Hebrew on the Nile: The Rise of Jewish Studies in Egypt

About a dozen universities in Egypt award degrees in Hebrew and Jewish studies today. Why did Egyptians become interested in such fields and how did they help foment a cultural renaissance?

Mostafa Hussein / The Social History Workshop
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Cairo University, founded originally in 1908 as the Egyptian University, in the capital city.
Cairo University. Egyptian Hebraists have been able to study Israeli culture from within while maintaining distance from Israeli society, in a show of solidarity with the Palestinian people. Credit: Citadelite
Mostafa Hussein / The Social History Workshop

In the early 20th century, Semitic studies was among the first academic disciplines that Egyptian intellectuals sought to pursue in Europe. Specialization in this field, including biblical Hebrew and ancient Israel studies, was meant to enhance the understanding of the history of ancient Egypt and the origins of the Semitic peoples.

Equally important, the study of Hebrew was meant to aid in the advancement of modern Arabic, by tracking down Arabic words with Hebrew or Aramaic origins and using this knowledge to coin a new lexicon in order to keep pace with contemporary developments.

When the Egyptian University in Cairo – known today as Cairo University – was established in 1908, it sent students to British and German universities to specialize in Semitic studies. The goal was to invigorate modern Arabic as a language of instruction at the university in the Egyptian capital, and to explore the connections between the Arab heritage and the needs of the present.

Fluency in Arabic alongside familiarity with Judaism, Christianity and Islam enabled the scholars to make great strides in their knowledge of Hebrew and the Jewish faith, and consequently to advance the new discipline in a way that also addressed the interests of Egyptian society and culture. The expertise in biblical and Medieval Hebrew laid the foundations for Jewish and Hebrew studies in Egypt and continue to do so today.

Scholarly interest in Hebrew and Jewish studies in Egypt expanded in 1925, with the founding of Cairo University's department of Arabic and Semitic languages. In this period, Hebrew served comparative linguistics and literary studies, but did not constitute a field in its own right. Those disciplinary divisions relied on German traditions of the study of the Middle East. Research of what were at the time called Oriental languages was aimed at making the university a beacon of intellectual life in the region. In the new department, Egyptian scholars taught alongside their European peers.

Ali al-Anani was one of the Egyptian scholars who taught Semitic language and literature in the department after studying in Europe. Anani studied Semitics at Berlin's Seminar for Oriental Languages (Seminar für Orientalische Sprachen) in Berlin in 1910. He taught comparative literature at Dar al-Ulum, a teacher training school in Cairo that was later incorporated into the city's university. He also wrote a Hebrew grammar book, which he dedicated to “the pioneers of Arab culture.”

Other scholars included Gotthelf Bergsträsser, who taught in the same department in 1929-32; his research into Arabic grammar was translated into Arabic and influenced the study of comparative Semitic philology. Paul Kraus, a Jewish-Czech expert in archaeology, the Bible and Semitics, taught Semitic languages at the university from 1936-44 and contributed to the development of a Hebrew and Jewish studies library there, aided by his ties to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The Hebrew grammar book written by Ali al-Anani, which he dedicated to 'the pioneers of Arab culture.'

Another important scholar was Israel Wolfensohn (Ben Zeev), whose doctoral advisers were Taha Hussein, an extremely influential writer and doyen of Arabic literature, and Sheikh Mustafa Abd al-Raziq, who went on to become the grand imam of Cairo's famed Al-Azhar Mosque.

During his time at the city's university, Wolfensohn contributed both to the field of Hebrew-language studies and to that of the history of Jews in the Arabian Peninsula. Two of his books that were published in Arabic, "The History of Jews in Arabia" (1927) and "The History of Semitic Languages" (1929), attracted the attention of Egyptian scholars and students at the time, and in the generations that followed. After his return to Palestine at the outbreak of World War II in 1939, no other scholar of Middle East studies assumed responsibility for Hebrew instruction at the Cairo institution.

In the postwar years, Egyptian scholars used their knowledge of Hebrew and the history of the Jewish people to promote important components of modern Egyptian culture: Egyptianness (including Coptic Christianity), Arabness and Islam. Egyptian scholars who studied at Western universities, especially in Germany, gradually replaced the so-called Orientalists in teaching positions in Egypt.

Murad Kamil, who earned his doctorate in Semitics from the University of Tubingen in 1938, taught Middle Eastern languages, including Hebrew and Syriac, at the then-Egyptian University after the war, and gained membership in important institutions such as Institut d'Egypte (the Egyptian Scientific Institute) and later the Arabic Language Academy.

That period saw a proliferation of works on ancient Egypt and its impact on cultural and intellectual life in the Middle East. Fuad Hasanein Ali published "The Hieroglyphic Bible," in which he argues that the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, was originally written in hieroglyphs, not Hebrew. He based his thesis on theories of biblical criticism that he had studied abroad. Additionally, he sought in his works to demonstrate the superiority of Arab culture. He argued, for example, that during the Babylonian exile, the Jews absorbed the culture of Arab Babylonians and incorporated it into their culture.

The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 gave impetus to the expansion of the field in Egypt. From the 1950s to the '70s, growing interest in Jewish and Hebrew studies led to the founding of departments of Hebrew and Jewish studies in public universities including Ein Shams, Al-Azhar and Alexandria University. During this period, research focused less on Israeli culture and society, and more on the disparities between Israel and Arabs in the Middle East.

Opening a window

If the Zionist narrative sought to establish a link between its own enterprise and the biblical people of Israel, Egyptian scholars sought to demonstrate – through analysis of the text, language and grammar of the Hebrew Bible in the context of the ancient Middle East – that the Zionist project was alien to the region. This research was based on methodologies adopted from medieval Muslim biblical criticism and later European biblical criticism.

Prof. Murad Kamil. He taught Middle Eastern languages, including Hebrew and Syriac, at the then-Egyptian University after the war.

The study of medieval Hebrew literature also opened a window to the Golden Age of Islamic civilization. Scholars began studying the Muslim history of medieval Spain (Andalus) as reflected in the poetry and prose of the time in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic. Their aim was to demonstrate the extent to which Islam contributed to the rebirth of Europe and its culture, and lived in harmonious coexistence with Christianity and Judaism, in an atmosphere of tolerance.

The Egyptian Hebraists were influenced by German-Jewish romantic views of the Sephardic experience in the Iberian Peninsula, where Jews flourished in comparison to the rest of Europe. Hayyim Schirmann’s work from the 1930s on the Hebrew translation of Al-Hariri's "Maqamat" and on the history of Hebrew literature in medieval Spain, for example, served as a rich resource for Egyptian scholars.

After the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979 and the establishment three years later of the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo, the field of Hebrew and Jewish studies in Egypt expanded to devote more space to the study of Israeli society and culture. Modern Hebrew literature was and continues to be the most important source in this regard for Egyptian scholars, who view it as reflecting the social, political and cultural context in which it was created.

Egyptian Hebraists have studied the works of Haim Nahman Bialik, S.Y. Agnon, Natan Alterman and A.B. Yehoshua. Countering claims that reading Israeli literature constituted a normalization of relations with the country, they argued that literature was a window to a society with which there were little physical interactions. Literature allowed them to study Israeli culture from within while maintaining distance from Israeli society, in a show of solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Also, scholarly engagement with Hebrew literary works helped promote an image of Egyptian Hebraists as vigilant in tracing developments within Israeli society, similar to Israeli scholars’ engagement with the works of Egyptian authors including Tawfiq al-Hakim, Yusuf Idris and Naguib Mahfouz.

The lack of academic exchange between Egyptian scholars of Hebrew and their counterparts in Israel (including Israeli Palestinians), who could keep them abreast of social and cultural developments in Israel, has made the circulation of the Egyptians' research limited. In addition, while Israeli scholars interested in learning about Egyptian culture and society can usually travel to Egypt and access a variety of resources, Egyptian researchers are forced to pursue their studies from a distance, despite the peace treaty with their neighbors.

Finally, while the number of Egyptians earning undergraduate degrees in the discipline in question has increased (to a few hundred a year, compared to thousands who major in Western languages and cultures), employment opportunities in the field remain very limited.

The study of Hebrew and of Jewish history in early 20th century Egypt took place within the context of an educational reform whose aim was to make the country a center of modernization and cultural renaissance, or Nahda, in the Middle East. This view still resonates today with Egyptian scholars in the field. Close to a dozen public universities in Egypt now offer majors in Jewish and Hebrew studies, allowing local scholars to present themselves as experts in Israeli and Jewish history and culture.

The inclusion of these subjects in the curricula of the country's universities is held up as evidence of Egypt's culture of tolerance and acceptance, while at the same time allowing its researchers to criticize Israeli society and culture, and thereby express solidarity with the Palestinian and Arab peoples.

Mostafa Hussein teaches in the Department of Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He has a doctorate in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and specializes in Jewish-Arab relations in Palestine-Israel and the Middle East in the 19th and 20th centuries.

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