The biblical proverb commands human beings of each generation to view themselves as if they had fled Egypt. Here, sitting right in front of me, is a real-life Egyptian refugee, a woman whose escape was very recent. Her wounds are still fresh, and hallmarks of the arduous journey could be visible on her face.
Not only did Noha Hashad flee Egypt, but she chose Jerusalem as her safe haven. Perhaps she is worthy of consideration for the title of Righteous Among the Nations. In championing for Israel’s cause in her homeland, she paid (and is paying) a dear price. When she openly sided with Israel, she was arrested by the Hosni Mubarak regime, suffering beatings and torture at the hands of the authorities. As a result of her ordeal, she was left disabled.
Looking out at the Mediterranean Sea from her Haifa balcony, far away from her family, Hashad is living in self-imposed exile. She fled Egypt by the skin of her teeth thanks to the Arab Spring and the subsequent fall of Mubarak. She has had to contend with constant threats from Islamic elements.
“Israel is a jewel,” she said, gently caressing her physical scars. “Israel is a diamond, and I’m lucky to be here.”
“No fear gene”
Now 51 years of age, Hashad was born and raised in Muslim Cairo. As a young girl, she was sent to a private school in Saudi Arabia, where she underwent instruction on the Quran and Islam. On her mother’s side, she is a direct descendant of Hussein Bin Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and the founder of Shia Islam. On her father’s side, she is certain that there is a connection to Judaism. It is believed that her father is a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov.
“Apparently, my last name, Hashad, is derived from the Hebrew word Hassid,” she said.
An educated woman, Hashad speaks fluent English. She declines the opportunity to discuss her family for fear that they could be subject to harm in Egypt. She took an interest in the Israeli-Arab conflict just as she was in the process of completing her doctorate in nuclear physics from Beni-Suef University. She also taught nuclear physics at both Beni-Suef and Cairo University. On top of that, she oversaw her own research laboratory.
From her new home in Haifa 500 kilometers away, Hashad is now in the process of founding a center to promote peace in the Middle East. She is currently working on translating Mahmoud Abbas’ first book into English. Hashad must still face down threats to her life which are posted on Facebook and expressed in letters and phone calls.
“I’m not afraid,” she said. “I don’t know why. I don’t have the gene of fear.”
Her curiosity about Egypt’s neighbor to the northeast began to percolate in 1999. This was when Hashad was hard at work on her master’s thesis which focused on molecular physics. Her expertise was considered so vast that she was offered an opportunity to work for the Egyptian government in the area of radioactive safety.
A research project that she oversaw for the Egyptian Standards Institute turned out to be a failure, for it did not produce results that corresponded with known physics formulas.
“All of the articles that I was looking for on this issue led me to an Israeli professor, Yigal Shalom Horowitz from Ben-Gurion University,” she said. “I decided to write him a letter. I thought everything was okay between Egypt and Israel. After all, there was peace. To this day, I’ve kept the email that I sent to him. The subject of the email was ‘Nuclear Peace.’ In the body of the letter, I asked him for answers regarding my master’s thesis and the results of the research that did not correspond to the formula.
“I wasn’t certain that a professor of this magnitude would answer me,” Hashad said. “But he replied to my email, and he invited me to a conference in Jerusalem featuring Israeli physicists as well as experts from Jordan and Egypt. I was very moved by the invitation. In order to leave Egypt for Israel, one needed to go through the Egyptian internal security apparatus. I was naive, so I submitted a request.
“In order to reach the university, I underwent a thorough security check,” she said. “This was in accordance with the specific procedures of the security services there, so I thought everything would be alright. The response was to forbid me from attending the conference in Jerusalem and from receiving anything from Israel. I was also not permitted to initiate any interaction with Israelis that did not have to do with work.
“I sent Professor Horowitz a letter of apology because of the fact that I would not be coming,” Hashad said. “I continued working on my master’s thesis, but I couldn’t resist the magnetic pull of Jerusalem. I couldn’t get over the fact that I was invited there. If the intelligence services permitted me to go, I would have traveled there and came back without too much drama, but the fierce resistance of the security forces only whetted my appetite. The fact that the average Egyptian is convinced that Israel sends sharks to the beaches of Egypt to gather intelligence data only highlights the mystery that Israel arouses.”
An encoded Quran
Hashad immediately began conducting research on Jerusalem via the Internet. “It’s the city at the focal point of the conflict,” she said. “I stumbled upon an article from the BBC, and under the headline ‘Jerusalem — God’s City,’ there was a quote from the Quran about the Temple and King Solomon. That ignited me. I know the Quran as well as any sheikh, and I specialized in Islamic thought while studying in Saudi Arabia. I know Arabic as well as anyone. Nobody can outshine me in an argument. I read the Quran again, from front to back, and it felt as if cold water was poured down my body.
“Until then, I had read the Quran hundreds of times and I never gave it a second thought,” she said. “I discovered that the Quran mentions Jewish rights to the land of Israel in a clear manner. Later on, during my interrogations, I was accused of the horrible crime of supporting Zionism. If being a Zionist means to say that the land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel, then the Quran is a Zionist book. Every day since then, I catalogue more and more information from Islamic holy scripture.
“The information is spread out across a number of passages. I pieced together a puzzle. In the Quran, it is written that the land of Israel belongs to ‘the nation of Moses.’ Who are ‘the people of Moses’ if not Israel? This also appears in books that offer commentary about the Quran. The sheikhs know this, but they prefer to nurture the incorrect narrative in order to deny this right to the Jews and to take over land.
“I knew that what I had discovered was very significant, and I decided to conduct another examination. I went to Al-Azhar [considered the most important Islamic academic institution]. There I searched for the original interpretation of the Quran before it was politicized and it turns out that, indeed, I was correct. The land of Israel belongs to the Jews. I went up 15 flights of stairs to the library, and I went in to see the most senior sheikh in Al-Azhar.
“‘Is it true that the land belongs to the Jews?'” she asked. The sheikh fell silent.
“I didn’t know that at that moment informants had turned me in to the secret police,” she said. “The next time I tried to enter the library, I was blocked. ‘You are conducting forbidden research,’ security officials told me. I tried again and again to enter the library. Then the Egyptian security agency got to me. I was arrested, and the arrest report included the allegation: ‘Mrs. Hashad wishes to prove that the land belongs to Israel.’ That’s the first crime I’ve ever been accused of committing in my life. My documents were confiscated.”
From that day forward, Hashad was barred from leaving Egypt for a period of 12 years. She said that she once again tried to enter the library.
“I told them that if they didn’t let me in, I would appeal to the Egyptian pope to hand me the texts that I was looking for and that I would make a lot of noise throughout the Christian world. I was permitted to enter the library briefly but I wasn’t allowed to make photocopies. I sat there and wrote down words. When I returned home, I discovered that my house was turned upside down and that things weren’t working when I turned them on. My computer was also hacked.”
Hashad continued with her academic career, teaching and continuing with her doctoral studies devoted to neutralizing a nuclear-tipped missile in flight. In completing her studies, she was invited to a research institute in Russia, but her request to travel outside of Egypt was once again rejected. The official reason that was given was “the concern that she would travel to Israel.”
Prevented from traveling to Moscow, Hashad was forced to change the aim of her doctoral work. This time, she would focus her research on the use of laser for the purposes of preserving documents. This provided her with the cover she needed to go into Al-Azhar and continue her independent research about Islam’s attitudes toward Israel.
“I got the clerk at the library to reserve the documents for me,” she said. “These documents contained passages that stated the temple was built by Solomon. There was also a passage that said that ‘the sons of Moses entered the land that was given to them by God.'”
“You get a Jewish woman”
In 2002, she appealed to the United Nations’ refugee affairs office in Cairo for assistance in overturning the government’s restrictions on leaving the country. As she left the office, a police officer waited for her. He was the son of a senior Egyptian intelligence figure. This was the first violent arrest that she ever experienced.
“He kicked me and punched me,” she said. “He tore up my clothing in the middle of the street. I ended up tearing ligaments in my knee. I also had a shattered jaw and a bulging disc in my back. I was thrown into a police cruiser bleeding and bruised.
“I needed medical attention, but I had no one to turn to. There are no rights for persons under arrest in Egypt. You are taken in, and whatever you say or do will be held against you. I was put into a detention cell with dozens of others. The policeman told them one thing: ‘You get a Jewish woman. Show me what you know how to do.’ He closed the door and left.”
The other women in the cell ganged up on her in a rage. “These weren’t women,” Hashad said. “These were monsters.
“They ripped my hair out of my scalp, and there were beating me from all angles. ‘Jewish woman’ is shorthand for spy. ‘Jewish woman’ is the root of all evil. At a certain point, another policeman came into the cell and hit me repeatedly with a long wooden stick. I fainted.”
This nightmare went on for four days. Hashad was cruelly beaten while told by the police officers that she would never again see the light of day. Over the course of the next two years, she was arrested five more times by Egyptian intelligence. During each interrogation, she was quizzed about her ties to Israel. Then came the beatings and the torture. One arrest took place shortly after she visited an academic institution not far from the Israeli embassy in Cairo, where she inquired about taking a course in Hebrew.
“In one instance, police officers took me to a Jewish cemetery, poured gasoline on me, and threatened me by placing a match close to my ear,” she said. “They told me that I gave them inspiration and ideas on how to kill all of the Jews. This is what happens to anyone in Egypt who tries to speak up in favor of Israel. A political science professor at Al-Azhar who wrote an essay about Jewish rights under Islam was similarly tortured by the regime.
“In one of the trials that was held for me, the prosecutor asked me if it was true that I have Jewish roots,” she said. “I asked him, ‘Since when is having Jewish roots a crime?’ He waved both of his arms in the air and slammed them down hard on the table, with the judge watching. ‘Yes, it’s a crime,’ he said. The hatred for Israel is tied to the Palestinians question, but it’s also more ancient. The Palestinian struggle is a byproduct of Egyptian hatred. [Late Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat served in the Egyptian army. The Palestine Liberation Organization was invented by Egypt during the reign of [former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser.”
When did you first become aware of this hatred for Jews?
“From early childhood. It was a mountain of hatred that is simply unfathomable. Egyptian generals give lectures everywhere and tell stories of how Israel is the only enemy of the Arabs, the only target. The incitement against Jews is done on a daily basis on television, in films and by famous actors. They treat Israel as a temporary phenomenon. A fair-minded person must ask: If all of the Jews are marked for death, then should the Muslim son of a Jewish mother kill his own mother? Should he hate her? What kind of society is this? After all, Muhammad married Saffiya, a Jewish woman.”
Message in toilet paper
The documents that originated in the early days of Islam were burning a hole through her hands.
“I felt as if I had to show them to someone in Israel,” she said. “If there is someone who is bound to be executed in the future because that person was accused of a crime, and in my hand I had proof that the person was innocent, then any rational human being would hasten to save their life. The proof of their innocence is in my hand. I am ready to take on the most senior sheikhs and clerics. They can’t possibly deny what it is that I have in my hands.”
The year was 2005, a time when a few Israelis still made the trip to vacation along Egypt’s beaches in the Sinai Peninsula. Hashad traveled there in hopes of meeting a trustworthy Israeli who would take the findings that she had accumulated. She found an IDF reserve officer who fought in the Yom Kippur War.
“I gave him a message in a bottle and an envelope that wasn’t addressed to anyone,” she said. “I copied the quotes from the Quran onto tissue paper in English. I told him that if Egyptian customs officials ask him what that is, that he should pour water on it immediately.”
The pieces of tissue paper reached Israel. They ended up in the hands of Esti Tirosh, 63, from Moshav Maslul in the Negev. Tirosh is “an eternal student” at Ben-Gurion University who took this newfound evidence to one of Israel’s most well-known Middle Eastern scholars.
“You want to help Arabs?” the professor asked. “Go help the Bedouin in the Negev.”
Tirosh despaired from trying to disseminate the information she had. Instead, she remained in contact by telephone with Noha. When Noha is reminded of Tirosh, her eyes light up with gratitude.
When reached by telephone, Tirosh fills in the missing pieces of the story. “Someone who visited Sinai gave me pieces of tissue paper that were crumpled up,” she said. “They contained a message from an Egyptian woman. It was bizarre. I tried to find a way to help her flee so that she could be rescued from there, but the Egyptians didn’t even allow her to leave for Sudan.
“I made appeals to the Foreign Ministry, to [Jewish Agency chairman] Natan Sharansky, to the highest possible officials,” she said. “For six years, we kept in touch by phone and email. I had given Israeli tourists who were heading to Sinai Hebrew-language learning kits, CDs by singer Uzi Hitman, textbooks. I even had Shin Bet agents in my home warning me against maintaining a relationship with her, and they asked me to see her only on Israeli soil, and not anywhere else in the world. Nobody could be certain that we were dealing with a woman who loved Israel.”
Spring of freedom
In 2011, as rioting gripped Egypt and the Mubarak regime was coming apart at the seams, a policeman whispered into Hashad’s ear, “If you don’t get out now, you’ll never get out of here.”
“I took part in the demonstrations in Tahrir Square,” she said. “The events that took place there were like a miracle. It was my Passover, my spring, my own exodus from Egypt. The security services collapsed. I submitted a request to travel to Jordan for medical treatments. The torture that I endured left me paralyzed in my back and foot, my jaw was shattered and I needed surgery.
“I contacted a hospital in Jordan, which summoned me for an operation. The students asked me not to leave them before the semester was out. So I condensed the courses to twice a week, I prepared them for exams, and on the last night before I left I handed out their grades. At the airport, I bribed a clerk, another clerk looked the other way, and suddenly the gates of freedom were open before me.”
She landed in Jordan and paid a visit to the Israeli embassy in Amman, seeking diplomatic asylum. She then spent a few weeks in Jordan, during which Tirosh used all her connections and powers of persuasion to attempt to gain permission for Hashad to enter the country. Finally, Tirosh submitted a request to the Israeli embassy in Amman asking that Hashad be granted permission to enter Israel as her personal guest. Noha received a tourist visa, enabling her to cross into Israel, but her request for diplomatic asylum status was rejected (The U.N. Refugee Agency said that she did not qualify since Egypt and Israel have a peace treaty). She did, however, receive a work permit.
For three months, Hashad stayed at Tirosh’s home. Her Israeli host made a Herculean effort to sort out her legal status in the country.
“That same Middle East scholar who refused to help her also blocked her from receiving a scholarship, even though he has close ties with Egyptian academics,” Tirosh said. “Noha is a very rare breed of human in that she is committed to telling the truth. She is committed to it completely. She sacrificed everything for Israel and paid a very steep personal price.
“As a physicist, she could have pursued a career in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait and made a lot of money there,” Tirosh said. “But her love of Israel brought her here. If only we Israelis were as enamored of our country as she is. She is a devoted woman. I told her that she needed to conceal her location. She replied that if God was watching from above, then it wouldn’t help her to go into hiding.”
“Egypt on alert”
“From 1999 until 2011, I’ve never lost interest in the subject of Israel,” Hashad said. “I felt an obligation to scream the truth. I heard how people in the Arab world were speaking out in favor of murdering Jews and taking over their lands, and I did everything to expose the truth. A permanent peace will only come after we replace the culture of Arab hatred with a culture of peace.
“What nurtured the hatred and the terrorism was the exploitation of Islam, the unmet expectations of the Palestinians and unfair international decisions,” she said. “Nobody bothered to check facts. I was arrested, tortured, accused of spying, ostracized in Egypt as someone who was researching the rights of Jews, but I decided to keep on trucking. When I entered Israel, I felt like the Jews during the exodus. I was there, I experienced the torture and the slavery, and I went through the miracle of liberation.”
What do you think of Egypt’s apparent willingness to combat extremist elements in Sinai?
“That’s all for show. In the race for the presidency, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis supported [the current president, Abdel-Fattah] el-Sissi, who isn’t really fighting them. Egypt is preparing for war with Israel. It armed and trained Hamas in Gaza. Whoever knows Arabic can hear the heads of Egyptian military intelligence talk about wide canals that open up between Israel and Egypt that will be used at the appropriate time.”
Hashad is now soliciting funds for work on translating Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ book,The Birth and Death of Zionism, which he wrote in 1977. Her goal is to reveal the true face of Israel’s partner on the Palestinian side.
“[Abbas] doesn’t talk about Holocaust denial like he does in his doctoral thesis,” she said. “Instead, he talks about Israel denial. Whenever the word ‘Israel’ is mentioned, it is placed between quotation marks, like the ‘Israeli government,’ ‘[Israel’s] borders.’ Abbas explicitly writes about Israel’s destruction, and the book is currently on the Palestinian Authority’s official website.”
“A year ago, I appeared before a Jewish religious court and declared that I had renounced Islam,” she said. “I had thoughts of converting to Judaism, but for now I don’t feel the need. I am trying to fulfill my function in this world and to serve a purpose. I decided to change my surname from Hashad to Hassid. I want to work as a physicist, but I understand that there are more important things.”
Changing the narrative
The Noha Hassid Center for Middle East Peace, which is in the process of being established, will focus its efforts in promoting public diplomacy. The center is being formed in conjunction with Middle East experts Professor Rafi Israeli and Dr. Mordechai Kider as well as Professor Hillel Weiss, a Judaism scholar. The center’s motto is, “Peace is a culture, not an agreement.”
She also devotes part of her time to working with Palestinian Media Watch, the NGO run by Itamar Marcus. The organization monitors anti-Israel incitement in official Palestinian Authority media. Hashad also makes radio appearances on Arab-language radio, detailing her past travails.
Her economic situation is quite poor. She is now relying on support from Rabbi Dov Stein, a retired Finance Ministry worker who donates a portion of his retirement pension to helping Hashad make ends meet. Stein was moved by her story.
“Jewish law requires us to help her,” Stein said. “She is a righteous among the nations. She admires Israel, and she is quite valuable in helping Israel’s hasbara [public diplomacy] efforts.”
Hashad’s plight has united Israelis from the left — like Tirosh — and the right — like Stein and others. It has also brought together academics like Professor Haviva Fadia and artists like Aharon Shavo.
“Genuine peace will be achieved but it will happen only when we understand Islam,” she said. “Until now, there hasn’t been a peace process. Instead, it’s been a series of cease-fire agreements. In the meantime, the Palestinians are using political funds to form a coalition against Israel and to rebuild military capabilities. They’ve never given a chance for real peace.
“Whoever gives the Palestinians reason to think that they have rights here is doing them a disservice and is destroying their lives here,” she said. “A Muslim Israeli woman who heard me say this was so furious that she was gripped by rage.”
“When I got to Professor Horowitz’s email, I had already had my doubts regarding the physical equation that everyone was using. I knew I was right. I am very precise with these things. Now go try and convince the entire world that the formula is incorrect. Later on, I realized that the old formula was debunked. This is exactly the formula for the Middle East. The problem is not with the results, but with the faulty assumptions of the theory.
“Everyone is using the formula whereby Israel is the occupying power,” she said. “The first key is to recognize that Israel is not occupying anything but is instead ruling over its land. This needs to be the point of departure from where the conflict is solved. As long as Israel is considered an occupier, there won’t be peace. Whoever asks why the conflict hasn’t been resolved ignores the religious roots of the conflict.
“Let’s put all of the documents on the table and begin to read them from the beginning,” she said. “I call on the Arabs to re-learn their religious texts.”