Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Magda blames antisemitism on ignorance

 Magda Haroun (photo: Naim Galal)

 Illuminating interview in Egypt Independent with the head of the tiny Jewish community of Cairo. Despite bending over backwards to distance herself from Israel, Magda Haroun, whose father Shehata let another daughter die rather than forfeit his Egyptian nationality, admits that as a Jew she had to wait two years for her ID card. She blames 'ignorance' for  Egyptian discrimination against Jews. She also reveals concerns regarding the determination of Jewish property, an Egyptian hot potato. She confesses she does not have the 'required documents' (to prove Jewish ownership) and fears her position as head of the community will be politicised.

Update: After being asked by The Jerusalem Post via phone about her statement comparing Zionism to racism, Haroun paused and seemed not to recall making such a statement. After the Post cited the interview in question, she confirmed the quote before stating, “Israel was established for Jews.”
Asked how this differs from Egypt – defined by the nation’s constitution as a Muslim state with Islam as the official religion and Islamic law as the principle source for legislation – a flustered Haroun denied the constitution’s statement on Egypt’s defining characteristics, saying that it is a state for various religions with Muslims being the majority.

Here is an extract from the Egypt Independent interview:

A: When someone asks why we have not left the country, I feel provoked. Why would we leave the country and emigrate? And where would we go? Why do some people think that all the Jews should emigrate to Israel? Do all Muslim emigrate to Saudi Arabia?

Q: When your father, Shehata Haroun, was asked to choose between his country and his elder daughter Mona, he chose his country. Can you tell us more about this?

A: In 1954, my sister was diagnosed with leukemia when she was four years old. From what I hear from my family, my father loved her like crazy and he took her along with him to every place he went to. When she got sick, the only treatment available in Egypt was blood transfusion. My father donated blood to her every day because they shared the same blood group. But the doctors said they could not do anything more for her and told my father to to take her to France [for treatment]. He asked for permission to travel but was told he would not be allowed back. He said that nobody should force their will on him and Mona died.

Q: How did you expect the conditions of the Jewish community in Egypt to be, and how did you actually find them, after you became the president of the Jewish community?

A: I used to say a lot that [Haroun's sister] Nadia and I will be the ones to close the door on the history of Jews in Egypt and my mother used to tell me that Shehata Haroun had prepared us for the day.
He nurtured our feelings of belonging to the country and he taught us about our rights and duties as Egyptian Jews. But the burden is heavy.
I did not mix much with members of the community, only at feasts and funerals. Just thinking about their affairs is difficult because it is all about trouble, from a humanitarian point of view. The elderly live in fear because of the image of Jews being promoted as traitors and spies. They fear people finding out they're Jews.
I fear I will not be able to provide them with a decent ending to their lives or to fulfill my pledge to safeguard the Jewish legacy and restore it. This legacy is part of me as an Egyptian Jew.

Q: What are the major problems that you face as the president of the community?

A: Besides what I just said, I have concerns regarding the determination of Jewish property. So far, I do not have all the required documents for that and I also fear my position will be politicised even though it is of a purely humanitarian nature.

Q: Many Egyptians frown upon the presence of Jews in Egypt. How do you explain this?

A: This is because Egypt's history has been falsified, not only with regards to the Jews but also many other things. If a person wants to progress then he or she must know their history well. It is time to correct the path, we have to know our history well. The youth have an opportunity and tools for knowledge which I hope they will use because they are our hope. Indeed, there were Jews in Egypt, most of whom have left Egypt but they did not do so willingly. They were forced to leave and only a few of those who left Egypt went to Israel. The establishment of Israel has put us, Egyptian Jews, in trouble because it is a country built on religious foundations.We paid the price. I hope this does not happen with other communities. I beg those leaving now not to leave because the burden is heavy and the sadness deep to be the one to close the door on the history of a section of the Egyptian society.

Q: Have you faced any problems as a result of the religion slot on your ID?
A: First, religion is about how you treat people, but that does not mean that the religion slot on my ID has not caused me trouble because of people's ignorance. For instance, I had to wait two years to get an ID. When I went to issue an ID, the employees were surprised about my religion and they kept inquiring if it was right to wrong. They even asked me if I were Egyptian or not.  In the last step before the issuing of the ID, the employee sitting at her computer called her boss and pointed to the religion slot and he told her “to write it as it is, this is a religion of God." When I went to correct something in my birth certificate, the employee asked me if I were Egyptian and I said yes but then he objected, saying that I was born at al-Saqf al-Israeli Hospital--the name of the hospital where I was born in Alexandria--and so I asked him if someone born at the “Railways Hospital” would have a "railways nationality" or another born at the Italian Hospital an Italian nationality. He asked to see my passport. After he saw it he asked me to write down my address and phone number and when I asked why, he said for "security reasons." I refused to write them and he did not issue me a birth certificate.

Q: How do you feel as an Egyptian Jew when you find the media, including state-owned media, attacking Jews and smearing their image?

A: We are not the only ones under attack. Christians and moderate Islam also come under fire.

Q: Intentionally or not, some in Egypt (and beyond) believe the Jews are invariably loyal to Israel. What do you think?
A: My loyalty is to my country where I was educated, where I grew up, fell in love and got married. I am loyal to the country that made me. I do not think that a French or English Jew would be loyal to Israel. Indeed, he or she would defend their religion but would also defend his or her country. The same applies to Egyptian Jews.

Q: Could that be because some do not differentiate between Judaism and Zionism?
A: The failure to draw a distinction between Judaism as a religion and the Israeli state is the result of ignorance, which is to blame on social science curricula and teachers... I remember that in a social sciences lesson, the teacher described Jews as dogs and I was the only Jew in class and all the students looked at me. I stood up and left the class. When I went back home, I told my father about what happened and he told me that children in Israel, too, are told that Arabs are dogs, so I felt better. The problem is that the person who said so is a teacher that is supposed to be raising children, so when someone like her says so it is a catastrophe. Much like some people mix up al-Qaeda and Islam, others mix Israel and Judaism up. Just like not every Muslim is a member of al-Qaeda, not every Jew is an Israeli. Regarding Israel’s Law of Return, which states that all Jews should return to Israel, these are their own man-made laws.

Q: For reasons related to the Egyptian government and the president of the Jewish community, the affairs of Egyptian Jews were shrouded in ambiguity. Is this ambiguity going to remain under your presidency?

A: Magda Shehata Haroun is an open book. I have to address this villification of Jews and remove the ambiguity surrounding the community. The Jewish synagogue has to remain open and receive people just like mosques and the churches. If there are security concerns that result from ignorance, such as fears that someone might walk into the synagogue and bomb it thinking he would go to heaven, the whole of Egypt will lose. Everyone should be open to everyone. I hope that one day I will see a Jewish Museum in Egypt, one that will contain artifacts and daily life tools so that the people would learn that we are not different.

Read article in full 

Jerusalem Post article  

Goodbye Carmen, hello Magda


Anonymous said...

Magda: why repeat your father's tale of what Israeli teachers may or may not have said about Arabs. Unlike the educational programs of Israel's neighbours, denegrating Arabs isn't part of the curriculum.

Sylvia said...

In terms of intolerance xenophobia and antisemitism, nothing compares to Egypt (except perhaps Algeria).
They have been at it for so long it will take centuries to educate those thugs.