Jordanian Professor Sums up His Year at University of Haifa

The peace that exists between Israel and Jordan is at best tepid in character. It will take people like Mohanna Haddad to transform it into a warm relationship.

Haddad, who just completed a 9-month stay here as a Visiting Professor in the University’s Dept. of Sociology and Anthropology, is professor of anthropology at the University of Yarmuk in Irbid, Jordan. He is the first Jordanian academic to have established more than a cursory relationship with the Israeli academic community.

Haddad talked at length with Focus about himself and his pioneering professorship at the University of Haifa.

When Israel and Jordan signed the peace treaty in the Arava in 1994, “something fell from our life in that one signature.” Haddad was trying to account for the reason that Jordanian academics and professionals snub their Israeli counterparts to the point of branding a traitor anyone, like Haddad, who establishes contact with them.

“We felt a void—on all levels,” he continued. The reason: “there was no further goal to live for.” That goal, though, had not been peace, which he said is philosophically difficult for the Arabs. The compensation for the peace treaty, however, turned out not to match Arab expectations, he explained.

“Why,” he asked rhetorically, and with implied criticism, “is peace not a goal in itself?”

It was curiosity that brought the 57-year-old Jordanian anthropologist to Israel. He wanted to know what made Israeli society tick. He had come in touch with Israeli students during the 14 years (1970—84) he lived in Holland. His son and daughter still live there.

But the question of how Israeli society—a society composed of immigrants from around the globe— “was not answered for us.” The formal peace treaty gave him the opportunity to get to know Israel from within, to satisfy his curiosity.

In one sense Haddad was disappointed, for he found that Israeli society was not much different from what he had expected. If it functioned differently, it was because it presented a different reality from Jordan‘s.

He gave the example of the automobile. In contrast to Israel, Jordan has no rush hours because of the relatively small number of vehicles on its roads, which in any case, he remarked, are less organized than those in Israel. Although Israelis in general, including drivers, tend to rush more than people do in Jordan, he did not experience bad driving here, a comment that surprised an American driver. Having brought over his own car, he had been a frequent traveler between Haifa and Tel Aviv during his months in Israel.

Another surprising comment had to do with Israeli students. Jordanian students, he said by way of comparison, are interested only in the diploma. He attributed this trait to the economic stress to which most Jordanian students are subject. Israeli students, however, have been similarly described, the characterization attributed to their entering higher education, after three years of army service, at an older age than their Western peers.

Haddad finds Israeli students to be very dedicated and to have much more personal curiosity than their Jordanian counterparts. They have more “liberty of thought,” as he put it, leading them, for example, to exploit the time in getting the knowledge they wanted when they came to his office. He misses that feature in his Jordanian students.

That Israeli students are also more involved politically stems from that aspect “touching on their fundamental existence.” He also thinks that Israeli students have it easier financially than do Jordanians.

In addition to observing Israeli society, the Jordanian professor had brought along a research agenda that focused on Iraqi Jews. It was not meant to be, however, for the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University was already dealing with that topic. Instead, he completed a study on Christians in the Middle East and reconsidered his doctoral dissertation on the image of the Jew in Arab literature to include the changing views of Judaism in the Arab world. Both works, written in English, will be published by the Truman Institute.

The latter is an important subject. He did not understand Judaism as an ethnicity when he lived in Europe, he said, and the Arabs have not the slightest conception of Judaism as both ethnicity and religion. For them, it denotes only the latter, just as Islam does, and involves no national adherence. He admits that “this is a misconception.”

Haddad went on: “Israeli as a concept does not exist in the Arab mind. This is an ambiguity that must be removed. It is now becoming clear to me how ethnicity sometimes combines with religion and sometimes does not combine.

“I realize that I must work on the conceptual problem. Elaborating on it in research would make a big contribution to removing the ambiguity.”

The change in thinking that Haddad hopes to bring about might well start at his own institution, the University of Yarmuk. He acknowledges that it is not yet ready to accept Israeli scholars the way the University of Haifa accepted him. The peace process did not discuss academic exchanges, so no Jordanian university will formally invite an Israeli lecturer or researcher. He adds that Jordanian students “seem obsessed with opposing the peace.”

As a pioneering academic, Haddad has thought of a unique means of circumventing this boycott. He plans to turn the entire ground floor of the new home he is building into a Jordanian peace research center. The floor will be equipped with computers, a library, and bedrooms. Formally the Israeli scholars he invites will then be his house guests.

“The wish of the Jordanian government is to implement peace as a strategy,” he reminds his interviewers. “A state university should not go against this wish.” The last comment seems more of an appeal to his countrymen than a criticism.

Although Haddad was the first Jordanian academic to hold a visiting position in an Israeli university, he pointed out that Jordanian students were studying in Israel—at Tel-Aviv and the Hebrew Universities and at a community college in the northern town of Karmiel—before his own appointment in Haifa. He himself also brought 12 Israeli students to intern in the field of paleontology at Yarmuk, terming it “a good experience.” His own lead will be followed next year, when a Jordanian scholar will spend the year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“I had a very rich experience,” Haddad sums up. “I hope more will do it. I hope my university will decide to invite students and scholars.”

Asked why his wife did not accompany him, Haddad answered that she is executive secretary to the president of Yarmuk University and could not get away for the year. Although she wants to visit Lebanon, she did plan to meet her husband in Israel for a 7-10 summer trip.

At Yarmuk, the “peace professor,” as he has been called here, teaches the theory of anthropology, the anthropology of religions, minorities, and research methods. His school seems to be following the trend evidenced in Israel and around the world of more and more women gaining a higher education. In 1995, he said, female students constituted 18% of the student body; last year, they numbered 32%.

For all his admiration of the Israeli society being built here, which he sees as “strong and dedicated,” the Jordanian anthropologist was not without criticism. He is especially critical of what he sees as the government’s basic distrust of its Arab citizens.

From his visits to Israeli Arab villages, moreover, he also learned that villagers’ relations with Israeli Jews are at best only on a formal level. Israeli Arabs, he inferred, have a sense of inferiority when it comes to dealing with the Jewish population. Haddad called the lack of confidence in this sector of the population “disastrous for the State.”