What I Learned as an Egyptian Studying With the 'Enemy' in Tel Aviv

Anti-normalization pressures are so strong in Egypt that a lawmaker was voted out of parliament for having dinner with the Israeli ambassador. So what happens when an Egyptian student decides to study in Israel?

Egyptian-American Haisam Hassanein's Tel Aviv University Valedictorian Address.
YouTube screenshot

As a child growing up in Egypt, I knew little about Israel. The only sources of information related to the country were available on TV, through school, and in newspapers. On TV, most of the programming consisted of spy dramas and war films. In school, we were taught that our lands had been taken in 1967, and that we succeeded in regaining them after a heroic effort in the 1973 war. The subsequent Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement was mentioned but described in little detail. In newspapers, articles often argued that grand Zionist conspiracies implemented by Israelis and Americans intended to create chaos and division in the Arab world.

And so, upon my arrival in Israel, I was shocked not to find a single Israeli who mentioned any plans or desires to take the Sinai back from Egypt, or a grand strategy to occupy the area between the Nile and the Euphrates. During my interactions with Israelis, I learned that most are very satisfied with the peace treaty between the two countries and do not wish a return to the days of conflict and war. Instead, some Israelis were frustrated with the fact that although the two countries had officially been in peace for almost 37 years, it remained a cold peace.

Even though the political questions, such as whether Israel wanted to take our lands back, were the first to come to mind, I quickly discovered that politics should not be the focal point in our conversations. I realized that I did not know much about them as human beings, and that they shared the same feeling. Thus, I focused more on learning about them as individuals, and my background helped enormously with that.

The first thing that struck me about Israel was that it was not entirely Jewish. Jews constitute 80% of the population while the rest is made up of minority groups that include Arabs, Druze, and Bedouin. As for the Jewish segment of the country, once they discovered that I was Egyptian, they were immediately enthusiastic and wanted to engage in conversation. I was often invited to Shabbat dinners, political gatherings, plays, and a variety of social events. I felt that they viewed me as an exotic specimen, and many of my Jewish friends asked me not to take it personally if there were misunderstandings, given that it was the first time many of them had met an Egyptian. Through these encounters, I learned a great deal about the Jews and their internal differences and identities.

This began with my encounter with Jews who had recently made aliyah (immigrated to Israel). I found that some of them had come to Israel for purely ideological reasons, some in the search of better socioeconomic opportunities, and others to escape anti-Semitism in their countries of origin. I met those who, although they had grown up thinking of one day making aliyah and eventually did so as adults, struggled to fit into their new environment after arriving. Thus, they decided to continue spiritual ties to Judaism but chose to leave the country. I also encountered Israelis who were born and raised in the country, but whose parents had origins in many different countries in Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa.

One of my best friends and classmates, an Argentinian Jew, told me the story of his grandparents who had fled Russia and Poland due to anti-Semitism and poor economic conditions in the early twentieth century. He introduced me to the concept of an Ashkenazi Jew, and told me a great deal about ethnic divisions among Jews and how they regard Israel as a safe haven.

I developed friendships with Mizrahim, who told me the story of their grandparents who had moved to Israel from Arab countries in the 1940s due to persecution. I learned how their transition to Israeli society was very hard for many of them due to prejudices in the Ashkenazi community against Jews from the Arab world.

I met others who told me stories of their parents who had immigrated to Israel in the late 1980s after fleeing persecution in the former Soviet Union. They told me about how life was difficult for them upon their arrival in Israel, and how while they had held professional and high-status jobs back in the Soviet Union, they now had little option but to work very low-wage jobs.

I also met Ethiopians who told me stories of their families who suffered for many years in civil war-torn Ethiopia. They were thankful that Israel had succeeded in bringing them back in late 1980s, but at the same time expressed concerns at the ongoing struggles facing the Ethiopian community in Israeli society today.

After being exposed to Jews for the first time, and learning about their internal differences and identities, I also felt compelled to learn about the minority populations in Israel, including Arab Muslims and Christians, Bedouin, and Druze.

My encounter with Arab Israelis was interesting by all means. Speaking Arabic like an Egyptian set me apart from other Arabic speaking citizens of Israel and in many cases guaranteed me free tickets to peoples’ hearts. Once I speak, Arabs recognize my background right away. The accent reminds them of the Egyptian cinema industry — the so-called Hollywood of the Arab world, which afforded me a lot of prestige and pride. I cannot forget the time I attended an event for the Arab Joint List in the university during Knesset elections last March and one of the songs played at the end of the event was Egyptian.

During our discussions they told me the story of the split that occurred in their families in the course of the 1948 war, and how the families were still unable to return to their previous homes or visit one another to this day. Being both Palestinians and citizens of Israel, they told me about the identity crisis they face on a day-to-day basis, with all of the complexity inherent in those competing loyalties and emotions. On the one hand, they are thankful to live in a country in which they enjoy political and economic freedoms, but on the other hand, they are not happy with the current status of their families in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem. They also told me of their difficulty in identifying and associate themselves with the Israeli flag and national anthem.

I met Druze who served in the IDF and were proud of their contributions to Israeli society. They explained to me that they do not think that serving in the Israeli army is by any means immoral or a betrayal of Arabs. Many said that since the establishment of the state they had been treated fairly well, and as a minority they are by far better off than other minority groups in the Middle East.

On the other hand, Druze from the Golan Heights still identify themselves as Syrians and refuse to join the army or obtain Israeli citizenship. However, after the dramatic recent events in Syria, they are somewhat content to be under the Israeli rule. Although many disagree with Israeli Druze on the question of joining the army, their relations are fairly good.

I met Bedouin who told me about their experiences in Israel. Some of them refuse to join the army, while others do and have to deal with the resulting stigma incurred in their own communities. In addition to that, I got the chance to learn about the struggles they face in Israeli society when it comes to land ownership, urbanization and social inequality.

During my stay in Israel, I learned that its ethnic diversity is also reflected in the political system. I witnessed elections in the country and attended Jewish and Arab political gatherings. I saw my Arab-Israeli friend cast a vote in the Arab city of Nazareth. I learned that the Israeli political system is highly pluralistic. It includes the far left, the center-left, centrists, the center-right, the religiously ultra-Orthodox, Arab communists, Arab nationalists, Islamists, and those who reject the existence of the state, including both Arabs and Jews who seek not to be involved in the political system at all.

One of the most beneficial experiences of studying in Israel was interacting and forming bonds with people I never would have spoken with otherwise. I expected that Israeli Jews would be a homogenous group, but I found that they contain a striking level of diversity and come from all over the world. Jews have a wide array of historical backgrounds, spiritual practices, and political beliefs. There is a similar heterogeneity among Arab-Israelis. 
Therefore, by engaging with Israelis, I learned that:

The indoctrination of hate that unfortunately gets passed down from generation to generation is what is truly hindering opportunities for peace.

Hence, the crucial takeaway is that the two sides need to engage with each other. Not seeing the human side of the other dehumanizes it and permits a mindset that can justify committing acts of violence against it. But, by seeing and dealing with the "other side," one begins to doubt the differences between the two.

So, at some point, I hope this cycle of suspicion and hate will end. The history of the Middle East tells a tragic and cautionary tale that we must not forget, but what the region needs is real progress. It needs people who recognize the positive and work toward a more collective and inclusive future.

"O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted [with all things].” (Quran 49:13)


Haisam Hassanein is an Egyptian- American student currently pursing his master's degree in Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University. Follow him on Twitter: @HaisamHassanei1