The Egyptian Student Who Loves to Read Israeli Writers David Grossman and Yehuda Amichai

One Hebrew-learning Egyptian says it’s impossible to understand a society without also knowing its literature. But it’s doubtful anyone who dreams of removing Arabic from the Israeli public space will heed his stinging rebuke

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Israeli author David Grossman posing with his book "A Horse Walks Into a Bar" in London, June 13, 2017.
BIG IN CAIRO? Israeli author David Grossman posing with his book "A Horse Walks Into a Bar" in London, June 13, 2017. Credit: AFP/Daniel Leal-Olivas
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“I’ve just read a very interesting article on the poetry of Yehuda Amichai – can you send me some Hebrew articles on Amichai published in the Israeli press over the last six months?”

This email, which I received from an Egyptian student at the Department of Middle Eastern Languages at Cairo University, did not surprise me. Every few weeks or months, we exchange correspondence, which consists mainly of his requests for clarification on terms and concepts in Hebrew, or articles covering Hebrew linguistic topics.

The student, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells me he’s now working on a study of journalistic styles in Israel – by comparing columnists in daily newspapers Haaretz and Yedioth Ahronoth. He hopes to complete his master’s degree this year and then work on a doctorate, so he can eventually teach Hebrew at university.

I once asked him what made him study Hebrew. “It’s not what you think,” he replied. “It’s not in order to ‘know your enemy’: I simply love the language.”

Studying Hebrew is not a totally unique phenomenon in Egypt, according to local media sources. Each year, some 3,000 students complete their Hebrew studies at 17 Egyptian universities – some majoring in it, others learning it as part of their Middle Eastern language studies.

A Palestinian teacher teaches Hebrew to ninth grade students at a Gaza school in Gaza City January 28, 2013. Credit: REUTERS/Ahmed Zakot

The numbers seem to be growing. Eman el-Tayeb, a Hebrew professor at Assiut University in Upper Egypt, told the Al-Monitor website last June that when her university’s Hebrew department opened in 2004, it only had 11 students. “Now, more than 110 students enroll in the Hebrew classes annually,” she said.

“We constantly explain to our students that this is not normalization of ties with Israel,” she added. “We tell our students that learning Hebrew doesn’t mean normalization of relations with Israel. We usually tell our students that the department has a strategic importance, as Hebrew speakers can work for military intelligence and the Foreign Ministry.”

Indeed, an in-depth story on Hebrew studies in Arab countries, published recently on the Lebanese website Raseef22, reported that most interviewees said their motive for studying Hebrew was to “know the enemy,” to understand the culture and know how Jews think. In Lebanon, incidentally, Hebrew courses are offered at some universities as part of history or religion programs.

In 2010, Saudi sports historian Dr. Amin Saati published an article in the Saudi newspaper Al-Iqtisadi, titled “Teach our Children Hebrew.” In it, he explained that “Jews were raised for deception, to betray trust and to break agreements, as happened during the time of the Prophet and throughout the current Israeli-Arab conflict.

“Today, the Kingdom is a target, which is why every Saudi citizen must understand the Jewish personality and study it well – because if we learn the language of the enemy, we’ll become better acquainted with his cultural, economic and political life, and we’ll learn a lot about his intentions and ambitions to harm us. The war between us and Israel is not over borders, but is instead a battle for survival.”

A billboard with Arabic and Hebrew writing promoting the new season for a hit Israeli television series "Fauda" in Tel Aviv on December 31, 2017Credit: JACK GUEZ/AFP

Saati explained that he was prompted to bang out an article over anxieties stemming from Israel’s decision to teach Arabic in its own schools. He was sure this was nothing to do with expanding intellectual horizons, but was meant instead to facilitate the infiltration of Israelis into Arab society with the aim of influencing their culture through Arabic. In order to combat this Israeli scheme, he concluded that “we must teach our children Hebrew.”

For now, though, the only place in Saudi Arabia where Hebrew is taught is Riyadh’s King Saud University, and even there the number of Hebrew students is minimal.

In contrast, in 2012 Hamas decided to teach Hebrew in several schools in the Gaza Strip. It was an optional course for ninth- and 10th-graders, but the program had to be suspended for budgetary reasons. There are private schools in Gaza in which one can learn Hebrew, such as the Atlas Research Center, also set up in 2012. The center offers translations of Hebrew articles and Israeli studies, as well as providing Hebrew-language courses. The center defines its mission as “to understand the occupation, its motives, plans and modus operandi, in order to establish an awareness that will put an end to the occupation and its impact.”

Several Palestinian journalists in Gaza are graduates of the center and are occasionally interviewed on the Israeli media. The center’s website translates articles from the Israeli press, as well as studies from Israeli research institutes that deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Your problem is that you’re convinced you understand Arabs or that your perception of Arabs is the only correct one,” the Egyptian student wrote me. “I know that some of your universities have Middle Eastern departments that don’t even require any knowledge of Arabic. And where Arabic is taught, there is no reading of literature or poetry. How can you know a society and its culture without knowing the literature that reflects it? Do you know how much I learn about Israeli society by reading Yehuda Amichai or by making an effort to understand David Grossman?”

I doubt whether his rebuke will have a significant impact on those wishing to remove the Arabic language from public and educational spaces in Israel. When Arabic-language billboards are hastily removed because they “frighten” people; when Arabic is demoted from its status as an official language to one with only a “special status”; when popular Arab culture is totally unknown in Israel; and when the number of books translated from Arabic to Hebrew each year can be counted on the fingers of one hand ... well, all that’s left then is Arab curses.

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