To say that Farouk Hosni doesn't much like Israel is putting it lightly. According to the Anti-Defamation League, he has called it "inhuman," and "an aggressive, racist, and arrogant culture, based on robbing other people's rights and the denial of such rights." He has accused Jews of "infiltrating" world media. And in May 2008, Hosni outdid even himself, telling the Egyptian parliament that he would "burn right in front of you" any Israeli books found in the country's libraries.
What's shocking is not just that Hosni has said these things, but that he is Egypt's culture minister -- and even more scandalous, that he is the likely next head of UNESCO, the arm of the United Nations sworn to defend cultural diversity and international artistic cooperation. Less surprising but also sadly true is that Hosni's opinions about Israeli culture are par for the course among Egypt's intelligentsia, for whom 30 years of official peace with the Jewish state, the longest of any Arab country, have done virtually nothing to moderate its rampant Judeophobia. If anything, the opposite might be true.
This affair has sparked protests from prominent intellectuals and politicians in Israel and around the world. And the only reason Hosni even has a shot at the UNESCO job, which he'd be the first Arab to hold, is because, in a major reversal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently lifted his country's opposition to the Egyptian's candidacy. How this came to pass remains shrouded in mystery. All that's known is that on May 11, Netanyahu met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and was convinced not to block the culture minister's candidacy in return for some unpublicized conditions. A few weeks later, Farouk Hosni penned an apologetic article in Le Monde, retracting his statement on book burning. Soon after that, he pledged that Egypt's culture ministry would translate literary works by two Israelis, Amos Oz and David Grossman. This seemed like a significant concession because official Egyptian policy mostly bars translation from Hebrew to Arabic -- or at least any dealings with Israeli publishers.
But what appeared to be signs of positive change in Egypt's literary elite were actually just reflections of its deep-seated hostility to Jewish and Israeli culture. Hosni was quickly and widely attacked as "courting Zionist influence" by his fellow members of the Egyptian intelligentsia. In fact, Gaber Asfour, the head of Egypt's National Translation Center, immediately denied any link between the translations and Hosni's UNESCO campaign. He clarified that there would be no translation of the Israeli authors from Hebrew at all, but rather from existing European translations, so as not to have to actually deal with the Israeli rights-holders themselves. Although there are certainly a lot of books about Israel on the market in Egypt -- most of them full of conspiracy theories or tendentious views of Jewish history -- Egypt's head translator said he wanted to publish more, if not directly from the Hebrew. For his justification, he quoted an Arabic proverb: "Who knows the language of a people is safe from their evil."
This whole imbroglio only serves to highlight the Egyptian literati's generally hateful and hidebound views of Israel, which are often more virulent than those of the Egyptian public at large. To this day, Egyptian cultural figures and academics are professionally barred from contacts with Israelis. Even the faculty senate at the American University in Cairo passed a resolution urging a boycott of Israeli scholars and schools. In July, the longtime management of the Atelier du Caire, the main gathering place for the city's artists and writers, fell to a coup mounted by a group of disgruntled members; the charge was incompetence and catering to Israelis. And Egypt's greatest modern writer, the late Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, was nearly expelled in 2001 from the Egyptian Writers' Union simply because many of his books had been published in Israel.