- I was grading my class’ first exam and came across the following answer in response to the question “please talk about the obstacles to effective philanthropy in the Middle East.” Y, we will call him, wrote ” Arabs are as stingy as Jews.” He then crossed this sentence out and appended a note to it which said “pretend I did not say that.” He proceeded to provide a very good answer to the question.
- On his trip to Stratford-upon-Avon Noah roomed with an Egyptian student from his theatre class, who upon learning that the hotel they were staying did not provide free wireless blurted “they are a bunch of Jews.” Noah objected, since was not the first time A made an anti-Semitic comment, nor the first time a student in his school had done so. A apologized, indicating that this kind of comment was really done from instinct and that he did not mean anything by it.
- A few weeks back, while Noah was getting his hair cut downtown, Judy was connecting with the young men in the barber shop. They told her how much they liked Americans, she told them she was Canadian and they said Canadians were good people. Judy told them that she liked Egyptians as well and commented “all people are good people,” to which one of the young men commented “Yes, but not Israelis.”
- In Arabic class yesterday, after a very intimate exchange about his relationship with his deceased father and how he had watched him die and performed the ritual washing of his corpse, we commented to our teacher that we do something similar. “You are Christian?” he asked. “No Jewish,” I responded. He looked shocked. We then had a wonderful exchange where he told me how happy he was that we told him, that he had a former student who told him of his Jewish identity only when he was leaving Egypt. He let us know that he understood the difference between Jews and Israelis, noting that he did not like Israelis because they kill children. He also urged us a number of times not to share our religious identity with any other Egyptians.
We have not been very public about our Jewish identities. We did go to high holy day services in downtown Cairo, in a synagogue guarded by the Egyptian army, but that was pretty private until we saw a picture of the back of our heads in the English language Daily News in an article written on Rosh Hashanah that featured the small Jewish community that remains here. And in my travels in the region I have always been cautious about revealing my religion, but have done so many times after I have gotten to know somebody. I recall after telling a professor colleague of mine in Jordan that I was Jewish, she asked “how often do you visit your homeland.” I quickly realized that she was not talking about New Jersey. I also realized that for many American Jews, Israel is indeed their homeland.
And that seems to be the issue here. Jewish is equated with Israeli by many, and Israel is seemingly universally vilified here. For those who do understand that Jewish does not equal Israeli, they express openness to Jews but an unequivocal hatred of Israel and Zionism and the catastrophe. But if you think about it, doesn’t Zionism actually create this merger, or doesn’t Israel do so by making all Jews automatically citizens of Israel actually encourage this merger of identity? And don’t my conservative Jewish friends who ask for unyielding support for Israel from the American Jewish community also propagate and encourage this merger of identities? In this perhaps odd way, the perception that I experience amongst people here is in some ways similar to what many American Jews encourage. So some here understand the difference between Jews and Israelis, and some do not, but even for those who do I am not always sure I believe them.
The anti-Semitic/anti-Israel sentiment amongst the Arabs that I have met is not at all dissimilar to the intense Islamophobia that exists in the United States. I nearly lost my breath when a family member upon learning that Leah would be studying Arabic here asked “why, so she can speak to the terrorists?” And the recent cover of Newsweek with featuring Arab rage, or the post 9/11 racism that so easily emerged in the United States is far too close to the knee jerk anti-jewishness I hear here.
I am frankly not interested at this moment in having conversations about moral equivalence. For now I am discouraged by the deeply entrenched views on both sides of this persistent and unwavering hatred. And though one of my goals in my time here was to somehow bring a fruitful dialogue to this enmity, I think that was both naive and the result of a bit of hubris. If nothing else, however, I am a little less ignorant about this part of the world than I was two months ago.
I asked Y to come speak to me after I read that line in the exam. He responded to my email by asking if there is anything he should be worried about. I said no, but that I wanted to talk to him about something in his exam. We agreed to meet after class. When we ran into each other before class in the men’s room, he said to me that he thought he knew what I wanted to talk about. After class we sat down, and I told him that his line about Jews took my breath away. He earnestly apologized. I told him I was Jewish, he said that he thought that might be the case. That actually did not make sense, so I asked him how he knew. He said that he had never seen a last name like mine so he thought I might be Jewish. He told me he did not mean to offend me, that he likes to use humor about this issue, that he has many Jewish friends and that he differentiated between Judaism and Zionism. We talked a bit about the films of Sasha Baron Cohen. I told him that there was a place for humor, and exams like this were not such a place. He agreed. We walked to the bus together, shook hands, and agreed to continue the conversation. I very much hope we do. Perhaps one small drop in a large and rough sea.