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Mark R. Cohen - Islam and the Jews - Myth, Myth, History

Mark R. Cohen - Islam and the Jews - Myth, Myth, History

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Islam
and
the Jews: Myth,Counter-Myth, History
Mark
R.
Cohen
You
know,
my
brethren,
that on account of our sins God
hascast us into the midst of this people, the nation of Ishmael,who persecutes us severely, and who devises ways to harm
us and
to debase us... No nation
has ever
done
more
harm toIsrael. None has been able to reduce us as they have.Thus wrote
Maimonides
to the persecuted Jews of Yemen late inthe twelfth century. In recent years the issue addressed by himhas aroused
new
and impassioned interest - indeed, a highly poli-ticized debate, in books, articles, and public
forums,
on the ques-tion:
How did
the
Jews
fare under Islamic
rule in
the Middle Ages?Were they treated better than their brethren in Europe, or wastheir situation perhaps similar to, if not, as Maimonides suggests,worse than, that of the persecuted Jews of Christendom?Two radically divergent answers to this question have been of-fered. One is the well-known thesis - or rather,
myth
- of theJewish-Islamic interfaith
Utopia,
a 'golden age' of toleration, of political achievement, and of remarkably integrated cultural ef-florescence.
This myth was inventedby nineteenth-century
Euro-
pean Jewish intellectuals frustrated by the tortuously slow
pro-
gress of their own integration into gentile society in the age of emancipation; it went hand-in-hand with the so-called 'lachry-mose conception' of European
Jewish
history, according to whichJewish life in medieval Christian Europe was one long chain of 
Hark
R.
Cohen teaches Jewish History at Princeton University. A longer
ver-
sion
of this essay, withextensiveannotations, will be published in The
Solomon
Goldman
Lectures,
volume 4, by The Spertus College of 
Judaica
Press.
[Wis
Jerusalem
Quarterly.
Number Thirty-Eight,
1986]
 
Originally promulgated by Jewish writers, the myth
of
Judeo-
Islamic harmony (contrasted with Judeo-Christian conflict) has
in
our
own time
been appropriated by Arabs and by Western sym-pathizers with the Arab struggle against Israel, who attempt,through the use of history, to explain and in fact justify modernArab anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. They argue, explicitly orimplicitly, that the current disharmony between
Jews
and Arabsis not to be attributed to any
long-standing
Arab or Islamic anti-Semitism. Rather, as Jewish historians themselves have claimed,
Jews
and Arabs lived in peace and friendship for centuries;
there-
fore, the source of modern Arab antipathy towards Israel is theJews themselves, who destroyed the old harmony when theybegan to threaten Muslim-Arab rights to the land of Palestine.An early example of this adoption of the Jewish myth of theinterfaith Utopia can be found in George Antonius' book,
The
Arab A
wakening.
'
Among more recent publications are Ibrahim
Amin
Ghali's
Le
monde
arabe et lesjuifs
,
2
and, in Arabic,
Qasim'
Abduh
(^sini'sal-yahudfiMisrrnundhal-fathal-isldmihattdal-ghazw
al-
'uthmani
(The Jews of Egypt from the Islamic Conquest to theOttoman Invasion),
3
as well as the paper given by Said
Abdel
Fat-tah Ashour at the Fourth Conference of the Academy of Islamic
Research atal-Azhar
University in Cairo in September,
1968.
(En-titled
'al-yahud
fi
'l-'usur
al-wusta:
dirasa muqarina bayn
al-
sharq
wa-'l-gharb',
it was published both in the Arabic
original
4
and in the
official
English translation of the
conference
proceed-ings
5
under the title,
Jews
in the Middle Ages: Comparative Study
of East
and West'.)
Dismayed by contemporary Arab exploitation of 
the myth
of the
interfaith Utopia in the service of the cause against Israel, someJewish writers have, lamentably, invented a 'counter-myth' totake its place. Echoing and often citing Maimonides' dark
view
of Islamic treatment of the Jews, these writers indict Islam as con-genitally and relentlessly persecutory. And, by transposing thetheory of Jewish suffering from Christendom to Islam,
they
havecreated what we may call the
'neo-lachrymose'
conception of theJewish past.
6
' New York. Capricorn Books, 1965, especially pp. 391-392, 410 (originallypublished 1946)
1
Paris' Editions
Cujas, 1972.
3
Beirut:
al-Madrasa al-'Arabiyya li
1-Dirasat
wa-'l-Nashr,
1980.
*
Cairo:
Matba'atal-MadanI,
n.d.,
II,
pp. 349-361.
s
Cairo: General Organization for Government Printing Office, 1970, pp497-505."
Some
examples:
Sauls.
Friedlander,
The Myth
of
Arab'Toleration
1
,
Midstream
16, oo. 1 (January, 1970), pp. 56-59; Maurice M
Roumani
in collaborationwith Deborah Goldman and Helene Korn, The Persecution of Jews in ArabLands', in
The Case
of
the
Jews
from Arab Countries. A Neglected Issue,
vol.1 (Jerusalem: World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries, 1975), pp.
41
-57, Martin Gilbert,
The Jews of Arab Lands: Their History in Maps
(lon-don:
Furnival
Press,
1975;
Rose Lewis, 'Muslim Grandeur and the Spanish
126
 
One well known promulgator of this revisionist trend sufferedpersonal humiliation when she was expelled along with otherJews from Egypt in 1956. Writing under the pseudonym BatYe'or, 'Daughter of the Nile',
she
has published several pamphletsand books sounding the theme of congenital and unremitting
Arab-Islamic persecutionofthe
non-Muslim
religions.
Her
French
book
on the subject
has
just appeared
in
an expanded English ver-sion called
TheDhimmi:
Jews and Christians Under Islam
7
and
itconstitutes a classic example of this revisionist trend. Another is journalist Joan Peters' recently published
From Time Imme-morial: The Origins
of
the Arab-Jewish Conflict over Palestine
.
e
This work has gained considerable notoriety for its provocative
assault
upon
the historical argument
defending
Arab claims to the
land of Palestine. In her introductory chapters Peters presents alitany of instances of 
anti-Jewish
persecution in the
pre-modern
Islamic world, arguing overtly against Arab rhetoric espousingthe myth of the interfaith Utopia as well as against the view,shared by many Jewish and
non-Jewish
writers alike, 'that theJews were, during certain periods in the Arab lands, "better ofthan they were in Christian lands of Europe'.While
the
myth of the interfaith
Utopia
was certainly in need of correction, the counter-myth, with its implicit transvaluation of the older conception of the relative status of the
Jews
of the West
and
the East,
does
not represent a
fairer
reading of the past.
A
more
balanced approach, such as that taken by Bernard Lewis in hisrecent book,
The Jews of Islam,
9
or by Norman Stillman in thehistorical introduction to his source book,
The Jews of Arab Lands
,'°
is badly needed. That is because, as any careful and sys-tematic reading of the historical sources
shows,
despite the theolo-gical intolerance that Islam shared with Christendom, the
Jews
of Islam experienced far greater security and far more integrationwith the majority society than their brethren in Europe. Duringthe first six centuries of Islam, the period embracing the so-called"Golden
Age'
that has been the focus of attention by proponents of both the old myth and the new counter-myth, the incidence of violent persecution, with great
loss
of life, was comparatively
low.
The discriminatory restrictions of the
so-called
Pact of 
'Umar,
most of
them adopted
from Byzantine-Christian anti-Jewish
legis-lation,
were
more
often than
not observed
in
the breach.
Such
irra-
Jews',
Midstream
23,
no. 2 (February, 1977), pp. 26-37;
idem,
Maimonidesand the Muslims',
ibid.
25, no. 9 (November,
1979),
pp.
16-22;
Eliezer Whart-
man,
'Islam vs. the Jews, Zionism and Israel',
Newsview
(July 5, 1983), pp.
12-17.
Rutherford, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985.New York: Harper and Row,
1984.
The quotation at the end of this paragraph
is from page
75.
Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1984.
Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America,
1979.
The present writerreviewed this book in the
Association for Jewish Studies Newsletter,
no. 28(March, 1981), pp. 13-14.127

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