Mostafa Hussein is an assistant professor in the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies and a 2019 Collegiate Fellow at the U-M College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. His research focuses on the intersections between Arab and Jewish communities in Palestine, Israel, and the Middle East. Driven by acknowledging complicated histories, Hussein works to unite communities that are often pitted against one another in the region. A consummate educator, Hussein says, “I teach my students that you really need to know about your neighbor, your coworker, and about the people who you meet at the marketplace.”  

LSA: How would you describe the work you do? What are you most passionate about and why?

Mostafa Hussein: I am an intellectual historian who studies the intertwined worlds of Jews and Muslims. I utilize historical, literary, and scriptural sources to shed light on the entanglement between both communities and how they have influenced one another in myriad creative ways from the Middle Ages to modern times. The political, cultural, and social tension in the contemporary Middle East between Israel and Palestinians on one hand, and between Israel and its neighboring Arab countries on the other, has constructed a gloomy portrayal of Jewish-Arab or Jewish-Muslim history, which goes back to the rise of Islam in the seventh century. 

It is unfortunate to say that this reductive approach to Jewish-Muslim relations is so powerful that it has created cultural and psychological barriers between both people, not only in the Middle East but also in Europe and in the United States. Because I recognize both the richness of this relationship, and that a politically informed and motivated counter-narrative exists which seeks to whitewash this history, I have been compelled from an early point in my studies to resist the latter and concentrate on the former.

LSA: How did you get into your research and what drives you?

MH: As an undergraduate I decided to major in Jewish studies. At the time, when I researched Jewish history and culture in Arabic and Hebrew, I found a huge disparity between reality and history. In reality, because of political circumstances after 1948, history was perceived as only of violence, war, and conflict between Jews and Muslims, but when I read the books and archival materials, particularly the Geniza documents, manuscripts that record Jewish history from the sixth through 19th centuries, I discovered very rich relations between Jews and Arabs. Ultimately, I became more interested in exploring episodes that captured the intertwined worlds of both peoples.

Also, while growing up in Egypt, Jews were mostly represented as Zionists in the media due to the Arab-Israeli conflict. And there is a conflation between Jewish people and Zionism that is very damaging. The idea that all Jews support Zionism and Jewish nationalism in Israel/Palestine at the expense of the Palestinian native population, with whom I share language, history, and religion even, is false. So, I began asking myself if there were fallacies, what else could I learn?

LSA: Can you describe your current book project, Islam and Jewish Culture in Palestine, 1881-1948?

MH: My book is an attempt to resist binaries underpinning the prevalent narrative that has long isolated the Jewish and the Hebrew from the Islamic and the Arab. It focuses on a crucial period in the history of Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, from the late-19th to mid-20th centuries in Palestine/Israel. Guided by principles of relational history, the book explores interactions between Jews and Arabs (be they Christians or Muslims) beyond the violent and political sphere, without neglecting their effect on relations between both people.

In addition to the exploration of influence both Jews and Arabs exerted on one another, I pay close attention to the diversity of Arabs and Jews in assessing their mutual relationship. The paradigm of historical interpretation that assumes both Jewish and Arab communities in Palestine were “primordial, self-contained, and largely monolithic entities,” appears inattentive to the social, cultural, and political dynamics within each category. The book examines how ethnicity, indigeneity, and immigration played out in intercultural relations between both groups, particularly when grappling with issues that informed national thought, such as land, language, and people.

LSA: What are you teaching? And what do you hope students take away from your classroom?

MH: I teach courses that help students understand the multidimensional aspects of relations between Jews and Muslims, while simultaneously challenging preconceptions and assumptions. The United States is a rich country in a sense of the inclusion of various groups who originate from different societies but, through immigration, were able to come and live in this country. People with different languages, racial backgrounds, religious beliefs, and histories are found in many places—in the neighborhood, in the workplace, and in the market—so I teach my students that we should be armed with adequate knowledge, patience, and understanding to cherish diversity and embrace it. I also use a variety of sources to make the intellectual journey as enjoyable and challenging as possible.

As for takeaways, I think that if we open our eyes we can enjoy a symphony, not a cacophony, we can enjoy a colorful garden, not just a garden of a single color. I think that if we just open our eyes, and our minds, we can further embrace diversity and beauty which has a value that we should all appreciate in practicing our humanity.  


*This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


Mostafa Hussein is an assistant professor of Judaic studies and a 2019 LSA Collegiate Fellow. This story is part of a series highlighting the research of LSA Collegiate Fellows, a program of the National Center for Institutional Diversity (NCID) at the University of Michigan. The LSA Collegiate Fellows is one of the most innovative programs in higher education, recruiting and retaining faculty who are experts in their fields and have demonstrated commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion through their scholarship, teaching, and/or engagement.