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Prof. David Kushner: Expert on Turkey Reflects on His Cairo Assignment

Nearly a year after he returned from heading the Israel Academic Center in Cairo, Focus caught up with Prof. David Kushner to question the Middle East History scholar about his two-year experience in Egypt in the light of hindsight and the perspective of time.
He almost didn’t go, he recalls. It was the year 2001, the Intifada had broken out, and Israel’s cold peace with Egypt was looking even chillier. Friends, colleagues, and relatives sent disparate advice; in the end, he decided that the project was worth retaining, “it was important not to close doors,” and that he could make a contribution. “Things could only get better,” he told himself. His wife, Shimona, went with him to organize the Center’s library, “the only one of its kind in Egypt as a source of research on Israel and on Hebrew and Jewish culture.”
“What was possible to do, to continue, we did,” he sums up his stay. This activity involved assistance to researchers and to students, the primary reason for the Center’s founding soon after the peace treaty with Egypt in 1982. Kushner, whose area of expertise is Turkey, was, in fact, the third University of Haifa scholar to head the Center. Egypt was supposed to open a comparable center in Israel, but never did.
The Academic Center is under the auspices of the Israel National Academy of Sciences. It has nothing to do with the Foreign Ministry, and perhaps for that reason, Kushner could not be drawn into any political discussion.
“We gave help, no matter the topic,” he said, making it clear that this assistance extended to topics that may not have shown Israel in a good light.
Though there are hundreds of Egyptians who study Hebrew and Hebrew literature, the first year he headed the Center saw few visitors because of the repercussions of the Intifada. But the second year, “I felt some improvement,” he reported. “Even researchers realized that we had no ulterior motive, but to assist [scholarly endeavors]. And they needed us.”
He organized a regular lecture series, even though many Israeli lecturers were reluctant to go to Cairo because of the situation.
“Actually,” he related, “what people in Israel heard was much bleaker than the situation was in reality. I had an Egyptian guard, but I was free to move around where and when I wanted. I didn’t feel any enmity.”
It helps, perhaps, that the Center is located in Cairo’s Dokki section, an upper-middle-class neighborhood. Nevertheless, the premises were inspected every morning before he entered. These premises are located on the third floor of a residential building near the Sheraton Hotel. There is no sign on the outside of the building, where Yasser Arafat’s brother once lived and a relative of Egyptian president Hosni Mubaraq still lives, to identify the Center. Perhaps because of different schedules, he never got to know any of the residents.
He did, though, gain close connection with several researchers, despite the fact that both “the universities themselves remained closed to us.”
“In Egypt,” he remarked, “nothing is done secretly. Some people didn’t want to be identified as having any association with Israel, so they didn’t come [in person]. But others did, and there were also telephone calls for information and help.
“We also interested ‘foreigners’—journalists, members of the diplomatic corps, heads of Egypt-based foreign research centers—to take advantage of what the Center offered.”  This included, amongst other things, the library, which Kushner’s wife reorganized and catalogued and which he had linked to library and other Internets sites in Israel. Toward the end of his tour of duty, local attendance picked up considerably, he added.
Boycotted by Egyptian radio and TV, the Israel Academic Center advertised its lecture series and other activities in some English-language publications, as well on the U.S. Academic Center’s Internet site.
“Little by little, the Egyptians learned that we Israelis don’t bite, that we really want to help. Word gets around, and in the end we received compliments from Egyptians for what we were doing. Israel looks a little less ugly to them. I hope this circle [of those who come to the Center] will widen.”
Asked if he would return to Egypt, Kushner replied: “As a Middle East researcher, I was very interested in living in that culture. I found it a very interesting country. Its [archeological] sites, its history—it was all fascinating. The people are very hospitable. Even when we identified ourselves as Israelis, they did not hesitate to act friendly toward us as if the so-called ‘Cold Peace’ did not exist between our two countries. I would definitely return.”

In This Issue:

Prof. Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, a Philosopher, Is Elected President Says Social Responsibility Should Be a Strategic Goal for the University

President Hayuth’s Last Report to Governors: ‘I leave behind me … a University that is well equipped, financially and academically, to meet the challenges ahead’

Prof. Manfred Lahnstein Re-Elected Chairman of University’s Board of Governors

Executive Committee Approves New Vice-Presidents

University Confers Honorary Doctorate on Lord Jacobs, Sammy Ofer, Prof. Bernard Cohen, and Yitzhak Ben-Aharon

Jacobs Building Dedicated

Sammy and Aviva Ofer Observation Gallery Dedicated

Kluger Building Dedicated

Honorary Fellow Bestowed on Alex Samuel

Hatter, Fraenkel, and Recanati Fellowships Awarded

Guy Bar-Oz, a Zooarcheologist, Awarded Dusty Miller Fellowship

Werner Otto Fellowships

Beijing and Haifa Cooperate to Help the Aged Tsinghua University Hosts UH Contingent

Prof. David Kushner: Expert on Turkey Reflects on His Cairo Assignment



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