Panelists speak up for oppressed in Mideast, North Africa

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

When he was growing up in Egypt, Hussein Mansour was part of a family that regarded Jews as “super villains” — and part of an Arab society in which that type of staunch anti-Semitism prevailed.

But Mansour, who now identifies as agnostic, chose a different path. Jewish history fascinated him, and after months of study, he had a moment when he began seeing Jews as fellow human beings. Ultimately, understanding the Holocaust and what it means — both culturally and spiritually — was the most important factor in his epiphany.


Participants on panel in San Francisco (from left) Hussein Mansour, Hadeel Kouky and Karmel Melamed

“It was sympathy towards others,” Mansour said during a panel discussion last week in San Francisco. “The essence of our being is the same.”


Sympathy and understanding emerged as the major themes at “Faith Beyond Borders,” held May 27 at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav. The panel was organized by JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa), an S.F.-based organization that aims to provide a voice for the 850,000 Jews from those areas — a region where a majority of governments remain hostile to Jews, Christians and LGBTQ people.

Those communities are often left voiceless, said one of the panelists, Los Angeles–based journalist and attorney Karmel Melamed, an Iranian Jew who fled to the United States because of persecution. Now more than ever, he said, it’s important to give a voice to those who are oppressed, marginalized and/or completely ignored.

 “First they went after the socialists, and I didn’t do anything because I’m not a communist,” Melamed said, paraphrasing the famous statement by the anti-Nazi German pastor Martin Niemöller. “Second they went after the trade unions, but I did nothing because I’m not in a union. Third they went after the Jews, and I didn’t do anything because I’m not Jewish. Finally they came for me, and there was no one left to stand up for me.”

Dumisani Washington, an American who founded the Institute for Black Solidarity with Israel, moderated the forum. Approximately 55 people attended. All three panelists were young adults who had faced terror — and in some cases torture — from their respective home governments.

Hadeel Kouky, a Syrian Christian and former political prisoner who said she was tortured while in custody, provided an anecdote in an attempt to sum up the situation for minority groups and Jews across the region.

“The last time I was in Aleppo [Syria], you needed to have permission to get into a shul,” she said. “Now they’re being destroyed. Their heritage is being destroyed and they’re fleeing the country.”

In Iran, the situation is dire for many minorities, Melamed said. “Jews, Christians, LGBT, etc. are second-class citizens … They live in constant fear,” he said.

As Mansour explained in his narrative of personal enlightenment, the situation in Egypt is just bad for anyone who isn’t Muslim, a mindset deeply engrained in the country’s culture.

Perhaps one of the most troubling ideas to emerge from the discussion was this: Today’s mainstream Islam is extremist or radical across the board, a fact upon which all of the panelists agreed.

In light of that, a member of the audience asked: “Is it legitimate to say that we need to go to war against Jihad? To form a broad, worldwide coalition of Christians, Jews and Hindus against Islamic Jihad?”

Mansour replied and said not only was it legitimate, but it was our “duty to confront a global ideology that openly calls for the destruction of the free world.

“Why don’t we ask al-Qaida about physics,” Mansour continued. “If we can’t take their word on physics, why should we do so for morality?”

His rhetorical question generated applause from the crowd. Once it died down, some second thinking occurred.

“Are we being Islamaphobic?” someone in the audience asked.

“It’s not about Islamaphobia,” Mansour said. “It’s about suffering humanity — the suffering of people.”


max cherney
Max A. Cherney

Max A. Cherney is a former J. staff writer.