The only Hebrew language teacher who holds a position in Indian academia is Dr Khurshid Imam, Assistant Professor at the School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University. In this conversation with Dr Navras Jaat Aafreedi, he reveals the secret of a Ben Gurion "mosque" and tells us about a hadīth in which Prophet Muhammad encouraged Muslims to learn Hebrew.
Please correct me if I am wrong in understanding that you are the only person teaching Hebrew at any Indian university?
Not only am I the only person teaching Hebrew at any Indian university, but I was also instrumental in getting Hebrew introduced at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Although officially speaking it was introduced at the university only as a result of a bilateral agreement between India and Israel, yet had I not made efforts for it, I doubt if this would have happened when it happened. (This interview was conducted in 2011. Since then, Dr Imam has been joined by Achia Anzi in teaching Hebrew at JNU, but Anzi teaches on a contractual basis. Hence, Imam still remains the only Hebrew teacher to hold a tenure track position in Indian academia.)
There are two divisions in any religious community, one of the observant followers and the other of the non-observant ones. You clearly belong to the observant section of Muslims. Considering this and given the tensions between Jews and Muslims today, it is surprising to come across you, an observant Muslim, as the only Hebrew teacher in India. Although Islam does not forbid learning any language, it is hard to find somebody like you.
It is only because of the stereotyping of Muslims that people are surprised when they find me teaching Hebrew. Stereotyping can have very dangerous ramifications as witnessed in the post-9/11 fatal attacks on Sikhs in the US when they were mistaken for Muslims because of their beards and turbans. Also, generally Muslims know their religion not as a result of self-study but as a consequence of how it is interpreted to them by the clerics, which shapes their understanding of how a Muslim should conduct himself. Hence, they are often suspicious of those among them who study the Torah or have Jewish friends.
Similarly, instead of appreciating a Muslim studying the Hebrew language in which one of the most important sacred texts, the Torah, was received, it is seen with suspicion and even condemned. There was a time when the Indian Muslims had a similar attitude towards English, then seen by them as a language of the imperialists and enemies of Islam which would distance the Muslims from their religion, Islam. But today not only is English taught even in the Islamic seminaries, its importance is realised by one and all across the Indian Muslim community.
My family, friends and wider community were all surprised when I decided to learn Hebrew. Even in Israel, everybody seemed to be surprised to find a visibly observant Muslim like me with a beard and Islamic skull cap desirous of learning Hebrew. For the Israelis, it was their first ever interaction with a non-Arab Muslim, and that too an observant one and on top of that interested in learning their language, which took them by surprise. So, among both, Muslims as well as Jews, there were people who felt I had gone crazy. And I was met with this response only because of the stereotype of a Muslim that these people had. As for me, my interest in Hebrew was driven by my desire to learn about the Jewish version of the Middle East conflict, as my Jewish brethren expressed it in their language Hebrew. I could already access the Arab version in their language because of my knowledge of Arabic. I did not want to know about the conflict between the Jew and the Muslim through a third person.
During the time you spent in Israel for your studies, the consciousness that the people there would form their perception of Indian Muslims on the basis of their impression of you must have put some pressure on you?
It was after my MPhil at the Jawaharlal Nehru University that I went to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for some time for specialising in the Modern Middle East. Initially I went to Israel on a Government of Israel Scholarship, but after that I was supported by Golda Meir scholarship to continue my studies there. The various courses that I took under these two scholarships were cumulatively considered at par with MA.
Although lessons in Hebrew language are not a part of MA in Middle Eastern Studies, yet knowledge of Hebrew is considered mandatory for it. Hence, I learnt Hebrew along with my MA and attained knowledge equivalent to seven levels. I was in Israel from 1998 to 2000. I registered for PhD in 2002 and was awarded the degree of PhD in 2009. I was the first non-Arab Muslim that the Israelis had any interaction with. And they started trusting me so much that some of my Jewish friends even visited the Palestinian Authority-administered Bethlehem with me for the first time in spite of all apprehensions. I got invited to their homes on Jewish festivals just as I was invited by my Palestinian friends on Muslim festivals. My having relations with both parties sometimes made people suspicious of me. Palestinians would think of me as a Yemenite Jew while the Ashkenazim would consider me an Arab. Hence, I was under threat from both sides. In this respect, mere glares would say a lot to me even if the people did not utter a word.
When I tread on areas beyond the university neighbourhood, people would look at me with suspicion. Muslims would look at me in the same manner if I visited a mosque not accompanied by any local Arab Muslim friend. The very atmosphere is such that people get easily suspicious of strangers and fear them to be suicide bombers or fanatic attackers. Later, I started empathising with them. I used to offer namāz (Islamic prayers) in the balcony of my flat in Israel. The door to the balcony had a picture of [Israel's first prime minister] Davd Ben Gurion. I never thought of removing the picture, and as a result my flatmates started calling it Ben Gurion mosque.
Without exaggeration, at least 20-25 Jews wept when I left Israel. Relations are still such that whenever anybody from this university goes to Israel, he is asked about my well-being. I see it as an achievement that I left behind weeping Jewish friends when I returned to India, given the fact that I had gone to Israel all alone, despite discouragement from family and friends and their warnings that according to them, I, a devout Muslim, was risking my safety by heading to an enemy country. Later, Israeli TV channel, Channel 8 Avutz Shimoni, invited me to Israel for two weeks for an interview for a six or seven episode documentary series on identity.
How and when did you develop an interest in the Hebrew language?
Conscious as I was that there was more to the animosity and the tensions between Jews and Muslims than just the Arab-Israel conflict, I decided to interact with Jews in their own language to get to the very root of the problem. It was an attempt on my part to understand their outlook, their point of view, right from the horse’s mouth, instead of being informed through the press, predominantly by the third party, which is neither Jewish nor Muslim.
Secondly,there is a hadith according to which Prophet Muhammad asked his followers to learn Hebrew. It is said that two of the sahābā attained command of Hebrew, one in thirteen days and the other in fifteen days. Hebrew of those times was very close to Arabic. By learning Hebrew, I also followed a sunnat, according to which one should learn as much as possible. My knowledge of Hebrew has also enabled me to bridge the communication gap between me as a Muslim and Jews. I also felt that with the increasing strengthening of relations between India and Israel, knowledge of Hebrew would brighten my career prospects. The first organisation to employ me upon my return to India was the Indian Defence School where I taught Hebrew. Even today, when I do not teach there any more I am still requested to come from time to time whenever there is anything involving the Indo-Israel defence deals. Hence, I have served my religion as well as my country by learning the Hebrew language.
What did you propose to study when you applied for the Government of Israel Scholarship?
I proposed to research the Role of Extremist Writers in the Peace Process.
After your return from Israel on the completion of your studies, did you face any opposition or resistance to your academic endeavours in India?
I am often called a Mossad agent who has been planted among Indian Muslims. Jawaharlal Nehru University is politically a very sensitive place given the dominance of the Left at the campus. It is the Left which is considered secular and it is anti-Israel. Hence, I could not expect any support from them. And as far as the Right is considered, even if they were sympathetic towards the cause of Hebrew, they were suspicious of me because of my religious Islamic demeanour. Therefore, of the two main political factions active at the university campus, I could not get support from either.
In this situation, it was not easy to introduce and promote Hebrew in the university and all I could do was to keep a low profile. Conscious of the fact that Muslims and Jews are seen as political adversaries, I urged the people to see my attempt to introduce Hebrew as a purely academic act, rather than driven by any political agenda. JNU is particularly known for the study of modern foreign languages. I tried to draw attention to the need for the introduction of classical languages and projected Hebrew as one. Introducing Hebrew in the garb of a classical language was the only strategy I could think of for countering the forces resisting it.
What I teach today is actually Modern Hebrew. I neither find myself qualified to teach the classical form nor is there any demand for it as the students are largely market-oriented and not research oriented. It is the knowledge of Modern Hebrew which would serve them better.
Could you, please, narrate a few interesting anecdotes or experiences of Israel.
When I got off the taxi at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem after my arrival in Israel, a heavy suitcase of mine, which did not even have wheels, was lifted for me for a long distance, until I reached my destination, by a stranger. It is interesting to note here that I had been cautioned against going to Israel by friends and family, and now my very first experience there was so pleasant.
Once a bomb explosion took place in the university library and the old librarian got injured. I also happened to be there. The librarian was so impressed with my gesture of immediately getting him water to drink and also with my washing his wounds, that after that incident he always introduced me to the people as the gentleman who came to his rescue immediately after the explosion. As a result of this and many other incidents, I got the happy feeling that I was positively contributing to Jewish-Muslim relations by leaving behind a positive image of Muslims, unlike the one the Jews had before. There were even articles on me in the Israeli press after this incident.
Before I went to Israel, I did not use to allow anyone to take pictures of me, but in Israel I was photographed so much that I stopped resisting.
One day, I was on my way to see a filmmaker who had interviewed me for a documentary he was making on Jihad. I had with me a book for him, titled Killing in the Name of God. Just when the bus arrived at the stop a police car stopped right in front of it after overtaking it and the policemen signalled to the driver not to open the door. With the pistols pointed at me, I was asked to raise my hands. After which I was asked to lift my shirt and then to open the bag. Upon my opening the bag came out that book, which made them all the more suspicious. However, I was let off when I showed them my University Identity Card. They explained that they did so because they had some input about a suicide bomber.
I would admit that I did have the same perception of Jews as common among the common Muslims, that they are a people guilty of the falsification of religious texts. It was after going there that I realised that the Jews were not any different and were regular, ordinary people like us, with good as well as bad among them. The Indian Muslims do not seem to be prepared as yet for greater interaction with Jews, for many among them have cancelled their visits to Israel out of fear of being ostracised by their community or instead of going there directly have gone there secretly via some other country.
The Urdu press does play a negative role in shaping the Muslim perceptions of Jews and Israel. I do not know where this misconception came from that the Muslims are not free to pray in the Al Aqsa mosque, but it is very widespread among them. It is silly of the Muslim countries to not grant visas to those who have been to Israel. Just as we Muslims resent being stereotyped, the same way, we Muslims too, should not stereotype the other communities.The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has a Department devoted to Islamic Studies. When the Jews can study about Islam and its history why cannot the Muslims study about Jewish theology and history and culture. It is necessary to understand the Jews in order to understand the Quran, which is full of references to Abraham, Moses, David and Solomon.
Dr Navras Jaat Aafreedi is an Indo-Judaic studies scholar and a Muslim-Jewish relations activist, employed as Assistant Professor in the Department of History & Civilization, School of Humanities & Social Sciences, Gautam Buddha University, Greater Noida.
This article first appeared on Cafe Dissensus.