An Arab Zionist's Harrowing Odyssey
Egyptian-born Hussein Aboubakr was 14 when he discovered much of what he was told about Israel was a lie. Today he wants Arabs to understand what Israel really stands for.
Hussein Aboubakr loves Israel. This is always a welcome sentiment, but it is even more moving when it comes from an Egyptian-born Muslim who is today one of the most outspoken activists fighting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement in Los Angeles.
Aboubakr, 30, defines himself as a Zionist. His sympathy for Israel forced him out of Egypt and in the last seven years he has been living in the United States. He moved to Los Angeles after getting a job with Stand With Us – a non-profit pro-Israel education and advocacy organization, seeking to bolster Israel's image among the American public.
Our interview is conducted in Hebrew, which Aboubakr speaks fluently and with a barely detectable accent.
"There's a new generation today of Western Arabs who grew up in the US, speak English and understand how to take advantage of the system," he said. "They were brought up to honor the edicts of Islam even though they are completely secular. People like that are, in fact, the driving force behind BDS. They run an anti-Israel campaign in American academia, but they also have an anti-US campaign.
"They think I'm a traitor. They come to my lectures to heckle me. They won't hear of anti-Semitism in the Arab world and they accuse me of racism."
We were told Jews are evil
Aboubakr was born and raised in Giza, a few miles from the pyramids. He has three brothers and a sister. His father, Ahmed, was a banker at one of the largest government banks in Egypt. His mother, Huda, is a housewife.
"We were a typical family when it came to religion," he said. "We would go to the mosque with my dad every Friday and fast during the holy month of Ramadan. But unlike many religious families, there was a television in the house, and at some point, there was even internet."
At the age of 11, Aboubakr became interested in religion.
"I delved into the Quran and became a devout Muslim. I also started hanging out with Salafists – they're like the haredim of the Muslim world – and that was steeped with anti-Semitism. There were stories about how the Jews tried to kill the Prophet Muhammad after what they did to Jesus.
I started to believe that Jews were the source of all evil.
"They called Jews 'traitors' and said they were 'evil,' and I believed that. At that time – it was post 9/11 – whenever you would turn on the TV you'd see the war in Afghanistan and later in Iraq. This was also the height of the Second Intifada in Israel. All we saw was how Muslims were getting killed everywhere. That tied into everything I heard at the mosque and I started to believe that Jews were the source of all evil."
At this point, he said, he decided to learn more about Jews so he could fight them more successfully.
"At the age of 14, I began studying the issue independently," he recalled. "I stopped going to the mosque and just searched the internet to read and understand more. Then I discovered that reality was totally different and that Israel has values such as tolerance and humanity.
"It was a difficult moment. I discovered the moral gap between my background and Western culture, especially with respect to Israel. All of a sudden, you realize that there is nothing to the stories that were drilled into you, that there's no one in Israel who gets up in the morning and thinks up ways to harm Egypt."
AbAboubakr during his visit to Israel in 2018
This was a defining moment for Aboubakr and the ensuing personal crisis was unavoidable.
"I completely lost my faith. We all want to believe that all religions are similar and impart values for human relationships but in reality, religious systems are archaic and so are their ideas – certainly Islam, which has caused so much harm in the world.
"I decided to keep the change I was going through a secret. It's not like I could tell the people around me that Israel is right and that there is no Palestine."
In college, Aboubakr began studying Hebrew, something he said was "very usual, because you can use it during your military service" – like Israel, Egypt has compulsory military service from men – "and after the service you can use it if you teach or work in the media, so it didn't raise suspicion.
"The Oriental languages Department, where I studied, was set up in the 1960s as part of the fight against Zionism. Like many other things in Egypt, these things began when [Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser came to power and are frozen in time. My professors didn’t speak very good Hebrew."
The outdated material frustrated Aboubakr and in late 2009, he decided to visit the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo, established in the early 1980s after Egypt and Israel inked their peace treaty.
Many in Egypt believe the center actually houses secret Israeli espionage headquarters, he said.
"I was curious to visit there, to speak Hebrew," he explained. "The first time I only met the security guard, who spoke to me a little in Hebrew. On my second visit, I met the director of the center, Prof. Gabi Rosenbaum. After I left, Egyptian security personnel approached me on the street and started asking me questions, like why I was there. They also called my friends to gather information about me."
About a week later, the Egyptian National Security Agency contacted Aboubakr and ordered him not to set foot in the center again and to abandon his studies.
"I refused. I shared the story on my blog and eventually Israeli media picked it up," he said.
Three days later, he and his father were arrested.
"My father promised them that the family will handle it. Afterward, he and my uncles gave me a long talking-to, but I told them I no longer consider myself a Muslim. They were deeply offended. The men hit me. The women were sobbing. I left home that very day. It was the last time I saw them."
The disconnect lasted nearly a decade.
"My mother contacted me last April, she found me on Facebook," he said. "Lately, we've been talking on the phone every week. My younger brother got married recently and she sent me videos of the wedding. I have no contact with my father or anyone else from my family. Maybe in the future, but I'm not ready yet."
After leaving home, Aboubakr went to live with friends, first in Cairo and later in Alexandria. He also became a prolific blogger, writing about the anti-Semitism in Egypt.
And he was firmly on the Egyptian National Security Agency's radar.
"It became an absurd, repetitive situation. I would be taken in for questioning, they would ask me which Israelis I was in contact with and why I posted a certain text on the blog, I would apologize, and they would let me go," he said.
Protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo (Photo: Reuters/Suhaib Salem)
"At the end of 2010, I was supposed to enlist in the army. In Egypt, if you study for a degree you go into service after you graduate and every year they announce which degrees are relevant for conscription. Anyone with a degree in Hebrew is automatically enlisted because of the same Nasser-era mental fixation.
"Once I was drafted, instead of sending me to boot camp, I was taking in for questioning in an intelligence unit. They had pictures of any Israeli I ever spoke with, reports on every word I ever typed. They were sure I was some kind of spy."
Aboubakr was then jailed for two months.
"No formal charges were ever filed – all they had were suspicions that I was a 'Zionist agent.' I was put in solitary confinement and tortured. My family didn't even know I was there. They let me go after two months. I was also discharged from the army. The discharge papers cited, 'Poses a threat to the integrity of the Egyptian social fabric.'
"I didn't know what to do next. I went to my friends in Alexandria, but they didn't understand what I was going through. These things don't usually happen – most people are 'normal,' no one has run-ins with the authorities, and even if they do, it's usually over religion, not things like Israel.
"I never consider myself a political activist, just someone who expands his interests. I knew that I was neither an agent nor a spy, and I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong that I was being interrogated that way."
And then came the Arab Spring.
Tahrir Square in Cairo, where masses gathered, demanding the ouster of then-President Hosni Mubarak had ostensibly subversive ideas and demands for reforms but they, too, were very anti-Israel, he said.
"It was very strange. As much as they [protesters] came out against religion and tradition, when it came to Israel – it was still the enemy. This hatred is instilled from an early age.
"Once Mubarak was ousted and the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, anti-Semitism grew. The government-controlled media featured intimidating headlines saying that 'Israeli tanks are on their way to Sinai' and 'the Zionist army's ships are about to attack us.' They wanted to create a panic, to convince people that the revolution was an Israeli conspiracy. When new politicians were trying to win over voters, the strongest accusation you could throw at them was that they were 'in service of the Jews.'"
Egyptian protesters shout slogans against Israel with the sole of a shoe painted with
the Israeli flag, during a protest in front of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, August 21, 2011
(Photo: Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
The anti-Semitism grew more intense until it erupted on Sept. 9, 2011, when thousands of Egyptian protesters rushed the Israeli Embassy in Giza, Greater Cairo, after breaking down a recently constructed wall built to protect the compound. Six members of the embassy's staff, who had been in a safe room, were extracted by Egyptian commandos, at the personal intervention of then-US President Barack Obama.
A few months after that, Aboubakr lost his job. He was arrested almost immediately and detained for a week.
"When they let me go, they made it clear that I would no longer be able to get a job, that this was it – I won't be released next time. At the time, protesters could turn to human rights organizations for help. I couldn’t do that because they, too, saw me as an Israeli agent. I knew no one would save me."
After six months in hiding and with the help of some friends, Aboubakr was able to reach the American Embassy in Cairo where he sought – and received – asylum.
Two weeks later, he was able to leave Egypt and head to Los Angeles.
'Israel isn’t perfect, but I love it'
During his first year in LA, Aboubakr was unable to find his place among the local Muslim community, which did not exactly welcome him with open arms.
Through his contacts in the Israeli academia, he was able to contact Dr. Nir Boms, a research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, who put him in touch with the local Jewish community.
He first worked at a warehouse and then managed to find work teaching Hebrew at an Orthodox Jewish high school in the Valley area. In 2013, he moved to the picturesque town of Monterey and enlisted in the US Army.
"I went through boot camp after which I was stationed at a base that has an educational center for language studies. I taught Hebrew to officers and US Army officials who work with Israel."
In 2018, he visited Israel for the first time, an experience that, given his extensive knowledge of all things Israel, he described as surreal.
"It was the first time I was in an environment that was very similar to the one I knew in Egypt. Israelis sometimes like to 'sell' themselves to the West in Western-looking photos of beautiful beaches and girls, but Israel is first and foremost a Middle Eastern country," he said.
"For the first time, I experienced the culture I came from – the food, the smells, the atmosphere, the noise, the mentality – with an atmosphere of freedom. It made me want to explain to the Arabs how it feels to live their life, only with freedom. Israel is what the Arab world can be but is unable to be."
The atmosphere in Jerusalem, he said, "is much more Middle Eastern than the one in Tel Aviv. When I walked through the streets it was clear to people that I was a foreigner, but they didn't know exactly where I was from, and I could feel the tension in the air. There are some problematic Middle East issues there, that I knew about from [living in] Egypt. But it's not violent. You can live with it."
Arriving in Israel and going through security at Ben-Gurion International Airport with the name Hussein Aboubakr was an "interesting experience," he said, smiling.
"It was after I became a US citizen and held an American passport, but it says I was born in Egypt. And I spoke Hebrew at passport control and they panicked. I was detained for questioning because they tried to understand how a guy named Hussein, who was born in Egypt, came to Israel from the US and speaks Hebrew. It took me a while to explain.
"Leaving Israel was more complicated. They [airport security] gave me the strictest security rating, six, which required full scrutiny of all my things and a comprehensive physical examination. So I was delayed and underwent a full body search, every inch, before I was allowed to board the plane. I visited Israel again a few months later and had to go through the same inspection. It wasn't a pleasant experience."
"I know Israel is not perfect, I'm friends with enough Israelis to know that, but I support it and I love it," he stated.
'I want to debunk Arab myths about Israel'
Aboubakr defines himself as "an Egyptian-American from a Muslim background. This may include a religious affiliation – I can't say I'm a practicing Muslim – but it also expresses a cultural-historical identity and affiliation. I'm a spiritual person and I believe in a higher power."
His life, he said, has taken a surreal twist.
"This is the last thing I expected my life to be. It's very strange, but it feels good. It feels right. I want people to understand that you don't have to become like someone else to understand them. You don't have to be Jewish to understand what anti-Semitism is. I'm not thinking about converting to prove it, because there is no need. I have Stars of David at home because I love Jewish art. Learning Hebrew changed my life."
But Aboubakr was less optimistic as to the possibility that Egypt will undergo a real liberal revolution.
"Egypt may like to boast that it is a modern and developed country in the heart of the Middle East, but in reality, as far back as the 1970s, it has been undergoing a gradual process of religification. I was born in 1989 into a secular home and within 10 years not one woman in my family walked around without a headdress.
"I am optimistic about the future of the Middle East, because the smartphone I and an increasing number of people hold in our hands will change the world. Today there is access to everything, and Arab states are not sophisticated enough to systematically block and censor everything. This could be the beginning of something good."
When it comes to Arabs from "non-friendly" countries visiting Israel, like the Saudi blogger, Aboubakr said that while this was a welcome phenomenon, "There is still a very big psychological barrier. I hope to do something similar – to visit Israel, take photos and show Arabs what Israel is really like; to show that Muslims are not limited when it comes to observing their beliefs. I want to debunk these myths."
Aboubakr said he misses Egypt very much, but going back simply isn’t an option.
"I can't go back there – I'll be arrested at the airport. It's no secret that I'm a Zionist, I work for a Zionist organization, and under Egyptian law that's grounds to have your citizenship revoked. They'll probably do that after I publish my book, A Minority of One. It's currently in the editing stage.
Asked if his life experiences have bred political aspirations, Aboubakr says the thought hasn’t even crossed his mind.
"I want to be a teacher," he said. "I haven’t pursued my academic studies to make it happen, because it costs a lot, and I don’t have good grades from college [in Egypt] or recommendations from professors. I came from an anti-Semitic system, so [they] deliberately gave me low scores. My alternative is to study in Israel. Maybe I'll live there for a while."