Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Strange Season to Talk About Hebrew in Egypt

(Hopefully) one of the themes of this blog, insofar as it discusses the Middle East is to report on what may be lesser known stories of bridges towards peace in the region. Mutual understanding and connections at the grassroots level, as opposed to merely the political level will be crucial in building a lasting, meaningful, mutually profitable peace to people on all sides of the conflict. Eisenhower once said: "I like to believe that people in the long run are going to do more to promote peace than our governments. Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it."

On the anniversary of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, this blog noted how little there was in the way of cultural exchanges between Egyptians and Israelis. It's true that these exchanges are few in number, but this week the Israeli paper Yediot Ahronot carried a story about an exception to this dearth in cultural relations. An Israeli cultural center in Cairo has, since its founding in 1982, been offering Egyptians the opportunity to learn Hebrew and gain insight into Israeli culture and history. It seems that (for varying motives, including required study for graduation) many Egyptian students do actually learn Hebrew.

An article that appeared in 2007 in the newspaper the Forward offers more detail about the work of the "Israeli Academic Center in Cairo" and includes an encouraging quote from an Egyptian participant at one of the centres lectures. A quote one hopes is contagious:
“We come here to encourage peace, I think my presence is a proof of peace…. What is not accepted today, it will be accepted tomorrow.”

Despite this optimism, the center's director Mr. Rosenbaum notes the heavy security required at the center and that visitors to the center and attendance at lectures fluctuates based on the prevailing regional political climate and more specifically, Israeli activities. The lesson here is that a peace treaty does not guarantee peace. It means that the sentiments of the populations in Arab countries with whom Israel enjoys peaceful relations are still subject to Israel's behaviour and improve and worsen in accordance with the prevailing political winds.

Nonetheless, Mr. Rosenbaum's attitude is encouraging:
"When you get to know a place, when you get to know the people, when you get to know the culture, you see that there is nothing to be afraid of. And that's what we do here at the academic centre."

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