Haisam Hassanein, an Egyptian student who this week completed his master's degree studies at Tel Aviv University, said at a graduation ceremony for foreign students that he almost didn't come to Israel – after nearly everyone he knew told him that traveling to Tel Aviv would be a bad idea.
Hassanein, who grew up in a rural area of Egypt, was fed a non-stop diet of anti-Israel stereotypes and propaganda, he said in his valedictorian speech at the graduation ceremony at Tel Aviv University last week, which has since gone viral. “Despite the fact that we have a peace treaty, I was always taught that Israel was the enemy,” he said.
Despite his fears, Hassanein decided he could not pass up the opportunity for an all-expenses paid master's degree program offered by Tel Aviv University – and decided to make the best of this “sentence” at an Israeli university. If you think you heard a million reasons why not to come to Israel, I heard a million and a half. Growing up in Egypt, the entire country had opinions about Israel, and none of them were positive. All we knew was that we had fought bloody wars, and that they were not like us," he said.
“I expected people to be hostile, and not to want to associate with an Egyptian. But I was very pleasantly surprised to find out that just the opposite was true. I was invited to all sorts of events, to Shabbat dinners and end of Ramadan fast 'iftar' dinners. I went to plays, events, and many other venues.”
Israel, he said, was a surprisingly free society. “Where else will you find the apartment of a Christian Arab that is decorated with posters of Mao and Lenin? Where else will you find an IDF soldier reading the Koran during Ramadan? On my very first day here at the university, I saw men in kippas, women in hijabs. I saw soldiers walking peacefully among crowds of lively students. I learned there were people of every kind in the university, and the university had a place for all of them—Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, Bedouins, and even international students.
"“We must always question our assumptions,” Hassanein added. “Being here in Israel has taught me that life is full of paradoxes and complexities—that nothing is straightforward, and that things are often not as they are made to seem.”