Young Jews Trying To Help Egypt Face Obstacles — Abroad and at Home

Amid Idealism, Uneasy Questions From Parents, Community

Building Bridges: Monica Kamen says Egyptians were eager to learn about her faith. Jewish friends back home were less understanding about why she went to a Muslim country in the first place.
courtesy of kamen family
Building Bridges: Monica Kamen says Egyptians were eager to learn about her faith. Jewish friends back home were less understanding about why she went to a Muslim country in the first place.

By Anne Cohen

Published July 05, 2013, issue of July 12, 2013.
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“It’s a lot more nuanced than most people think,” he explained. “This incident [Pochter’s death] is an exception. While it’s not good to tell people you’re Jewish, it’s very rare that there will be a problem like that. Jews are terrified of Egypt in America, and they shouldn’t [be].”

His mother, who came to visit while he was living in Cairo, agreed. Though she didn’t feel comfortable broadcasting her Jewish identity, neither did she feel threatened.

“We had a wonderful time, and the people were wonderful. You understand [them] better,” she said. “Jewish kids need to be exposed to other cultures, not just Jewish culture.”

The mother of another student currently pursuing his graduate studies at the American University in Cairo was not so enthused. While visiting her son in Egypt this past year, she felt like a visible minority, not just as a Jew, but also as an American.

“I felt uncomfortable the whole time I was there,” she admitted in a telephone interview. But despite her initial reluctance, she also noticed the duality of attitudes described by others. While she was visiting a synagogue in Alexandria, the Muslim caretakers in charge of the building’s upkeep were more than happy to show her around.

“[They were] proud of the work they were doing to keep these Jewish relics in good shape, and have them be open to the public and show them off,” she said. “There are people in Egypt who do remember [the Jews of Egypt] fondly.”

Stereotypes about Jews, Brown explained, stem largely from a lack of differentiation between American Jews and Israel, rather than from any kind of targeted hatred. General attitudes toward Jews can be off-putting and insulting, but personal reactions are often surprising.

“In Egypt there is a weird contradiction between really horrendous attitudes and really welcoming people,” he said.

To illustrate his point, Brown recalled an incident that took place in 1985, toward the end of his first stay in the country. At a dinner held by one of his Egyptian friends, someone made a negative comment about Israel after seeing a newspaper headline.

“America will do anything for Israel,” Brown remembers the person saying. After debating whether or not to say anything, because “you’ve got to be careful,” Brown revealed that he was in fact Jewish.


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