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Tel Aviv University’s Egyptian Valedictorian: ‘We Must Always Question Our Assumptions’

Haisam Hassanein grew up surrounded by anti-Israeli stereotypes but found a very different reality when he experienced the country for himself

Yair Rosenberg
August 17, 2015

Last week, Tel Aviv University held its annual graduation ceremony for international master’s students. The event unfolded like most of its kind, with the school’s academic officials offering the assembled students congratulations on the occasion and wisdom for the wider world. But then the year’s valedictorian took the stage and delivered an address that was anything but the usual predictable platitudes.

Haisam Hassanein was born and raised in rural Egypt, probably the last place one would expect an Israeli university’s valedictorian to hail from. In his speech, Hassanein recalled how he had been surrounded from childhood by anti-Israeli stereotypes at home and in the media:

Everybody in this room had a friend or a family member who told him not to come to Israel.

“There is conflict there!”

“Aren’t you afraid of being blown up?”

“Do Jews speak English?”

“Do they have water?”

If you think you heard a million reasons why not to come to Israel, I heard a million and a half. Growing up in Egypt, the entire country had opinions about Israel, and none of them were positive. All we knew was that we had fought bloody wars, and that they were not like us.

My first exposure to Israel was through music and television. On the radio, there were anthems about the destruction Israel had caused. In the movies, Israelis were depicted as spies and thieves. In spite of the fact that the two countries struck a famous peace accord in 1979, the Israelis, I was told, were our eternal enemies.

Yet what Hassanein found in Israel was just the opposite:

On my very first day here at the university, I saw men in kippas, women in headscarfs and hijabs. I saw soldiers walking peacefully among crowds of lively students. I learned there were people of every kind in the university, and the university had a place for all of them—Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, Bedouins, and even international students.

…How fascinating is it to be in a city where you can to go a beach in central Tel Aviv and see a Muslim woman, a couple of gays kissing, and a Hasid sharing the same small space? Where else can you find a Christian Arab whose apartment is decorated with posters of Mao and Lenin? Where else can you see a Bedouin IDF soldier reading the Qur’an on the train during Ramadan? Where else can you see Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews arguing about whether or not Ashkenazi families had kidnapped Yemenite babies in the 1950s?

Hassanein related other insights he had gleaned from his experience in Israel. “Perhaps the greatest revelation of my being here,” he said, “was that in spite of all the conflicting histories and identities, people are still able to live their daily lives in a spirit of cooperation.” He then related an anecdote by way of illustration:

In my first weeks here at the university, I met a nice Arab-Israeli student [who] lectured me on the importance of Arab nations boycotting Israel. As our conversation came to an end, a Jewish boy about 8 years old skipped up to us, excited to see her. It turns out that she was his teacher. She gave him a big hug and a kiss on his cheek. Their affection seemed like an interaction between a brother and sister. I could see how much she truly loved the boy, and how the boy loved her too. No matter how deep the conflict, the human side always prevails.

“We must always question our assumptions,” Hassanein closed. “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.”

Watch his full address below:

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.