Wednesday, 10 April 2013

"Jewish Studies in Urdu": The Story of Dr. Aafreedi

Aryeh Savir, Weekly Press Pakistan, March 24, 2013
 
Dr. Aafreedi, a Professor of Jewish studies and a Jewish-Muslim Relations Activist from India, has concluded a speaking tour as a visiting scholar in Australia recently. This follows a month long tour in Israel this past summer, during which he attended conferences and lectured on various Indian-Israeli-Jewish topics, offering a unique perspective. dr. navras
Dr. Navras Jaat Aafreedi, aged thirty four, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History & Civilization, School of Humanities & Social Sciences, Gautam Buddha University in Greater NOIDA, a satellite town of Delhi.
He declares himself religiously non-observant. His mother comes from a Hindu-Sikh parentage. His father is a non-conformist Muslim. He thinks that his upbringing in an environment of religious diversity, discussion, understanding and appreciation, buttressed by study and empathy have provides an exceptional background for his academic pursuits.
While studying the history of medieval and modern India, he was increasingly attracted towards the history of Jews; the vicissitudes of their struggle for survival; and their singular achievements despite seemingly insuperable difficulties. He realized that the history of Jews in India needed to be researched. His PhD thesis is entitled “The Indian Jewry and the Self-Professed ‘Lost Tribes of Israel’ in India”. He is the first person to make any contributions to Jewish Studies in the Urdu language, which is the lingua franca of almost all South Asian Muslims, who represent the largest Muslim population in the world. He spent a year studying at Tel Aviv University for post-doctoral research on the “Traditions of Israelite Descent among Certain Muslim Groups in South Asia”. He did a socio-historical study of the three Jewish communities, the two Judaizing movements, the two Muslims groups that have traditions of having descended from the lost tribes of Israel, and the two non-Jewish groups with traditions of Jewish origin in India. The intention was not to establish the historicity of the claims of Israelite origins that those groups make, but rather to explore why they claim what they do and what is it that makes some of the religious Jews take them seriously.
“I have continued with my research in India, and during this period have interviewed a number of Muslim clerics, journalists, academics, litterateurs and students to ascertain their attitudes towards Jews, Israel and Zionism and to understand what shapes their perceptions and how a positive change can be brought about in their attitudes.” He grew up in Lucknow, a center of Islamic scholarship and one of the major Shia cultural centers of the world, right in the center of the Muslim heartland of South Asia. Here he worked to bring about a positive change in the Muslim attitudes towards Jews, Israel and Zionism through various means, as a Fellow of the Center for Communication & Development Studies, Pune, under its youth outreach program called “Open Space” which aims to engage the youth with society in a meaningful manner. “I was struck by the fact that in spite of the absence of Jews in Lucknow, they find frequent mention in the Muslim discourse there, which is invariably always negative in nature. Global Jewish conspiracy theories were common, despite their small numbers. This triggered my interest in them. The more I read about them the more my interest grew. I came to admire Jews for their scholarship, resilience and tenacity and was inspired to try to bring a positive change in the attitudes of Muslims towards them” Aaafreedi said.
In this climate of anti-Jewish bias and fundamentalism, he still believes that a change in attitude towards Israel, Zionism and the Jews is still possible. “As the great Muslim scholar Prof. Akbar S. Ahmed says, “Hatred thrives on falsehood”, I believe that if awareness is created through the spread of information, it can help in eliminating many misconceptions that people have. For instance, a number of Muslims in India are under the impression that the two mosques at the temple mount in Jerusalem are not accessible to Muslims because of the Israeli control. They are certainly unaware of the high standard of living enjoyed by the Arab citizens of Israel and the fact that they enjoy equal rights and have full freedom to follow their religion. While the issue of Palestinian refugees is all over in the Indian media, the fact that Jews were driven out of Arab countries in large numbers after the creation of the modern state of Israel is never even mentioned. In spite of the fact that South Asia has had resident Jewish communities for more than two millennia, most of the South Asians, including Muslims, have never had any interaction with Jews, because of their small numbers. Hence, Jews are often known to South Asians via a secondary source such as the Bible, European fiction, and in the case of Muslims, the Qur’an, and not as a result of direct contact. The South Asian Muslim perception of Jews is formed by the Muslim press. Hence, a majority of South Asian Muslims, who have never had any interaction with Jews, harbor feelings of hostility and antagonism towards them. The Indian Muslim antagonism towards Israel kept India from formally establishing diplomatic relations with the State of Israel for four decades, as, to put it plainly, the Indian politicians feared losing the Muslim vote bank if the Indian state established diplomatic ties with Israel.”
He believes the change in perception will come by education and information. “The more resources I have the wider outreach I would have. I tried to make the most of the limited resources that I had and organized a number of events to bring Lucknow’s Muslims into direct contact with Jews, by organizing cross-cultural and international student dialogues at the University of Lucknow and by inviting Jewish filmmakers to screen their films and to speak about their films, by inviting Jewish writers to read out excerpts from their books. I also tried to introduce the Muslim students in particular and Indian students in general to introduce them to Jewish cinema and literature. I also got a number of Muslim intellectuals to speak against anti-Semitism. I made an effort to eliminate misconceptions and to bring into sharp focus the Jewish contributions to the world, and also to make the youth aware of the many vicissitudes that the Jews have had to go through in their history, and continue to do so through various means. Since I started working as an Assistant Professor, I have designed a number of courses with Jewish themes embedded in them in a camouflaged manner, as I failed to get approval for my proposed courses focused on Jewish themes and on the Holocaust. It is hard to get approval for such courses in Indian academia, as the administration fears that it might lose the goodwill of its political masters if any action of theirs has a detrimental effect on their political masters’ Muslim votes. I developed strategies to make the students aware of the Holocaust. For instance, when I was assigned the task to teach History of Science & Technology to engineering students I made them all write an article on the Misuse of Science & Technology during the Holocaust with reference to the use of gas chambers and human experimentation. This was the only way I could make them aware of it. After joining the Gautam Buddha University, it did not take me long to realize that it would not be possible to get permission to organize the Holocaust films retrospective at the university, hence I introduced a series of weekly film screenings, as part of which I screen films on the Holocaust or on other Jewish themes.”
During his tour in Israel, Dr. Aafreedi lectured at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust, during which he conducted a workshop on ‘Educating India’s Population on Hitler and the Final Solution’.
He came away with unique perceptions on Israel and the Israelis. “I would like to draw their attention to a few important things: They must never lose hope for peace. Most of the acts of Muslim aggression have been perpetrated by just one Muslim sect, the Wahabis or Salafis, which proves that it is certainly possible to have cordial relations with the rest of the Muslims. Jewish contributions to the world at large and to the Muslim world in particular should be highlighted. Availability of Holocaust literature and cinema should be ensured in all languages of the world. While Hitler’s Mien Kamf is readily available in almost all Indian languages, the only book on the Shoah in India’s national language Hindi is a thin publication from Yad Vashem with Frequently Asked Questions about the Holocaust.”
As for Israel, Aafreedi says that he has always been fascinated by the country that produced two of the world’s greatest religions which in turn led to Islam. “I fell in love with Israel during the one year that I spent there in 2006-2007 for my post-doctorate. What impresses me in particular is the indomitable spirit of the Israelis, their amazing achievements in the face of adversities and obstacles combined with their zest for life.”
Dr. Aafreedi is also Editor International and coordinator of Advisory Board of Weekly Press Pakistan.

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