Egyptian intellectuals call for fresh thinking about 'Jewish question'

Writer Youssef Zeidan, with other Egyptian intellectuals, criticizes the institutionalized demonization of Jews and of Israel, calling to mend the relations between the two peoples, since this fracture affects Egypt first and foremost.

al-monitor A protester waves an Egyptian flag above a Star of David symbol, Cairo, Aug. 19, 2011. Photo by REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh.
Jacky Hugi

Jacky Hugi


Topics covered

resistance, political step, literature, egyptian press, egyptian politics, egyptian media, egypt-israel peace treaty, anti-zionism

Jan 17, 2014

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. 

“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.”

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