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What I Learned Teaching Arabs About Judaism in Abu Dhabi

It was ironic, to say the least, that it took coming to an oil-rich Arab emirate to get me to lead my first Rosh Hashanah service.

Forty-five years ago I had earned Conservative rabbinic ordination from New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary. But this was the first time I had ever used it. I had turned, instead, to a career in scholarship as a professor of Near Eastern studies for several decades at Princeton University. But my role at this Rosh Hashanah service last September was a byproduct of my work this past semester as a visiting professor at New York University’s new campus, in Abu Dhabi.

In fact, this event — probably the first Rosh Hashanah service to ever take place in Abu Dhabi — was just part of the broader role that NYU’s new campus is starting to play in the region’s intellectual life.

Even as controversy has dogged the deplorable labor conditions surrounding its construction, the campus’s role as a Western university operating on Western standards is beginning to have an impact. To be sure, questions persist about the academic freedom NYU will be permitted in a kingdom ruled by an absolute monarch whose government imposes sharia-based punishments and strictly controls the press.

But my experience teaching there for a semester testifies to an important additional component to this story.

It was my recent retirement following a 40-year career teaching about Jews in the Islamic world at Princeton that gave me the opportunity to accept NYU’s invitation to lecture at its Abu Dhabi center. I am quite certain that the seminar I taught — “Jews in the Muslim World in the Middle Ages” — was never before taught in those parts. Along with a side trip to Saudi Arabia to lecture on the Cairo Geniza — the traditional repository where Jews stored sacred and everyday writings — it was a remarkable experience, suggesting new opportunities for talking about Jewish-Muslim relations inside the Arab world, notwithstanding widespread hostility toward Israel and the prejudicial beliefs about Jews.

I arrived in Abu Dhabi at the end of August, in 115-degree heat, to find myself on a spanking new university campus, built by Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, whose father, Sheikh Zayed, founded the United Arab Emirates in 1971.

The UAE, with Abu Dhabi as its capital, is a decentralized nation consisting of seven emirates, each with its own monarch. The country came into being when Britain gave up its informal protectorate over what were then called the “trucial states,” an arrangement intended to protect the British India trade from so-called “pirates.”

The university is situated on Saadiyat Island, about 10 to 15 minutes from the city by car or taxi. With luxury hotels and beautiful beaches, the island, which is being developed as a tourist and cultural center, shows off Abu Dhabi’s bid to use its oil money to construct an ultra-modern and cosmopolitan — if still authoritarian — oasis in the Middle East. The Louvre has built a branch on Saadiyat Island, and the Guggenheim will soon follow suit. NYUAD contributes to the cultural scene by sponsoring events in the arts as well as lectures open to the wider Abu Dhabi community.

As a visiting professor at NYUAD, I had five students in my course (a typical enrollment for an elective), including two Muslims and one Jew. Out of a total of 726 students, there are no more than a handful of Jews enrolled at the university. That’s understandable, but regrettable. Academic standards at NYUAD are very high — comparable with the level to which I had long been accustomed at Princeton. And the favorable teacher-student ratio throughout the university offers a high-quality classroom experience.

Most of the teachers at NYUAD are young, ranging from freshly minted PhDs to men and women in their early 40s. Some senior faculty from NYU in New York and “ringers” like me cycle through periodically. The faculty is enthusiastic and devoted. They feel part of a mission — helping to create a new and exciting experiment in global education. Other Western universities have also established outposts in the Gulf. The University of Paris, Sorbonne has a campus in Abu Dhabi, similarly under the patronage of the Crown Prince. Several Western universities have branches in nearby Qatar.

The earmark of the Abu Dhabi student body is its geographic diversity. Students come from more than 100 different countries, though all of them speak, read and write excellent English, which is the medium for instruction. The countries most heavily represented include the United States, UAE, China, India, Pakistan, Russia, South Korea, the United Kingdom, Ethiopia and Australia. I met the only Azerbaijani student, who happened to be Jewish.

I asked one of the senior university officers why the Crown Prince has made this enormous investment. His answer was that the country wants its secondary school graduates to acquire a high-quality Western-type university education. That explains why NYUAD has programs in the natural sciences, in engineering, in economics and in computer science, in addition to the humanities and other social sciences. Currently only about 15% of the student body is Emirati, but that percentage is expected to grow, as will the size of the undergraduate student body, which is targeted to reach 2,000.

Apart from my teaching and writing, I engaged in several extracurricular activities involving Jews, Judaism and Jewish-Muslim relations. The Rosh Hashanah service which I led, was held the first night only. Very few of the campus’s small number of Jewish students attended, and not many members of the school’s numerous Jewish faculty were there, either. But several non-Jews, including both a Catholic priest who teaches religion and an Emirati student of mine, attended at my suggestion. The service was followed by a Rosh Hashanah meal, complete with challah and gefilte fish.

Two weeks later I gave a talk about the holiday of Sukkot at a party held in a sukkah erected on campus by Jewish and non-Jewish students at the initiative of a Jewish staff member who grew up on a kibbutz in Israel.

Apart from Emirati students, I met Muslims from such countries as Yemen, Jordan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iraq. In response to an invitation from the Arab Cultural Group at NYUAD to lead a program for them, I screened the prizewinning documentary “Forget Baghdad.” The film, by Samir Jamal Aldin, an Iraqi Shiite living in Switzerland, features interviews in Israel with Iraqi-born Jews, like the famous writer Sami Michael, about their memories of Iraq and its once cosmopolitan capital. In the film, the Iraqi Jews speak nostalgically — in Arabic, not English or Hebrew — about their lives there before emigration in 1950 and 1951.

In late October, the filmmaker himself met for lunch with students and faculty at my invitation when he happened to be in town for the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. As we dined in the cafeteria, discussion got around to the tepid reception that “Forget Baghdad” met in Israel. My own suspicion is that the warm nostalgia for Iraq that the Iraqi-Israeli interviewees expressed and the complaints they voiced about their harsh life upon arrival in Israel offended Zionist sensibilities.

Samir shared a telling anecdote. When the film was finally shown in Israel, he was present at the screening. As the film ended and the lights went up, viewers in the audience of Arab-Jewish background jumped to their feet shouting at the Ashkenazim in the audience, “See what you people did to us!”

Jews in Islamic Life: Near East studies scholar Mark Cohen lectures on the Cairo Geniza to a male-only audience at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Women attending a different college campus were able to listen to the lecture by remote access. Image by Courtesy of Mark R. Cohen

Samir described himself as completely taken aback by this fierce reaction, unaware as he was of the longstanding hostility between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim in Israel.

The biggest surprise of my stay was to find myself teaching Arabs a noncredit course in Judeo-Arabic, the form of Arabic spoken and written (in Hebrew letters) by Jews in the Arab world down to modern times.

The course resulted from a conversation I had with a senior from Yemen. Back home, he had discovered and bought a book containing an Arabic transcription of a Judeo-Arabic travel account of Yemen, written in the 19th century. I volunteered to teach him the language. Word spread, and soon 11 students turned out for the class, most of them Arabs or non-Arab Muslims. They found Judeo-Arabic utterly fascinating. I had them learn the Hebrew alphabet, and, as a first text, I gave them two suras from the Quran, which I transcribed into Hebrew letters. I also showed them an image of a Geniza fragment of the Quran in Hebrew letters, from the 11th or 12th century.

One Muslim-Arab student was perplexed. Why, he asked, would Jews have wanted to read the Quran?

This gave me an opening to speak about Jewish-Muslim coexistence in the Middle Ages and about Jewish acculturation to Islamic-Arabic culture. Jews read the Quran, I said, because they recognized the similarity between Judaism and Islam. Writing in Arabic in the introduction to his prayer-book, the great 10th century rabbinic sage Saadia Gaon of Baghdad referred unselfconsciously to the Torah as “sharia” and even as “Quran”; to the direction of prayer toward Jerusalem as “qibla,” the Arabic term for facing Mecca, and to the hazan, or cantor, as the “imam.” Jews read the Quran, I added, despite a medieval Islamic prohibition against non-Muslims teaching their children the holy book of Islam.

At the end of the semester, the same Muslim student came to thank me for offering the course. “My aunt,” he told me candidly, “couldn’t understand why I was doing this. She said I was being a traitor.” I responded: “I understand your aunt’s feelings. Given what is happening today between Israel and Palestine, it’s hard to believe that there ever was a time when Jews and Muslims coexisted and shared similar cultural interests.”

This young Muslim’s exposure to Judeo-Arabic taught him otherwise.

The Geniza provided another platform for speaking about Jewish-Muslim coexistence in past times. In November, Amitav Ghosh, the celebrated Indian writer, and his wife, biographer Deborah Baker, visited NYUAD as writers in residence. I had been Ghosh’s historical consultant for his Geniza-based book, “In an Antique Land.” In Abu Dhabi we collaborated on a public program for the NYUAD Institute, where, in the presence of a sizable audience, we were interviewed about the Geniza and about his book.

Independently, I also gave a lecture on the Geniza to NYU alumni living in the Gulf. I showed the respective audiences an image of a Geniza merchant’s letter and talked about the importance of the Geniza for understanding that, for all their statutory legal inferiority, the Jews lived securely among Muslims, traded with them and experienced minimal discrimination most of the time.

In general the Muslim students I met at NYUAD — whether they were Emiratis, from another Arab country, from Pakistan, Bangladesh or Africa — were very curious about Jews, Judaism and Jewish-Muslim relations, while thirsting at the same time to be disassociated from the murderous Islamic extremism that plagues the world today. Some 30 students and faculty showed up at one event to which I was invited to speak about Jewish-Muslim relations. There, a Muslim student from Pakistan spoke passionately in defense of the true Islam, which, he said, has been distorted by groups like the Islamic State, or ISIS.

Another student at this gathering — an American, if I recall correctly — posed what he apologetically called an “aggressive” question about Israeli repression of Palestinians. He was probably surprised by my unapologetic response, in which I expressed my own critical view of the policies and actions of the Israeli government.

The capstone of my activity speaking about Jews and Islam in the Arab world was my trip to Saudi Arabia in December. I was invited to lecture at King Saud University in Riyadh, where I gave two talks explaining the importance of the Geniza for Islamic as well as for Jewish history. The subject fascinated the faculty and graduate students in attendance. I described how the Jewish Geniza could be useful to them in their own research on Islamic history. At the same time, I used the occasion to show that the Geniza documents, largely ignored by Islamophobic writers, reflect Jewish-Muslim coexistence and Jewish immersion in medieval Arab society.

Cultural Exchange: Cohen found that Muslims were fascinated with Muslim-Jewish interactions from the Middle Ages. Image by Courtesy of Mark R. Cohen

One of the Saudi professors asked whether the good relations between Jews and Muslims attested to in the Geniza constitute a response to extremists. “Which extremists?” I asked. “Jewish extremists,” he replied. My response was that Islamophobic Jewish writers who believe that Islam has persecuted the Jews from the time of the Prophet Muhammad on are not interested in Geniza evidence of decent Jewish-Muslim relations; it spoils their distorted, negative picture of Islam.

The unusual nature of my presentation did not escape me or my hosts: Here I was, a Jewish professor known to have connections with Israel — the home of my daughter and two granddaughters — and a historian of the Jews in the Muslim world, addressing Muslim scholars of Islam in a conservative Islamic country.

These opportunities to contribute to a better understanding of relations between Jews and Muslims reinforced my feelings about the dearth of Jewish students at NYUAD. Jewish parents and students alike often recoil at the idea of studying in an Arab country. They cannot imagine being safe in the UAE, or in any Arab country for that matter.

This is unfortunate, because Abu Dhabi is not a dangerous place. Students freely travel to the city and to other places in the Emirates. Students participating in courses on the Arab world often take a class trip to some other Arab or formerly Arab country, like Spain. The university itself constitutes a truly pluralistic and cosmopolitan environment, with students from a wider variety of geographic, national, linguistic and religious backgrounds than any American university can offer.

If the Jewish student body were larger, Jews and Muslims would inevitably interact, form bonds of friendship and find ways to dialogue. Getting to know one another in the rich academic environment of NYUAD, Muslim and Jewish college-aged students are bound to gain a better understanding of each other and break down the barriers that divide them.

Mark R. Cohen is emeritus Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University


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