Egypt’s Jewish Studies Doyen Looks Back

A Career in Academia Born of Desire To Know ‘The Enemy’ Leads to Acclaim and Visits From Fellow Scholars

By Jacob Bender

Published July 15, 2009, issue of July 24, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

“What’s a nice professor of Jewish studies doing teaching in a place like this?”

For those unfamiliar with contemporary Egyptian intellectual life, this might be the first question that comes to mind upon meeting Mohamed Hawary, a professor of Hebrew studies and Jewish thought at Ain Shams University in Cairo, a teeming school of some 180,000 students.

Genizah Go-To Guy: Mohamed Hawary’s expertise on Cairo’s Jewish treasure trove is valued by colleagues worldwide.
JACOB BENDER
Genizah Go-To Guy: Mohamed Hawary’s expertise on Cairo’s Jewish treasure trove is valued by colleagues worldwide.

Hawary, 59, is considered to be the doyen of Jewish studies in Egypt. A world-renowned scholar of Judaism, the author of numerous books and articles on a wide range of Jewish subjects, Hawary is also a practicing Muslim and a proud and patriotic Egyptian. The Forward recently interviewed Hawary in Cairo, where both he and this reporter were attending an interfaith conference at Al-Azhar University.

“I first developed an interest in Judaism and Israel because of the many verses in the Holy Quran pertaining to Jews,” Hawary recalled. “This led me to want to know more about Jews, the historical relationship between Judaism and Islam, but also to learn about Israel.”

It was, Hawary said, the 1967 Six Day War with Israel that ultimately moved him to turn his budding interest into a career. “Israel was the enemy, of course, of Egypt and the Arabs. But I thought it was important to know who this enemy was.”

Motivated to pursue Hebrew language and Jewish studies, Hawary received his Bachelor of Arts in 1971 at Cairo University and completed his doctorate at Ain Shams. There, he wrote his doctoral dissertation on “The Divinity of the Children of Israel, From Moses to the Babylonian Exile.”

“When I started out in the field,” Hawary said, “there were very few of us. Hebrew was not a separate department, but was studied as part of Arabic and Semitic languages.” Today, thanks to the efforts of Hawary and his colleagues, more than half of the 18 institutions of higher learning in Egypt have departments of Hebrew and Jewish studies.

At Ain Shams, around 400 students take Hebrew and Jewish studies courses. Some of these students aim for academic appointments. Many eventually find their way into positions in Egypt’s diplomatic corps, the military and, of course, intelligence work. Not surprisingly, the Arab-Israeli conflict looms large in Egypt over the entire discourse of Arab-Jewish and Muslim-Jewish relations.

Hawary said he started visiting Israel in the early 1980s, not long after Egypt’s Camp David peace agreement with Israel. At the time, he was strongly attacked in the Egyptian press for his visits. Nevertheless, he said, “Inside of me, I wanted to improve relations with Israeli academics, to help make contacts, to support the peace process.”

But now, decades after these first attempts at normalization, Hawary no longer will visit the Jewish state. “I am extremely disappointed in the policy of Israel all this time,” he explained, referring particularly to its continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. “I had great hopes for the peace process. I am still receiving invitations to go to Israel, but I am refusing now. It is simply not logical to continue to visit Israel as if its occupation of Palestinian lands and the Israeli settlement policy was not continuing all the time.”

There can be no warm peace between Egypt and Israel, Hawary explained, “nor should there be,” until there is a solution to the Palestinian problem.

Asked how the Arab-Israeli conflict affects his students, Hawary said, “I teach my students that they need to make a distinction between the policies of the government of Israel and Jews around the world. When we speak about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we need to make sure that this is not understood as a religious conflict. I know many Jews, in Israel, in America, in Europe, who support the right of the Palestinian people to an independent state, and I tell my students about this. It is simply not permissible to put all Jews in one bag.”

Pressed about antisemitism in the Egyptian media, such as the television serialization of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” Hawary said that both sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict have made use of negative and racist stereotypes, and all such prejudices should be condemned.

Hawary himself continues to maintain excellent relations with Jewish scholars around the world. Over the years, he has invited three such professors — who are also rabbis — to lecture to his students at Ain Shams: Mark R. Cohen of Princeton University, Raymond P. Scheindlin of the Jewish Theological Seminary and Reuven Firestone of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Cohen recalled his visit to Cairo, where more than 200 of Hawary’s students attended his lecture, given in Hebrew at the students’ request.

“I was astonished at the students’ grasp of Hebrew,” Cohen said. “Hawary is performing an incredibly important service by publishing works in Arabic that bring to life the entwined relationship between Muslims and Jews in medieval Egypt.”

Cohen explained that Hawary is a leading expert on the Cairo Genizah, the hidden cache of thousands of manuscripts, and manuscript fragments, written in Arabic, Judaeo-Arabic and Hebrew, discovered in the late 19th century in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo. They are a trove of information about the religious, cultural and economic life of the Jewish communities of the medieval Arab world.

Hawary was also a senior Fulbright Fellow at the JTS and was the first Arab-Muslim scholar to hold a fellowship at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.

“Mohamed Hawary is a great scholar of Judaism,” Firestone said. “He is really fascinated by the historical and religious relationship between Judaism and Islam. More than this, he eschews polemics in his scholarship, is a true bridge-builder and a real mensch.”

Contact Jacob Bender at feedback@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.