As Jews celebrate the Passover holiday, that commemorates the historical exodus from Egypt, it may be worth noting that this is not just a matter of ancient history.
The Jews of Egypt, and much of the rest of the Muslim world, became refugees once again in modern times. And this is not just something that happened 50 years ago. It’s still happening today.
This story of life for Egyptian Jews in a country of Islamic oppression comes to us from 2005.
Cpl. Dina Ovadia is telling her winding, unbelievable story for the umpteenth time, but her eyes still well up with tears. Ovadia, now 22, left her family home in Alexandria for the last time as a young and curious 15-year-old girl. All she wanted was to fit in. “Everyone always looked at me as though I was something different, the ugly duckling in the class. They asked me why I dressed the way I did, and why I spoke with my parents during the breaks, and why this and why that.”
Dina knew very little about Jews as a child. “In school they always taught us to hate Jews and Israelis,” she says. “Let’s take Koran class for example. I would be sitting, taking a test, and would read a verse that said you need to kill Jews. I also remember during the Second Intifada all the TV programs I watched that always said that Israelis are bad. I cried over the story of Mohammed al-Dura. My grandfather did his best to explain to us that they’re not bad, that we have to understand that in war, that’s what happens. At home we were always taught that all human beings are equal and you have to respect them for who they are, no matter what their background. In school they taught us that Israel is the enemy. They would say when I grew up that I would understand. During the Intifada I was even at demonstration, waving the Palestinian flag. It never even occurred to me that I was Jewish.”
The Jewish stereotype present in Egypt was similar to what was taught in the darker racial theories of the early 20th Century. “I knew that Jews were scary, were murderers, had big noses, ears and had beards. On television you would always see babies burning in Gaza, things I’ve never seen in Israel, but that’s what we thought.”
The turning point occurred on a day like any other. Dina was studying for a history test, her brother and cousin were playing on the computer upstairs, and her mother, aunt and sister were also at home. Suddenly the sounds of shouting and shattering glass cut through the calm routine. “I really panicked, and immediately I thought that because we were different they had come to our house. I went outside and saw five masked faces – they were Salafists.” Five bearded men in robes, with clubs in their hands and rifles slung over their shoulders, broke through the electric iron gate at the entrance to the grand family home and demanded to know where the men of the house were. Their explanation was as simple as it was incomprehensible: “A’lit el’Yahud” – a Jewish family.
“I thought, ‘what the hell!?’ I didn’t understand why they were saying that we were a Jewish family. Anyone who was different, the stranger, was always called ‘the Jew’. I was certain that they were mistaken. They entered the house. My mother said that the men weren’t there, and they threw her into the corridor, she slammed into the pillars, and she fainted. I started to scream – I was sure that they had killed her. And then I saw two of them going up the stairs. I heard shots. I was sure that they had murdered both my brother and my cousin.”
The Salafists went down the stairs and told the Abdallah family that they had a few days to get out of the country, and that in the meantime they could not leave their home. They threatened that if the children went to school, they would be kidnapped. Only then did they leave.
Luckily, the whole family escaped. The armed men shot at the boys’ heads, missing deliberately in order to scare them. “I think that today they would have just killed us all,” she says. From the moment of that home invasion, Dina’s life became entangled in a complex loop, while the two irreconcilable edges of her life began to unravel. “The Salafists would encircle the house in their vehicles, shooting into the air. That month even the school didn’t call. I slept with my mother – I was terribly afraid. My father told me that they are just thieves despite the fact that they didn’t take anything. ‘Jew’ was really a kind of swear word, he said; but I couldn’t believe him.”
A few days later, her grandfather gathered all of his family together and he revealed the truth. “He explained why he kept us from other religions and told us that we were Jewish, and we that we had little time to leave Egypt. He told us we were going to Israel. I remember the little ones at home were excited about it, but I wasn’t. I started crying and was so disappointed. I told him I did not want to move to that bad country. I rebelled against it.”
Before this dramatic turn of events, Dina tried to understand where all her friends had disappeared to. They hadn’t even called to say hi throughout the whole month. “I had a really good group of friends,” Dina says. “We lived really close to one another, and we used to sleep over at each other’s houses. I begged my mother to go and see one of them, and in the end she let me go. I knocked on her door. She opened it, made a face and slammed the door on me. What my grandfather told me passed through my head at exactly that moment: we grew up together and just because she heard that I was Jewish she doesn’t accept me anymore? That really hit me. I said: I know that the Jews are bad, but look; I’m not bad. By this time I had totally broken down. Right then I realised that this wasn’t the right place for me. They couldn’t accept me for who I was.”
To some extent, Dina’s job in the Spokesperson’s Unit is about getting the Arab world to truly accept her. “When I got to the Spokesperson’s Unit and realised what the work involved, I was really happy,” she says. “It’s a lot of fun to be able to show the positive side of the IDF, and to tell the world what’s really happening. The best example is Operation Pillar of Defense, where we really had a big impact. When wrote on the various platforms that the IDF doesn’t want to harm civilians, there were people in the Arab world who listened and were convinced. Sometimes they even tell us so in private messages, which is fantastic. We get comments and messages from across the Arab world; from Saudi Arabia, from Egypt, and from further afield.
While the whole Arab world has yet to accept Dina, the most important person has already accepted her – herself. “In truth, I don’t say that I’m from Egypt,” she says. “It’s behind me already. I was angry when the Rabbi changed my name for me, but now I realise how great the name ‘Dina’ is. I have no desire to live in Egypt, and I don’t think I could forgive those people for what they did. But there’s something I’ve never told anyone before,” she smiles. “I want to go back and visit, and to see my house. I want to go and look that friend of mine in the eye and tell her: I am a Jew – and I’m proud and happy. I want to go back to Egypt in uniform, to show them that we’re not murderers, that we’re not actually bad people. I’d like to go back to my school, and to the morning assembly we had at the beginning of every day. I want to explain to them that all we’re doing is defending our country.”