April 22, 2004
Egyptian Woman Speaks Out for Israel
Nonie Darwish spreads an Egyptian newspaper across her knees and points to an old black-and-white photograph of a family. She identifies her father, mother and siblings in the photo.
"I am 8 years old here," she says and gestures to the image of a serious little girl. The photo was taken in the early 1950s, while her father was working as the head of the Egyptian administration stationed in Gaza, shortly before he was killed -- reportedly in an Israeli attack.
The article, which appeared in the Egyptian newspaper in 2001, is a two-page profile of Darwish's father being celebrated as one of the first martyrs to die in the ongoing battle between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Now, sitting in her suburban home in the San Fernando Valley, 56-year-old Darwish regards the article with anger.
"Immediately after my father's death, everybody was congratulating us that we are the children of a hero," she recalls in a gentle voice still tinged with an Arabic accent. "We were given such honor like we were now valuable, because my father died in the process of jihad. However, I resented this idea of jihad. It was, in my mind, what took my father away."
Thus began a journey that took Darwish from the Middle East to the United States, where she now travels around the country lecturing at universities about her Muslim childhood and current position as an ardent supporter of Israel.
In this post-Sept. 11 world of polarized politics, it's rare to find Muslims speaking out against their people. Irshad Manji, author of "The Trouble With Islam" (St. Martin Press, 2004), has come under fire for her outspoken views. Yet it's even rarer to find Muslims who are publicly pro-Israel, like Darwish. How did the daughter of a revered martyr come to support his alleged killers?
As a child, Darwish attended Palestinian elementary schools, where, she says, she was taught to hate Jews and Israel.
"I grew up with the idea that Jews are evil people, who came from nowhere to occupy the area," she says. "We were never told the historic truths about Judaism in the area, and we were led to believe that Jews were cursed."
Darwish says that when she questioned this indoctrination, the answer was, "Aren't you a good Muslim?"
"It's almost like if I am a good Muslim, I shouldn't even ask why, and if I don't follow the traditional views about Jews, I'll be outcast," she explains. "So we had to obey."
But something about this unexplained hatred felt wrong to Darwish, and the chain of events that followed proved to be a turning point in her life. Despite the fact that her father was in the Egyptian army, her mother never taught hatred of Jews in the home.
Darwish recalls a story about how her grandmother's best friend was a Jewish Egyptian woman who was forced to leave Cairo during the 1954 revolution, when Abdel Nasser claimed power over Egypt and expelled the country's Jews. Her grandmother never fully recovered from the loss.
Perhaps the event that most altered Darwish's perception of Israel was when her brother became deathly ill, and her mother was given the choice to either transport him to a hospital in Cairo or to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.
"He was completely unconscious, and the people around him from the Egyptian Embassy said, 'Do you want him to live? -- send him to Hadassah,'" she remembers. "So here they trusted their enemy hospital more than their own hospitals."
By the time Darwish immigrated to the United States in 1978, she had completely rejected the anti-Jewish and anti-Israel lessons of her youth, but it was not until the terrorist acts of Sept. 11, 2001, that she decided to publicly speak about her experiences.
"Sept. 11 was the straw that broke the camel's back for me," she says.
Repelled by the high-profile actions of violent extremist groups, Darwish decided it was her responsibility to speak out on behalf of her culture of origin. She has since traveled across the country, speaking mostly to university students, denouncing intolerance and violence.
Roz Rothstein, executive director of StandWithUs, a pro-Israel educational organization, has made Darwish one of the group's permanent speakers.
"I think that there are a lot of professors and well-meaning progressives who do not have the information and do not believe the information until they hear it from someone like Nonie," Rothstein said. "It is very powerful to hear from someone who grew up around all of this hatred."
While the reception among Jewish audiences to her lectures has been very positive, Darwish says she has also met with opposition to her views. At a March 4 lecture at UC Santa Barbara, there was a protest staged by the school's Muslim Student Association. But despite the opposition that Darwish has encountered during her lectures, she says she will continue to speak out against violence and intolerance.
"I am a supporter of Israel," she says. "I believe Israel deserves respect in the area. I am totally against one religion, one culture in the area. I believe in the diversity of the Middle East."
And she thinks this message is more important now than ever before. In her home, Darwish points out another article from a recent Egyptian newspaper. She translates the headline, which reads in English, "The Nation Is More Dear Than Motherhood."
The article details the last morning of one of the few female Palestinian suicide bombers. The mother wakes, kisses her babies goodbye, straps herself with explosives and leaves the house -- forever.
Darwish is outraged that the article honors such a violent act. In her opinion, to love a country is to love the children of that culture.
"I am the one who loves this culture better than any of these people," she says, shaking her head sadly.
Nonie Darwish will speak at UC Riverside on April 27 at 6:30 p.m. For more information visit Darwish's Web site at www.noniedarwish.com .