Convivencia or Anti-Semitism? The Iberian Paradigm of Tolerance and the Slippery Slope of Jewish Revisionary Self-Hatred
A Review of: ?Al-Andalus: The Legacy and Lessons of Islamic Spain?
A conference held at Georgetown University, Washington D.C., May 13, 2004
Andalucia when can I see you
When it is snowing out again
Farmer John wants you
Louder and softer closer and nearer
Needing you taking you leaving you
In a year and a day to be sure
That your face doesn?t alter
Your words never falter ? I love you.
John Cale, ?Andalucia? (1973)
There is a famous scene in the classic film ?Monty Python and the Holy Grail,? a film that has done a great deal to represent Europe in its Dark Age through a parody of the medieval Christian knightly culture, a culture of Crusade and pillage and rapine, which shows a man carting off corpses of village dead. As he chants his mantra ?Bring out yer dead,? and the corpses pile up, one of the ?corpses? in the pile pipes up and states ?I?m not quite dead.? An argument thus ensues as to whether the man is actually dead or not.
While such a scene is meant to amuse and provide us with a seemingly cheap laugh, it was this very scene that I thought of during the first half of this important international conference meant to discuss the Sephardic past that we have dedicated ourselves to presenting in this newsletter.
And why would I think of such a scene? I will tell you.
During the presentation of the third speaker, Jane Gerber, I began to feel that I was physically stuck in a pile of dead people being carted away while wishing I could raise my voice to shout that I was not ?quite dead yet.?
Of the three religious and ethnic cultures that were so very prominent on the Andalusian stage of the Iberian Peninsula, the only one that continued over the centuries to articulate the values of Al-Andalus was the Jewish one. The Arab Muslims were unceremoniously lied to by the Spanish Catholics and thrown out of the peninsula by the first years of the 17th century at the latest. The Christians of Spain, as we have learned from the racist academician Claudio Sanchez-Albornoz, sought to repress and expunge the Arab-Muslim presence in their homeland which they often present as an aberration in what was a larger Christian epoch that was filled with the glories of what Christianity has presented to the world ? that such glories and riches were frequently acquired through rape, murder and persecution is not seen as part of the glorious story of Spanish civilization.
This leaves only the Sephardic Jews with the magical keys to the Andalusian garden.
While the Andalusian past is an important part of Arab history, the Arabs have by and large allowed the Europeans to erase them from their own (hi)stories of a Spanish past. It has been the Jewish community of Sephardi exiles which doggedly preserved the various strains of Hispano-Arab culture, encompassing the rich Arabic cultural moment of the High Middle Ages as well as the burgeoning romancero of the early stages of what would become the European Renaissance; a cultural modernism that was learned from the earlier Arabic Golden Age of the Abbasids and the Umayyads.
Sephardic Jews have reveled in this storied past: For many centuries they maintained poetic, philosophical and scientific traditions that once typified the culture of Al-Andalus. In our own time we can point to the seminal figures of the Baghdad-born Ezekiel Hai Albeg, the last House Poet of the Syrian Sephardic community of Brooklyn who composed his masterwork Kenaf Renanim as a maqama, a form of rhymed prose that was utilized by Andalusian writers; Jose Faur, a rabbinical prodigy from Buenos Aires who has produced the most compelling and enlightened scholarly studies of a Sephardic culture which is now in its last stages of destruction; Matloub Abadi, the last authentic Arab Jewish rabbi to come from the East to America, a man whose own training was based upon the Andalusian adab tradition; and Repha?el Ya?ir Elnadav, the great cantor of the Brooklyn Sephardic community, a man whose encyclopedic knowledge of the musical traditions of the Levant, Balkans and Andalusian past was legion. Such figures are completely unknown outside of the almost non-existent learned circles of the Sephardim in New York.
During Jane Gerber?s truly offensive lecture, I thought of these figures.
As I have been granted a reprieve by my good friend John Docker from reviewing the nuts and bolts of the conference, I would like to focus my discussion on the glaring dichotomy that was presented in the two halves of the conference.
While Osman bin Bakar and Richard Fletcher presented the basic plot lines of the Andalusian story ? from two differing critical perspectives it is true ? it was difficult to be prepared for the full frontal assault on Sephardic culture that Gerber provided. Her lecture ?The Jews of Spain and the Ambiguities of Medieval Tolerance? was prefigured by Fletcher?s insistence that Andalus was not all it was cracked up to be; that the Arabs were petty despots who could never have measured up to the high standards of modern Enlightened Western civilization.
It was the term ?tolerance,? a term that has traditionally been used to characterize the Andalusian experience of SYMBIOSIS, or what in Spanish is termed convivencia; that sense of cultural interaction and pluralism that we have in these pages called ?The Levantine Option,? that served as a lightning rod throughout the conference. The word ?tolerance? was one that was deeply contested by both Fletcher and Gerber whose own ideas of tolerance excluded what took place in Islamic Spain.
Such ideas we have sadly heard ad nauseum many, many times before and Fletcher presented the view in a lecture that at least provided some of the brilliant context of the culture that was produced in Islamic Spain. His talk itself was divided however; the first half presented a generally positive reading of the culture while he then put the scholarly brakes on the overly sunny and what he would call facile readings of the pluralism and co-existence that existed among the various religious confessions in Andalus.
But Gerber, not to be outdone by Fletcher, began her talk with an assault on the culture itself. The talk was littered with grudging acknowledgments of the greatness of what Arab Andalusia was able to produce, but such high points were not only marked as exceptional, but were seen ultimately as serving to mask the brutality and racism of the horrid Arabs that ran the place.
Picking up where the execrable Bernard Lewis has left off, Gerber attempted to promote the idea that the glorious Sephardic history was a myth created by German Jewish scholars who invented such a fiction in order to construct a ?Jewish? model that would act as an anachronistic paradigm of the ?Enlightened? age that they felt they were in the process of ushering in.
At the center of Gerber?s tirade was an analysis of Heinrich Graetz and his philo-Sephardi bias; at the expense of what Gerber identified as Graetz?s own identification of Ashkenazi culture as being ?obscurantist.? This binarism of Sephardic ?light? opposed to Ashkenazi ?darkness? has been famously attacked in recent years by Ismar Schorsch, Ivan Marcus and other modern Jewish scholars. After decades of philo-Sephardi scholarship, spearheaded by Harry Wolfson, Gerson Cohen, S.D. Goitein and many others, the tide has now shifted.
So very long ago and far away was the time when the great Hispanist Americo Castro could present his magnum opus The Structure of Spanish History to a deeply approving Anglophone readership. We are now being treated to the return of the Ashkenazi repressed.
The central problem in this debate is that such philo-Sephardim never extended their largesse to the actual Sephardi communities themselves. Even at its height, figures who worked in the field such as Eliyahu Ashtor, Hayyim Schirmann, Nehemiah Allony, Yitzhak Baer, even Goitein himself, had very little concern for the contemporary realities of Sephardi life and communal existence. Goitein has recounted the fact that his writing of A Mediterranean Society, perhaps the most significant study of any medieval community that we now possess and the only sustained reading of medieval Jewish culture from an extensive archive of documentary evidence that is simply not to be found in such rich abundance anywhere else in the discipline, was a partial mea culpa for the sins he committed while working on the folklore of the Yemenite Jews which he admitted had served to degrade their culture in the process. More recent scholars such as Yosef Hayyim Yerushalmi and Haim Beinart who have produced seminal works on important aspects of Sephardic history and culture have deeply internalized an Ashkenazi prejudice towards the actual concrete realities faced by the Sephardim themselves and have rejected the way in which Sephardim have understood their own history and tradition.
As we assess Gerber?s argument that the promotion of an idealized Sephardic culture was born of a failed vanity among German Jewish scholars, we see that Graetz, nominally a philo-Sephardi who presided over an important scholarly movement that permitted us to learn about the Sephardic past in a way that was precise and scientific; historical modalities that are in the main missing from, as Yerushalmi has noted, traditional memory, was simply ?using? Sephardic history as a means to justify his own revisionary project of Jewish Enlightenment. But strangely enough, while the Ashkenazi religious traditionalists, now echoed in a strange and sad manner by Gerber herself, decried the visionary humanistic aspect of the Haskalah, the contemporary Sephardim, who were not ashamed to think in a rational and scientific manner, were able to embrace the new methods and even to participate in these scholarly enterprises. As has been shown by scholars as varied as Zvi Zohar, Jose Faur, Arthur Kiron and Ammiel Alcalay, Sephardim such as Elijah Benamozegh, Sabato Morais, Eliyahu Hazzan, A.S. Yahuda, Umberto Cassuto and Haim Nahum were all able to maintain their Sephardi heritage and act as academic scholars of history and culture.
So while it would be disingenuous to obscure what Graetz and the Maskilim had attempted in their adopting the Sephardic model by avoiding to analyze their personal and ideological motivations, it is equally important to carefully study parallel contemporary Sephardic approaches to Andalusian tradition and history ? something that Gerber resolutely does not choose to do. We should duly note that at the very same time Graetz is producing his massive Geschichte Der Juden, Sabato Morais is preparing an American version of Andalusian Enlightened Judaism in Philadelphia. This is something that has been deeply occluded from the current discussion of Sephardic history.
Listening to Gerber speak it is not at all apparent that Sephardim like Morais actually lived through and thought about their own history.
This point is not a niggling detail. Gerber has written a hugely popular course book The Jews of Spain that has been read by tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of students ? many of whom are Sephardim themselves ? and is routinely presented on panels such as the one at Georgetown as an ?expert? on Sephardic history and culture.
Gerber presents us with a scholarship that is of the most basic and rudimentary sort that never seeks to entertain or engage the actual realities of Sephardic communal history in its evolutionary development. It is as if the German Jewish model is somehow of greater relevance to the question than looking at indigenous Sephardic approaches to the issue. Identifying this methodological lacuna is vital to an understanding of the depth of this problem. While arrogating herself a role within the Jewish community that maintains her position as the gateway to all things Sephardic ? to the point of setting aside the work of scholars who are actually engaged in the existential and cultural issues that the community itself faces ? she resolutely refuses to engage the massive social and communal dysfunctionalism that plagues the training of both Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jewish students who are taught decontextualized history from within a profoundly Ashkenazic/Eurocentric viewpoint.
While the academy moves towards models of scholarship that pronounce a multicultural bend and an interdisciplinary method, Jewish studies, and Sephardic Studies in particular, remains mired in a Hegelianism that resoundingly asserts itself in uniquely parochial terms. As we have seen in our analysis of Yoram Hazony?s reactionary Zionism, the 20th century Jewish scholar ? in the wake of the Zionist academic and Israeli educational authority Ben Zion Dinur ? has sought to build new Jewish ghettoes and marshal the historical evidence in order to assert that Jews are a nation apart and that they have never been able to coexist in this world with ANYONE ELSE.
The evidence, as I have continually argued, has been skewed every which way to lead to one singular and inevitable conclusion: Jews are subject to PERSECUTION and HATRED whenever and wherever they have lived. In Gerber?s presentation we saw that ? and she even quoted the great Maimonides to buttress this point! ? Jews are a persecuted minority who could never fend for themselves; even as we see that such a point is not at all defensible from a socio-cultural standpoint. According to this reading the Arabs had in place a discriminatory policy of the DHIMMI; a term which has served to signify the aspect of Islamic law that required Muslims to honor and respect Jews and Christians as a licit part of their society (at the same time that Europeans were slaughtering Jews by the cartful), while maintaining those groups as second class citizens. Such discussions of the DHIMMI has ?proven? that any sense of PLURALISM or what modern scholars have approvingly called CONVIVENCIA is simply a figment of some overworked minds.
I have discussed this sense of dhimmitude in other contexts and would only point out here that Islam was able to absorb minorities in ways that have no parallel until the contemporary period. The issue must be seen contextually rather than anachronistically, as Gerber and Fletcher seemed to insist.
What Sephardic Jews and Iberian Muslims were able to produce in the centuries of Andalusian ascendance was indeed a splendid and breathtaking thing. In order for such a brilliant cultural production to have taken place, there had to have been some form of pluralistic co-existence. Notwithstanding the prejudices of Western and Jewish scholars that we will examine in more detail shortly, the Muslims and Jews of Sepharad/Al-Andalus confronted not only ideas and technologies, but they also had to find a space to live with one another. Such a space was not a mythical ideal, but it did exist and was practically a great advance over the endemic and residual ethnic hatreds and violent antipathies that characterized Europe up until that point.
Gerber ? blithely ignoring the pioneering and brilliant studies of Ross Brann in what is the FINAL word on the subject in his magisterial Power in the Portrayal (reviewed in SHU 41) ? has continued to rehash the nonsense of presenting decontextualized citations of seemingly damning passages from Ibn Hazm and others which when read in a prejudicial and un-scientific manner would make it appear that Arabs were slaughtering Jews in the streets. As we have already argued, Brann has showed that Andalus was neither all light nor was it all darkness. There were some fierce rhetorical debates that were waged between the various monotheisms, as there was a corrosive violence and sense of political injustice that affected the society as a whole, yet the overall reality was that the faiths ? understanding that Islam was politically the dominant faith ? had the freedom to practice and develop their own ideas while also being allowed to take part in the larger discussion regarding religion and the humanistic and hard sciences that was taking place in the libraries and schools of Andalus.
Andalusian society made room for both the UNIVERSAL as well as the PARTICULAR. Such a society could justly be called symbiotic and pluralistic. The feature which marked this civilization was Religious Humanism; that philosophical worldview which tried to account for the pieties of traditional faith which were blended with a mix of rationalism and scientific inquiry.
By trying to judge Andalusian culture along the lines of contemporary standards, such scholarly understanding ? if one could call it that ? misses the dynamic that made Islamic Spain so unique within its own historical moment: At a time of ignorance and barbarism, Islamic Spain, a place that existed in the same culturally degraded European universe in which texts like Beowulf were produced, preserved and promoted the moral and humanistic philosophical and scientific values of classical antiquity ? and had done so from within a deep and abiding concern for religious monotheism which was able to bring together Athens and Jerusalem. This synthesis, which had been accomplished in a liminal way by the Alexandrian Jewish writer Philo, was, as Wolfson has so brilliantly shown, a development of the thinking of the Church Fathers who struggled to unify the Greek method with Scripture ? something that was not achieved successfully until Aquinas? Summa; a work that is deeply indebted to the symbiotic Andalusian culture.
From within its own historical context, as Maria Rosa Menocal has masterfully argued, Al-Andalus was the greatest show that the world had seen up to that point. While it is true that the Andalusians had yet to create the Modern Liberal State (and we will not even try and figure out how standards of modern tolerance would apply to the ante-bellum American South of Thomas Jefferson or to the Nazi Germany of Martin Heidegger ? two deeply problematical political entities that are as much a part of this Liberal tradition as any other), they had developed both monotheism and rationalistic scientific thought in ways that were Kuhnian shifts in our civilizational paradigm. Andalusian Islamic tolerance trumped Jewish tolerance as Jewish particularism in biblical Palestine remained exclusive, while Christian triumphalism in the wake of Constantine?s conversion was clearly a persecuting and intolerant society that eliminated those who were not under the banner of CHRIST.
Andalusis wrote profane poetry, made mellifluous music, discovered the wonders and beauty of the natural world, questioned received truths about God and religion, and sought to heal mankind of its illnesses and diseases.
Jane Gerber, by eliding and misrepresenting the evidence that has shown us the greatness of this civilization, sought to reduce Sepharad/Al-Andalus to a petty dictatorship that simply held all Jews in one big jail. The few Jews who were able to produce written texts of great learning, as her argument went, were an elite group whose relationship to the so-called Jewish ?masses? was ephemeral and insignificant in a historical context. Reading the sometimes harsh and discordant texts of religious figures such as Maimonides and Ibn Hazm ? again, Ross Brann in his pioneering work has masterfully analyzed these texts drawing radically different conclusions ? as documentary evidence, Gerber fell into just the trap that she accused Graetz of falling into; articulating history out of personal animus rather than through objectively scientific and rational methods.
In this particular case we must state what has so animated Gerber and her Ashkenazi kin ? and what indeed has been a trap that many Sephardim themselves have fallen into: Since the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, what the Zionists have called hasbara, their own propagandistic telling of their own (Jewish) story, has been deeply tied to the production of historical narrative and analytical discussion. As the ARAB is now the primary enemy of the Israeli ? read: Jewish ? people, so we must go back to the time when Jews lived with the Arabs and figure out a way to make that historical narrative square up with the contemporary issues we face.
Zionism needed to find a way to show that Arabs oppressed Jews.
It should be pointed out that such a Zionist interest in Arab Jewish history is somewhat suspicious.
Sephardic Judaism and Sephardic Jews, as we are now all too well aware, were occluded by political Zionism; which had sought to reverse the universalizing assimilationist tendencies of Graetz and the German Jewish Enlightenment. The first ?Zionists,? if we can still use that term regarding Sephardim at this point in time, were the great Ottoman rabbis Yehuda Hai Alkalai and Yehuda Bibas. Once Herzl wrote his Der Judenstaat, the religious Zionism of Alkalai and Bibas was basically trashed ? only to be resurrected many decades later by other Ashkenazim who needed a religious foundation for what was essentially a secular modernist movement ? and the trajectory of Zionism after the wake of Ottoman collapse was exclusively Eurocentric.
The great Sephardi scholar A.S. Yahuda, a man who participated in the many Zionist Congresses and was responsible for securing the vote of the Spanish government in favor of the UN Partition Plan of 1947, was so disgusted by his own treatment as a Sephardi at the hands of Chaim Weizmann and the organized Zionist movement that he took the extraordinary step of writing a short book Dr. Weizmann?s Errors on Trial where he detailed his own contributions to the triumph of Zionism all of which were expunged from the historical record by Weizmann who tried to take credit for those very accomplishments.
But after 1948 Sephardic history would become an important part of the Zionist attempt to show how the Arabs were Jew haters, giving Zionist Jews a justification for their own aggressive tendencies against those Arabs.
Very little however has changed since Yahuda published his book on Weizmann.
We have partisans ? partisans, and not scholars ? like Bernard Lewis, a man who has worked for the British Foreign Office and the US State Department for many years providing them with ?inside? information regarding those demonic AY-RABS who cannot be trusted with anything or anyone, who has created a cottage industry of Arab vilification. In this vein, Jane Gerber has sought to ride the zeitgeist ? at least the Ashkenazi zeitgeist! ? and chime in with her own partisan stabs at the Arabs. And to do this in Georgetown no less! ? Georgetown, which is perhaps the last bastion of some even-handedness in the US towards the issue of the Arab Muslim issue.
So after driving for over four hours ? and encountering some of that wonderful DC traffic ? I (along with my Arab compatriots) was forced to sit in stunned silence to a talk that would not have sounded out of place on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn ? the heart of ?Settler? country ? while taking a walk on a Sabbath Afternoon!
In essence, people like Jane Gerber exemplify the continued Ashkenazi dominance of the Sephardi community; a pernicious hegemony that has aided the collapse of Sephardi self-perception as well as the ability for Arab Jews and Arab Muslims to maintain a productive dialogue with one another. Her lecture, written for an academic audience and not a Sephardic audience, was meant to reflect that sense of Ashkenazi hegemony. In essence, as she presented it, the Sephardic experience in Spain was an unrelenting HELL that even the great achievements of what ? with gritted teeth ? she, like her German Jewish progenitors, called the ?Golden Age? ? another term meant to circumscribe and obscure the many centuries of Sephardic accomplishment ? cannot paper over.
Gerber presented a scholarship ? even taking into account the massive bias that has permeated the field in the wake of Lewis and his school ? that was deeply uninformed about major developments in the field and in the humanities in general. Not taking into account little known figures such as Albeg, Abadi and Elnadav, Gerber has not even referenced the seminal work of Ross Brann, Arthur Kiron and Ammiel Alcalay much less that of Arab scholars whose views would presumably be anathema under the current political conditions.
The worst part of this whole episode is that the (mis-)impression was created that Gerber?s is the correct ?Jewish? position on Islamic Spain and its Jewish component.
I would only hasten to add that Gerber could not pronounce ONE SINGLE Hebrew or Arabic word correctly, consistently using her Ashkenazi accented Hebrew to speak of historical terms and persons whose own modes of linguistic articulation were as important to them as life itself. I can only imagine the reaction if a respected scholar of French or Italian pronounced those wonderfully rich and beautiful languages in a non-idiomatic accent!
But I am happy to report, as John Docker has already explained in his review, that the conference was saved by the afternoon program.
Perhaps SAVED is a poor choice of words, as the tremendously insulting and hurtful presentation of Gerber was bravely refuted and rebuffed by four scholars who deeply love and understand the ways of Andalus and remain unafraid to present the fruits of their research with vigor and panache.
I must give the talks of Ross Brann, Maria Rosa Menocal, Jerrilynn Dodds and Dwight Reynolds their due importance. Their lectures were packed not with ephemera and apologetics, but with REAL KNOWLEDGE that pointed the audience to a powerfully relevant direction which speaks to the current conditions we now live in.
I think that the line of the day came from my mentor and friend Ross Brann who, to paraphrase, said that if Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld followed the Andalusian example by running the affairs of State and writing love poetry (!) we would all be better off.
It is this sense of irony, cultured elegance and sophistication that these scholars have presented in their many seminal and precious studies on the subject of Spain and its Jews, Arabs, and Christians. I have been reading the books and articles of these scholars for many years now; and in the case of Brann and Menocal have brought them to the actual Sephardic community where they gave inspired and memorable talks that reconnected the community to its own history, culture and traditions. Rather than have Jane Gerber tell us how useless it really is to look back with fondness to our Arab culture and our pluralistic past in the Islamic world, Brann and Menocal have reinforced for the Sephardic student the luminous brilliance of his own Judeo-Arab civilization.
Brann provided the audience with a masterful comparative reading of a number of love poems from Arab Andalusian masters setting those texts within their proper historical, cultural and political context(s). His sharp and detailed analysis showed how profoundly internalized was this literary culture within the very basic core of Andalusian society. Andalus was a place where people said smart, brave and funny things and lived life with a fierce gusto.
Brann?s mastery of the languages and idioms of Andalusian and European literature(s) has become so overwhelmingly brilliant that I do not have the superlatives to even approximate what he has been able to accomplish since I first came to study at Cornell with him ? I a very naﶥ grad student and he a young professor new to the university. His encyclopedic knowledge, methodological sophistication and rigorous scholarly acumen take one?s breath away. There is nary an aspect of Andalusian civilization that is alien to him and his good humor and deep love and awesome respect for Sephardic letters is singular among Jewish academics. His reading of the poems ? and he pronounced EVERY Arabic word perfectly, a key to a true understanding of this culture ? displayed a virtuosity and deep and abiding critical humanism that showed not merely the intuitiveness of Andalusian letters, but the great sense of intellectual rapture that Andalus typified and continues to exemplify for those of us under its wondrous and richly appealing spell.
The joint presentation of Maria Rosa Menocal and Jerrilynn Dodds was also a wonder of scholarship and critical intelligence, much of which echoed their own seminal studies of the literature and art of Islamic and Christian Spain. The theme of convivencia was best encapsulated in the visual and literary presentations in their discussion of the architectual arts of Spain. In the joint presentation we saw just how difficult it is to disengage the Arab elements of Catholic Spain. For Menocal and Dodds Spanish culture was and is a richly multicultural civilization whose artistic and literary monuments are deeply infused with the details of its Judeo-Arab past. We saw churches, tomb inscriptions, priestly vestments and manuscripts all reflecting that the basis of Spanish history is deeply tied to the Arabo-Andalusian antecedents that Castro so dutifully reconstructed for the benefit of modern Spanish historians.
The final presentation by Dwight Reynolds of University of California at Santa Barbara (who now works full time for the university in Spain) was a discussion of the musical traditions of Andalus. Looking at the subject from within the Arabic centrality of the Andalusian traditions, Reynolds talked about the glorious music produced by the Arabs of Spain and how those traditions became a central feature of the emerging Christian court culture in spite of many attempts by Church authorities to have the music silenced ? proving the very great popularity of the music in both sacred and secular contexts. As Menocal and Dodds did in their presentation, Reynolds provided a number of facts about Arabic music that were startling; the most significant of which was the fact that it was the Arabic rabab, a two-stringed instrument like a primitive violin, which was the first bowed instrument on the European continent. With the Eurocentrism that has infected our understanding what music is and should be, Reynolds, like his colleague Kay Kaufman Shelemay of Harvard University whose book Let Jasmine Rain Down is one of the most beneficial of the recent studies of Arabic musical culture, has shown the modern student of culture that Europe is not a singular construct but something that was formed of multiple strands, brick by brick; out of the Greco-Roman, Indo-Arab and Chinese-Oriental cultures in their respective classical periods.
The day ended with the screening of a short film presented by Reynolds of an Algerian troupe performing a classical Andalusian muwasshaha, a performance that would have resonated with any Sephardi who attends a Synagogue with a cantor who is familiar with the traditional melodies of the Sephardim. The performance, as I have repeatedly written in these pages, encapsulated what Ammiel Alcalay has called ?Wounded Kinship?s Last Resort,? the final resting place for the Judeo-Arab symbiosis that Jane Gerber and her cohorts have told us never existed; as if what we hear in our Synagogues each Shabbat is but a figment of our WILD Oriental imaginations.
So in all we must thank The Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at the very wonderful Georgetown University for being such gracious hosts and the conference?s sponsor The Mosaic Foundation, a group dedicated to peaceful coexistence and intercultural understanding and tolerance, for putting together this magnificent event; a conference that presented both the splendor of the Sephardic past as well as ? unwittingly I suppose ? the very reactionary and hateful voices who would have it that such an Andalusian past would have very little to teach us about how to live in the present.
In a week that saw the very gruesome deaths of innocent civilians, Jews, Arabs and Christians alike, all over the Middle East, a number of brilliant scholars presented a model of pluralism and coexistence that we can all take from and apply to the confused world we now live in. The very salient ideas of these speakers presented a vision of the past that is more than relevant for our unhappy and sorrowful present. Through the fog of hatred and war perhaps we can go back to these textual and artistic monuments produced in what Maria Rosa Menocal has rightly termed ?a first-rate place? and try and pick up some valuable lessons for the way we might see things in the PRESENT.
The stark contrasts of the day ? cresting at the point during question and answer when both Maria and Jerrilynn got up to the mike to respectfully upbraid the inanities of both Fletcher and especially Gerber ? provided the keys to what is at stake in this very violent and partisan debate: Will Sephardic Jews and Arabs get up off their seats to articulate the value of their own history and STOP the Ashkenazim and Arab haters from hijacking the rich and magnificent legacy of a culture that was not merely eye-candy or window-dressing, but was a civilization that asked the most challenging questions about man and God and discovered things about Man and his world that helped our march toward being who we are now.
It might seem vain and prejudicial on my part to divide intellectuals into FRIENDS and ENEMIES ? and perhaps those with little imagination will read my essay in this way. I am not concerned that Sephardic Jews have FRIENDS ? what does however concern me is the proper and rational way of reading history and civilization. We have learned from Maimonides and Averroes that myths are meant to be upended and destroyed. The myth of Arab barbarity is a pernicious one that has allowed a charlatan like Bernard Lewis to see the Sephardim of Israel ? as David Ben Gurion did ? as an existential threat to Jewish continuity and survival.
We have argued in these pages that Sephardim have held the key to Jewish renewal and transformation; Sephardim have traditions of pluralism, integration and worldliness that have remained culturally alien to the Ashkenazim who have wherever they have gone continued to build ghettoes; lonely, cold and isolated places that do not nurture creativity and light. In the work of Ashkenazim like Jane Gerber we see the attempt to add Sephardic Jewry to the litany of ghetto Jews ? to turn the Sephardim into Ashkenazim. And while I would have liked to hear the voices of actual Arabs ? Jews and Muslims ? at this conference, the figures who spoke eloquently of the Andalusian Judeo-Arabic civilization did a magnificent job of producing a powerfully evocative and historically grounded image of this culture.
We Sephardim, no matter what Jane Gerber would say, are not quite dead yet.