A newly hired New York Times columnist is an anti-Israel conspiracy theorist who is so opposed to "normalization" with the Jewish state that he once fought to prevent a think tank from translating his novel into Hebrew.
Influential Egyptian author Alaa al-Aswany sparked controversy in literary circles in 2010 when he tried to block the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information from publishing a Hebrew translation of his novel The Yacoubian Building.
IPCRI co-chairman Gershon Baskin told the Washington Free Beacon that his organization enlisted Amos Schocken, the editor of left-leaning Israeli daily Haaretz, to publish the Hebrew translation. However, Aswany would not give Schocken or the IPCRI permission.
"I met [Aswany] at the Gothenburg book fair in Sweden, and introduced myself, and gave him a letter … asking for permission to translate [the Yacoubian Building] and to pay him for the royalties," IPCRI co-chairman Gershon Baskin told the Washington Free Beacon. "He responded that he would refuse to have it published in Israel."
Aswany’s book had already been translated into 19 languages at the time, according to The Guardian.
Baskin said he was later informed that during an interview with a Ph.D. student, Aswany threatened to give any royalties from the book’s Hebrew translation to Hamas.
"He started yelling, and said ‘if it’s published in Israel, I’ll give the royalties to Hamas,’" said Baskin. "When I heard that, I said, excuse my language, ‘fuck him’—and we’re going to make it available to people as an educational service."
Baskin said he consulted with lawyers and found a way to legally publish the translation for a limited time for educational purposes. He said 2,000 copies have been downloaded.
Despite the backlash from Aswany, Baskin still calls The Yacoubian Building "an extremely important book."
While Aswany is considered one of Egypt’s most prominent intellectuals, he is also an outspoken anti-Israel conspiracy theorist, according to Middle East observers.
He has claimed that a "massive Zionist organization rules America" and that "[President Barack] Obama is not able to go against Israel’s desires," the Washington Institute’s Egypt expert Eric Trager reported last week in the New Republic.
Trager wrote that Aswany "often uses his very public platform to reinforce some of Egypt’s most popular bigotries—and he typically does this when speaking or tweeting in Arabic, which is why the Western press often misses this aspect of his public persona."
The Hudson Institute’s Samuel Tadros, author of Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity, said that this notion of a global Zionist conspiracy is "at the center of how Aswany explains the universe."
"It’s quite problematic because [the New York Times column] gives him a place where he can spread more of his lunacies," said Tadros. "There’s always the argument of ‘Who cares, the guy believes [some] crazy stuff, so what?’ But it’s that crazy stuff that then gets spread among the Western journalists, among Western readership."
According to Tadros, Aswany should not be mistaken for an Egyptian liberal.
"He’s not an Islamist and he’s not a supporter of the [Hosni] Mubarak regime, and there has been a habit in the West to portray anybody who’s neither one of the two as somehow a liberal," said Tadros. "There are actually very few liberals, if any, in the country."
Tadros said Aswany’s anti-Israel commentary is not confined to Arabic and was also apparent in some of his columns for World Affairs Journal, which Aswany wrote for from 2010 to 2012.
In one 2011 column, Aswany argued that Mubarak was controlled by Israel, and said the Jewish state "intervene[d] forcefully to sabotage the revolution" in Egypt.
The Times did not respond to request for comment.