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The Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies hosted a conference on March 25 and 26 to discuss Jewish scholarship in Arab and Islamic countries (Photo by NMGiovannucci | CC BY-SA 4.0).

The Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies hosted a two-day conference on the development of Jewish scholarship in Arab and Islamic countries and its connection to contemporary scholars. 

The conference — cosponsored by the Religious Studies and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations departments — featured a diverse array of speakers from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, and Palestine. The premise of the event was conceived by Yoram Meital, a professor of Middle East studies at Ben Gurion University in Israel and a Katz Center fellow from 2018-2019.

Ella Darivoff Director of the Katz Center Steven Weitzman worked closely with Meital to organize the conference, which took place on Monday and Tuesday. The symposium explored the development of Jewish culture through the lens of Arabian history via open scholarly discourse. 

“One of my core motivations was to learn more about what was happening and to expand my awareness of what Jewish studies is today in the world,” Weitzman said. “It’s helped me to realize that we treat the categories of Jew and Arab as different categories, or even as opposite categories or even as antagonistic categories, but the relationship between those two kinds of identities is a lot more complex than that.”

Monday’s portion of the conference featured Meital as the keynote speaker and was divided into three sessions: Jewish Studies in Egyptian Contexts, Jewish Studies in Moroccan Contexts, and Jewish Studies in Palestinian Contexts.

The first session was led by professor of religious Jewish thought and comparative religions at Cairo’s Ain Shams University Mohamed Hawary, professor of Middle Eastern studies at Texas Christian University Hanan Hammad, and American University of Ras Al Khaimah professor Kamal Abdel-Malek. Each speaker offered insight into the development of Jewish identity in Egypt and its contribution to current Egyptian scholarship.

“The session on Egypt was really fascinating because when Israel and Egypt had a peace treaty in 1979, Abdel-Malek was the first Egyptian student to go to Israel to study,” Weitzman said. “The other speaker [Hawary] was the first Egyptian scholar officially invited to Israel, so both of them are historic [figures].”

The second session exploring Jewish culture in Morocco opened with a presentation by Zhor Rehihil, the curator of the The Moroccan Jewish Museum in Casablanca. Casablanca functions as an ethnography institute dedicated to preserving Jewish culture in the Arabian world. 

The second segment of the symposium on Tuesday continued exploring the international dynamics of Jewish scholarship throughout history. Concluding the conference, the final two sessions focused on Jewish studies in Tunisian, Algerian, and Iraqi contexts. 

One participant in the event, who was granted anonymity due to a fear of retaliation from her employer, expounded upon the topics discussed on Monday in a presentation titled "The Jews of Algeria in Light of Algerian Academic Studies: the Challenges and Horizons." The participant described the erasure of Jewish identity in Algerian history and its impact on how Jewish culture is perceived in Algerian society today.

"It is a difficult to study topic, but urgently needed and important," the participant said. "Current studies are far from sufficient ... It is important to decolonize, de-ideologize, and de-instrumentalize this topic."

Joseph Sassoon, a professor of political economy at Georgetown’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, examined the loss of Jewish identity amidst international shifts towards British imperialism and Anglicization. Discussing his novel, “The Sassoons: The Great Global Merchants and the Making of an Empire,” he drew upon his own genealogical lineage to explore the evolution of Jewish culture throughout history. 

“Once they started moving to England, [the Sassoons] wanted desperately, more than anything else, not only to be accepted by the British, but to be accepted into the upper class was their dream,” Sassoon said. “So this loss of identity was really a critical part of their history.”

In the midst of rising international tensions, Weitzman said that the conference can offer hope for greater empathy, compassion, and understanding between different student communities across campus.

“This conference was planned two years ago, long before everything that’s happened this year,” Weitzman said. “Obviously, what happened this past year — Oct. 7 and the war in Gaza — made it a lot more complicated to have this conference. I’m grateful to all the speakers who were willing to participate in it. It was a hopeful reminder that people really can listen to each other, engage each other, and learn from each other.”

Editor's note: After publication, a source in this article requested anonymity due to a fear of retaliation from their employer. The article has been updated to reflect this change.