A Mensch's Guide to Campus Activism


Nonie Darwish speaks out against the past, advocates for the future

 Adam Palmer 
By Adam Palmer

Nonie Darwish has stood in front of university audiences across the country and proclaimed her support for the State of Israel. This would not be so unusual, except that she was raised in Egypt and taught from a young age to fear and hate all Jews.

As a young girl, Darwish attended school in Gaza, where her father was a high-ranking military officer.

“Education never mentioned peace,” she said. “It was not even an option.”

To the contrary, Darwish and her classmates were instilled with love of jihad and retaliation, she said. She remembers seeing a girl stand in front of the class every morning, crying and reciting poetry about ‘martyrs.’

 Now They Call Me Infidel 

The students were also told not to accept candy from strangers because, “It might be a Jew trying to poison you,” Darwish said.

During her childhood, Darwish’s father headed the newly-formed fedayeen; a government-funded terrorist organization that sent raids into Israel in the 1950s. In 1956, the Israeli army assassinated Darwish’s father.

Darwish’s widowed mother took her five children to live in Cairo where she was criticized as a loose woman because she drove a car, Darwish said.

At the American University in Cairo Darwish studied sociology and anthropology. American professors who were concerned with educating their students, not with instilling in them a hatred of Jews, taught the classes, Darwish said. But Egyptian culture was still oppressive for a college student.

“Very few activities were available for young people,” Darwish said. “Dating was not allowed, going out late was not allowed.”

The anti-Semitism that no longer pervaded Darwish’s classroom life also still surrounded her.

“You cannot escape anti-Semitism,” Darwish said of Egypt. “Art, cartoons, movies, stories, newspapers, books, conversation all festered with hatred of Jews.”

Throughout her time in Egypt, she questioned the basis of the hatred that she was taught, but she was ashamed of voicing her opinion, she said. When she moved to America after college, however, her first boss was Jewish.

“These are very good people, decent people, honest people,” Darwish realized.

From then, she began studying Jewish history, reading editorial columns, and learning the other side of the story of the Jewish people.

In 1995, Darwish’s brother, who was still living in Egypt, suffered a stroke. Though there are hospitals in Egypt, his family and doctors – all anti-Zionists – unanimously agreed on sending him to Hadassah hospital in Israel for treatment.

“In times of trouble, Arabs trust Jews,” Darwish said about the incident. “They don’t even believe in their own lies.”

After hearing that her brother was being treated in Israel, Darwish wanted to publicly acknowledge Israel’s good will, she said. But, as she puts it, “Why rock the boat?”

Listening to her Egyptian friends’ responses to the September 11 attacks finally made Darwish speak out.

She called Egypt hoping that her friends would comfort her by telling her that it was only a few radicals, not the whole population, she said.

Instead, they assured her, “Don’t you know that this is all a Jewish conspiracy?”

That’s when Darwish resolved to be heard. She wrote an essay, “Why I Support the State of Israel,” which was published online.

Just five years later, she is a nationally recognized speaker and the author of “Now they Call me Infidel: Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel, and the War on Terror.”

Darwish made headlines when the Hillel at Brown University, in conjunction with the women’s rights group on campus, invited her and then cancelled the invitation. The women’s group backed out first, and Brown Hillel felt it would be controversial to be the sole sponsor of the event. According to the “Brown Daily Herald,” she was brought to campus one semester later by The Office of Campus Life and Student Services and the Political Theory Project.

Chicago Friends of Israel (CFI), a pro-Israel organization at the University of Chicago, sponsored Darwish to speak during the 2006-2007 academic year. Nathalie Gorman, president of CFI, said that Darwish’s perspective does not seem controversial.

“It’s coming from a totally different perspective, one that’s difficult for someone to call biased or uneducated,” Gorman said. “It’s difficult for someone to say she hasn’t examined different narratives.”

There were those in the audience who harangued Darwish, but Gorman said she was expecting this.

“There are always a few people who come to our events, don’t listen to a word, and then yell at the speaker for being pro-Israel,” she said.

Steven Slivnick is the president of IlliniPAC, a pro-Israel organization at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Like Gorman, Slivnick said that he did not think Darwish’s message was controversial, as it focused on peace and coexistence. But he still advised that campus groups who invite Darwish to speak be cautious.

“Be cognizant of the fact that there’s going to be controversy,” he said.

Darwish said she knows that pro-Israel students are often wary of offending their anti-Israel peers, and she understands that students are afraid of ruining productive intergroup relationships. But she advised students never to lose sight of supporting Israel.

“It’s important to stand up, extend your hand of friendship, extend your wish for friendship and brotherhood, but not at the expense of your own principles,” she said. “Don’t look the other way when you hear things against Israel. Be active, even with your friends.”

Posted: 10/22/2007 08:59:34 AM

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