The Great Expectations of Ada Aharoni: A Journey from Egypt to Israel

Every year we retell the story of Passover and our ancestors’ exile from Egypt. In early April, I, like so many of you, gathered around my Seder and helped tell the tale. But this year I invite you to follow the story of Ada Aharoni, who was one of many Jews who found themselves, eons after our ancestors, needing to break free from Egypt’s reins again.

Born in 1933, Aharoni spent her childhood and teenage years in Cairo and Alexandria. She had a blessed life filled with Dickens, sun, and play. Because Egypt was under British control, Aharoni, whose mother tongue is French, attended an English school and eventually became a student librarian. But there was something missing: the feeling of belonging. 

Unlike other Arab countries, Egypt did not give its 80,000 or so Jewish residents citizenship (save for the extremely wealthy who paid for it). Instead, they were guests longing for a country to call home. “Every human being wants to be part of a country, and because we were not part of Egypt, the Jews of Egypt were very Zionist,” Aharoni shared with me over the phone.

In the Book of Exodus, the Jewish people leave Egypt and become a band of wanderers in search of the Promised Land. Centuries later some Jews returned, including Rabbi Moses Maimonedes in about 1168 A.D. But in speaking to Aharoni, I couldn’t help note that though Jews in Egypt were, for the most part, prospering, they were still wandering. At least, in their imagination. 

Because of this, many Egyptian families bought land in Israel. Aharoni’s father purchased one in Herzliya. “Every Friday, he used to take out the ‘plot’ and each of us chose where our room would be. I took the room over the sea and my sister took the room next to me.” Her father even opened a Swiss bank account so that when they did go to Israel he’d be able to build them a home. In the 1940s, during World War II, Aharaoni solidified her commitment to realizing this dream by joining the Zionist movement at the tender age of 10. 

“Every Saturday we wore the uniform and we went to the movement. It was like my second home. It was called the Maccaabi. It was not only lectures and songs and dances but also trips.” 

Ada Aharoni with her Maccaabi group in Cairo. Photo courtesy of Ada Aharoni.

When she was around this age, the group received a visit from an Israeli lecturer who told them that “every day children are being put into the oven.” To Aharoni it was as if “I was being put in there myself. And I said we have to have a country. If we have a country then this will not happen.” 

In 1948 the creation of Israel spurred a war between the newly realized country and its Arab neighbours that lasted for a year. The headquarters of Egypt’s Zionist movement now bore bars on the door. But with the help of her friend Mabrouk, she and her friends would sneak in through an unboarded window. 

That same year her father’s permit to work was revoked. “If you cannot work, you cannot live,” and so Aharoni’s father decided that when she returned from her matriculation at the University of London, the family would leave Egypt. Aharoni and her family, along with 20,000 other Jews between 1948 and around 1952—along with a large number of Jews during the Suez Canal War in 1956 and after the Six-Day war in 1967—had the unfortunate distinction of being part of the “Second Exodus.” Putting an end to more than 3,000 years of Jewish community in Egypt.

Though unlike the first time, the Jews fleeing Egypt could leave with nothing but £20 and a single suitcase. 

Instructed by her mother to pack her valuables, Aharoni filled her suitcase with books. When her mother looked at her suitcase she was gobsmacked. Telling her daughter that books may be important but “you can’t wear them.” So instead, Aharoni packed her best clothes and tucked a few photographs under them. 

Though not everyone could leave Egypt. When the family set sail, on a boat coincidentally named Patcem (peace), it meant saying goodbye to her grandmother. She recalled moving farther and farther away from the harbour and her grandmother becoming smaller and smaller until she disappeared entirely. With Alexandria in their rearview and France on the horizon, Aharoni and the rest of her family still wished to settle in Israel. Though Aharoni never imagined she’d be the only one in her family to do it. 

Aharoni at sixteen years old. This was the last photo taken of her in Egypt. Photo courtesy of Ada Aharoni.

After arriving in France, Aharoni’s father visited a Swiss bank to withdraw the money from his account only to find out there was nothing left. The Egyptian government had seized his assets. Aharoni recalled her father pleading with the teller, telling him that this was “everything I had for my house, for my daughter, everything I worked all those years for.” It did not help. Soon after he had a heart attack and could not move to Israel. Aharoni’s brother and her younger sister, Jeannette, remained in France as well.

Yet, Aharoni was still determined to go to Israel. Especially after a man, when seeing her Magen David necklace, shouted the equivalent of the French, “Heil Hitler” at her.

She left for Israel thinking she’d be going for summer vacation because she had to resume her studies at the Sorbonne in Paris but stayed at the Mishmar HaEmek kibbutz well past the summer. And she stayed with the intent to dedicate her life to help the country she finally could call home.

And in this new land she would start her own family. At 17 years old, she wooed the man who would become her husband by beating him at a game of chess. Together, she and Chaim lived and worked at the kibbutz. She worked in the field helping an agriculturist graft fruits where she also taught English stories to children and eventually left fieldwork behind to teach full time. 

Chaim and Ahararoni at the pyramids. Photo courtesy of Ada Aharoni. 

After three wonderful years on the kibbutz Aharoni and her family left to move in with Chaim’s sister. There, Aharoni realized she wanted to teach professionally but she didn’t have a teaching diploma. As luck would have it she found work anyway at an alliance school—who accepted her because she went to an English school and attended the University of London.

Three months into her job, the alliance school’s inspector general visited and evaluated her class and told her she was “born a teacher.” He then offered to help her get a teaching degree. The usual period of study was four years, this seemed like an impossible task because she had to care of a two-year-old. Not taking no for an answer, the inspector gave her his books and said that whenever she was ready he would book the final exam for her. Six months later she took the test and passed with top marks. 

But that didn’t make finding a job as an English teacher easier. No one wanted to hire her once they found out she was Egyptian.  

The inspector recommended Aharoni for a position at the Hebrew Reali school in Haifa. When she met with the headmaster, who was originally from Poland, he praised her résume and said she was “exactly what they need.”. However, while they were standing at the door he asked her “Where are you from? Holland?” Once she told him she was Egyptian he closed the door and said, “Don’t burn your boats.”

When she didn’t get the job and recounted the series of events to the inspector, he, a German, called the headmaster racist. After this headmaster left his position and was replaced, the inspector again recommended her for an English teaching position. This time, however, he advised Aharoni not to tell them she was from Egypt: “You have a French passport. Say you’re French.” She listened and she got the job. But she felt terrible. “I never lie. It was the first time and the last time.”

The prejudice against Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews continued to take Aharoni by surprise in Israel. Back in Egypt it was the opposite. When her cousin married an Ashkenaz it was a great tragedy. The Ashkenaz were even compared to cauliflowers in contrast to their rose-like selves. 

Still living at her sister-in-law’s small apartment, the young family was eager to find a place of their own. The French office in Israel was offering French citizens housing. All she had to do, her friend Lydia told her, was show them her passport. After following Lydia’s advice, they were offered a three-bedroom apartment and were able to pick up keys the following day.

That night the family celebrated. They bought a bottle of wine and were so happy they’d have a place to call home. At the office the next day, a woman who worked there asked Aharoni what the “Cair” meant on the passport. When she found out Aharoni was born in Cairo and not Canne or any other place in France, “she threw back the passport in my face and said ‘you can’t have the apartment.’” 

“Why?” Aharoni pleaded with her. “It’s a French passport like Lydia’s.”  

“No, there’s a difference. She can go back to France and you can’t go back to Egypt.” 

Aharoni tried to tell her she could go back to France because her family lived there but she remained in Israel because of her Zionist beliefs. She still didn’t get the apartment. 

Yet she left the French office with a fire in her belly and attributes this moment to pushing her to get a doctorate. She wanted to show the naysayers that she could achieve great things despite being Egyptian. “I worked very hard to show them. But unfortunately, racism is still here today because they don’t teach Sephardi history in schools. They teach five aaliyah, the sixth aaliyah, [which makes up] half of Israel, is not taught. Nobody knows about our history. And I’m so angry.” 

This year, Aharoni went back to the Hebrew Reali school to give a lecture on Jews in Egypt. One of the students stood up and said to their history teacher, “I am from a Polish family, not a Sephardi family, but I want to know the history of half of the people in Israel. I want to know the history of the boy who sits next to me. Why is this book of 400 pages all about eastern Jewish history? Why don’t we know anything about what Ada told us today?” 

To date, Aharoni has tried to educate people about Jews from Arab lands in and outside of the classroom. She tirelessly works to dispel these racial biases by advocating for peace and equality. 

Aharoni has had a storied career. She was a professor of English literature at the University of Haifa and sociology and conflict resolution at the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology. She has published 36 books—from nonfiction to poetry—and has, she said proudly, 12,000 followers on TikTok. In 1975 she co-founded The Bridge: Jewish and Arab Women for Peace in the Middle East and around 15 years later founded and is still the president of the International Forum for the Literature and Culture of Peace. In 2012 she received the Shimon Peres award commemorating her initiatives promoting peace between Jews and Arabs. 

Though literature was once the vehicle Aharoni used to voice her arguments for peace, equality, and democracy, sadly, Aharoni noted, she does not believe literature is as effective at evoking change as it used to be. Nevertheless, at 90 years old, she continues to charge on.

Header image design by Orly Zebak. Photographs courtesy of Ada Aharoni. 

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