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Inconvenient History: tales of lesser discussed history of Egypt & Israel

As Egypt's relationship with Israel takes central stage for both countries, a look at some interesting little known historical facts ...

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Passion for Justice: Sherif Fam (July 22, 1936 - August 31, 2010)


I am always fascinated by those rare occurrences when a brief human interaction leaves a lasting effect. I first came across Sherif Fam shortly after 9/11 as part of an Arab / Muslim / Jewish / Israeli dialogue group. I came to know of the group through an Israeli friend and I was invited to the home of a Jewish doctor, the son of Holocaust survivor. The members of the group had different styles ranging from wanting to express their own views and listen to others in honest, true dialogue to those with a more debating style. One grey haired man with a small build spoke very quietly and calmly about issues of morality, justice, humanity and suffering. This man spoke with a great deal of knowledge, very calmly, yet passionately about the humanity of the Palestinians.

We all tend to like to pigeonhole people,. I had originally thought that the man was a Jewish peace activist, perhaps an American Jew or, because I did not really hear the typical Israeli accent, an Israeli who had rejected Israel in his youth and moved to the US. It was the complete lack of aggression, I would even say compassion, which he used to talk to those who opposed his views that struck me, he must really know where they come from. The discussion moved on to the rise of attacks against Muslims in America after 9/11 and with the same keen sense of justice the man spoke about human rights and equality. Someone then mentioned that this man’s name was Sherif Fam and that he was a Coptic Christian Egyptian.

Over the years Sherif and I met occasionally either at dialogue groups, where he was rarely in attendance, or Arab American functions. Sherif appeared to me to be tired of dialogue, perhaps he felt the truth was eminently clear, for all to see, in terms of the on-going suffering of the People of Palestine. If people chose to close their eyes and hearts dialogue or none was not the issue; it was the suffering on the ground that needed addressing. I am not sure if Sherif ever disapproved of the on-going “work” of dialogue but I think his sense of fundamental justice was all encompassing.

Years later I woke up on a Sunday morning and turned my radio dial to hear Weekend Edition on NPR. Instead I heard a familiar voice, the voice of Sherif Fam on the radio, hosting “This Week in Palestine” on a college radio station, something produced by Truth & Justice Radio …the same calm, passionate voice, speaking on behalf of the oppressed.

I think I met Sherif one last time at an Arab American dinner in Boston in 2008 where his radio program was honored. A few days ago, I heard of the passing of Sherif Fam at the age of 74. Sherif touched my soul with his passion, his sense of justice and his commitment. I will always remember his smiley, welcoming face, his eyes full of sparkle and passion and his calm determined demeanor. Sherif Fam has left an impact on many people and I will always cherish my memories of him. His family and his grandchildren should always be very proud of a truly great, understated man, his work and his impact.

Ayman S. Ashour
September 25, 2010

Friday, September 24, 2010

Reflections on Zionism, Islamism, Peace Talks, Identity

Disjointed reflections

I see the current waves of "Islamism" to be a non-liberal counter reaction to and an Islamic version of Zionism. Both, to me, are nationalist movements not religious. So, I, an Egyptian American and a Muslim am supposed to feel more in common with a Hui Chinese Muslim, than I do with my next door Jewish neighbors or my Egyptian Christian childhood friends. In certain respect Islamism suggests that Islam becomes the main identity I have, the “only” group I belong to. So a religious movement with nationalist soul and color…

With Zionism you see the reverse, a nationalist movement with religious wrappings. You can be an atheist "Jew" yet still belong to the Jewish people; clearly an alternate non-religious, national identity. This very point as I know causes a lot of stress in Israel between the secularists who see Judaism and Jewish more of an overarching identity that accept people of Jewish origins regardless of their religious beliefs and views. The religious clearly see it differently and for them religion is so central in their own life and some of those interpret religious text in ways that are exclusive, others accept religion in an non exclusive fashion but also adopt secular Zionism.


I see Zionism in different parts, one is the rise of the Jewish people and their identification as a nation by themselves and others, second is the claim for a homeland, third is the choice of Palestine for a homeland.

With the oppression the Jews have suffered throughout their history at the hands of whichever majority they lived under it is hard for anyone to stand against the desire to be considered as a nation. The way I see it, what right do I have telling the majority of East Timorean people they are not a distinct nation, if the majority of Texans wanted to be a separate nation that is their call. The Jews have plenty of reason to want to proclaim their own identity even before the WWII holocaust.

Second is the claim to a homeland, where never again Jews can be a minority living under the whims of the majority at times accommodating and friendly and at times oppressive but almost always suspicious and watchful. That too is understandable and again if the majority of Jews want it I am all for it. Even if a minority wants it and don't wish to impose it on others then power to them.

The third and most troubling aspect is really in applied Zionism not in Zionism itself, is the choice of Palestine for the homeland. Zionism, a secular nationalist movement, needed to capture the imagination of the non secular Jews and hence the introduction of Palestine rather than Tasmania or other relatively unpopulated piece of real estate. In doing so applied Zionism undermined a basic foundation of Zionism of never again living as a minority or even facing that possibility.

So today’s' applied Zionism has to wrestle with this sad contradiction of being a liberation movement and a colonial movement, of being a movement that is race blind towards Jews yet racist towards non Jews.

The Secular advocates of Zionism betrayed their secular principles to attract more Jews, to protect more Jews and to liberate more Jews, they mixed their secular vision with biblical history and focused on Palestine and they gained a great deal of success that would probably never been possible had they opted for any other piece of real estate apart from Palestine. The price of this success has to be either giving up the vision of never again facing the possibility of being threatened of becoming minority OR giving up Zionism as a moral liberation movement and turning it forever into a colonial supremacist movement that aims to subjugate the natives forever.


AA - updated from Feb 2, 2007