THE BLOG
10/24/2014 10:02 am ET Updated Dec 24, 2014

Looking Back to Move Peace Forward: A Lesson for the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

As an Egyptian-born Jew, I am profoundly disturbed by the depth of the hatred that has escalated between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East. After facing cultural extinction, I want to give a voice to Middle Eastern and North African Jews, as well as provide a better understanding and insight into the historical coexistence of two peoples who are now sworn enemies.

No one remembers that Jews and Arabs co-existed peacefully in Egypt and in much of the Arab world for long periods of time. There were once an aggregate of 800,000 Jews living there, in fact. With a current median age of 18 in Gaza, 25 in Egypt and comparably young in the rest of the Arab world, nobody remembers that truth, and this is one of the roots of today's bloody, seemingly ever-lasting conflict in the region.

There is no mention in Egypt's history books of its once large and prosperous Jewish community. The young do not know that Jews fought side by side with the Arabs for the independence of their country from the British colonizers, that they helped draft the Egyptian constitution and that many of their most celebrated movie stars and singers were Jewish. They do not know that throughout the Arab world, Jews had been renowned poets, writers, philosophers, philanthropists and statesmen, and that many of their rabbis were extraordinary humanists.

We owe it to younger generations to be the ones to tell them these truths. The youth of the Middle East -- Muslim and Jewish alike -- need to know that we were once brothers and sisters. How else can we stop the hatred that every day grows more and more vicious? No peace treaty can effectively bring peace to that region because no peace treaty can eradicate the hatred.

As adults, we can learn a great deal from the way young people interact with each other before their innocence is tarnished by negative views of the world.

Let me share the story of a Muslim girl named Sayeda. She was an uneducated but earnest 15-year-old from Upper Egypt when my grandfather hired her to help his new bride, my grandmother, herself barely 15, with the responsibility of caring for their apartment in Heliopolis, a suburb of Cairo.

With time, my grandparents grew their family to seven children, and Sayeda's responsibilities and importance grew as well. She became an intrinsic part of the household, helping my grandmother, Allegra, in myriad ways to maintain a joyous Jewish home where the holidays and customs were properly observed. Together, they took spring cleaning to a whole new level. They went so far as to paint the walls of the entire house every spring for Passover to ensure that not a speck of taref would remain.

The two women were close companions until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict took center stage in Egypt in 1956 and turned the 80,000 Jews that had lived there in harmony with the Arabs into "the enemy." My family was forced to flee to France. Sayeda, who had never married, was left behind, alone and confused, but my grandmother swore that as soon as she could, she would call for her. True to her word, a few years later she managed to bring Sayeda to Paris. By then, my grandfather had died and the children had married. It was just the two of them now in a small apartment, taking care of one another. At night, Sayeda would comb the knots out of my grandmother's impossibly long hair, while my grandmother made sure that Sayeda took her gout medicine properly.

Today, Sayeda is buried next to my grandmother under the gloomy Parisian sky, far from their native, sunny land. Their lifelong friendship is also buried there. Who today would ever guess that a Muslim girl and a Jewish girl could have had such a strong bond and that their divergent religions presented no obstacles in their hearts?

I can share hundreds of stories like these, and it is my hope that my personal narrative provides a ray of hope amid the despair and shows how people from different backgrounds can live together in peace.