“My general message [to the Israeli people] would be that I hope that I can find somebody like me in Israeli society,” says Dr. Menna Abukhadra. “Through my work in academia, I am doing as much as I can to challenge the stereotypes being taught about Jews in Egyptian universities. I really wish that I can meet with somebody who does the same about the stereotypes about Arabs in Israeli universities.” Abukhadra continues, “Because every time I meet Israelis, I find they have these preconceived notions about Arabs. Especially about Arab women, they [Israelis] cannot imagine that we can be scholars, when in reality most of the scholars conducting research in Hebrew Studies we have in the Arab world are women! Egypt is considered to be one of the leading countries with active feminist movements! Every time I go to an academic conference, people think that I am an Arab Israeli, because I speak Hebrew. So I need to explain to them about the department of Hebrew Studies at Cairo University.” Now concluding her postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Cambridge, Abukhadra carries the mantle of a long and rich legacy of Hebrew language education in Egypt. Cairo University has featured itself prominently as the foremost academic institution which has led the way not only for the country, but for the entire Arab world.
“From a historical point of view, Hebrew studies in Egypt first started in 1909 at Cairo University,” recounts Abukhadra. “It was based on the recommendation of the Jewish community in Egypt for teaching Hebrew for minorities, because they noticed how the Turkish, Italian and other Egyptian minorities had different departments for teaching their respective languages. But Jews did not have any such departments. So, they decided to launch one for Hebrew studies. But it was not an actual fully-developed department until 1925, rather it was a division of Arabic studies. The study of Hebrew was primarily geared towards analysis of the Hebrew Bible and comparison studies between Arabic and Hebrew as Semitic languages. It comprised mostly of Muslim students interested in studies related to comparative religions, large numbers of Jewish students and some Christian students.” Prior to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, there were two main books dedicated toward the study of Hebrew for Arab students. The first was The Basis, published in 1935 by Cairo University, an Arabic book which was the first official textbook to teach Hebrew to Arabs. This publication discussed the history of the Hebrew language, with portions of the Hebrew Bible translated into Arabic, but it did not delve deeply into Hebrew grammar. There was also another book published prior to this titled The Treasure. However, Abukhadra explains that there is currently one rare copy in the main library of Cairo University. Up until this stage, the study of Hebrew at the university was not political.
“Before 1948, the situation was gradually changing,” says Abukhadra. “There were lots of riots between Jews and Muslims. Then with the 1945 bombing in Cairo’s Jewish quarter, things were getting more intense. People were actually pointing to our department, expressing the need to focus on the political situation as well. After the establishment of Israel in 1948, there was a need to focus not solely on religion, but also study about the conflict.” By this time, there were only a few professors in the department. But they came to the realization that they were not qualified enough to teach modern Hebrew to students. Therefore they sought the assistance of Palestinian Arab teachers fleeing from the conflict, who emigrated to Egypt and brought with them teaching materials that were used in Israeli ulpanim originally meant to teach conversational Hebrew to new Jewish immigrants.
“One of those [Palestinian] teachers who came to our department was Saeed Harb,” says Abukhadra. “He and others not only taught Hebrew to students, but also taught Modern Hebrew to professors since most of them were only familiar with the biblical dialect. One of the more popular books they brought with them was titled Oleh Yisrael. They actually translated these books [used in the Israeli ulpanim] into Arabic to make them suitable to teach Hebrew to Arabs. But by translation I don’t only mean just the language, but also translating the content. So for example, references to ‘Israel being the land of the Jews’ were taken out, while only focusing on the language parts.” Other books these teachers brought with them included popular Israeli titles at the time like Linguaphone and Hamesh Maot Milim, which were taught in Cairo University up until the 1980s.
After this stage, Egyptian professors saw the need to write their own educational textbooks and not only translate materials coming from Israel. From the 1960s through 1980s, Cairo University stood at the forefront in the Arab world of examining the Hebrew language as a multidisciplinary area of study. After the establishment of Israel, the university’s Faculty of Arts would also focus on modern Israeli literature, while developing enough resources to the point where it could confer doctoral degrees in this area.
“The first PhD in Modern Hebrew Literature was awarded by the university to Dr. Zain Abukhadra, who was also my father,” says Abukhadra with a smile. “He was the first to write a PhD thesis in Modern Hebrew Literature, because before this time, they didn’t have any resources and the main focus was on religious studies. So he conducted the first research in this area. My father graduated from the class of 1973, the same year as the Yom Kippur War.” Abukhadra explains how her father came into this area of study purely by chance, while the department was relatively new. “You could say he was looking for an adventure!” she laughs while fondly describing her father. “He had this mentality to try something new, he was a writer whose primary interest was journalism. But later on he became obsessed with Hebrew! So in my house, my dad was always speaking Hebrew with his colleagues over the phone, watching Hebrew TV channels and listening to Hebrew songs. Especially from Rita!” Abukhadra describes how for a long time, she and her father would watch Israel’s Channel 2 on their TV at home by adjusting the “rabbit ears” antenna on top of their screen. The picture and sound that emerged was not always the best quality.
“I kept listening to Hebrew music for a long time,” says Abukhadra. “I always asked my father questions about Hebrew and wanted to learn more. Later on, I realized that I was good at two things: painting and Hebrew. So I had to choose between the two, and I chose Hebrew.”
Despite choosing the latter as a career path, her love of painting still manages to pop-up every now and then. One example is a stylized painting of the Hebrew letter aleph, which she gifted to her department in 2011 and is still hanging to this day.
“When I was a fresh graduate, we organized a party and singing competition at the university and a lot of the students decided to sing songs from Eyal Golan! I bet you he doesn’t know anything about this... but he was a popular one!”
Abukhadra describes the popular Israeli singer as a good introduction for students with no background in Hebrew, specifically because of his clear pronunciation and Sephardic accent. Another favorite Israeli singer Abukhadra frequently uses in her curriculum is Sarit Hadad.
“I loved it!” exclaims Abukhadra in reference to her desire to learn Hebrew from a young age. Her father brought home any Hebrew language materials he could gather from the Israeli embassy and the Israeli academic center in Cairo such as music, books and VHS tapes. “It was very interesting growing up to learn a language that I could speak with nobody else except my father.”
Dr. Zain Abukhadra sadly passed away in August 2018, after an accomplished and esteemed academic career as the honored dean of the faculty of arts at Cairo University and the secretary general of all arts faculties across Egyptian universities.
“Let’s put it this way, I was always a trouble-seeker,” says Abukhadra with a smirk. “I was always doing what I wanted, like conducting new ways to teach Hebrew and changing the curriculum because I thought it was the right thing to do, and I could do it because my father was there and he was the dean of the faculty. So I used to teach what I wanted, I was able to download [Israeli] movies to show my class, for example, and challenge anti-Jewish stereotypes, making it clear to my students that we should also study other categories away from politics when it comes to Israel studies. I was lucky because my father was there and I was protected. I remember before my father passed away, we would have arguments. He told me that I opened his eyes to a lot of stuff he didn’t know before. He always said that my Hebrew Ashkenazi accent is much better than his, and that he wished he could have had the same facilities I have during my generation.” Cairo University distinguishes itself as the largest university in the Middle East and the second oldest academic institution in Egypt (the first one being the neighboring Al-Azhar University). The Department of Oriental Languages boasts the highest number of students and thousands of graduates in Hebrew each year, who study the language for a total of four years. Abukhadra explains that students must take Hebrew, Persian and Turkish as part of their program of study for their first year, though most students end up choosing to study Hebrew for the remainder of their undergraduate program. The department remains the largest in the university, with over fifty teaching professors and the highest number of students. This is in large part due to the prominent role Israel has played throughout modern Egyptian history.
“Because of the tension between Israel and Egypt as well as the ‘cold peace’ [a reference to the state of mutual diplomatic relations since the signing of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty in 1979], students are always interested in learning more about this. Especially since Israel is more involved in our history than any other country.”
Abukhadra says that the topic of Israel is present in school curriculums starting in primary school, where the history of the conflict is taught at a very young age. The wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973 are featured prominently in the Egyptian educational system. “If you are teaching the subjects of history or geography, Israel is always a part of this,” she says. “There is a very deep connection between Arabs and Israel, more than any country in the world.” Students who apply to the university’s Department of Hebrew Studies come with a background, albeit not one that is particularly objective.
“It is not only in the schools,” Abukhadra says. “It is also literally thousands of Egyptian movies and TV series. Jews were heavily involved in Egyptian society for a long time and were always on screen. But there was a difference in how they were portrayed based on the political side. For example, in the 1930s, we have a famous chain of Egyptian movies from a Jewish actor named Chalom, who is like the Egyptian Charlie Chaplin. But later in 1947, we start seeing non-political negative portrayals of Jews in Egyptian cinema as cunning and dishonest. After the establishment of Israel, there are loads of films which discussed the conflict and Israel negatively.” These negative portrayals of Jews and Israel in Egyptian media would be put on hold following the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, though would resurface in the 1990s following Israeli military operations in Gaza and Lebanon.
“Beginning in the 2000s,” says Abukhadra, “things became more severe. In 2005, there was a popular Egyptian movie called The Embassy in the Building. It is a comedy about an Egyptian engineer who returns from Dubai to find out the Israeli embassy bought the flat next to his. It is a very nice comedy, but lets just say it was also representing Israel in a very negative way. There was also Escaping Tel Aviv in 2009, which portrays Israel negatively [available on Netflix]. But starting in 2011, people started changing the way they sought to portray others. In 2015, a big transformation took place with a very famous TV show called ‘The Jewish Quarter.’ This was the first time in history Jews were being portrayed in an entirely positive light, being forced to leave the country and holding Egyptians accountable.” The Egyptian revolution of 2011 began a major shift in Egyptian public perceptions of lots of issues, on top of which were perceptions of Israel and Jewish people. While working on her doctoral thesis, Abukhadra attempted to include a poem by a religious Jew named Yusuf Ozair expressing a desire for peace among Arabs and Jews. This was a big topic of argument amongst a few scholars at the department, due to the fact that such a poem went against the narrative that Israelis were against peace with Egypt. Abukhadra would distinguish her teaching style by focusing on the shared humanity of Arabs and Jews, while avoiding divisive politics as much as possible. Until 2015, challenging such preconceived notions would prove to be a major source of argument inside the department, which would also manifest itself in the wider Egyptian society.
“In 2011, some of our students actually appeared on Israeli TV as news reporters,” Abukhadra recounts. “By this time, all Egyptians went to Tahrir Square and it was being covered by news channels throughout the world, including Arutz Eser. All Egyptians were excited about what was happening.” Abukhadra describes the “bravery” of one of her students, Heba Hamdi Abu Saif, who appeared on Israeli TV and enthusiastically spoke of a new era of freedom in which she could speak Hebrew without fear and that this represented a new period of Egyptian history. Despite Hiba’s bravery, this wave of optimism would come to an end as she would go on to face a lot of problems as a result of her comments.
“In 2015, Hiba was hosted by one of Egypt’s major talk shows and they accused her of normalization,” says Abukhadra. “This was a terrible thing to happen and it was a sign that we were not ready to have this jump in Israel studies.”
Abukhadra describes a generational gap within her discipline, with the younger generation seeking to do away with the enmity that has characterized Egypt-Israel relations for decades, while the older generation still maintains dominance. “Like everything else with our country, if you want to change something it will have to come from the older generation. But in my position, I do what I can to challenge these stereotypes.” Abukhadra has published three Arabic books about the modern Middle East and is currently working on her latest book, which is a history of the study of Hebrew in the Arab world. She has been shortlisted for the Athena40 list of 2020 as an example of women as peacemakers, which is also the first ever global list of the top 40 most powerful female minds. In the spirit of promoting peace and understanding, she recently joined Twinkl as a content executive for the Middle East. Twinkl is a British online educational publishing house that produces teaching and educational materials to schools all over the world.
“I’m not sure if it is the same in Israel,” says Abukhadra, “but we have a lot of international schools in Egypt and people love to teach the American and English curriculum instead of the Egyptian. So what we’re trying to do is fix the image in an indirect way, like offer courses that teach all Abrahamic religions including Judaism in the right way, without actually saying that. We still cannot say that directly in some Arab countries unfortunately. But so far we have lots of schools in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt, and other Arab countries, that are using Twinkl’s educational resources.” Despite foreign educational publishers being widely distrusted in the Arab World, the company’s resources are currently being used in several hundred schools throughout the region. Twinkl resources are currently available in more than 200 countries and regions and it offers over 650,000 resources including lots of resources about Judaism and Jewish history. The website is used widely by thousands of users in Egypt, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and even in Palestinian schools. Though Abukhadra truly wishes things would have developed differently in her home country since 2011, this new position offers her a renewed sense of hope and optimism for the future.
“They [Twinkl] were looking for someone from the Middle East who speaks both Arabic and Hebrew,” says Abukhadra. “Our mission is to design educational resources for school students and teachers. But my focus is the Middle East, including Israel. So instead of all the negative stuff we are learning in schools now, they can also be able to see things in a positive and objective way as well.” Despite her uphill battle to promote peaceful coexistence, Abukhadra is determined to remain at Cairo University to continue teaching Hebrew.
“I’ll never leave the university! It’s part of me and my father’s history,” she exclaims. “For me and my colleagues, all the dreams we had in 2011 did not fade away, though the situation is going back to the way it was before. But we are looking at other ways to change the way Israel studies are being conducted in the Arab world.”
The writer is the executive director for the Near East Center for Strategic Studies