Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
6 - 12 April 2000
Issue No. 476
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Learning about Zionism

By Omayma Abdel-Latif

It might have escaped Israeli embassy officials who went to Cairo University last week to attend a seminar on Jews, Judaism and Zionism, that the university -- like the majority of Egyptian institutions -- continues to oppose cultural normalisation with Israel. Therefore, it came as no surprise other than to these officials that they were denied access to the university campus.

The university's stance is a reflection of the attitude of the hundreds of Egyptians whose presence at the seminar and comments served as a reminder that they were not going along with the frequent discourse about "post-peace arrangements."

Coincidentally, the seminar, held to discuss Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri's encyclopedia on Jews, Judaism and Zionism was held around the same time that the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was signed 21 years ago.

Elmessiri proposes a new way of looking at the establishment of Israel. He uses the "functional group" paradigm which, he believes, has the capacity to deal with, and explain, the question of Zionism. In Elmessiri's view, Israel may be called a "functional state", that is a reproduction of the Jewish functional groups. A functional group, as defined by the encyclopedia, is a group of people who are either brought in from outside society or recruited from within its ranks, and who are generally defined in terms of a definite, limited, abstract function rather than their complex, full humanity. They develop a myth of hypothetical sacred origin and attach themselves to an original, sacred homeland, either real or fictive, from which they have come and to which they will eventually return.

Quizzing Elmessiri was a host of Arab intellectuals, who posed questions about the philosophical, historical, methodological, sociological, cultural and political as well as religious aspects of the encyclopedia. The current political situation in the Middle East and the stagnant peace process dominated the commentaries made by guest speakers and those coming from the floor.

Esmat Abdel-Meguid, secretary-general of the Arab League, spoke of the need "to better know the enemy." The encyclopedia, says Abdel-Meguid, serves this very purpose, since it provides an unprecedented insight by an Arab author into all aspects of Jewish history, religion and politics. Mistakes made in the past due to lack of knowledge, he added, should be avoided because "a large part of what Israel achieved was built on our mistakes," rather than through Israel's abilities.

Prominent political writer Mohamed Sid-Ahmed described as mistaken those who have faith in a post-peace arrangement in which both Egypt and Israel coexist under US sponsorship. The reason, says Sid-Ahmed, is that "Israel's functional role is essentially in contradiction with that of Egypt, because Egypt's success is achieved through its adherence and commitment to the values which reflect a respect for territory, history, heritage, nationalism and civilisation. Therefore, Egypt cannot be made to function according to a different set of values that do not respect the sense of belonging to the land," Sid-Ahmed told the audience.

Expressing a similar view, Abdel-Alim Mohamed, head of the Israeli studies section at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said that the encyclopedia proves that the argument that Israel can be well understood from the outside is valid. "Intellectuals do not need to normalise with Israel or go on trips to know it," Mohamed said. He accused normalisation advocates of causing a schism in the ranks of Arab intellectuals. In Mohamed's view, the most important aspect of the encyclopedia was that it placed this new explanatory paradigm within the context of world politics, by exposing the binding links between Israeli and Western civilisations.

Assessment of the encyclopedia's theoretical approach became ideological when Marxist intellectual Mahmoud Amin El-Alem pointed out that two contradicting paradigms have been pitted against each other: "the secular, rational, material paradigm versus the creator-created paradigm."

El-Alem also considered the encyclopedia to be an attempt at what he termed "the Islamisation of knowledge" -- an opinion that triggered a controversy. Elmessiri responded by denying that there is any such thing as the Islamisation of knowledge on the grounds that "knowledge is neutral." Comments from the floor advocated a new approach in the social sciences that differs from the prevailing approach based on Western theories.

Critics of Elmessiri, such as Youssef Zeidan, a professor of philosophy at Alexandria University, argued that he has been intent on condemning Jewish groups by using the functional group paradigm to explain their history.

Zeidan offered a different explanatory paradigm, which he described as "the counter-persecution paradigm." It states that any group which falls prey to persecution by other groups is very likely to commit the same against others if it gains power. "This, in a sense, explains the persecution that the Israelis are inflicting on the Palestinians, and it also explains the delight which prevails in Israel following atrocities such as the Sabra and Shatilla massacres, the bombing of southern Lebanon and the killing of innocent civilians," Zeidan asserted.

Esmat Abdel-Meguid
Mohamed Sid-Ahmed
Mahmoud Amin EL-Alem
Abdel-Alim Mohamed
Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri

A comment from the floor rejected the counter-persecution paradigm on the grounds that the persecution of Jews by other peoples, mostly European, does not justify their persecution of the Arabs.

In response to Zeidan's argument, Elmessiri offered an alternative interpretation for the decline of the Jewish population in some societies. This paradigm suggests that the decline was due to the integration of Jews in the societies in which they lived, thus explaining why the number of Jews in Arab societies dwindled, although it is not disputed that persecution of Jews was uncommon in the Arab world. The reason for the decline in their numbers is that many of them converted to Islam, Elmessiri argued.

"Despite the large body of literature on Jewish history," said Gamal El-Rifaie, a professor of Hebrew at Ain Shams University, "the encyclopaedia offers a qualitative view of the Jewish groups' perception of themselves, their history and the history of other groups."

"Perhaps the question on which both Arabs and Zionists agree is the exaggeration of the role played by Jewish groups and the utilisation of these claims, whether by Zionist groups or by the Arabs, who find it a comfort zone. These groups must be looked at within the context of the social, historical and political circumstances in which they existed," prominent historian Yunan Labib Rizq told the audience. He explained that the ghettos did not exist in the Islamic world and that even the so-called Haret Al-Yehud (the Jewish lane) in Egypt was inhabited by Muslims and Christians as well as Jews.

Elmessiri referred to conspiracy theories permeating Arab discourse. "What benefit do we gain if we know that they are conspirators and criminals? So what? The important question is how to utilise this knowledge in deterring the Israelis from penetrating Egyptian society and forcing them to halt the construction of settlements in the West Bank. In other words, this knowledge should be turned into a plan of action and resistance," Elmessiri said.

One of the flaws in the encyclopedia, according to Mohamed Hassan Khalifa, a professor of Judaism, is that it did not provide enough information on the Jewish creed. While there are chapters on modern Judaism and Rabbinical Judaism, yet very little was said, according to Khalifa, about the salient features of Judaism as religion. "There has been an arbitrary separation between the three levels of Jewish thought; the religious, the historic and the political. The Jewish heritage is a mixture of the three components," Khalifa argued.

The Jewish faith, said Khalifa, cannot be understood outside the historic context. "Judaism has gone through phases of evolution and until now it's subject to change and development," he maintained.

But Elmessiri was quick to reply that the separation is needed to make possible the study of Jewish groups outside mainstream Judaism. He announced that a paperback edition of the encyclopedia will be published next September at an affordable price. The encyclopedia will also come out on CDs.

The most important aim of the seminar, in the words of Nazli Muawad, head of the organising Centre for Political Science Research and Studies of Cairo University, was to teach the realities of the Arab-Israeli conflict to the young generation of Egyptians who have grown up in a post-peace environment and knew little about it. "The presence of scores of them, the questions they raised and the comments they made proves that they have learned [from the seminar]," Muawad said.

Related: External links:
Abdelwahab Elmessiri:
Part one: The function of outsiders
Part two: The kindness of strangers

Part three: A chosen community, an exceptional burden
Part four: A people like any other
Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies




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