When Jewish scholars established Hebrew University in Jerusalem in the early 1920s, they believed that including a school for Arab and Islamic studies would promote understanding with their Arab neighbors.
But, "a very opposite effect occurred," said William "Ze'ev" Brinner, a retired professor of Near Eastern studies at U.C. Berkeley.
Since the founding of the then-School of Oriental Studies, he said, Arabs have accused Jews who study the subject "of almost anything" — from promoting cultural imperialism to perverting students' minds to sparking Arab nationalism.
Brinner spoke last week in a session on "The Modern University in the Middle East" during a two-day conference at U.C. Berkeley titled "The Origins of Modern Jewish Studies: Celebrating the 70th Anniversary of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem."
The conference was sponsored by U.C. Berkeley's Center for Studies in Higher Education, the Academic Consortium of Bay Area Jewish Studies Scholars, American Friends of Hebrew University, and the Judah L. Magnes Museum.
Why have Jews been so eager to study Arabs?
Menahem Milson, an Arab studies professor and Hebrew University's dean of humanities, said the early scholars felt strong ties to Arabs' language and religion. They held a "naive belief" that Arabs and Muslims would be moved when they realized that Jews were interested in their culture, he said.
In addition, Milson said, these Jewish scholars realized the importance of a working knowledge of the languages, society, economy and culture of surrounding Mideast nations.
The founders of the Arab and Islamic studies departments, among them S.F. native Judah Magnes, began with two projects: an index of words used in classic Arabic poetry and a critical edition of a 70-volume Islamic manuscript.
The former was expected to take at least 10 years; the latter was expected to be finished in four years. They underestimated their task: Neither project has been completed.
But the interest in Arab and Islamic studies has only continued to grow among Israelis.
When Hebrew University's Arabic and Islamic studies department was founded in 1926 — two years after the creation of the school's Institute of Jewish Studies — its faculty consisted of five scholars.
Today, this field of study is part of Hebrew University's Institute of Asian and African Studies. Thirty-two full-time professors study and teach Arabic language and literature, as well as Islamic history and civilization. That group is larger than any similar department in Western universities, except for London's School of Oriental and African Studies.
The university's enrollment includes more than 200 majoring in Arabic language and literature, and nearly 500 students majoring in Islamic and Mideast history.