Extirpating prejudices

Ruth Ouazana is a doer. For years she immersed herself in activism, continues to promote issues close to her heart.

Ruth Ouazana 521 (photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
Ruth Ouazana 521
(photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
‘When I was 11 I made myself a promise,’ says Ruth Ouazana, who came to live in Tel Aviv a year and a half ago from France, where she was born and grew up. “I would try to understand the problem between Jews and the rest of the world and try to fix it.”
Everything she has done in the ensuing years, culminating in her activity in interfaith relations, has been to advance that childhood promise.
Even before beginning her law studies at the Sorbonne, she was extremely active in the Jewish Scout Movement, reaching the rank of international commissioner and representing Jews in international Scout meetings. In 2006, she founded the French branch of the Limmud organization for Jewish education. Before her move to Israel she became active in KolDor, a non-profit that aims to promote the idea of Jewish peoplehood. And, concerned about the lack of mutual understanding between Jews and Arabs, she is busy setting up a new organization, together with a French Muslim friend, to try to break down prejudices.
As a child growing up in Saint-Cyr l’Ecole near Versailles, the daughter of parents who had settled there in the sixties from Morocco and Tunisia, she quickly became aware of attitudes toward Jews, being the only Jewish child in her primary school and one of only three in high school.
“All the time they asked me questions about either the Jewish religion and culture, or Israel,” she says. “Being the only Jew, I felt I had a responsibility to learn about the religion and culture of Israel so I could explain it.”
By the age of 10 she was conversant enough with the issues to make the case for Israel. But even before that, at age seven, the parents of an Arabic-speaking child stopped them from playing together, which put question marks in her young mind.
“A lot of my present activities stem from these childhood events,” she says.
Her mother had created the Versailles branch of Jewish Scouts and Ruth joined the movement at the age of eight and stayed till she was 32.
”I was at the world level for seven years and I learned a lot there. It was about presenting Jewish identity as an educator and I was doing what I promised myself at 11,” she says. At a the 20th World Scout Jamboree in Thailand in 2002 she was the official representative of Jewish Scouts in front of 24,000 Scouts from all over the world.
“There are 40 million people in the Scouts and Guides movement,” says Ruth.
“It's a big and powerful organization.”
WHILE STUDYING, she also found time to teach in a Talmud Torah (Sunday school).
After qualifying, she worked for eight years as a lawyer and it was during this time that she discovered Limmud in the UK.
“I was astonished by it and felt it was just what we needed in France to get more young people into community activity and to open the horizons of French Jewry.”
She moved to England for three years, “for love,” she says, and to work as a French teacher.
Upon her return to France she found Limmud going from strength to strength and is gratified to know it is still going strong, since she put a lot of work and effort into it and it is a project very close to her heart.
For a year she worked as international director of Alliance Israelite Universelle, a 150-year-old French and Jewish educational organization.
With so much going on in Paris where she lived, the idea of moving to Israel did not present itself until much later. She had visited in the ‘90s and had not liked it much, finding the people rude. But at a Scout convention in Prague in 2001 she realized that the Israeli Scouts were not explaining their activities properly and she found herself lobbying for the Israeli delegation.
And after she joined several other Zionist and Jewish organizations, she became even more familiar with Israel and decided the time had come to move here.
She joined a trip that started out in Europe and was called “In the Footsteps of Herzl.”
“We left from Paris and went to Basel, Vienna and Budapest, finally arriving in Israel on Yom Ha’atzmaut, 10 very meaningful days for me which culminated in my moving here,” she says.
Today she rents an apartment in Tel Aviv with two flatmates and works in online marketing to support herself, but as she says emphatically, “I didn’t come here for that.”
She does not yet want to apply for Israeli citizenship because she wants to be free to travel in the Palestinian Authority, which she would not be allowed to do as an Israeli.
One of her present aims is to create a new organization of Jews, Muslims and Christians aimed at breaking down barriers and ignorance and working for peace. A meeting has already been scheduled.
“I've met many Arabs who are also fed up with the extremism from both sides and want to live in peace,” she says. One of her friends, Suleiman, from Ramallah, is very active in the new proposed movement. He created an organization whose aim is to promote peace in Palestinian society.
“He spent 10 years in Israeli jails and came to realize that force and violence don’t lead to anything good and we must create dialogue,” she says.
Sometimes she invites him to Friday night dinner with her Jewish friends from far-flung corners of the globe, and Suleiman wears a kippa out of respect.
Ouazana appreciates this and for her it is one more proof that coexistence – something for which she has striven for years – is possible.