Haisam Hassanein’s graduation speech did not batter the lurid assumptions about Israel, nor did it denounce the lazy stereotypes about Israelis, he simply told it as he found it in an honest, quiet, human way. By so doing he cut through the notions of ‘Israeli apartheid’ which are mostly held by people who have never been to the country.
It is worth quoting in length, and the full speech can be seen on the W@Y video slot on the front page of this website.
Haisam, who grew up in rural Egypt before moving to the USA, was speaking after graduating with an MA in Middle Eastern Studies.
Edited excerpts –
“I’d like to invite you all to take a moment to reflect about the beginning of your adventure in Israel. Do you remember receiving your acceptance letter? You were probably excited to come to Israel.
Then, you started telling people you were coming to Israel, and maybe you started to get a little nervous. There’s war there! Aren’t you afraid of being blown up? Do they even have water there? Do Jews speak English? …Growing up in Egypt, my entire country had opinions about Israel, and none of them were positive. All we knew was that we had fought bloody wars, and they were not like us.
… On the radio, there were anthems about the destruction Israel had caused. In the movies, Israelis were spies and thieves, and in spite of the fact that our countries struck a famous peace accord in 1979, the Israelis, I was told, were our worst enemies.
I expected to find that people here were unfriendly, and especially unhappy to meet Egyptians. I was pleasantly surprised to find just the opposite. I was invited everywhere, from Shabbat dinner, to Ramadan Iftar meals, to plays and even to political gatherings. And the diversity I found here was as surprising as the warmth of the people.
On my very first day here at the university, I saw men in kippot and women in headscarfs and hijabs. I saw soldiers walking peacefully among crowds of lively students. I learned there were people of every kind on campus, and that the university had a space for all of them – Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druse, Beduin and even international students.
I discovered that the diversity of the Tel Aviv University campus was reflected in Tel Aviv too.
How fascinating is it to be in a country where you can to go a beach and see a Muslim woman, a gay couple kissing, and a Hassid sharing the same small space? Where else can you find a
Christian Arab whose apartment is decorated in posters of Mao and Lenin? Where else can you see a Beduin IDF soldier reading the Koran on the train during Ramadan? …While traveling beyond Tel Aviv, one can not help but notice the proximity of kibbutzim to Arab villages, and the easy relationship they seem to share with each other … When Israelis ask me, how does it feel for you to be in this country, I have to be honest. I tell them, before I knew you, I didn’t like you. But I never considered that my “enemies” would accept me to their school, to their country, and moreover into their society.
Being here in Israel has taught me that life is full of paradoxes and complexities – that nothing is straightforward, and that things are often not as they are made to seem.… let’s also remember to go forward with a sense of renewed curiosity, knowing the only thing one should truly expect in life, is for life to defy your expectations.”
Israel, like all countries, has many faults. Much can be, and is, written about social injustice, under funding, security measures, police brutality, racism, etc, but to call it apartheid displays ignorance of what apartheid meant in South Africa, the laws which underpinned it, and its deliberate degradation of peoples based on skin colour. There is a grown up discussion to be had
about Israeli policy in Palestine, as for example here – but the obsessive mantra of ‘Israel – Apartheid State’ stems from either malicious intent or ignorance. For example the cartoon on the left, suggesting that Israel is only for Jews, appears to be drawn by someone who is misled, or who seeks to mislead.
Those who believe Israel is like South Africa in the 1970s never see the greys in the self righteous black and white picture they paint. Nor do they appear to know or care about nuance of security, or the laws in neighbouring countries such as those in Jordan which forbid Jews to own land or become citizens.
Haisam did not bother to list the numerous Arab Israeli judges, football players, politicians, TV journalists, businessmen and women, nor the freedom of religion, and sexuality. He didn’t need to mention that an Arab Israeli High Court judge recently sentenced a former Israeli President to 7 years in jail.
He could have said many things about the situation in the West Bank, he might have mused on the dangers a Jewish Israeli student would face in Cairo, but that would have been to overtly turn to politics. Of course he strayed into that arena, and as an MA student in his chosen subject, he can hardly have been unaware of this, but this was a speech full of humanity and through its simple truths, it gave lie to the ugly, ignorant concept of ‘Apartheid Israel’.
Cover photo shows Muslim clerics visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem.