jewish visitors who came to mark the achievement of President Sadat 40 years ago.” Epstein concluded, “Our group also admired and appreciated the short but meaningful visits to the historic sites of Cairo. Although it was a short visit, I have no doubt that it was the chance for all of us to begin a journey of discovery which will continue forward.”
The Sadat Centennial Act posthumously awards Sadat the Congressional Gold Medal, America’s highest civilian federal award. Few foreigners have been honored, including Shimon Peres, Raoul Wallenberg, Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill. Sadat’s family will officially receive the medal in a Capitol Rotunda ceremony in Washington, D.C. later this year. President Sisi is expected to join them.
By Judy Berger