Disbelief is the first feeling you have to overcome when you hear that your friend has been detained by Egypt’s dreaded secret police, the Mukhabarat.
That it would be someone like Ilan Grapel is perhaps the clearest sign that Egypt’s revolution may improve things for some Egyptians, but it marks an increasing strain in Israeli-Egyptian relations.
Ilan was a dove at a time when the Israeli left had all but collapsed and when American Jewish immigrants to Israel expressing such views had become an endangered species.
That a former IDF veteran − shot during the Second Lebanon War − would be so committed to peaceful coexistence with Israel’s many non-Jewish citizens and neighbors may seem surprising.
But those who knew him on a personal level wouldn’t have been surprised − Ilan was always seeking to reach out and experience “the other” side. Ilan grew up in Queens, New York, and attended the Bronx High School of Science before matriculating at Johns Hopkins University. Even in high school, Ilan’s closest friends were mostly African-American teammates from the school’s basketball team, perhaps explaining his lifelong love of underground hip-hop.
I even remember that it was Ilan who introduced me to the avowedly political Palestinian rap group DAM while we were both working at The Israel Project − an NGO that provides factual information about Israel and the Middle East to press, policy makers and the public.
If you were starting to guess that Ilan is the type of person who marches to his own beat, you would be correct. His love of Arabic culture and the immense effort he put into learning the language (which is what first brought him to Cairo’s American University a few years ago) wouldn’t make him that unusual in Israel.
The fact he chose to go by the name “Illanhu Akbar” around the offices of an organization often tasked with presenting some of the region’s most delicate issues to the outside world, would. His sense of humor was interesting, to say the least.
Ilan and I never became the closest of friends. But we always kept in touch. He even told me, around Passover time, of his plans to head back to Egypt, and I thought nothing of it. Typical Ilan.
To those who might seek to make the facile comparison between Ilan and another Jewish leftist from New York, Lori Berenson, don’t bother.
Yes, both these individuals wanted to experience a revolution and history in the making in countries suffering from severe corruption, poverty, and police abuse. But Berenson assisted known and admitted terrorists in Peru.
Ilan was volunteering with an NGO, working on refugees’ rights, and went to Tahrir Square to take some photos and perhaps − if you believe the official Egyptian media account; I don’t − joining in some protest chants. If he hadn’t been a dual American-Israeli citizen, he would probably still be moving around the streets of Cairo.
Despite his lack of caution, Ilan represented some of the best impulses and hopes of the American liberal democracy he grew up in. And now he is sitting in a prison somewhere in Cairo.
I guess he − like many more veteran members of the Israeli left − has learned to his disappointment that the Middle East just ain’t that kind of neighborhood.
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