Leading Israeli Universities to Offer Bachelor's Degree in Culture of Jews in the Arab World

Programs at Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University to begin in fall 2017 with funding from Rothschild family philanthropy.

Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
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Students walking at Tel Aviv University.
Students at Tel Aviv University.Credit: David Bachar
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich

Two new bachelor’s degree programs in the culture of Jews in the Arab world will get underway at the start of the 2017-2018 academic year at Ben-Gurion University and Tel Aviv University, which will cooperate in the venture.

Among the subjects to be taught in the programs, the first of their kind, are Jewish literature written in Arab countries, literary Arabic and Judeo-Arabic (an Islamic-world counterpart to Yiddish in Europe). There will also be comparative literature studies looking at Jewish literature in Arab countries and Jewish literature in Europe.

“The idea for the program came up in a conversation in the car about three years ago,” recalled Hadas Shabat Nadir, a literature researcher at Ben-Gurion. “Dr. Hana Soker Schwager [of Ben-Gurion], [poet] Shimon Adaf and Dr. Haviva Yishay [of Ben-Gurion] were there, and over time the poet Almog Behar and Prof. Galili Shahar [of Tel Aviv] also joined. It started with our wondering why there were programs for the study of Yiddish and other similar programs, but no one was teaching Jewish Arab culture.”

The program became a reality after a request for funding to the Yad Hanadiv foundation, which represents the Rothschild family philanthropic trusts, got a positive response and after the committee responsible for the funding insisted that a full bachelor’s degree program be created.

Why 'Jewish Arab,' not 'Mizrahi'?

Although Jews from Arab countries are commonly referred to as “Mizrahim” in Hebrew, Shabat-Nadir explained the decision to call the subject of the program Jewish Arab culture and not Mizrahi studies:

Maimonides, 12th century Jewish philosopher in Spain and Egypt.Credit: wikimedia

“We wanted to present the entire story. We all were uncomfortable with the definition ‘Mizrahim,’ because when people use it, they forget an entire history, important people, accomplishments and writing over the generations. We wanted to link the Mizrahi concept to its history, to where it comes from. The concept of Mizrahim developed in Europe and ultimately those who sought Westernization called the Jews from Islamic countries Mizrahim. The field and the dialogue that we are talking about is Jewish Arab.”

Behar said, “In the coming year, we will build the syllabus and plan the three years of the degree studies and actually the first five years [of the program]. From our standpoint, as doctoral students in literature at the time, we very much felt the absence, including in the academic treatment, of Israeli Mizrahi literature and within Arabic literature. Jewish Arab literature didn’t have a presence and in particular, there was no link among all of the fields and aspects.”

At this point, there is five years of funding for the program. Although it will only start in a year, it is already clear that the departments at the two universities will collaborate and hold joint conferences and courses. At Tel Aviv University, the program is under the administration of the literature department and at Ben-Gurion University, it is part of the department of multidisciplinary studies.

Behar added, “There is attention in academe to the Golden Age [of Spanish Jewish history]. There is a certain presence in Jewish studies, but there was no link. In our view, it’s a field of one historical continuity and we want to give students the ability to see and understand this continuity – both secular and religious literature, historical and contemporary. Up to now the field was splintered and from now on we are going to teach [it] as a discipline, as one field, one [field of] linguistic continuity and knowledge.

“It seems to me that the time is ripe,” he said. “Fifteen years ago, when I started my academic studies, it was too early. About 60 years ago, the idea of Prof. Shlomo Dov Goitein, the great Jewish-Arabic scholar and scholar of the Cairo geniza [an ancient archive of Jewish books and manuscripts], proposing that Hebrew University set up a chair of Jewish Arab studies was rejected. No one was prepared to mingle the subjects. Now there is a moment in which it is possible from an academic standpoint.”

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