From Egypt to Hebrew Academia: An Arab’s Transformation Through Education
JNS.org – “My main purpose is to explain beyond any reasonable doubt why a 12- and 13-year-old, instead of going on a bike ride, or going to play with their toys…they go bring knives, kitchen knives, from their mother’s kitchen, and go try to stab Jews,” says Hussein Aboubakr Mansour. “This is not because they have any grievances against Israeli occupation. They are just 12. What kind of grievances could you build when you’re 12 years old?”
Mansour’s words have more gravitas than those of many others commenting on radical Islam. A 26-year-old political refugee born and raised in a traditional, middle class Arab-Muslim family in Egypt’s capital of Cairo, he took some time during a two-week national US speaking tour — sponsored by pro-Israel education group StandWithUs — for an interview with JNS.org on the persecution he suffered under Egyptian regimes, his survival of Arab Spring chaos, and his current educational efforts. Now an assistant professor of Hebrew Studies at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., Mansour’s stated goal on the tour was to “educate people about antisemitism in the Arab world.”
The reason behind attacks on Jews and Westerners, Mansour explains, is that Muslim terrorists are “cradled into this blind, antisemitic hatred for the Jews, [which teaches] ‘Jews are demons, Jews are evil,’ and this a real problem, and [it is] why we need to support Israel. Israel is not engaging in some sort of political conflict. Israel is fighting for its life against this blind sea of irrational hatred.”
What Mansour encountered during his childhood in Egypt mirrors the environs of Palestinian youths who have been behind recent stabbing terror attacks in Jerusalem.
“When I was about 12 years old and during the second intifada…we would come up with ideas like having consecutive suicide bombings in the same location, or sneaking into a soccer game crowd,” Mansour says at a StandWithUs speaking engagement taped by Jewish Life Television.
That anecdote is one of many Mansour offers to audiences who are willing to listen. His latest speaking tour, from Nov. 6-20, kicked off with the StandWithUs “Israel in Focus” student advocacy conference in Los Angeles and continued with stops in Las Vegas; Boston; Toronto; Miami and elsewhere in South Florida; Stamford, Conn.; and multiple events in New York and New Jersey. The diverse set of venues included Jewish and public high schools, colleges, and Jewish Community Centers. Although Mansour occasionally faces a hostile crowd, the most common response this time around was one of surprise and shock.
“People really have no idea [of] the unfortunate amount of hatred that is now unfortunately being webcast on the mainstream of the Arab culture and the Arab world,” he tells JNS.org. “Hatred and antisemitism can be heard on radio stations, public TV channels, reading the newspapers, in mosques every Friday….People come to me and say, ‘Wow, I never thought this was true.’ It makes me happy that I am able to open the eyes of so many people to that reality — I know for a fact that people do not know.”
Mansour’s own eyes were opened during his teens. Around age 14, he began searching for more information to satiate his hunger about what he called “an unhealthy obsession with the Jews,” who according to what he was hearing in Egypt ruled the world and wanted to destroy Arabs. In order to learn more, he realized that he needed to learn the English and Hebrew languages, to have access to more credible sources through the Internet.
“As I kept learning about the Jewish people as a people, the Jew was being slowly humanized in my mind…all of the [propaganda] I went through was being slowly, slowly reversed…I started to read Jewish literature, learning about a Jew not as some super soldier eating gentile babies and drinking their blood, but as a mother and a daughter and a sister, and as a brother, as a son, and as a businessman…it really changed my views about everything in the world. I started to see injustice, I started to see everything differently. I started to see how bad women are treated in the Arab world, how minorities are being treated, how Christians are persecuted,” he says.
Mansour says this shift could not have been made without learning English and Hebrew.
“It gave me a new narrative, it gave me stories which many, many times made much more sense than these stories that I had heard before in school, or in books or on television,” he says.
One book that he read around age 18 — Primo Levy’s Holocaust memoir If This is a Man — was particularly enlightening.
“That book mainly made me see [that] a Jew is a person who is constantly hated, even before he was born, for who he is,” Mansour says, “and that gave me great sympathy towards the Jewish people and also great admiration…I couldn’t believe that somebody could come of out such a horrible, most nihilist experience [like the Holocaust]…and build something such as the state of Israel.”
Hussein was excited to attend Cairo University and study Hebrew, but ended up disappointed by the lack of academic standards. Egyptian universities are set up to reinforce the antisemitic propaganda conveyed at home. Mansour recalls his professor’s lengthy rants about Jews being murders, occupiers, traitors and criminals. He turned in assignments and took tests without attending classes.
In 2009, Mansour began visiting Cairo’s Israeli Academic Center (IAC), which was founded in the 1980s to foster Israeli-Egyptian academic cooperation. Egyptian authorities were quick to catch on, interrogating him outside of the IAC building. A week later, he received his first of many threats in a phone call.
Yet Egypt’s State Police never physically hurt Mansour during his year studying at the IAC, giving him courage to continue blogging about anti-Semitic propaganda, religious freedom for minorities in the Middle East, and political corruption in Egypt. He was arrested, interrogated and even detained for brief periods — but never tortured.
After he graduated from university, that changed. Mansour was detained for two and half months in an Egyptian military prison for being a “threat” to the wellbeing of Egyptian society.
Mansour describes this period as one of great despair. His family declared him an apostate for no longer following the Muslim faith. He told them, “I don’t want to practice religion anymore…I don’t want to be part of this culture, I just wanna be myself.”
All the while, the Arab Spring was on the horizon, and the revolution arrived in January 2011. Mansour was an organizer in the Tahrir Square protests.
“The Arab Spring gave me great hope…that we [could] do something to change this sad reality that we are living in [and] we can build a calmer, secular Egypt…[that] is more fair and free for everybody,” he says.
Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, however, quickly gave way to the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood — the parent organization of the Palestinian terror group, Hamas. This meant “the same old school of corruption and oppression,” Mansour says.
Just like its predecessor, the Brotherhood regime imprisoned Mansour, this time over his contact with Israelis and writings expressing hope for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence.
Behind bars again, Mansour recalls that it was a “daily struggle [of being told], ‘You’re not gonna get out,’ and [getting] beat down everyday. It was just constant pain. They make you totally miserable, hopeless—they try to crush you into hopelessness [so] that you’re ready to give up whatever they want you to give up.”
After he was released from prison, Mansour’s Egyptian Coptic Christian friends hid him in a monastery, but everyone around him advised him that he could only live a normal life in America. He sought, and obtained, political asylum in the US.
Looking back on the Arab Spring, Mansour believes there is a lesson to be learned from the protesters’ lack of a concrete plan for Egypt’s future, which empowered the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Yes, sometimes we’re faced with very, very bad situations with a reality we’re not satisfied with, but we should not hurry to try to change this reality. [If] we do not have a plan for a viable alternative…it’s just gonna be total mayhem and total chaos,” he says.
If not dictatorships nor revolutions, what is the way forward for Middle East nations? Mansour says Arabs like himself “just need support to organize themselves and to one day become a part of the mainstream of the Arab world. That would make the world a much better place for everybody and a much better place for Israel.”
Indeed, even in his deepest moments of despair, when he even considered ending his life to avoid the torturous hands of Islamists, Mansour saw no alternative but to move forward. He lost all connection to family and the ability to live in his native country — yet he is alive, free and working in his profession of choice.
“I have succeeded in doing everything that people were out to prevent me from doing,” says Mansour, adding that the story of his personal journey means “that progress is possible.”