Joe Wahed was born in 1936 in Heliopolis, a suburb of Cairo. He is one of the nearly 80,000 Jews who grew up in Egypt, were schooled there, and have fond memories of their close family and community life. That is, until riots, lootings, killings and unjust accusations became commonplace resulting in the forced expulsion of all Jews between 1950 and 1970. Joe was young at the time, living in an age of innocence. But, as a Jew, he was aware that he was a second-class citizen with limited civil rights and freedoms. It was only later that he fully understood the implications of what had happened, not only in Egypt, but also in other Arab countries. This fostered a strong and deep sense of outrage in him and a passion to search for truth and for justice.
Joe recalls his youth in Egypt with nostalgia and some fondness because, it must be said, conditions for Jews were pleasant till about the early forties. He also remembers the catcalls in the street of “Jew, son of a dog” or hassling by Arab boys as he returned from school. However, because he was Jewish, he considered that “normal”. But it wasn’t until the Jewish section of Cairo was bombed by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1945, and for several years after, that he realized how deeply ingrained religious hatred was and how threatening it was to his community. This further fueled his passion for justice.
One of the defining events in Joe’s life was the founding of Israel. During the war of independence in 1948, he and his family would crowd around the radio in their living room to listen secretly to Kol Israel, the first radio broadcasts from the new born state. The broadcasts were preceded by the music of Camille Sain Saens’ opera, SAMSON AND DELILAH. Even now, this music sends shivers up his spine.
Joe and his family took refuge in France in 1952 after Nasser’s coup d’ etat. Several years later, with the Union of French Jewish students, he visited, for the first time, the new state of Israel. They sang “Hine matuvu manahim shevet akhim gam yakhat” This was when he fell in love with Israel.
After schooling in England, Scotland and France – where he did work on his dissertation at the Sorbonne — he immigrated to the United States as a “refugee escapee parolee” with two suitcases in hand: one full of books and one full of dreams. He was greeted in N.Y. by an immigration officer who told him, “welcome to your new home.”
Joe joined a growing community of Karaite Jews who settled in the San Francisco Bay area. He got his first job with Bank of America’s Economics Dept. then moved to Wells Fargo Bank where he climbed the ladder of success to become its Chief Economist. Joe co-founded JIMENA in 2001 with fellow activists Gina Waldman, Joe Pessah, Semha Alwaya, and Yitzhak Santis.