September 27, 2007 Special Dispatch No. 1720

Saudi Columnists: Centers for Hebrew Studies Are Needed To Deal With Israel

September 27, 2007
Saudi Arabia | Special Dispatch No. 1720

Following an Israeli television interview that aired April 14, 2007 with Prof. Menahem Milson about the novel Girls of Riyadh by Saudi author Rajaa Al-Sanie, Saudi columnist Sa'ud Kabili wrote in the Saudi daily Al-Watan that academic institutions in Arab countries must research Israel, so as to gain information that will serve as a source of power against it.

The following are the excerpts from the article:

"Such Knowledge Gives Israel an Advantage"

"The most prominent feature of the Israeli academic scene today is a large number of scientific and academic research centers in various fields... in sharp contrast with the large countries neighboring it. In addition to researching political and economic issues, these centers also investigate social, psychological, and communications issues pertaining to the Arabs and the Middle East. Anyone interested in the Israeli reality will clearly perceive that these centers receive substantial attention and support from the government, to compensate for the limited freedom allowed them for self-criticism. One also finds a huge allocation of human resources [to these centers], which is motivated by a clear and unified strategy.

"Israel's interest in investigating the area in all its aspects, from political to cultural, stems from the importance Israel assigns to knowledge based on in-depth analysis and academic research in all these areas. In line with the principle of 'know your enemy,' such knowledge gives Israel an advantage in terms of [taking the] initiative to promote its interests, and also enables it to form a viewpoint concerning us which is deeper and more comprehensive than our viewpoint concerning them.

"In this war of knowledge, it is the interest that each side takes in the political, economic, and social reality of the other that constitutes a fundamental factor in the gain-loss dynamics. Hence, knowledge becomes a [commodity] in demand, to be used by intellectuals as well as by planning and decision making centers.

"The Interview, Which Aired On... (An Israeli Arabic-Language Channel), Featured Menahem Milson, Professor of Arabic Language At the Hebrew University, Who Spoke Arabic with Amazing Fluency"

"In our era of globalization, knowledge has no temporal or spatial boundaries. Therefore, while browsing the website of MEMRI (The Middle East Media Research Institute), I was not surprised to find an interview devoted to the novel Girls of Riyadh by the Saudi author Rajaa Al-Sanie aired on the Israeli television network.[1] [The interview] dealt with the literary aspect of the novel, as well as with its cultural implications for Saudi society. The interview, which aired on April 14, 2007 on Channel 33 (an Israeli Arabic- language channel), featured Menahem Milson, professor of Arabic language at the Hebrew University, who spoke Arabic with amazing fluency... "

We Were Shocked "When We Realized the Extent of This Israeli Intellectual's Interest in... the Countries of the Region"

"Let us leave aside for a moment the shock we all felt when we realized the extent of this intellectual's interest in the countries of the region, in everything that was happening in these countries and in their cultural climate... so much so that Professor Milson was familiar with the source of the title, which was taken from a famous poem by the artist 'Abd Al-Majid 'Abdallah. [Furthermore, he] discussed the opinions of the critics who had reviewed the novel, and even refuted [some of their claims] – for example, [the claim] that the use of local dialect in the novel [is a literary flaw]. Most infuriating was the depth of analysis attained by this Israeli intellectual... Indeed, he could use this analysis whichever way he pleases – even if it involved modifying the facts to serve his interests...

"If we compare this interest with the situation in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world, the scales will tip in Israel's favor. If we juxtapose the scope of knowledge [amassed by] one side against that of the other, in the political, economic, social, and cultural spheres, the scales will again tip in Israel's favor. Our failure to appreciate sufficiently the significance of knowing the enemy has harmed our position on the scales... Language is an important factor in breaking the barrier to power.

"Is There a Saudi Intellectual Who Speaks Hebrew, Or One Specializing in Israeli Affairs?"

"The question we must ask ourselves is this: Is there a Saudi intellectual who speaks Hebrew, or one specializing in Israeli affairs? Do our universities include departments of Hebrew studies, so that we will in the future have at our disposal a host of intellectuals armed primarily with knowledge, and capable of facing the enemy?"[2]

Armed With Knowledge and Facing the Enemy

Commenting on Sa'ud Kabili's article, columnist Ibtihal Al-Samarai wrote in the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh: "I have read the article by the columnist Sa'ud Kabili titled 'Rajaa Al-Sanie in Israel,' and I was impressed by the subject, which deals with a central issue in Arab Islamic society. This issue is manifested by our self-imposed seclusion and in the absence of research on the 'other' – in contrast to the other side's [i.e. Israel's] openness to our culture and society, and to its profound knowledge of even our small problems, let alone our big ones.

"The columnist [Kabili] was amazed by an interview about the book Girls of Riyadh that aired on Israel's Channel 1, and by the precise analysis of social, economic, and cultural aspects of Saudi reality, of women's [issues], and of other central issues in Saudi society... The channel airs programs in the Arabic language, and the person discussing the book on the program is an academic who speaks Arabic with wondrous fluency and who has accurate knowledge of all the details of the Saudi cultural scene.

"At the same time, the columnist said that Israel, a small country in contrast to its neighbors, is replete with hundreds of research and scientific centers at all levels, which focus, among other things, on studying the Arabs and the Middle East in an effort to understand them from the geographical, historical, political, cultural, religious, psychological, social, and any other imaginable perspectives.

"As an example Kalibi referred to the well-known institute, MEMRI, which posts on its website detailed daily reports on the region.

"[Israel] therefore embodies a campaign conducted by one side only, which investigates, researches, reads, modifies, and passes its message to the world in a way consistent with its interests and plans. It is armed with wide knowledge about its neighbors, while the neighbors, which surpass it in number and capabilities, do not possess the same knowledge of Israel.

"The columnist ended his article by encouraging the academics in their ivory towers in Saudi Arabia, and in the region at large, to establish research centers and departments specializing in Hebrew studies, so that, as he puts it, armed primarily with knowledge, they would be capable of facing the enemy..."[3]

[1] See MEMRI TV Clip "Prof. Menahem Milson on the Saudi Novel Girls of Riyadh," April 4, 2007,

[2] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), August 13, 2007.

[3] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), August 18, 2007.

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