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Cross-Cultural Understanding, Out of Context

After my valedictory speech at Tel Aviv University went viral, the Egyptian media painted me—an Egyptian—as a betrayer because I spoke of co-existence

Haisam Hassenein
October 01, 2015
Filippo Monteforte/AFP/GettyImages
Filippo Monteforte/AFP/GettyImages
Filippo Monteforte/AFP/GettyImages
Filippo Monteforte/AFP/GettyImages

Last month I delivered the valedictory address for international masters students at Tel Aviv University. In it, I expressed a true genuine reflection of my ten-month stay in Israel, where I interacted with all different kinds of people—Jews, Arabs, Druze, and Bedouins among them. And I talked about my first-hand observations of the day-to-day co-existence between different segments of people in Israeli society despite their conflicting histories and identities.

After the video went viral, I was gratified to see that the speech had been received positively not only by my classmates, but also by my friends in Israel and the United States, and most importantly, ordinary people around the world. The Egyptian media, however, reacted quite differently—not by simply taking issue with the address, but often straying from constructive criticism and instead misquoting me and taking my words out of context.

Early articles, here and here, portrayed as paradoxical the very notion that an Egyptian could speak positively about his experience in Israel. Following this, many news outlets started to mention the speech; shortly thereafter its manipulation began. Many newspaper headlines stated, “an Egyptian student speaking at TAU graduation says Israel is God’s paradise on earth,” which, in fact, I never said. Another newspaper accused me of saying “I found warmth in Israel,” implying that my experience here in Israel consisted of having intimate relationships with Israeli women. They were apparently unaware that I am a moderate Muslim raised to respect my Islamic traditions.

On television, an Islamist TV host, claimed I was sent by Egyptian President Sisi to study in Israel:

“This is what Abdel Fattah Sisi is doing to Egypt now! This Haisam Hassanein will come back so he becomes a minister or head of a university or governor. You will find him something big in Egypt. He and a group of others that Abdel Fattah Sisi sent to the Zionist entity. Those who will come back to rule and dominate Egyptian people.”

In the same vein, a prominent Egyptian TV host famous for his character assassination methods went as far as fabricating the past to impugn my speech, claiming Israel was the first state to commit genocidal acts in human history—an assertion clearly and publicly displaying his deep-seated anti-Semitism.

“I did not go and I will never go; but all that he said is not related to the Zionist entity at all. First, this is a murderous entity. We cannot forget the crimes of this entity that took place and continues to… [Israel] was the first entity in the world that commits massacres. I am surprised that a citizen of my country says such things about the enemy that will continue to be an enemy. All the time, don’t go left or right. You have an enemy called the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood and another enemy the rest of our lives like the Muslim Brotherhood is Israel which will be forever.”

In addition to these absurd statements, he added: “Frankly, we don’t need these people. We are not honored to have people like you among us. He who speaks this way about the enemy should not be among us. It is not an honor to have our citizenship.”

I fully reject the notion that I betrayed Egypt simply by going to a country it made peace with 36 years ago in order to better understand it. To clarify, I did not make a political speech. I simply and honestly related the experience I had in Israel. Are we not allowed, as human beings, to have some measure of complexity? Can’t our curiosities carry us to places we never imagined? Are we strictly forbidden to learn about the other on our own terms?

As I said in the speech: We must always question our assumptions. I hope it is time for members of the Egyptian media to stop promoting blind hatred and anti-Semitic views of Israel, and that one day they can grow to see the reality that I experienced, and learn from it.

Haisam Hassanein is a Glazer Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.