In Other Words

An Arab Study of Jews

Al-Mukawwin al-Yahudi fi al-Hadharah al-Gharbiyyah (The Jewish Component in Western Civilization) By Saad Al-Bazei 423 pages, Beirut: The Arab Cultural Center, 2007 (in Arabic) Whenever I visit the Middle East, curiosity leads me into bookstores so I might gain some insight into the opinions and interests of local readers. Among my recent discoveries on the ...

Al-Mukawwin al-Yahudi fi al-Hadharah al-Gharbiyyah
(The Jewish Component in Western Civilization)

By Saad Al-Bazei
423 pages, Beirut: The Arab Cultural Center, 2007 (in Arabic)

Whenever I visit the Middle East, curiosity leads me into bookstores so I might gain some insight into the opinions and interests of local readers. Among my recent discoveries on the region’s bookshelves is the existence of Judaica sections, just like in the United States or Europe, but with one major, distinguishing difference. As one might expect, store shelves in Muslim countries are heavy with translations of well-known anti-Semitic tracts, like the notorious screed "Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

Imagine my pleasant surprise then, during a recent stay in Riyadh, to discover a book by a prominent Saudi writer that aims to inform Arab readers about Jewish culture and promote tolerance and understanding. The Jewish Component in Western Civilization, by the pro-Western literary columnist and university professor Saad al-Bazei, was easy to find. During my stay in Riyadh, the international Arabic daily al-Hayat reviewed it on page one, announcing a new book on the positive cultural contributions of "enlightened" Jews. I suspected that it was a slow news day in the Arab world and that this publicity was intended to boost the reputation of Bazei (who writes a regular column for a sister publication of al-Hayat). Surely a book of this sort would not pass Saudi censorship, much less be distributed in Riyadh. I was wrong. There it was, at my local Riyadh bookshop, next to the Arabic translation of Bob Woodward’s latest chronicle of the war in Iraq.

The Jewish Component in Western Civilization is a serious work of research, analyzing major Jewish writers from the 17th century to the present, from Baruch Spinoza and Moses Mendelssohn to Jacques Derrida and Harold Bloom. The basic thesis is that there is a distinctive Jewish voice in each of the figures, including both secularized Jews and converts such as Heinrich Heine and Benjamin Disraeli, reflecting their struggles for identity in a Christian-dominated culture. Bazei offers several insights from a non-Western perspective. For instance, the commonly accepted definition of "Bible" in the West is the Christian version of both the Old and New Testaments, but it excludes the Jewish version of only the earlier texts. Muslims view their holy book as distinct from both the Christian Gospels and the Jewish Torah, he notes, allowing, in theory, the independence of each revelation from those of the other two. In general, his assessment of a unique and important Jewish contribution to Western culture would strike most Westerners as unremarkable.

But this book is remarkable, for several reasons. Here is a work in Arabic, by a Saudi author, suffused with understanding for the Jews and their predicament as a minority in Christian Europe. Does this commentary on the Holocaust, for instance, sound like words you’d expect from a Saudi intellectual? "The 1930s brought a terrifying end to the Jews’ dream of Jewish-Christian coexistence in Europe, and Nazism wasn’t alone in fashioning it. There was also Stalinism and fascism, and a collective silence about what was happening. But Nazism was in the vanguard of committing the genocide called ‘the Holocaust’ or ‘al-Shoah.’ … After the Holocaust, the Jew was forced to return to being Jewish, even if he could not return completely." In most places, this acknowledgment of the existence of the Holocaust would be indisputable. But, then, Bazei’s book appeared shortly after nearby Iran hosted an official conference whose premise was denying the Holocaust.

The book addresses the need for more balance toward Jews in the Arab media and on the shelves of Arab bookstores. Bazei sums up the need for balance as follows: "If the process of analyzing and evaluating Jewish contributions requires us to make judgments, then these judgments should not always be against the Jews. Sometimes we should be pro-Jewish. It is not possible, for example, to evaluate the works of a thinker like Sigmund Freud or a poet like Heine without an amount of sympathy, understanding, and, indeed, admiration."

Bazei underscores in his introduction that respect for Jewish contributions to culture shouldn’t be confused with support for Israel or its policies. It’s a necessary caveat for his readers. He is attempting something they haven’t encountered before in Arabic: an objective study of the Jews. In today’s Middle East, everything is mobilized in support of one side of the Arab-Israeli conflict, even Bazei’s field of literary criticism (for which we have Edward Said to thank). To his credit, Bazei doesn’t gloss over Zionism but briefly mentions it as an important political and ideological movement in modern Jewish thought, placing it in the context of other 19th-century European strains of nationalism.

With all this talk of tolerance and reasonable discussion, one could easily get the impression that Bazei’s book signifies some kind of sea change in views toward Jews among the Arab reading public. Here, it’s worth remembering that few people will read the book (print runs of Arabic books are usually limited to several thousand copies), though many more have seen or heard its positive press coverage. However, the book does lead to two important conclusions, and hints at a third.

First, there is more than one truth in the Middle East. Public discourse in Saudi Arabia offers a surprising diversity, while the American narrative about the country tends toward a stereotype: that Saudi politics and society are governed by extreme Muslim fundamentalists in league with the Saudi royal family. The stereotype has some truth. But it is a monochromatic view that misses the interesting color. For example, this stereotype often glosses over the growing influence of Saudi Arabia’s Western-educated elite.

Second, Bazei himself represents this influence. A 55-year-old graduate of Purdue University, he belongs to the first wave of Saudi men (and a few women) who began traveling to Britain and the United States for college and graduate studies after the 1973 oil boom. These Western-educated graduates now number in the tens of thousands and run the government ministries, the state oil company, the largest banks, the major universities, and other institutions. They are the most influential pro-American bloc in the Arab world, and they tend to share the political values of openness and tolerance they associate with the United States dating back to the 1970s and ’80s. At the same time, this generation lives in a conservative, patriarchal country. Reconciling these conflicting influences is a source of continuing tension in Saudi society, and Bazei’s objective study of Jews places him at the forefront of the liberalizing trend.

The book hints at a third conclusion: tacit support for such projects from the Saudi government. The Saudi royal family governs through multiple alliances, among them a conservative clergy and a more liberal professional class, each enjoying royal patronage. In order to be published, this book would have had to pass a government censorship bureau that is controlled by the clergy. In this context, the dedication of Bazei’s book to his deceased parents tells the Saudi reader something more. His mother was from the powerful al-Sudairy clan, and he is related through her to the crown prince and other senior royals (who also own the newspaper that publicized his book). In addition, Bazei’s book should be seen in the Saudi context as providing intellectual backing for King Abdullah’s recent initiative to convene an interfaith dialogue that includes Jewish religious leaders.

To Westerners working in the Middle East, Bazei’s tolerant and broad-minded views are very much in line with those that we often hear in private conversations with Arabs in the region. But Bazei has been courageous by going public, in print. Westerners should welcome and encourage such efforts, and thereby help make the goal of promoting understanding successful. Otherwise, this important Saudi test balloon could serve as nothing more than a regional curiosity.

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