I remember growing up as a child in Cairo, Egypt, with the same childhood as any other child in the world: playing with dolls, reading many books, dealing with sibling rivalry and school, but also with a shadow in the background.
My mother had bought me a Jewish star pendant on a gold necklace. She warned me not to show it to anyone at school. I didn’t understand why I should keep that a secret, let alone why should a Jewish star be hidden. But some children cannot keep a secret, and I was one of them. I told my friend at school, that I had a secret. She then begged me to show her. In the schoolyard one day, I let her see the Jewish star hidden under the collar of my school uniform.
“You must be Jewish!” She cupped her hands over her mouth.
For a moment I was taken aback at her reaction when fear overtook me. “Please . . . don’t tell anyone.”
When I left school that day, I felt guilty that I had disobeyed my mother, and I still couldn’t understand what I’d done wrong. That day I kept from my mother that I told a friend.
I was educated in a nondenominational, Catholic institution that accepted girls from all religions. We were Greek Orthodox, Muslim, Catholic and Jewish students. We studied side by side in the classroom and got along fairly well.
My grades were mixed, with math being on the low end of the scale and French and composition on the high end. The Catholic nuns taught classes with the help of Arab teachers. While the nuns were compassionate, some of the Arab teachers were not. I had a conflict with my Arab teacher who failed me on tests I excelled in. It didn’t matter that dictation and composition were my best subjects; she would fail me nonetheless.
At that time I voraciously read any books that came my way. I borrowed ten short books from the school library per week and read them like devouring candy—one after the other. I also borrowed books without permission from my brother’s small collection, such as the adventures of Fantômas, The Saint series, and many other mysteries. So as a young girl I was exposed to the great criminal Fantômas who killed his victims with relish.
One grading period, my grades were so poor that my parents were summoned to school. My book quota from the library was cut down, and my brother forbade me to touch his books. I was heartbroken. No more books to read.
In addition to my academic problems, I learned from my childhood that being Jewish is to be hidden and that teachers were to be avoided. World War II had ended, but Jews and many foreigners were persecuted in Egypt. Some Jews had been killed, while others were leaving Egypt by the thousands. One day both my brother and I were walking back from school when a group of Arab children surrounded us. My brother, who happened to be as blond as a German, was targeted. The Arab boys shouted, “Here is a Nazi!” This ironic remark was lost on us that day, but we fought them back, my brother with his fists, and me with my school bag.
The State of Israel was already in its sixth year, and rumbles were still heard following the 1948 Israel-Arab wars. Riots took place one evening while my parents were visiting friends. My grandmother was watching over us at the time, including my older brother Joseph and younger brother Aaron. My parents left their friends’ house with a great hurry to go through the dark streets, and were stopped by a band of roving rioters.
“Here are Jews, let’s kill them!”
My mother was mute with terror, and my father trembling with fear at the knife on his throat, shouted, “I’m not a Jew, I’m Greek Orthodox!” This was partly true, because my father came from a Jewish-Greek family and they spoke fluent Greek. My parents survived thanks to my father’s quick thinking. That night, while rioters threw rocks at our windows, my parents made the decision to leave Egypt forever.
Later, as a young adult, I asked myself many times why were we hated so much. What had we done to be hounded, persecuted and killed throughout history? We were good citizens, who contributed to the countries that sheltered us. We come with cherished family traditions. We celebrated holidays and happy events as any other religious, or nonreligious family in the world did. What was it that troubled and drove other religious groups in the Arab sphere to hate Jews?
We were told in many ways through persecution, pogroms and Holocausts that we are to be shunned, hated and killed. Yet, on the other hand, many non-Jews had come forth and became honored gentiles for saving Jews in countless instances throughout history.
As an adult, I learned to recognize that hate is universal. Hate can target any religion or any group that the aggressor fears. Hate that is bred from fear is the evil that needs to be recognized for what it is—born from ignorance and the dehumanizing of the “other”: If they’re not like me, they’re to be shunned and eradicated.
Instead, we should celebrate our diversities and our commonalities, because deep down we’re all human, no matter our differences. That is the legacy left for us to instruct, enlighten, and open the eyes of ignorance.