What Can Medieval Spain Teach Us about Muslim-Jewish Relations?
Nirenberg, David (John Hopkins University)
CCAR Journal: A Reform Jewish Quarterly (Spring/Summer 2002)
Ever since the emergence of Jewish history as a discipline during the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment), the topic of Jewish-Muslim relations has been one of central interest. The reasons for that interest, however, have varied greatly. For example, when German-Jewish historians first took up the question (until the mid-twentieth century, professional historical research was mostly the province of Ashkenazic Jews), they did so with an eye to the history of their own homelands. Against a European tradition of anti-Semit- ism, Jewish historians posed an Islamic tradition of tolerance. Such contrasts were strategic, even educational, intended to help Christian Europeans see the injustice of their treatment of Jews. They invoked the relative tolerance of “backward Orientals” in order to criticize and combat the prejudice of “modern Europeans.” In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, under the pressure of mounting anti-Semitism, this contrast between an idealized experience under medieval Islam and a progression of tragedies under Christendom gained the status of unquestionable truth. It became, as a number of historians have recently put it, a historical myth, an important part of the standard narratives through which European Jews understood their history.
Today, the topic of Muslim-Jewish relations is still of central importance, but for very different reasons. In the latter half of the twentieth century, as the long conflict between the state of Israel and the Arab world became a central axis of Jewish consciousness a number of historians attempted to pull apart the old consensus. Some, quite rightly, criticized the received wisdom as idealized, pointing out that the medieval experience of Jews in Muslim lands was more complex than earlier authors allowed, while neverthe-less agreeing that it differed greatly from the fate of Jews in Christendom. Others, more extreme, argued that the hatred of the Muslim for the Jew is even more implacable and immutable than that of the Christian. The polemical stakes in the debate have propelled it from the rarely opened monographs of specialists to the pages of Ha-Aretz and Tikkun , and attracted a number of newvoices to the field of Jewish history. Muslim historians, for example, have taken up the topic, championing the older consensus inorder to portray Islam, not as anti-Semitic, but rather as traditionally tolerant.