August 17, 2010

BEFORE THE RED MEAT WAS SERVED:

MORE:
Why Cordoba?: The Ground Zero Islamic center was named for a period in Spanish-Muslim history that some call a golden age of tolerance (Marc Tracy, Aug 16, 2010, The Tablet)

According to Princeton historian Mark Cohen, the notion of convivencia, of medieval Spain as utopia, began with mid-19th century German-Jewish historians. Disappointed to find that emancipation did not equal equality, they crafted a long-ago world of true Jewish freedom as the model that their own world failed to live up to. “They looked back nostalgically to Muslim Spain, and said, ‘Look there,’ ” Cohen told me. “They wanted to embarrass the Christians.” They were not demanding a state of their own; on the contrary, they were demanding the right to live freely in another people’s state and, moreover, to be considered members of that people.

A subsequent batch of historians, under the spell of early-20th-century Zionism, cast medieval Spain not as a utopia but as, according to Cohen, “an unmitigated disaster.” They did so in order to argue that “Arab anti-Semitism is firmly rooted in a congenital, endemic Muslim/Arab Jew-hatred,” which in turn buttressed their case for a country of, by, and for the Jewish people.

So, which of those versions is right? Neither, Cohen said. In one essay, he refers to a “myth” (the German historians’ heaven) and a “counter-myth” (the Zionist historians’ hell) and asserts that the truth lies somewhere in between. Those who hold up the period as an ideal are exaggerating: “In a medieval situation,” he argues, “where you have monotheistic religions living in proximity, there is no such thing as toleration.” (In other words, tell “toleration” to the Jews of Granada, many of whom were massacred by angry Muslims in 1066, or to Granada’s Jewish vizier at the time, who was crucified.) And those who downplay the extent of tolerance and pluralism exaggerate, too. “If by convivencia,” said Cornell historian Ross Brann, “we mean that cultural and social proximity, conversation, and interaction among Jews, Muslims, and Christians were significant and productive,” then convivencia was real.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 17, 2010 5:16 AM
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