Tuesday, January 21, 2014
'Egyptians should re-assess Jews'
Azazeel, a novel by Youssef Zeidan
Egyptians should re-examine their thinking about Jews and Israel, philosopher Youssef Zeidan tells Jacky Hougy in Al Monitor. That process should begin with acknowledging the Israiliyyat, controversial hadiths by Jewish converts to Islam in the spirit of the Torah. Modern antisemitism, he says, speaking for a small group of Egyptian intellectuals, mainly takes its toll on Arabs and serves the interests of their military rulers.
It’s not every day that a well-known Egyptian intellectual makes pronouncements of the kind made by philosopher Youssef Zeidan. The Egyptian and Israeli media missed what he said at the end of a Dec. 30 interview with journalist Lamis El-Hadidy on Egypt’s CBC TV channel, even though it went to the heart of the ties between Cairo and Jerusalem and between Arabs and the Jewish world.
Zeidan is a researcher of ancient manuscripts. He is also a greatly admired writer, the author of several excellent novels, most prominently “Azazeel,” which has been translated into 16 languages and was recently even published in Hebrew. Toward the end of the interview, Hadidy asked him how he sees the year 2014. Her guest’s answer was surprising: He suggested that Egyptians reassess their ties with the Jews.
“We should reconsider our notions regarding the Jewish question. We are not even aware how much this affects us. [It] has become a common trade, benefiting all our politicians. Any politician who wants to gain popularity curses Israel, but when he comes to power, he has no problem with Israel. Youssef Zeidan made some of his pronouncements in the above MEMRI TV clip (with thanks: Raphail)
“That's stupidity. Stupidity that is connected to the ignorance of the people. We should reconsider this. Nobody looks out for our interests. We should be aware of this.”
This fresh thinking, in his view, should start at the very beginning, meaning from the dispute over the Isra'iliyyat. These are chapters included in the sayings by the Prophet Muhammad, known as hadiths, which originated with Jews who converted to Islam, offering interpretations of stories from the Quran in the spirit of the Torah. As a result, some are considered by Islam to be unreliable. For centuries, to this day, Muslim commentators have been seeking to uproot the Isra'iliyyat from hadith literature. There are even those who suspect that they were inserted into the hadiths to corrupt them.
Zeidan’s words appear to question whether it isn’t time to minimize the importance of this debate, which overshadows the relationship between the two religions. Zeidan didn't stop there. He also called for rethinking “the so-called Middle East problem, which I do not consider to be a problem at all” — in other words, the dispute between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
“The Nasserists have been oppressing the people for 60 years under the pretext of the Middle East problem,” he said. As a result, “wars were fought and people were killed.” He then suggested that his listeners change their perception of the Holocaust. He even provided an example from the Egyptian school system: the Balfour Declaration — the 1917 British promise which looked favorably on the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.
“About Balfour,” Zeidan recalls, “We were indoctrinated at school: ‘What do you think about the Balfour Declaration?’ According to the system of ready-made answers, we were expected to respond: ‘He gave what he did not own to those who did not deserve it.’ That's it.”
The Egyptian philosopher’s statements are a call for a reform in thinking. They express the views of a small group among Egyptian thinkers, which sees the disgust that has developed between the Arabs and Israel as a problem that takes a toll mostly on the Arabs. Zeidan thinks that hatred of the Jews is sweeping and comprehensive: it is rooted in history, religion and contemporary politics.
He is not acting out of a love for Israel. Zeidan is a patriot who believes that resolving the fracture between Egyptians and Jews could serve his countrymen, first and foremost. His courageous pronouncements undermine the deeply rooted Egyptian perception, encouraged from on high, of Jews as a threatening, demonic entity, and of Israel as a danger.
Two and a half months before the interview, in October 2013, the Egyptian daily Al-Masri al-Youm published an article by pundit Gamel Abu Al-Hassan. Abu Al-Hassan, a regular contributor to this newspaper, attacked the armed resistance policy adopted by the Arabs toward Israel. He directed his arrows toward the holiest of holies — the military elites in the Arab states.
Read article in full
Addendum: Has Zeidan changed his views? Professor Menahem Milson mentions Zeidan in connection with the notoriously popular antisemitic forgery the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (with thanks: Lily):
The following incident is very revealing: In November 2003, the Arabic translation of the Protocols was put on display next to the Torah and the Talmud as part of an exhibit on the sacred books of the three monotheistic religions. Dr. Yousef Zeidan, director of the Centre for Arabic Manuscripts at the Alexandria library, proudly reported this cultural achievement to a correspondent of the Egyptian weekly Al-Usbu': "When my eyes fell upon the rare copy of this dangerous book, I immediately decided to place it next to the Torah. Although it is not a monotheistic holy book, it has become one of the Jews' sacred [texts] and part of their basic constitution, their religious law, and their way of life. In other words, it is not merely an ideological or theoretical book. Perhaps this book of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is more important to the Zionist Jews of the world than the Torah, as they conduct Zionist life according to it… Thus it is only natural to include the book in this exhibit."
After an international outcry, the Protocols were promptly withdrawn.