Knowing Their Enemy or Fascinated by Their Neighbor?

Despite the academic boycott of Israel, Arab universities are offering new courses in Hebrew language. Are these programs meant to strengthen Arab security apparatuses, create business opportunities, or satisfy intellectual curiosity?

Despite the academic boycott of Israel taking place throughout the Arab world and beyond, universities all over the Middle East are offering courses in Hebrew language, a phenomenon that has only expanded since the 1970’s. Some departments are more focused on the historical aspect of the language – Hebrew’s Semitic roots, and its linguistic connections with Arabic – while others view Hebrew as a tool for examining and understanding Israeli society.

There are students all over the Middle East enthusiastic about Hebrew, and many are curious about the window it provides into the enemy’s culture and every day life. Although academics internationally have decided to unite in efforts to end Israel’s violent occupation of Palestinian territory, the Hebrew language remains a commodity, as well as a popular academic topic, in many Arab countries.

In order to understand this phenomenon, it is important to examine the ways in which Hebrew serves the society in which it is taught. The contemporary age’s ‘commodified university’ – as many scholars of post-modern academia refer to contemporary higher education – has caused academic discourse to either align itself with that of mainstream society and market, or remain radically outside of it.  The latter takes place within (predominantly humanities) departments that are relevant solely to the academic job market.

Thus, Hebrew language instruction in the Arab world either directly addresses the state’s ability to compete in the global economy, or is primarily academic, remaining outside the public discourse. Modern Israeli Hebrew usually fulfills the first criterion, fueling industries of security, policy, and tourism, while pre-modern and biblical Hebrew usually provide researchers for academic markets in the fields of linguistics and history.

Hebrew language education has historically been most prominent in Egyptian universities, where Hebrew departments have functioned popularly since the early 1980’s (as a result of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel), reflecting the utility of Hebrew within the Egyptian job market as well as relevant contributions to the local academic discourse. Tens of thousands of Egyptian students are studying Hebrew each year at any of the departments at Cairo University, Ain al-Shams University, Al-Azhar University or a number of private colleges (however, the language is not offered at Egypt’s most esteemed university, the American University of Cairo).

Ain al-Shams’ Interdisciplinary Department for Hebrew, Jewish, and Semitic Studies, independent since 1984, is the most prominent among the many, boasting BA and MA programs attended by students of the Hebrew language from all over the Arab world. It is due to the efforts of professors from Ain Al-Shams that over half of the 18 institutions of higher learning in Egypt have departments of Hebrew and Jewish studies. With eight levels, the program includes instruction in modern and pre-modern Hebrew, as well as Aramaic and Semitic linguistics.

The department offers courses that allow students to learn about Israeli society, such as “Topics in Hebrew Literary Criticism,” “Israeli Politics,” “The Geography of Palestine,” “Military and Security Texts,” and “Modern Hebrew Style,” providing students with practical skills for a career in tourism, intelligence and security, or government affairs. In the more academic realm, it also offers opportunities to learn Hebrew through Judaic texts in courses such as “Intro to Talmud and Midrash,” and “European Jewry.” Students are required to attend an array of courses from in both modern and pre-modern Hebrew, only later choosing specializations.

Muhammad (name has been changed), a third year student from Ain al-Shams’ Hebrew department, explained that many students take these courses in order to find jobs in security, tourism, or foreign affairs after graduating. “There are many opportunities for Egyptians who speak Hebrew, but people are also just fascinated by the language.” Muhammad himself is an avid reader of Modern Hebrew literature and he religiously watches Israeli satire. “We do not have much exposure to Israeli slang and current Israeli public sentiments, and the best practice is listening to native Hebrew speakers using the language.”

He explained that students interested in pre-modern Hebrew, Judaism, and more linguistics-oriented topics usually plan to stay in academia. “There is not much you can do by reading the Talmud here in Egypt, unless you want to be a professor.” Aligning with the market’s need for Hebrew as a means through which to bring Israeli tourism or examine the enemy, or outside public discourse within academia, Egypt’s Hebrew departments continuously thrive. Studying Hebrew can lead students to one of two career paths, remaining safely within local academic discourse or addressing the state’s economic reality.

Before the US invasion of Iraq in 2001, the second most prominent center for Hebrew studies in the Arab world has historically been the University of Baghdad, serving the needs of the Iraqi national political-economy under Saddam Hussein. Established in 1970 as part of the Faculty of the Arts, the Department of Eastern Languages included Hebrew, Turkish, and Persian, all of which eventually became independent departments when the Faculty of Languages was established in 1988.

Since the fall of Hussein’s regime and the subsequent deterioration of Iraq’s national infrastructure, students of the Hebrew language have expressed serious concerns about finding jobs. “During Saddam Hussein’s regime, the students of the Hebrew language department received support from the intelligence service, but this ended after the regime’s demise.” Today, Hebrew – along with Persian and Kurdish – are the last resort for students who do not have high enough marks to study English, French, German or Spanish, and the number of students steadily decreases.

While the students study Hebrew language, grammar, literature, songs and Israeli literature, Iraq has been almost totally empty of Jews since the 1950’s and thus students are left to interact solely with their Christian and Muslim professors and peers, limiting their understanding of Israeli society. Unlike Egyptian universities, the University of Baghdad’s department does not offer courses in Semitic linguistics, Judaism and biblical studies, or other topics that might be relevant to the academic job market. Created to serve a no-longer existent national-security market, and lacking in course material useful in academia, the Iraqi Hebrew department is useful neither in public nor academic discourse, and has thus lost relevance.

More recently, the study of the Hebrew language has made its way to the Arabian Peninsula, where King Saud University’s Hebrew Department has been educating young Saudis since 2011, generating employees for intelligence and policy markets, while simultaneously participating in the academic discursive community. The department boasts instructional three levels: the first focuses on letters, basic grammar and vocabulary, the second focuses on sentence structure and comprehension, and the third presents Hebrew as a tool for understanding the “culture of the language community [a student] is studying.”

In examining the department’s faculty publications, it is evident that professors have studied Hebrew in both pre-modern and contemporary political contexts. One article, published at the Ain al-Shams College of Arts literary magazine, traces historical Islamic kings’ correspondences regarding their Jewish populations, another examines an Israeli Ministry of Education geography textbook about Jerusalem, and was published as part of a conference at KSU. Other articles discuss issues of translation and examine biblical literary constructions. Today, the Saudi Hebrew department is becoming among the region’s most popular research sites for issues pertaining to the Hebrew language, successfully contributing to both national public and academic discourses.

Firas (name has been changed), a third year student at KSU, expressed excitement regarding Saudi Arabia’s increased involvement with Israeli matters. “The department is getting more and more popular, which is strange given the fact that Israel does not have relations with Saudi Arabia or any GCC states.” He explained that most students who study Hebrew are genuinely curious to understand the cultural community it represents. “We know almost nothing about Israelis, and this gives us a small glimpse into a foreign world that is close by.” There are also many religious students studying Hebrew to better understand the linguistic roots of Arabic, as well as the biblical tales that are also important in the Islamic tradition.

The 21st century also brought Hebrew language study to Jordan’s Yarmouk University, the only academic institution teaching Hebrew in the country. Established in 2000, the Department of Semitic and Oriental languages addressed many developing needs in Jordanian-Israeli relations, especially after the 1994 peace agreement between the two nations. After its founding, the department was so popular that the university considered establishing an MA program, however, today there are only around 100 students studying Hebrew at Yarmouk.

“After the peace agreement, many people were optimistic about cooperation and collaboration and the job market it would create,” explained one of the department’s graduates. Today, graduates have difficulty continuing their education or finding job opportunities, and even justifying their interest in Israel’s national language within their local communities. The state’s relations with Israel are peaceful, but neither official establishments nor academic institutions attempt to bridge the gap between the two countries’ citizens and create active relations. The department was founded with the belief that Hebrew language instruction would foster peaceful relations, remaining outside of public and academic discourse, and now struggles to maintain relevance.

Dr. Abdulla Swalha, the founder and president of the Israel Studies Center in Jordan, expressed frustration with the current situation of Hebrew language instruction in Jordanian academia. “The fact that there are no interactions with Israeli defeats the whole purpose. How can we use language to bridge cultural gaps if we do not allow for dialogue?” Dr. Swalha believes that this intentional distance contradicts the very purpose of teaching Hebrew, which is to create ties between citizens. “The level of Hebrew taught at Yarmouk will never be professional without interactions with Israelis. There will be no high-level Hebrew speakers in Jordan and we will have a big problem when it comes to working together.”

In 2014, the American University of Beirut’s Department of Near Eastern Languages established a new minor in Semitic studies in order to examine “how the languages of Lebanon and its neighbors are related and how they got here,” remaining purely within the academic realm and safely outside the public discourse. The minor requires two semesters of either Hebrew or Syriac, as well as courses in Arabic linguistics, and the science of studying ancient texts.

This is the first time that Hebrew is being taught in Lebanese academia since the 1920’s, when the “American University of Beirut has decided to introduce the study of the Hebrew language in the university,” as taken at the proposal of Beirut Kehillah (Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “United Palestine Appeal Undertakes $7,500,00 Quota as American Jewry’s Contribution This Year.” Jewish Daily Bulletin, November 1, 1927). In 1927, Hebrew language instruction provided tools for the Lebanese Jewish community to interact with their co-religionists in Palestine, while today, the focus is strictly academic and does not incorporate modern Hebrew into the curriculum, reflecting the Lebanese public (which is now almost totally empty of Jews) discourse.

In 2013, Kuwait University unsuccessfully attempted to offer a course in modern Hebrew in the Faculty of Arts, subsequently receiving harsh criticism from the press and the general public. A fuming article in “Shahed” online newspaper expressed fear that teaching Hebrew language and culture would encourage students to make contact with Israelis and foster normalization of the occupation. “What is the point of teaching this course, while Kuwait is boycotting Israel? Why does the university administration not push for progress in education by focusing on the Arabic language and Islamic and cultural education instead of occupying the students with a useless course?” The university stopped offering the course after two years, given its incongruence with Kuwaiti society’s public discourse.

The very existence of these departments demonstrates an important tension within many of the world’s national communities: how do we engage with Israel and Israelis without condoning the occupation? While there may not be a satisfactory answer anytime soon, the presence of Hebrew language instruction throughout the Middle East will continue to produce Hebrew speakers throughout the Arab world, and perhaps help create bonds mutually curious individuals who can work together to put an end to our region’s injustices.

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