A Jewish scholar teaches in Abu Dhabi

 It could have been the opportunity of a lifetime to demolish Arab misconceptions about Jews, but Mark R Cohen, to my mind, only manages to reinforce existing prejudices against Zionism, Israel and exaggerated notions of peaceful coexistence during his semester teaching at Abu Dhabi University. Here is an extract from his report in the Forward:

Apart from Emirati students, I met Muslims from such countries as
Yemen, Jordan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iraq. In response to an
invitation from the Arab Cultural Group at NYUAD to lead a program for
them, I screened the prizewinning documentary “Forget Baghdad.” The
film, by Samir Jamal Aldin, an Iraqi Shiite living in Switzerland,
features interviews in Israel with Iraqi-born Jews, like the famous
writer Sami Michael, about their memories of Iraq and its once
cosmopolitan capital. In the film, the Iraqi Jews speak nostalgically —
in Arabic, not English or Hebrew — about their lives there before
emigration in 1950 and 1951.

In late October, the filmmaker himself met for lunch
with students and faculty at my invitation when he happened to be in
town for the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. As we dined in the cafeteria,
discussion got around to the tepid reception that “Forget Baghdad” met
in Israel. My own suspicion is that the warm nostalgia for Iraq that the
Iraqi-Israeli interviewees expressed and the complaints they voiced
about their harsh life upon arrival in Israel offended Zionist
sensibilities.

Samir shared a telling anecdote. When the film was
finally shown in Israel, he was present at the screening. As the film
ended and the lights went up, viewers in the audience of Arab-Jewish
background jumped to their feet shouting at the Ashkenazim in the
audience, “See what you people did to us!”

Jews in Islamic Life: Near East studies scholar Mark Cohen lectures on the Cairo Geniza to a male-only audience at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Women attending a different college campus were able to listen to the lecture by remote access.

Jews in Islamic Life: Near
East studies scholar Mark Cohen lectures on the Cairo Geniza to a
male-only audience at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Women attending a different college campus were able to listen to the
lecture by remote access. (Photo: Mark R Cohen)

Samir described himself as completely taken aback by
this fierce reaction, unaware as he was of the longstanding hostility
between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim in Israel.

The biggest surprise of my stay was to find myself
teaching Arabs a noncredit course in Judeo-Arabic, the form of Arabic
spoken and written (in Hebrew letters) by Jews in the Arab world down to
modern times.

The course resulted from a conversation I had with a
senior from Yemen. Back home, he had discovered and bought a book
containing an Arabic transcription of a Judeo-Arabic travel account of
Yemen, written in the 19th century. I volunteered to teach him the
language. Word spread, and soon 11 students turned out for the class,
most of them Arabs or non-Arab Muslims. They found Judeo-Arabic utterly
fascinating. I had them learn the Hebrew alphabet, and, as a first text,
I gave them two suras from the Quran, which I transcribed into Hebrew
letters. I also showed them an image of a Geniza fragment of the Quran
in Hebrew letters, from the 11th or 12th century.

One Muslim-Arab student was perplexed. Why, he asked, would Jews have wanted to read the Quran?

This gave me an opening to speak about Jewish-Muslim
coexistence in the Middle Ages and about Jewish acculturation to
Islamic-Arabic culture. Jews read the Quran, I said, because they
recognized the similarity between Judaism and Islam. Writing in Arabic
in the introduction to his prayer-book, the great 10th century rabbinic
sage Saadia Gaon of Baghdad referred unselfconsciously to the Torah as
“sharia” and even as “Quran”; to the direction of prayer toward
Jerusalem as “qibla,” the Arabic term for facing Mecca, and to the
hazan, or cantor, as the “imam.” Jews read the Quran, I added, despite a
medieval Islamic prohibition against non-Muslims teaching their
children the holy book of Islam.

At the end of the semester, the same Muslim student
came to thank me for offering the course. “My aunt,” he told me
candidly, “couldn’t understand why I was doing this. She said I was
being a traitor.” I responded: “I understand your aunt’s feelings. Given
what is happening today between Israel and Palestine, it’s hard to
believe that there ever was a time when Jews and Muslims coexisted and
shared similar cultural interests.”

This young Muslim’s exposure to Judeo-Arabic taught him otherwise.

The Geniza provided another platform for speaking
about Jewish-Muslim coexistence in past times. In November, Amitav
Ghosh, the celebrated Indian writer, and his wife, biographer Deborah
Baker, visited NYUAD as writers in residence. I had been Ghosh’s
historical consultant for his Geniza-based book, “In an Antique Land.”
In Abu Dhabi we collaborated on a public program for the NYUAD
Institute, where, in the presence of a sizable audience, we were
interviewed about the Geniza and about his book.

Independently, I also gave a lecture on the Geniza to
NYU alumni living in the Gulf. I showed the respective audiences an
image of a Geniza merchant’s letter and talked about the importance of
the Geniza for understanding that, for all their statutory legal
inferiority, the Jews lived securely among Muslims, traded with them and
experienced minimal discrimination most of the time.

In general the Muslim students I met at NYUAD —
whether they were Emiratis, from another Arab country, from Pakistan,
Bangladesh or Africa — were very curious about Jews, Judaism and
Jewish-Muslim relations, while thirsting at the same time to be
disassociated from the murderous Islamic extremism that plagues the
world today. Some 30 students and faculty showed up at one event to
which I was invited to speak about Jewish-Muslim relations. There, a
Muslim student from Pakistan spoke passionately in defense of the true
Islam, which, he said, has been distorted by groups like the Islamic
State, or ISIS.

Another student at this gathering — an American, if I
recall correctly — posed what he apologetically called an “aggressive”
question about Israeli repression of Palestinians. He was probably
surprised by my unapologetic response, in which I expressed my own
critical view of the policies and actions of the Israeli government.

Read article in full:

Profile of ‘excruciatingly-even-handed’ Mark Cohen 

Bat Yeor refused a right of reply to Mark Cohen

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