Egypt’s Jewish Studies Doyen Looks Back
“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.
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 [email protected]