Few lessons have been learned. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images)

October 11, 2021   5 mins

I remember being in the alleys of downtown Cairo a decade ago and coming to the ruins of a synagogue, one of dozens that once housed the religious life of the thousands of Jews who gave this neighbourhood its name. It is still called The Jewish Quarter, even though by the time I arrived in 2009 the actual Jews who had crowded the alleys up to the 1940s had been hounded out by state persecution and mob violence. As far as I knew, the Jewish population of Cairo’s Jewish Quarter on the day I visited was one: me.

The synagogue was named for the philosopher and physician Maimonides, who led the Jewish community here in the 12th century, when Cairo was the most important Jewish centre in the Middle East. The building was nothing but a roofless shell, but I discovered a work crew laying planks in one of the rooms, up to their knees in fetid water. It turned out that the Egyptian government — the same regime that took possession of much of the property of the 80,000 Jews who’d been forced out of the country two generations earlier — was engaged in a restoration project.

A polite young engineer on the site showed me the location of the stand where the Torah scroll was once read. Another man, in civilian clothes but with some vaguely military authority, told me not to take pictures.

There couldn’t be anything bad about the restoration of a synagogue, could there? It was hard to explain why none of this felt right; why I preferred to see the building left to rot, rather than see it made up like a corpse at a wake. I had the same feeling when I saw other journalists refer seriously to the “Jewish community of Cairo”, quoting a woman who was its “President”.

There was no community, just a regime-approved simulacrum designed to allow everyone to pretend that an ethnic cleansing hadn’t taken place, and that something dead was alive. It was Weekend at Bernie’s. At the time of my visit, the Egyptian Government was trying to get one of its officials elected to a top cultural post at the UN, an effort hindered by this same official’s past support for burning Hebrew books. A synagogue renovation couldn’t hurt his cause! The real Jews were long out of Egypt, but their imaginary avatars were still hard at work serving the narrative needs of others.

In Cairo, and at similar sites I’ve visited elsewhere in the Middle East and Europe, I’ve felt — in the words of the author Dara Horn — an “unarticulated sense that despite all the supposed goodwill, something was clearly off”. Horn has now articulated that sense, and many other important and elusive senses, in a superb new essay collection, People Love Dead Jews. (I should mention that I spent a summer with the author on a youth programme three decades ago, and have remained in touch.) Horn comes at her subject with a deep grasp of history and a personal commitment to the living Jewish tradition, with an acerbic sense of humour that pops out now and then — and also, refreshingly and necessarily, with anger.

One memorable essay recounts a bizarre trip to several “Jewish heritage sites” in Harbin, China, near the Siberian border. The city is known for its vast Ice Festival every winter, and also for being founded by Jews who were sent there by Tsarist Russia as part of a railway project, but were then dispossessed and driven out by a mix of imperial Japanese occupiers, White Russian bigots, and rapacious communists of both the Soviet and Maoist variety. (Horn quips that “Jewish heritage sites” — a benign term used in many countries for the purpose of multicultural branding and drawing Jewish tourism — sounds better than “Property Seized from Dead or Expelled Jews.”)

The author visits “the largest Jewish cemetery in the Far East”, which turns out not to be a real cemetery at all, but just gravestones on empty ground. The original cemetery was re-zoned years ago and the Harbin municipality moved only the markers, not the bodies, which now seem to be under an amusement park.

The names of those Jews have inevitably been forgotten. A very different posthumous fate befell Anne Frank, the subject of another essay in this book, who, in the decades since her murder at age 16, has been turned into a global brand. Horn is cutting about the way her famous diary has been used as a feel-good story that flatters readers in the same way that a renovated synagogue flatters the multiculturalism of the Egyptian state.

The book’s most famous sentence — “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart” — is something we all like to hear. But it obscures the obvious truth of the text, which was written a few weeks before Anne was turned in by Dutch neighbours to die in a German camp. No one was good enough to save her. “It is far more gratifying,” Horn writes, “to believe that an innocent dead girl has offered us grace than to recognise the obvious: Frank wrote about people being ‘truly good at heart’ before meeting people who weren’t.”

And it’s easier to love a Jewish girl who can no longer express her potentially uncomfortable conclusions about her own life than it is to tolerate her annoyingly living co-religionists. In 2018, the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam, located at the site of the house where she hid with her family, wouldn’t let a Jewish employee wear a kippah, explaining that this violated the museum’s “neutrality”. The directors changed their mind only after four months of deliberations, Horn observes, “which seems like a rather long time for the Anne Frank House to ponder whether it was a good idea to force a Jew into hiding.” A similar observation might be made about a place like Belgium, which also has nice Jewish museums and memorials, yet just passed a law banning kosher slaughter, a necessity for those living Belgian Jews who would like to practice their religion.

Looming over Horn’s essay collection is the place that is now home to the largest number of living Jews, the state of Israel. Israel is the ultimate demonstration of Horn’s thesis, though she mostly, and wisely, steers clear of the topic. Many people eager to venerate their vanished Jews are simultaneously uncomfortable with the ones who are still alive in the tiny corner of the Middle East where they fled after most other places on earth became unlivable.

Horn skirts close in one moving essay about a group of Yiddish actors and writers in the Soviet Union of the 1940s who were exploited for propaganda, then killed when they were no longer useful. The communists could tolerate Jews, she writes, “provided they weren’t practising the Jewish religion, studying traditional Jewish texts, using Hebrew, or supporting Zionism” — meaning that nearly all of Jewish life was out of bounds. “The Soviet Union thus pioneered a versatile gaslighting slogan, which it later spread through its client states in the developing world and which remains popular today: it was not anti-Semitic, merely anti-Zionist.”

This differentiation, which outlived the Soviets and is increasingly popular on the Western Left today, is largely lost on the plurality of Jews who are Israelis, and on the vast majority who think a Jewish state is a good idea. Older people here in Israel still remember how in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, just 28 years after the concentration camps closed, the same liberal countries of Europe that were expressing pious regret for the recent extermination of their Jews wouldn’t allow desperately needed American resupply flights to land in their territory en route to Israel, which had just been attacked by two Arab clients of the Soviets and was struggling to recover.

And in 2021, young Jews can still see how countries like France, Germany, and the UK lay solemn wreaths at Holocaust memorials while participating in the isolation of the Jewish state at the UN, where the Human Rights Council, to give just one example, has condemned Israel more times than all other countries on earth combined. They can also observe how activists in places awash with Jewish heritage sites and Holocaust museums are energetically promoting a boycott of “Zionists” with telling success.

Horn doesn’t go there, in part because she doesn’t need to; her inspired essays say enough. But it is that kind of hypocrisy that’s at the heart of her argument. People Love Dead Jews helps explain the acute anxiety of many Jewish citizens of Western countries in 2021, who feel the ground shifting as old forms of thought reappear in public on both the Left and the Right — and as it becomes clear how few lessons have really been learned.

Matti Friedman is the author, most recently, of Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel. He lives in Jerusalem