Not out of love
By Nazir Majali | 03/02/2011
Forty years have passed since Nazir Majali began to study the Bible in the Arab school Terra Sancta in Nazareth. From Genesis in the ninth grade to Psalms in the twelfth, and even the Ethics of the Fathers and the Talmud - study in one direction
Joseph in Persianmanuscript, 1572, Israel Museum
“The story proves that Jews can't be trusted,” answers a tenth-grade student in the Arab school in Nazareth to the teacher's question about the story of Joseph. It happened in a Bible lesson in the Hebrew track. The teacher didn't look surprised. He hears this same answer almost every year and has his own way of dealing with it. “I understand that you empathize completely with Joseph against his brothers,” he tells the student. And the student answers, “Yes, of course I do.” The teacher continues, “But Joseph was Jewish too.” And the student answers, “Yes, I know. “So then,” the teacher continues, “one might say that there are good Jews and bad Jews.” The student pauses a while before responding, “Yes, but Joseph was one of eleven. The majority were bad.” The teacher asks again, “But his brother Benjamin was not bad. He was a good Jew and Joseph loved him very much. And his brother Reuben – he too was a good person. He refused to allow Joseph to be killed, and in fact saved his life, didn't he?” Another student joins in and says, “That was Judah, not Reuben.”
“Was it Reuben or Judah?” asks the teacher. The students start to argue amongst themselves, and for good reason. The student who claimed that it was Judah who had saved Joseph brought his knowledge from the Quran, the holy book of Islam, where it says that the brother who objected to killing Joseph was Judah rather than Reuben. The teacher takes advantage of this debate to argue that the proportion of good Jews is far greater than one-eleventh, providing evidence from the Quran, of all places. The story of Joseph is one of the most important chapters in Islam. It is also different from all the other chapters of the Quran. Traditionally, God revealed the story of Joseph to the prophet Muhammad after the believers in the city of Mecca asked him to delight them with a story of a different kind, one unlike all the other chapters of the Quran that Allah had revealed to him earlier; they were tired of those stories. And so, Muhammad regaled them with this entertaining story, repeating the narrative of the Torah almost word for word, giving the same message and teaching the same lesson.
The story in the Quran even offers a defense of Joseph's brothers when it hints that God used the evil of jealousy in order to demonstrate how He supports those who fear Him: “Allah has certainly favored us. Indeed, he who fears Allah and perseveres, then indeed, Allah does not fail to reward those who do good” (Quran, Sura Joseph, verse 90). The same sura says: “Indeed, the soul is a persistent enjoiner of evil, except those upon which my Lord has mercy.” (verse 53).
One may assume that whoever decided that the story of Joseph and his brothers should be a mandatory part of Bible studies in Arab schools was aware of what the two religions share in this story. The Quran underscores how Joseph tested his brothers: Would they be willing to hand Benjamin over and re-enact the crime they had committed in the past, or did they truly regret having sold him? And of course, in the Quran too, the brothers passed the test. In the sura of the Quran, they speak among themselves, and reiterate their regret and sorrow, declaring their resolve never to repeat that same mistake again.
Out of interest, not love
I visited the school in wake of a decision made by the Eretz Acheret editorial board to devote an entire issue of the magazine to the study of Torah. With that invitation came the dilemma: What do I, a Muslim Arab, have to do with the study of Torah? I respect the faith of every individual, whatever it is, but I know nothing about the study of Torah, and I have not the remotest idea what and how one learns or teaches it.
But it wouldn't look right to miss a meeting of the editorial board, would it? During the meeting, the others began to talk and I was consumed with envy. The openness, the prolificacy, the courage of the religious ones among them to listen to and voice different, new opinions (including the idea regarding the possible need to “compose new canonic texts, ones that suit the Jewish religion and Jewish life in the current age”), the depth of thought about religion and life… All this is lacking among the scholars of my religion today. The fundamentalists have been taking over my religion in the past few hundred years, and any attempt to debate religion from a critical perspective out of a genuine desire to investigate or understand things more deeply in today's terms is viewed as heresy. Two months ago, I came across some critical books of this kind in an Arab library, but in London. Critical books on these subjects are unavailable in Arab countries.
The editor notices my dilemma and asks me to sum up the discussion. Oy vey. When leaving Jerusalem, on my way back to the Galilee, I began to recall the days in the past when I was a student in the Terra Sancta school in Nazareth, almost forty years earlier. The young patriotic Hebrew teacher, the late Abd Altif Nasser, had studied in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and displayed an impressive knowledge of the Hebrew language. He loved Hebrew and told us that anyone who wants to succeed in life in Israel must learn Hebrew properly. “It's mainly for your own benefit,” he used to say. He believed that speaking a beautiful Hebrew would serve as a kind of seal of approval for an Israeli Arab in Israeli society, a beacon that would light the way, a key that would open all doors. One of the students protested: “But the Jews don't learn and don't want to learn Arabic, and are not even willing to listen to suggestions to learn the Quran or the New Testament.” The teacher responded emphatically, “Whether or not they learn Arabic, I am looking out for your interests, and mine. You don't have to love Hebrew, the Jews or Judaism, but you need to know that a good command of Hebrew will help you learn and succeed better in whatever direction you decide to take. And in order to understand Judaism, you need to learn the Torah. And if you have a command of the language and knowledge about the Jewish religion, you will be able to get accepted into the university. You will do well in school, you will find a job, you will get to know people. And no less important: you will read a lot of world literature, because in Israel a lot of books are translated into Hebrew including the most important pieces of world literature.”
He managed to convince most of us. Out of interest, not love. And in this way, we got to know Bialik (and learned his poem: “ Welcome on your return, delightful bird, by my window from a warmer clime”) as well as Agnon, Rachel, Tchernichovsky, Ibn Gabirol and R. Avraham Ibn Ezra, and we became acquainted with the tales of the wise King Solomon, and the stories of Shalom Aleichem.
We had two Bible lessons a week. Studying the Bible was excruciating. Not only because the language was difficult. The difficulty lay in the prejudices we had regarding religious Jews. Most of us viewed them as extremists even before the National Religious Party had turned rightward and before the settlements were established. We felt most alienated towards the religious Jews. That was the prevalent feeling.
The Christians among us (and they were the majority because it was a church school) used a translation into Arabic of the Bible to help get through the text. But it was difficult nevertheless. The teacher, who wanted us to gain an excellent command of Hebrew, worked us hard on the most important aspects based on the assumption that our grade in Bible represented no more than 20 percent of our general mark in Hebrew (unlike in the Jewish schools, in which Bible is a separate subject).
So we studied the Bible – from Genesis in the ninth grade to Psalms in the twelfth. We also learned Ethics of the Fathers and even Talmud. We liked some of the stories, but not all. We didn't like the stories that recounted the Jews' victories in their many wars. Don't forget: This was just a short time after the Six Day War, which we viewed as a shameful defeat for the entire Arab nation and its national leadership led by the revered leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. We learned Hebrew by reading the beginner's newspaper Shaar Lamathil, which was couched in the language of victory, like all the other Israeli newspapers. Although as high school students, our political awareness was not highly developed and we were not involved in politics, there was fear and there was hate, which somehow got mixed into our study of the Hebrew language.
Even when we identified with the small fighter who overcame the gigantic brute, we embraced David not as a Jew, but as a human being. Those well versed in Islam, and there were very few of those, felt a bond with David because the Quran tells us he was a prophet. If we could have stripped him of his Jewishness, converted him to Islam or Christianity, we would not have hesitated to do so.
Today it is different
Today it is different. While there is still a great deal of awareness of the importance of Hebrew in Israel, the widening divide between Jews and Arabs, especially in Israel, has reached the classroom too.
The teacher who taught the story of Joseph claims that the teachers of Hebrew and civics suffer from an “anti-learning” syndrome”: “In civics, I teach the students that Israel is a democratic country, at a time when we all live the discrimination on a day-to-day basis; and we all see that the Israel Police shoot into a rally made up of Israeli citizens – when they are Arabs. And then, when you check homework, a student can tell you that he didn't do his homework because he doesn't like the language. And if the homework is in Bible, he feels even more vindicated in his protest.”
In Nazareth, the religion of Islam is taught in all state and municipal high schools. The Christian religion is taught in the city's 17 Christian schools. Here too, no love is lost between the students and the material that is studied, but it cannot be compared with the Bible.
Unlike in previous generations, the textbooks today are written by Arab teachers. The story of Joseph and the parables of King Solomon are central subjects taught in the two-point Hebrew course for the matriculation exam. When the four- or five-point level is taught, Mishna, Psalms, Isaiah, Exodus and additional chapters are included too. That same teacher relates that the students enjoy the stories about Joseph and King Solomon, but don't like the rest. He is sure that it is not only because of the difficulty of the language. Afterwards, he confesses that the teachers don't like to teach these subjects either. He personally prefers to teach modern Jewish literature, because the language is easier and the subjects appeal more to the students. “Look,” he adds, “the students and teachers complain a lot. There is always something to complain about. That's human nature. Regarding a subject like the Hebrew language, and especially the Bible, the easiest thing is to look for a political excuse. That doesn't mean that there isn't a political problem or that the main issue is political. But I am sure that if peace comes, the attitude to the Hebrew language will be more positive.”
There is some consolation in that: While only 60 percent of Arab students passed the matriculation examination in English in 2005, 70 percent passed the Hebrew test. That is of course not because they feel more hostile towards the United States and the UK than towards Israel. Ultimately, Israeli Arabs speak Hebrew close to home, not only in Haifa, Jaffa and Upper Nazareth. But the issue is not the language; the issue is the relationship between two nations that have been at conflict for decades. That conflict now includes their religions, despite the many things that the two religions share. And thus, the great distance between Jews and Arabs grows even greater when religious people are involved. Those that are devout, both Arabs and Jews, exude a far greater sense of alienation, hatred and hostility, and this projects on the study of the Hebrew language and the Bible.
By the way, how's your Arabic?
Nazir Majali is a commentator on Israeli affairs for Asharq Al-Awsat, which is published in London