Arrivals: From Cairo to Haifa, 1949

In spite of her experiences of exile and displacement, the theme of Ada Aharoni's work has been building bridges for peace.

ada ahraroni 88 224 (photo credit: Wendy Blumfield)
ada ahraroni 88 224
(photo credit: Wendy Blumfield)
In spite of her experiences of exile and displacement, the theme of Ada Aharoni's work has been building bridges for peace. She is also fiercely proud of the culture of the Jews of Egypt and, as organizer of an international conference on conserving their history, culture and literature, she also relives the coexistence between Muslims and Jews that thrived prior to 1948. In her biography of the amazing Jewish German nurse Thea Wolfe, who headed the Jewish hospital in Cairo during World War II, she highlights the efforts of the Muslim police and customs authorities to cooperate in the rescue of Jewish refugees who escaped to Egypt. BEFORE ALIYA Aharoni lived in comfort with her family in Cairo. Her father sent her to the English convent school for girls because he wanted her to be his secretary, but she so thrived in the language that she soon declared that she wanted a career in English literature. "At the age of 10 I was going to be a writer, not a secretary." she reminisces. At 13 she co-edited the school magazine with an Arab student and their motto was: Abolish wars forever. At 15 she was a counselor in the Maccabi Zionist Youth movement, but when she was 16 her father's work permit was rescinded because he was Jewish and the family prepared to leave for France. "We arrived in Marseille to find that the Egyptian authorities had confiscated the money that my father had transferred to a Swiss bank and we were left penniless and without financial resources, apart from land he had bought in Herzliya," she says. They moved to Paris and her father then suffered a heart attack and was unable to work again. Her mother, who was a piano teacher, went to work punching tickets on the Metro but later succeeded in business after taking a cashiers' course. Nevertheless, her parents wanted her to take up a place offered at the Sorbonne. By this time, Aharoni was concerned about the rising anti-Semitism in France and enrolled for a year's agricultural training in Israel, promising to return after that to study in Paris. ON ARRIVAL She did not return to France to study because as a 17-year old coming to Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek, she fell in love with the land and with Haim, also of Egyptian origin. It was their brains as well as their beauty that brought them together: "He fell in love with me when I beat him at chess," she laughs, "and I with him when I heard his lecture on Borochov and the overturning of the social pyramid." The couple settled at Haim's kibbutz, Nahshonim, where there were mainly Egyptian immigrants, "the first to cross the Red Sea from Egypt since the Exodus." Later they moved to Ein Shemer to be with Ada's garin (core group). "I loved the work on the land," says Aharoni who also taught English to the kibbutz children. Eventually, they felt the need to continue their studies, something not encouraged at that time in the kibbutz. Haim studied chemistry at the Technion, eventually becoming a professor in the Faculty of Chemical Engineering. Ada got her degrees in history, sociology and English literature at the University of Haifa and the Hebrew University. By this time, she had two children, so both she and Haim needed to work as well as study in order to support the family. In 1964, during a three-year stay in London, she received her master's degree on the literature of Henry Fielding and later received her doctorate from the Hebrew University. LANGUAGE Aharoni is fluent in many languages, but Hebrew was a struggle. "I wanted to go to the Hebrew ulpan in the kibbutz, but instead I was asked to teach English," she says. "Writing and reading were difficult challenges." she says modestly, for she has published books in Hebrew and has lectured and communicated successfully for many years. WORK She worked her way through university by teaching English in high school, but was surprised and disappointed to find that there was discrimination against Egyptian immigrants. "I was refused a good teaching job because a headmaster thought we were primitive and uneducated," she says. This probably sowed the seeds for her more recent passion for the renaissance of the culture of the Egyptian Jewish community. She has published 26 books, including poetry, novels, biographies, plays and literary criticism, many of which have been translated into other languages. She was one of the early members of Voices Israel Group of Poets in English, contributing annually to the organization's anthology. Her most recent book is in Hebrew: The Inner Voice on the novels of Saul Bellow. She has also researched and taught conflict resolution at the Technion. SOCIAL ISSUES Her work and life philosophy have progressed on parallel lines, both in her teaching and writing and as a social activist. "Reconciliation, coexistence, equality are the ingredients which will heal the ailments of Israel and our global village," she says. And it is through her work with women, building bridges, advocating for equality that she has seen changes in attitudes and a meeting of cultures. Aharoni believes in starting from one's own neighborhood. She and Ruth Lys, the co-founder of The Bridge: Jewish and Arab Women for Peace in the Middle East, knocked on doors in the Arab neighborhoods of Haifa inviting women to the first meeting. At the same time, they corresponded with Jehan Sadat and roused interest for the group throughout the region. Lys, herself a prime example of the bravery of these women, was a Holocaust survivor who lost her husband and four children. She remarried in Israel and her only son was killed in the Yom Kippur War. "It is through the mothers that we will make peace," she declares. In 1999 she founded IFLAC: Pave Peace, the International Forum for the Literature and Culture of Peace, of which she is still president. In this context grew the idea of organizing a conference this year at the University of Haifa jointly sponsored by the World Congress of Egyptian Jews and the Herzl Institute on Conserving the History, Culture and Literature of the Jews from Egypt. "There is so little awareness of the life of the Jews in Egypt prior to 1948," she says, explaining why in 1983 she wrote her historical novel The Second Exodus, describing the forced exile of Jews from Egypt. "We do not expect any material benefit but we want to recapture our cultural heritage." She believes that the stories on both sides should be told. "This was our nakba - disaster," she says. "We lost everything, but I never had any hatred for anybody. I never took a gun and tried to kill anyone. We just started over again." Unlike so many refugees who fester in hatred and revenge, Ada has used her experiences to work for peace. FAMILY After 55 happy years of marriage, Haim died earlier this year. "We had such a good life together, working in separate fields but supporting each other." Her greatest sources of comfort were her son Ariel, a gynecologist in Haifa, and daughter Tali, a social worker with an MA in community work, who like her mother is skilled in making innovations. She founded Dror College for the Third Age sponsored by the Zvulun Regional Council. There are six grandchildren. She still has family in Paris and visits between the two countries are frequent. When her mother retired in France, she moved to Israel and lived in Haifa until her death. FUTURE Aharoni is hopeful. "The Arab world needs Israel and there is a change in dynamic," she says. "We have to use that window of opportunity." She wants to see Israel with educated and moderate leadership. "Economic stability in the region will outlaw the terrorist groups." Although she is disappointed by the social and political problems in her beloved land, she sums up how she felt during the Second Lebanese War when family abroad urged her to leave: "Israel - to leave you now Would be an amputation. I would survive But there would be less of me." To propose an immigrant for a 'Veterans' profile, please send a one-paragraph e-mail to: [email protected]