Jerusalem & Babylon Hiding My Identity

Egypt’s President Mubarak kept the peace for 30 years, but did nothing to change his people’s hatred of Israel.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

I did an awful thing this week. I committed one of Judaism’s three cardinal sins by renouncing my faith.

It happened in a second. I was interviewing a young Islamist on the outskirts of Tahrir Square in central Cairo, and when I asked him how his religion shaped his political outlook, he answered, “It is the same for all men of faith. You are a Christian, are you not?” I mumbled for a second and then said yes and we carried on with the interview.

An Egyptian volunteer helps put a surgical mask on another to overcome smoke from a burned shopping mall in Cairo, January 30, 2011. Credit: AP

It has been torturing me ever since. Why did I have to pretend to be anything other than a Jew? I very much doubt that if I had owned up to the faith of my fathers, he or any of his friends would have done anything to harm me, but I just didn’t want to take the risk. And besides, it would have ruined the entire flow of what was quite a promising interview to start going into the fact that I was of the Hebraic persuasion.

I’m not sure what disturbs me more. The fact that I committed a sin that is not even permissible on pain of death? The fact that I had to stoop to subterfuge to get a few quotes? Or simply a feeling of depression that in the capital of a nation that has been at peace with Israel for 32 years, it still makes sense to hide your origins?

Not that I have any problem with hiding my Israeliness. I was born in Britain, write for English-language newspapers often and, let’s face it, I realize why we’re not that popular in the Middle East right now. But the necessity of hiding at least half of my identity for a whole week, talking even with Israeli colleagues in English in the street and looking for secluded street corners to make phone calls, has been an exhausting and paranoia-inducing experience.

I feel that I’m being unfair now. The entire Egyptian population is not anti-Semitic, nor, certainly, are a large proportion of the brave protesters risking their lives, first against the baton-wielding police last Friday, and later this week against the mounted attacks of Hosni Mubarak’s diehard supporters. But along with the elation of the revolution, there is a thinly veiled hysteria waiting to erupt at almost any moment, and the presence of an Israeli “spy” could well be the trigger for that breakout.

This fact was brought home to me in the last 24 hours I spent in Egypt. On Wednesday, an American colleague emailed me to apologize that a local contact of his would not agree to talk to me because he was afraid he would be accused of contact with the Mossad. On my last day, there were already reports of local, government-controlled television stations trying to incite more citizens against the pro-democracy protesters by saying there were Israeli spies among them.

I have reported that there were very few anti-Israel slogans or signs during the week of demonstrations in Cairo, and that remains true. The protesters want democracy, and if they are blaming foreign elements for supporting Mubarak, then the United States and the Arab League are the ones most frequently criticized. The shuttered synagogues of Cairo and Alexandria were not attacked (there remain only a handful of elderly Jews in Egypt’s second-largest city and virtually none in the capital), and a shooting incident last weekend near the Israeli embassy was probably not connected to any political violence, but to looting.

But Israel still remains a convenient bogeyman for all occasions. Those in Israel who have been bewailing the almost certain loss of a staunch strategic ally would do well to remember that in his three decades as president, Mubarak did very little, if anything, to educate his people and change their devilish perspective of Israel. Generals and senior ministers may have been in close contact with their Israeli counterparts, but at every other level of government and civil society, there is deep antipathy. Two months ago, the governor of southern Sinai even blamed shark attacks off the Red Sea coast on Mossad-trained beasts of the deep.

On balance, I was probably doing the prudent thing by not giving myself away as a yid while walking among the Islamists. But I would like to believe that contrary to the prophecies of doom emanating from the corridors of power in Jerusalem this week, the revolution in Egypt will not ultimately result in an Islamic republic on the Negev border. Certainly hundreds of Egyptians I spoke to over the last seven days have no intention of allowing that to happen.

Mubarak kept the peace for 30 years, and there is certainly reason to be grateful for that. But it is still considered dangerous to walk the streets of Cairo speaking Hebrew, even when all is calm.

Egypt has entered a period of chaos. But along with the hope that it will emerge more democratic than before, I also hope that the next time I visit this land, I will feel comfortable using all my identities.



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