When Israeli customs authorities banned the Arabic-language version of a major work of Jewish philosophy because it was printed in Beirut this month, the irony was lost on no one. The author of the transliteration of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi’s Kuzari couldn’t bring the books into Israel because they “violate laws regarding trade with the enemy,” according to Haaretz. The Jewish state’s veto of a seminal work of medieval Jewish thought seemed like another story about the absurdity of Israel’s unwieldy and sometimes heavy-handed bureaucracy.
Israel’s policy to ban business with enemy states and thus deny its Arabic-speaking public easy access to translations of “Harry Potter” and other books is not new, though it is certainly controversial. But more than the question of why Israel would ban a book of Jewish thought is the question of why a Muslim Arab would want to translate it.
Written by Halevi in the 12th century, the Kuzari purports to tell the story of a Jewish man who teaches a Khazar king of Judaism’s superiority over other religions and philosophy. Subtitled “The book of refutation and proof on behalf of the despised religion,” the apologetic treatise aims at convincing Jews of Judaism’s eternal truth, a straight-forward attempt to dissuade them from converting under the pressure of persecution.
“There is not one Jewish source in Arabic that an Arab reader can read and understand somehow,” the translator, Nabih Bashir, told The Times of Israel this week. “In other words, Arabs don’t know what Judaism is. What they know about Judaism is from legends,” he said, adding that even the Bible exists only in Christian translations into Arabic. “I felt that is really sad. After all Judaism is a religion that one should know about.”
Bashir, a doctoral student at the Goldstein-Goren Department of Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, spent a decade studying and transliterating the book to produce the 565-page tome, which includes a 150-page introduction and countless explanatory footnotes. He asserts, though, that he didn’t transliterate the Kuzari into Arabic to convert his co-religionists or even to convince them of Judaism’s truths. A true academic – his dissertation deals with angels in 10th-century Judeo-Arabic philosophy – he just wants people to better understand the Jewish religion.
“I am interested in fostering understanding,” the 43-year-old said. “I want Arabic readers to get to know Judaism from Jewish books and not from myths and stories.”
Bashir admits that the book’s importance is much wider than its utility as a tool to keep Jews Jewish, or even convert new ones. “It’s a very central important work of Jewish thought. I myself wasn’t totally convinced by the book’s content. But it’s very interesting to see how the book influenced Jewish thought and what role it played in the religion’s development.”
Now living in the capital’s Beit Safafa neighborhood, Bashir grew up in Sakhnin, an Arab village between Tiberius and Acre. After briefly studying natural sciences he realized that wasn’t for him and instead immersed himself in political science, sociology and anthropology.
“The entire time I was wondering what exactly is Jewish identity,” he recalled. A Jewish friend then told him that he himself doesn’t really get what Judaism is all about but remembered that in ninth grade he read a page from a book called the Kuzari, which might offer some answers.
‘The Arab world is aware that religion is playing an increasing role in Israeli political spheres’
Not knowing that the Kuzari was originally written in Arabic, albeit with Hebrew letters, Bashir first read the Hebrew translation. “I didn’t have any background in Jewish sources, so I really didn’t understand the book,” he remembered. Only after he received an annotated English version and learned more about Yehuda Halevi did he find out that he could have actually read the book in its original language — but he was unable to get a hand on it.
“I was shocked that I didn’t find it in Arabic. It would make sense, no? I looked for it all over the world on the Internet. I figured out that the book had been translated into Latin, Spanish, Dutch, German, Portuguese, French, English – everything but Arabic. I didn’t understand why.”
He later found out that there is in fact an Arabic version of the Kuzari, the Baneth-Ben-Shammai edition of 1977, but without punctuation it is virtually unreadable for non-academics, Bashir said and embarked on his own transliteration. “I decided that we don’t need another version for academics. My version is meant to build a bridge between academia and society.”
According to Prof. Daniel Lasker, who oversees Bashir’s doctoral work at Ben-Gurion University, Bashir’s version of the Kuzari has the potential to achieve that goal. “Nabih thought the Kuzari would be a good book for Arab readers to know, but Arabs don’t not have access to it,” he said. Some of his Israeli-born Bedouin students have difficulties reading Arabic written in Hebrew letter, though, let alone Arabs entirely unfamiliar with the Hebrew alphabet, Lasker said. “Nabih managed to make the Kuzari available to wider audiences, to people who have curiosity for Jewish sources. He’s the first who did that, and it’s a revolutionary work.”
The Arab world has recently shown an increasing interest in seminal Jewish treatises. In 2008, Prof. Mustafa Abed al-Mabud from Cairo University’s Jewish Studies Department published a translation of the Mishna, and earlier this month the first-ever Arabic version translation of the entire Babylonian Talmud appeared, produced by a Jordan-based think tank.
“The Arab world is aware that religion is playing an increasing role in Israeli political spheres,” Bashir said. “The translation of the Talmud comes as people there realize that one cannot understand the Jews and what’s going on in Israel without understanding the religious sources.”
Yet the translations are not uncontroversial, with Jewish groups suspecting their goal is to allow enemies of the Jewish people to highlight passages supporting their accusations of Jewish supremacism. Last week, the Anti-Defamation League condemned the Talmud translation, lamenting “attempts to paint Israel as the modern-day embodiment of the alleged racist ideologies found in the Talmud.”
While Bashir thinks highly of al-Mabud’s version of the Mishna, he agrees regarding the Talmud. The author of the translation’s lengthy introduction quotes only one poorly chosen academic source and focuses too much on how the Talmud’s alleged racism was as major influence in today’s Israel, he criticized.
But Bashir’s focus on pure scholarship does not mean he is apolitical or would defend Israel from any criticism. Speaking about his first book, about Israel’s Haredim, he says the growing influence of religion on Israeli politics is “dangerous.”
While not showing any sign of anger or hatred, he also accuses Israel of discriminating against Arab citizens.
The saga about the Arabic version of the Kuzari is a case in point, he says: His publishing house, which had printed the book in Beirut, where most Arabic books in the region originate, sent 65 volumes to Ramallah for him to pick up. But the Israeli authorities decided not to let the books, together with other works that were planed to be showcased at a book fair there, into the country. Bashir’s Kuzaris were sent to Amman but the Israelis confiscated them again when Bashir tried to cross from Jordan into Israel with the copies in his trunk. Because of the quantity of books he was carrying it was considered illegal trade with an enemy country, he was told.
“The man from the customs authorities had no idea was the Kuzari is. I tried to explain to him but he said that he doesn’t care. He was only interested in the fact that the book was printed in Beirut.”
Only the Finance minister himself could help him get them back, the officials told him. “I sent him an email, fax and a regular letter to be sure he gets it. After two weeks they told me that they are working on my request,” Bashir said. That was in April.
The Times of Israel this week asked the Finance Ministry about the status of Bashir’s books. A spokesperson said the issue “is still in the approval phase, which should be completed within a few days.”
Currently, Bashir is in the possession of only two “illegal copies” of his work. Yet he believes that at the end of day the Israelis will allow him to get the 60-odd remaining copies as well.
“It’s just an issue of humiliation,” he sighed. “At the airport, on the border – there are rituals of humiliation. They know that you don’t carry a weapon but still they check you and insert all kinds of things into your mouths and behind. What are they looking for? I don’t know. But that’s how they treat Arabs here. It hurts, and I don’t understand what’s the need for all this.”
Yet Bashir remains devoted to Judaism’s holy books. He actually plans to publish new Arabic transliteration of works by the Rambam, also known as Maimonides, Rabbi Saadya Gaon and other medieval Jewish thinkers. The problems he encounters are for him merely a natural outgrowth a universal phenomenon: those in power will torment the weak.
Already the Kuzari made that point, Bashir claims, quoting a passage in which a rabbi challenges the king of the Khazars. The rabbi says that the Jews, persecuted over centuries, have remained humble and close to God while the mighty religions of the world boast with their brutal conquests despite claiming they honor those who turn the other cheek. “This might be so,” the king responds, “if your humility were voluntary; but it is involuntary, and if you had power you would slay.” The rabbi has no choice but to admit defeat, at least in this one point. “Thou hast touched our weak spot, O King of the Khazars.”