Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875


Humanist against the odds

Shehata Haroun

By Khaled Dawoud

Shehata Haroun"Every human being has several identities. I am a human being. I am Egyptian when Egyptians are suffering, I am black when blacks are suffering, I am Jewish when Jews are suffering and I am a Palestinian when Palestinians are suffering." These are the words that Shehata Haroun's family chose out of his own writings to mourn the man who spent his life committed to his country and socialist principles. Haroun, 82, died in hospital on Friday in Cairo. He was laid to rest on Monday, following a funeral attended not just by his old "comrades," but many others who respected the man and his work.

An Egyptian communist, at least until recently, has had reason enough to be worried. As an Egyptian Jew who is also a communist, Haroun was caught between a rock and a hard place -- but he confronted this awkward position with tremendous strength and determination. In Egypt, as elsewhere in the Arab world, popular outrage at the Zionist usurpation of Palestine, sadly, found an easy target in Arab Jews, among whom Zionism had made little headway. The period between 1948 and 1956 witnessed a mass exodus of Egyptian Jews -- towards Israel, Europe and the US. Against what must have been extremely tough odds, Haroun was among the few who insisted on staying.

Through people like Haroun, who was among the founding members of the Egyptian Communist Party in the early 1940s, the ideology of Egypt's left was shaped. The stance on Israel was resolute: the occupation of Palestinian land was strongly opposed and a clear distinction between Judaism and Zionism was drawn.

Like nearly all communists under late Presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar El-Sadat, Haroun spent a number of years in prison. When El-Sadat legalised political parties in 1977, Haroun was among the founding members of the leftist Tagammu Party. He remained an active Tagammu member into his last days and can be credited with explaining to new generations the principles of socialism as he understood it: a humanist ideology aimed at providing equal opportunities for all.

His daughter, Magda Haroun, recalls her father as a resolute humanist. "When my schoolmates used to distress me with their comments on my Jewish origin, I would go crying to my father," she told Al-Ahram Weekly. "He would remind me that Palestinians in Israeli schools face the same situation and tell me that their life was not any easier." Magda, along with her mother, Marcelle, and her sister, Nadia, agreed to delay Haroun's funeral until a rabbi could be brought from Paris to conduct the funeral services. With the diminishing number of Jews in Egypt -- some 200 predominantly aged people -- the Israeli ambassador in Egypt has generally performed funeral services. "We didn't want any of the Israeli embassy staff to conduct the service," Magda said. "We knew that my father would see this as contrary to his principles, especially under the present circumstances [the Palestinian uprising]."

"The thing my father hated most was racism," Magda recalls. "He taught us to love all human beings, and not to judge people on the basis of their religion. He taught me to be proud of being both Egyptian and Jewish at the same time."

Magda remembers the arrest of her father following the 1967 war as a particularly poignant period of the Harouns lives. "That was a very shocking moment for me," she said. "Only a few days before his arrest, my father was talking about joining the army to fight in the war against Israel. So when police came and took him away [because of his religion], I thought that he was going to the army, and I wanted to go with him. When I learned why he had been arrested, I was so angry. It was only his strong love of Egypt that enabled him to overcome these situations. He never thought of leaving Egypt and raised us by the same principles."

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved