Friday, November 30, 2007

The refugee from Cairo who works for peace

Photo: Wendy Blumfeld

The inveterate peace campaigner and champion of the rights of Jews from Arab countries, Professor Ada Aharoni, is profiled in
The Jerusalem Post: from Cairo to Haifa - 1949.

"In spite of her experiences of exile and displacement, the theme of Ada Aharoni's work has been building bridges for peace. She is also fiercely proud of the culture of the Jews of Egypt and, as organizer of an international conference on conserving their history, culture and literature, she also relives the coexistence between Muslims and Jews that thrived prior to 1948. In her biography of the amazing Jewish German nurse Thea Wolfe, who headed the Jewish hospital in Cairo during World War II, she highlights the efforts of the Muslim police and customs authorities to cooperate in the rescue of Jewish refugees who escaped to Egypt.

"Aharoni lived in comfort with her family in Cairo. Her father sent her to the English convent school for girls because he wanted her to be his secretary, but she so thrived in the language that she soon declared that she wanted a career in English literature. "At the age of 10 I was going to be a writer, not a secretary." she reminisces. At 13 she co-edited the school magazine with an Arab student and their motto was: Abolish wars forever. At 15 she was a counselor in the Maccabi Zionist Youth movement, but when she was 16 her father's work permit was rescinded because he was Jewish and the family prepared to leave for France.

"We arrived in Marseille to find that the Egyptian authorities had confiscated the money that my father had transferred to a Swiss bank and we were left penniless and without financial resources, apart from land he had bought in Herzliya," she says.

"They moved to Paris and her father then suffered a heart attack and was unable to work again. Her mother, who was a piano teacher, went to work punching tickets on the Metro but later succeeded in business after taking a cashiers' course.

"Nevertheless, her parents wanted her to take up a place offered at the Sorbonne. By this time, Aharoni was concerned about the rising anti-Semitism in France and enrolled for a year's agricultural training in Israel, promising to return after that to study in Paris.

"She did not return to France to study because as a 17-year old coming to Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek, she fell in love with the land and with Haim, also of Egyptian origin. (...)

"Aharoni believes in starting from one's own neighborhood. She and Ruth Lys, the co-founder of The Bridge: Jewish and Arab Women for Peace in the Middle East, knocked on doors in the Arab neighborhoods of Haifa inviting women to the first meeting. At the same time, they corresponded with Jehan Sadat and roused interest for the group throughout the region. Lys, herself a prime example of the bravery of these women, was a Holocaust survivor who lost her husband and four children. She remarried in Israel and her only son was killed in the Yom Kippur War.

"It is through the mothers that we will make peace," she declares. In 1999 she founded IFLAC: Pave Peace, the International Forum for the Literature and Culture of Peace, of which she is still president.

"In this context grew the idea of organizing a conference this year at the University of Haifa jointly sponsored by the World Congress of Egyptian Jews and the Herzl Institute on Conserving the History, Culture and Literature of the Jews from Egypt. "There is so little awareness of the life of the Jews in Egypt prior to 1948," she says, explaining why in 1983 she wrote her historical novel The Second Exodus, describing the forced exile of Jews from Egypt. "We do not expect any material benefit but we want to recapture our cultural heritage."

She believes that the stories on both sides should be told. "This was our nakba - disaster," she says. "We lost everything, but I never had any hatred for anybody. I never took a gun and tried to kill anyone. We just started over again." Unlike so many refugees who fester in hatred and revenge, Ada has used her experiences to work for peace.

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