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The Academic Boycott vs. the Truth of Islamic Education in Israel

1:52 PM, Jun 14, 2011 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Jewish professors, like Shmuel Moreh of HUJ, addressed similar themes. An Iraqi Jew born in 1933, Moreh lectured on an Egyptian Muslim historian, Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti, who fiercely opposed the Wahhabi fundamentalists who pillaged Arabia and eventually created the Saudi kingdom. Moreh delivered his paper in Arabic, which he described to me as his “mother tongue.” Moreh, who is unwavering in his commitment to the Jewish state, told me he writes love poetry in Arabic. He has been invited to return to Iraq but has declined. He clearly enjoyed warm respect from his Arab colleagues.

Many of the papers were delivered in English, some in Hebrew, and some in Arabic. Itzchak Weismann, an internationally recognized authority on Sufism and on Syrian Islam, discussed the place of Sufis in “the age of globalization.” Weismann, head of the Jewish-Arab Centre at Haifa University, has become an important interlocutor for Israeli Jews on the subject of the Arab Spring—or Muslim Spring, since it includes Iran. Weismann has played a particularly important role in refuting claims by the Syrian government that protests against the tyranny of Bashar al-Assad are driven by Salafis, that is, Saudi-backed Wahhabi fundamentalists.

Carl Ernst of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, described his rendition into English of the poetry of Mansour al-Hallaj, the most famous of the Sufi dissenters, who was executed for alleged heresy in Baghdad in 922 a.d. Ernst proved to be a strikingly gifted translator. Al-Hallaj, who was purportedly killed for having proclaimed, in an ecstatic state, “I am the truth,” using a descriptive of God (al-Haqq), is still debated by Muslims and Western scholars of Islam as hotly as he was in his own time.

But to emphasize, the most impressive aspect of the Al-Qasemi conference was that it stood as a reproach to the academics—both Israeli Jews and Westerners—who call for a boycott of Israel and its system of higher learning. “Boycott” is the first term in a malign triangle of measures intended to isolate and ostracize the Jewish state—along with “divestment” and “sanctions.” The campaign to delegitimize Israel is nothing new; one may look back at the infamous “Zionism is Racism” resolution maintained by the United Nations from 1975 to 1991.

I asked several members of the Al-Qasemi faculty what they thought of the call for an academic boycott of Israel. Arin Salamah-Qudsi, a female professor at the University of Haifa and teacher at Al-Qasemi, who organized and ran the conference with outstanding efficiency, expressed disregard for the project. Calling on foreign academics to boycott Israel would harm Israeli Muslims no less than Israeli Jews and Christians, she said. Why, after all, should Islamic scholars avoid opportunities to meet and cooperate with Muslim clerics, Sufis, and academics inside Israel?

The roster of academic affiliations at the conference gave evidence of opportunities available to Arab Muslim scholars in the Israeli system of higher education. Salamah-Qudsi, whose paper described issues of Sufi practice in Baghdad during the 12th and 13th centuries, provided one example. Khalid Abu Ras, who is working toward his doctorate at Bar-Ilan University, lectured on the Islamic conception of “Imitatio Dei,” or emulation of God’s attributes, using the Latin phrase as well as Arabic terminology. Khalid Sindawi, who teaches at the Jewish-founded Academic College of Emek Yezreel and at Al-Qasemi, described the impact of Sufi beliefs on Shia Islam. In a video conference, Ammar Badawi, the mufti (sharia judge) of Tulkarm on the West Bank, evoked the lyrics of Sheikh Mustafa Al-Bakri Al-Siddiqi, a notable Sufi poet.

Daphna Ephrat, of the Open University of Israel, who has written authoritatively on Arab Sufis in the 12th and 13th centuries, presented a paper. I observed to her that there are “two Israels”—the real one in which Jews and Arabs work and live alongside each other day by day, and the nightmarish “apartheid” state conjured up in the propaganda of Israel’s enemies. She told me her work on Palestinian Sufism had been denounced in an American academic journal as “Orientalist”—the insult made infamous by the late Edward Said.

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