"Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages," by Mark Cohen, Princeton University Press, 1994, 280 pages. Translated into Hebrew by Michal Sela, Haifa University, Zmora-Bitan publishers, 2001, 408 pages, NIS 82
At the beginning of the 1980s, at the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, I moderated a public debate on the subject "The attitude of the Arabs and Islam to Judaism." The two main speakers were young scholars from the United States, both of them wonderfully knowledgeable in the history of Islam and Judaism. One was Norman Stillman, now a senior professor at the University of Oklahoma, among whose publications is "Jews in Arab Lands," an important two-volume sourcebook on the history of the Jews in the Arab countries. The other was Mark Cohen of Princeton University, a well-known genizah (a depository for sacred documents) researcher, who has published many studies of Jewish communities and communal institutions in the Muslim world during the Middle Ages.
In the discussion, Stillman took a "pessimistic" approach that sees the shadows in the relations between Islam and Judaism. In his talk he related to concepts such as jihad (holy war), dhimmi (non-Muslims living under the protection of an Arab state), the Omar's covenant and the constitution of Medina. Cohen, however, brought evidence that, in his opinion, reflects the humane attitude of Islam toward adherents of the other two monotheistic religions, Christianity and Judaism.
After that discussion at the Diaspora Museum, a debate on the subject developed in the pages of American and Israeli publications (articles appeared in the American journal Tikkun and in The Jerusalem Quarterly, Zmanim and others).
In 1994, Mark Cohen's comprehensive book "Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages" was published by Princeton University Press, and the Hebrew translation has recently been published in Israel. This is a thorough study, in the preparation of which Prof. Cohen invested many years of work, covering materials and topics that hitherto had not been discussed in such depth. Cohen does not confine himself to the relationship between Islam and Judaism; throughout the book he systematically compares the fate of Jews under Islam to the fate of Jews in Christian Europe during the Middle Ages. In this way, he sheds comparative light not only on the first circle, Islam-Judaism, but also on the second circle, Christianity-Judaism. Even if Cohen is not strictly a scholar of medieval Europe and its Jews, the comparison with the Islamic world illuminates corners of Christianity to which only a researcher familiar with the Arabic sources could call attention.
While some of Cohen's conclusions are based on sharp discriminations found in the monumental book by the American Jewish historian Salo W. Baron, "A Social and Religious History of the Jews," he has taken from the world of the Cairo genizah many new examples that have enriched and expanded Baron's formulations. Among other things, Cohen anchors his discussion of the "neo-lachrymose conception of Jewish history" which in his opinion, and Baron's, correctly defines the writings of Jewish historians on the Middle Ages and which, our author believes, muddled their historical outlook.
The book opens with an extensive survey of the approaches that have characterized "modern" Jewish history, that is, primarily writings of the past 200 years about the world of Islam during the Middle Ages. Initially, these historians developed a myth of the inter-religious utopia that prevailed, they thought, in the Muslim world at the time. Historian Heinrich Graetz wrote about the "Golden Age" in Muslim Spain during the 10th and 11th centuries: "Here the Sons of Judah were free to raise their heads, and did not need to look about them with fear and humiliation lest the ecclesiastical wrath be discharged upon them. ... Here they were not shut out from the paths of honor, nor excluded from the privileges of the state." Further on, Graetz sings a glorious hymn of praise to the world of Islam, where the Jews, "untrammeled, were allowed to develop their powers in the midst of a free, simple and talented people, to show their manly courage, to compete for the gifts of fame, and with practiced hand to measure swords with their antagonists."
This optimistic myth has been adopted in recent generations by many Arab writers, particularly in the context of the argument with Zionism, which in their opinion was solely responsible for the decline in the good relationship between the two religions, Islam and Judaism. Today, this thesis is accepted as a kind of example through the length and breadth of the Arab world. Cohen comments on this Arab myth: "Arab polemical exploitation of the myth of the interfaith utopia, coupled with Jewish awareness of the prevalence of anti-Semitism in the Arab world, catalyzed a reevaluation of the history of Jewish-Muslim relations which I call interchangeably, the `countermyth of Islamic persecution of Jews' and the `neo-lachrymose conception of Jewish-Arab history.' It achieved prominence after the Six-Day War, beginning with publications appearing in the Diaspora, especially in popular forums."
This countermyth, which began in propaganda and journalistic circles, also found a place in the writings of academic researchers, who sought evidence of "Arab anti-Semitism," and spoke of mutual hostility rather than harmony. One of the more militant polemics in this context was written by a Jewish woman of Egyptian origin, whose pen-name was Bat Yeor. About 40 years ago she published a book entitled "The Dhimmi, Jews and Christians Under Islam" (published in Hebrew in 1986 in a translation by Aharon Amir) in which she tied to prove with the aid of a variety of sources that there had been "1,300 years of suffering and humiliation."
Some of these writers accuse the Arab world of being anti-Jewish, even anti-Semitic, and sometimes even voice the false claim that the Christian world was more humane in its attitude toward Jews, even in the Middle Ages.
Perhaps this is the main reason Cohen has built his book in a comparative way. He does not ignore anti-Jewish and anti-Christian tendencies that developed in the Muslim world since the beginning of the Middle Ages, which were expressed both in discriminatory laws and a hostile attitude, even real persecutions, in some parts of that world. However, throughout his book Cohen stresses that hostility toward Jews was central in the medieval Christian world, as they were seen as "God-killers;" that the persecutions and pogroms that occurred in European communities throughout the Middle Ages were not "exceptional" but rather reflected the murderous essence of Christian theology at the time.
The Jews are condemned to death in the consciousness of Christian theology, and perhaps they would have been totally destroyed had it not been for the doctrine formulated by Saint Augustine in the fourth and fifth centuries, whereby the existence of the Jewish people after the coming of Jesus Christ is "evidence" of the truth of the Christian faith, or as he put it in one of his sermons: "Strangely enough, by means of this people [i.e. the Jewish people], enemies of the Christian faith, proof has been furnished to the Gentiles as manifestly the prophecies were fulfilled, they should think that the Scriptures were made up by the Christians."
Many people of the school that speaks of Muslim anti-Semitism rely on a major source, Maimonides, who in his youth witnessed harsh persecutions by Muslim extremists, the Muwahhidun, who conquered his birthplace, Cordoba. But in the end, he found comfort and glory in another Muslim city, Cairo, where he flourished and became the leader of his people and the friend of Muslim rulers and writers like Al-Qadi al-Fadil, a writer and poet who was the confidant of the ruler Saladin. In his "Epistle to Yemen," Maimonides has harsh things to say about "the nation of Ishmael" and its attitude toward the Jews, and sums up with the words: "No nation has ever done more harm to Israel. None has matched it in debasing and humiliating us."
Cohen explains that, together with what he had seen in his youth in Spain, "The persecution of Jews in nearby Yemen must have confirmed Maimonides' sense that he was living in a time of unprecedented persecution. While these circumstances seem to offer sufficient explanation for Maimonides' extremely unfavorable generalization about Islamic-Jewish relations, his statement in the `Epistle to Yemen' was taken out of context and hoisted as the banner or `prooftext' of the new train of thinking [by those who accuse Islam of being inherently anti-Semitic]."
"Under Crescent and Cross" includes various comparative chapters concerning the legal status of Jews, their economic situation and social conditions. In the chapters in Section Four, titled "In the Social Order," Cohen displays his full abilities as a researcher. As a genizah researcher he has followed in the footsteps of the late Prof. S.D. Goitein (Cohen is considered to be one of his outstanding students), and has developed an impressive familiarity with the social life of the "genizah Jews," the Jews of Islam. In one of these chapters, "Hierarchy, Marginality and Ethnicity," Cohen refines the concept of marginality in the context of the Middle Ages, and sums up his remarks:
"I have applied considerations of hierarchy and marginality to our subject to arrive at a new theoretical approach to conceptualizing the place of the Jews in the social order of the two societies in which they lived in the Middle Ages. Summarizing and evaluating the discussion so far, the following can be stated: Within the `natural' hierarchical social orders of medieval Christendom and Islam, Jews had a recognized place, albeit at a very low rank. Egalitarian assimilation was not a possibility, but neither the ruling group nor the subordinate Jews wanted integration. The former perceived it as contrary to `right order,' while the latter viewed it as a threat to communal and religious solidarity. Nevertheless, the marginal situation associated with hierarchy offered numerous opportunities for positive interaction. Whereas Jews as a group occupied a recognized, low rank in the medieval hierarchy, individuals were capable of crossing barriers.
"For Jews in Christendom, marginality degenerated into exclusion during the long period from the Early to the High and especially Late Middle Ages, as they were increasingly restricted to residential quarters (not yet ghettos), physically assaulted, forced to abandon Judaism, murdered individually or in groups, and expelled. Islamic society allowed Jews and Christians the benefits of living in a marginal situation within its hierarchical social order, but the marginal situation had greater staying power there. And it did not degenerate into exclusion via expulsion."
The book is full of new information, along with surprising conclusions that represent a desire to be balanced and unbiased. Space is too short to touch upon them all, but it is impossible not to mention at least one of them, which also concerns the issue of marginality. Toward the end of the book, Cohen devotes a short chapter to an interesting incarnation of the term galut ("diaspora" or "exile") in letters written by Italian and other European travelers who visited the Muslim region - at a time when the Muslim world was sinking and the European Renaissance beginning. Rabbi Obadiah of Bartenoro, who visited here in 1488, wrote: "In truth, the Jews do not experience galut from the Arabs at all in this place. I have traveled the entire country ... and no one says a negative word. Rather, they are very kind to the foreigner, especially to one who does not know the language. When they see many Jews together, they do not express any envy."
And in 1535, David dei Rossi wrote: "Here there is not galut as there is in our homeland. Hatred of the Jews is, in contrast to our homeland, unknown here." Cohen concludes that in these texts, galut "comes close to meaning exclusion. Three Jews from Christian Europe - where, by the end of the Middle Ages, the Jews were substantially excluded from majority society - observed with considerable surprise that the indigenous Jews of Islam were not similarly excluded from the social order of their surroundings."
Cohen does not attempt to conceal or obfuscate the bleak moments in Muslim history, during which the Jews and the Christians suffered. Among these harsh events he mentions the persecution and slaughter of 1011 in Egypt under the Fatimid ruler Al-Hakim, the slaughter in Granada in which the Jewish vizier Yehosaf, the son of Shmuel Hanagid, was killed in 1066, as well as persecutions in North Africa, Spain and Yemen. However, overall the author maintains his position that in comparison with the medieval Christian world, the situation of the Jews under Islam was, in general, far more tolerable.
The great virtue of this book (which has recently been ably translated into Hebrew by Michal Sela), is that its author has wisely detached the discussion of Jewish history in the middle ages from what is now happening in our region, that is, from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and its ideological and practical implications. This does not mean that the book should not be of interest to educated Israeli readers. On the contrary: This is a required text for anyone interested in the history of the lives of our ancestors in this region and in other regions during the medieval period, which is written in a readable way and does not demand of its readers prior historical knowledge.
Sasson Somekh is a professor of Arabic literature at Tel Aviv University.