Why I’m coming home to Israel

For Jews expelled from Muslim nations, the double standard that Israel is unfairly held to is a source of great distress

Nina Avidar Weiner is Chariwoman and Co-founder of the ISEF Foundation. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nina Avidar Weiner is Chariwoman and Co-founder of the ISEF Foundation.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1933 into an educated middle-class Jewish family of mixed ethnic origins. My mother descended from a prominent Sephardic family that had settled a few generations ago in Jerusalem; my father was an Ashkenazi Jew from Kiev, Ukraine, who spoke 10 languages perfectly well and made aliyah in 1924. My parents were married in Tel Aviv in 1925 and moved to Alexandria in 1926 to be with one of my mother’s brothers. There was a cultured European atmosphere in Alexandria at the time. A dozen languages were heard in the streets. While I was growing up, we enjoyed going to operas, concerts, and ballets performed by Europeans companies; we spoke Hebrew and French at home.
Despite the many golden memories which some former Egyptian Jews have of their life in Egypt, the relationship between the 80,000-strong Egyptian Jewish community and the Muslim majority during the 1930s and ‘40s was tenuous at best, even prior to the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Under the influence of Hadj Amin el-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, the Egyptians hoped the Nazis would win World War II. Antisemitism, a defining characteristic of the theocratic Arab countries, was on the rise in Egypt under the influence of the Islamic revivalist Muslim Brotherhood. It reached one of its many convulsive climaxes on May 15, 1948, when seven Arab countries invaded the newly created State of Israel. My father was taken by the Egyptian police at dawn and interned at Abukir, one of four camps erected at the time to intern Zionists and communists. He stayed there for nearly a year until the police took him straight to the airport, where he was forcibly expelled from Egypt, never to return. My mother and I joined him with just three suitcases containing all our lifelong belongings.
Thus our saga as “refugees” began. Alongside 850,000 Jews from Arab lands who were forced to leave their homes, my family and I were accepted in the new State of Israel. After over 2,000 years of persecution and exile, the Jewish people had a country where they could freely practice their faith, share their culture, and speak their indigenous language. On becoming Israeli citizens, the State of Israel utilized my father’s linguistic abilities and sent him all over the world to publicize Israel’s needs through the newly created Israel Bonds. For 20 years, my father traveled to Latin America, where he spoke Spanish and Portuguese, and to Europe, where he spoke fluent French, German, and English.
After studying in Israel, I decided to do my graduate work first in Switzerland with the renowned psychologist Jean Piaget, and then in the USA. I landed in New York City 50 years ago. In retrospect, I consider this to be my “immigrant stage,” highlighted by my desire to integrate into a fascinating, welcoming new society. I had a career as a psychologist, I married, had a family, and had an extremely interesting and exciting life. From the day I became an American citizen in the mid-1960s, I was a liberal and voted for the Democratic Party, expressing the values I had received at home from my family’s politically active background, I remained politically involved, always as a Democrat, and I was proud of it.
Now that my husband has passed away, I have decided to return to Israel,as my heart seems to have remained on the other side of the ocean, where I still have a large family. I will continue my long involvement in helping bright young Israelis from disadvantaged backgrounds to get a higher education in Israel, through the Israel Scholarship Education Foundation (ISEF), which I co-founded 42 years ago with the outstanding support of Edmond and Lily Safra. Meeting some of the thousands of ISEF alumni in Israel, now enjoying successful careers in fields such as medicine, the sciences, and education, will be the highlight of my new life back home. I am blessed indeed with a very large family in Israel.
Yet the clouds slowly gathering for over two decades around us in the US, especially for us Jews, have dampened my wonderful memories and possible nostalgia for a life well spent in America, “the best country” in the world. Disheartening changes seem to be all around us. Words do not have the same meaning any more, first and above all on college campuses, which should have been our hope for tomorrow’s generation. Phrases like inclusion, freedom of speech, human rights, political correctness, now seem to have a double meaning – or no meaning at all. New words are added, and nobody really knows whom they include or exclude. And at the end of the day, they might include speakers on campus such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former Iranian president and Holocaust denier, who was invited to address Columbia University in 2007, but cancel an award for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the respected Somali human rights activist and former Dutch politician, at Brandeis University in 2014! In 2019, the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement is marching on, relentlessly and at times successfully on campuses, making inroads in other venues of power.
The free press in the USA could have been so helpful to make us understand all these clashing new narratives. To separate fake news from real information and let the reader decide, as it was supposed to be! But instead some of us are dumbfounded to find that our liberal press is creating its own regular “fake news.” When two Muslim representatives in the US Congress recently wanted to visit Israel, the liberal press described only one-half of the story: that they were denied entrance to Israel as a result of Trump’s influence on Netanyahu. The press was silent about the anti-Israel organization that had invited them, and about their plans to delegitimize Israel’s very right to exist by promoting BDS before and during and their trip.
To find the entire objective truth and piece it together is getting harder and harder for regular people. New words like "Islamophobia” have been imposed on our free societies, achieving the status of an unwritten law not to be trespassed, first on campus and then in our society at large. Meanwhile, old words like “Antisemitism” are losing their steam and vigor even in the United States Congress and definitely in our liberal press and our college campuses, while in reality antisemitic acts and attitudes are growing alarmingly for all to see.
For so many of us “old refugees from the Muslim world,” we are numb when the liberal press is mostly silent and the world largely inactive in responding to the terrible atrocities committed repeatedly in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and elsewhere for years; when we learn that children are being used as human shields to conceal weapons and munitions in hospitals and schools in Gaza and other places; that children have been gassed in Syria.
But on November 16, 2019, The New York Times had on page 8 a large picture of the coffins of five Palestinian children with a banner headline covering the whole page: “Israeli Airstrike Killed 5 Children,May have Missed Gaza Militant.” That is all that interests them. Israel attacked, it killed children, and it did not succeed in its mission – that, they will print.
Too many Americans today, in our polarized society, from the Left and from the Right, seem to accept this destabilizing double talk and double standard. My old home, Israel, with all its imperfections and all the miracles it has created since I left, 50 years ago, seems to be the right home for me.
Nina Avidar Weiner is Chairwoman and Co-founder of the ISEF Foundation.