J. culture editor Andrew Esensten with his mother, Prof. Sandra Haynes-Esensten, at the Great Pyramid of Giza earlier this month. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)
J. culture editor Andrew Esensten with his mother, Prof. Sandra Haynes-Esensten, at the Great Pyramid of Giza earlier this month. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

On vacation in Egypt, I found hope for peace in Israel

On March 28, top diplomats from the United States, Egypt, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel gathered in Sde Boker, in the Negev Desert, for the first Israeli-Arab summit of its kind on Israeli soil. Though it did not produce any solutions to the region’s most pressing challenges, including issues around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, it was an important demonstration of the shifting attitudes in parts of the Arab world toward the Jewish state.

“Just a few years ago, this gathering would have been impossible to imagine,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a press conference. He cited the Abraham Accords, the 2020 treaties normalizing relations between Israel and four Arab states, as well as the 1978 Camp David Accords as important milestones along the way. But he also acknowledged that “these regional peace agreements are not a substitute for progress between Palestinians and Israelis.”

At the moment, Israel is experiencing a new wave of Palestinian terrorism that has left 11 Israelis dead and may have been inspired, in part, by the Negev summit.

This is what peacemaking in the modern Middle East looks like: incremental progress followed by a violent backlash.

Last month, I traveled to Israel to visit family in the Tel Aviv area. On an impulse, my mother and I took a side trip to Egypt. We flew to Cairo on Egyptair, something that has only been possible since late last year, after Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Sharm el-Sheikh. (Before then, an Egyptair affiliate ferried tourists and businesspeople between the two countries on planes that did not bear the Egyptian flag.)

Driving around the famously chaotic capital city, home to 10 million people, we saw evidence of the fraught history between Egyptians and Jews, one that goes all the way back to Biblical times.

Out of the car window, we spotted the 6th of October war memorial, which valorizes the Egyptian military for attacking Israel on Yom Kippur in 1973. There was Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising in 2011, during which protesters burned Israeli flags. (When I asked our tour guide, Rasha, what impact the revolution had on Egyptian society, she replied, “Only negative impact. Tourism disappeared, unemployment went up, and the prices of goods skyrocketed. It was a disaster.”)

And there, inside the Egyptian Museum, were statues of Ramses II, the ancient Egyptian king often identified as the Biblical pharaoh who oppressed the Israelites during his reign (1279–1213 BCE).

We also saw evidence of something more hopeful. The famous Ben Ezra synagogue in Old Cairo was closed for renovations, but two Muslim men sitting outside the gates greeted us with “Shalom” and excitedly showed us video of the synagogue’s interior on a mobile phone.

Following the establishment of Israel, nearly all of Egypt’s Jews were forced to leave the country, according to Samy Arie, a third-generation Egyptian Jew who showed us around Sha’ar Hashamayim, a synagogue built at the beginning of the 20th century that is still in use on High Holidays. Today, there are more synagogues in Cairo (13) than there are Jews. “It’s a sad story,” Arie said.

And yet: One takeaway from my short time in Egypt is that no matter how acrimonious relations between two nations have been over the decades (or millennia), there is always a path toward reconciliation and peace. This was true for Egypt and Israel. It was true for Jordan and Israel. And it is true for the Palestinians and Israel. But charting that path is tricky, even perilous, and therefore must be prioritized — at the next Negev summit, but ideally before.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.