What does it mean to be an Arab-Jew in the twenty-first century? For me, it means recognizing and honoring Arab culture: the music, food, language, and customs my parents brought with them when they emigrated from Cairo in 1952; it means feeling a strong bond with other Egyptians, North Africans, and Middle Easterners, refusing efforts in the U.S. and elsewhere to demonize and “other” any of us. It means respecting the claims of displaced Palestinians and protesting Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. It also means not seeking to equate our displacement with Palestinian displacement, as some Jews from Arab countries have sought to do, in a transparent effort to discredit Palestinian suffering.
When I was growing up in 1950s Bensonhurst, in Brooklyn, NY, my identity as a Jew was often called into question. “You mean you’re Jewish? And you don’t know about gefilte fish?” my best friend’s Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jewish mother asked, shocked to discover that our family ate stuffed grape leaves rather than stuffed cabbage. “What kind of a Jew are you?” schoolmates challenged. When I answered “Sephardic . . . from Egypt,” they would reply. “But all the Jews left Egypt a long time ago, isn’t that what Passover is about?” “No,” I would say, having been taught the words by my father. “Some Jews returned to Egypt when they were expelled from Spain.” [Later I would learn that some Jews actually lived in Egypt for millennia, never having left.] “There are no Jews in Egypt,” my little friends would retort. “We never heard of any Jews in Egypt. You can’t be Jewish.”
It was puzzling, I knew, but I could find nothing further to say. Aside from a handful of relatives, I did not know any other Jews from Egypt either. An Egyptian Jew. To my neighbors, it seemed a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron. To myself as well. What was the Egyptian part, what the Jewish? How did they fit together? Maybe I wasn’t really Jewish. Later, when acquaintances continued to wonder about my identity, I was similarly stymied. “You mean you don’t speak Yiddish?” they would ask after I had painstakingly explained that my grandparents spoke Arabic and French.
During the January 21st Women’s March in New York City, I was inspired and delighted by so many of the signs women and men had crafted to express their opposition to the current disastrous regime in the United States: “Grab America Back,” “Support Your Mom,” “Sad!,” “Miss Uterus Strikes Back.” But one image stood out, mesmerizing me: that of a woman proudly wearing an American flag as hijab, with a message below—“We The People Are Greater Than Fear.” For several blocks as we made our way up Fifth Avenue, I walked beside a woman carrying that sign, and it became, for me, the most powerful symbol of the resistance we must all wage during the dark time ahead.
The image, based on a photograph of Munira Ahmed by Ridwan Adhami, was created for the Women’s March by graphic artist Shepard Fairey (who also designed the iconic image of Barack Obama, “Hope”). It offers a striking visual challenge to a long-held orthodoxy, now brought to the fore by Donald Trump and his gang: that Western-style liberal democracy (epitomized by the United States) is incompatible with Islam. And, perhaps even more specifically, that Islam is incompatible with feminism.