One of the by-products of the so-called "Ground Zero mosque" controversy is the battle over the status of Córdoba in Islamic Spain.
In recent weeks, we have heard a number of prominent right-wing Jews like Bernard Lewis, Hillel Halkin, Daniel Pipes, and David Horowitz express their outrage over the use of Córdoba as a symbol of Muslim openness, arguing instead that Córdoba was a place of Muslim intolerance and fanaticism.
In the midst of this new ginned-up outrage over what Sephardic Jews see as their cultural home, we can discover a much larger problem that has surfaced in what has become "Arab Derangement Syndrome" among so many Zionists.
Over the course of many centuries, Sepharad/Al-Andalus was a marker of Jewish creativity and cosmopolitanism afforded by Islam in contrast to the prison that was Christian Europe. "Arab Derangement Syndrome" sees things in quite the opposite way.
The Bernard Lewis school has come to look at the matter in a revisionist way that seeks to laud the Christian West and demonize Arab-Islam in a manner that is truly startling. In a reversal of the way Jewish history and tradition has been understood for many centuries, the Zionist animus against Arabs and their religion has now caused some fanatical Jews to undermine the reality of the past.
Lewis makes his point about Sephardim and Ashkenazim quite clear in his 2002 book What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response:
But in many of their encounters what we see is a clash between Christendom and Islam, oddly represented by their former Jewish minorities, who reflect, as it were in miniature, both the strengths and the weaknesses of the two civilizations of which they had been part. The conflict, coexistence, or combination of these two traditions within a single small state, with a shared religion and a common citizenship and allegiance, should prove illuminating. For Israel, this issue may have an existential significance, since the survival of the state, surrounded, outnumbered, and outgunned by neighbors who reject its very right to exist, may depend on its largely Western-derived qualitative edge.
Last spring the academic journal La corónica published a forum on Peter Cole's exceptional 2007 anthology of English translations of some of the large corpus of Hebrew poetry from Spain, The Dream of the Poem. Those discussing Cole's achievement could not but place the entire project of Sephardic Jewish writing in the context of Arabic influence. Arabic culture was decisive in the Sephardic tradition, allowing the Jewish writers of Spain to reformulate the entire nature of the Jewish literary art.
Such an analysis is not at all startling as there has been a long history of critical study of this material in both Jewish and non-Jewish circles. The Arabic language and cultural tradition became fused with Hebrew culture. It is impossible to understand the Sephardic heritage without its Arabic component.
In addition to Peter Cole's The Dream of the Poem we more recently had the excellent 2008 biography of Moses Maimonides written by University of Chicago scholar Joel Kraemer. Kraemer's book also presents Maimonides -- born in Córdoba -- in light of the Arab cultural context in which that great rabbi worked and lived.
The current demonization of Córdoba stems from an irrational and fanatic hatred of all things Arab and is clothed in the disingenuous garb of academic expertise. European-style Anti-Semitism is back-referenced to the Arab world, which had formerly been understood to have allowed Jews to live under the laws of the Dhimma as legitimate citizens. In Christendom Jews were never accepted as legitimate citizens given the fact that they had killed Jesus and were to be despised as human beings.
While the Arab-Muslim world was rocked over the course of centuries by sporadic outbreaks of violence, Jews such as Maimonides continued to live in that world and often thrived in it. This does not mean that Jewish life in the Islamic world was free of any taint of violence -- there was no immunity from violence in this period wherever you lived -- it only means that Jews were able to maintain thriving communities under their rabbinic leadership and continue to develop economically and culturally in productive ways.
Organized religious expressions of anti-Jewish behavior were not the norm in the Muslim world, although exceptions did take place. In Christian Europe violence and persecution of Jews was authorized by government and Church alike and was the norm throughout the Middle Ages. Formal expulsion of Jews from European states was commonplace. The expelled Jews often found refuge in Muslim lands.
While processing this recent demonization of Sephardic Jewry and its Arabic culture, I found myself on the receiving end of some vicious comments for remarks I made that were quoted in an article in the Jewish newspaper The Forward.
I had been interviewed a few weeks ago by a reporter doing an article on the numerical ascendancy of Sephardic students in my alma mater, the Yeshivah of Flatbush High School in Brooklyn. I stated to the reporter that Flatbush had a tradition of disdain for Sephardic culture and tradition that was expressed by our Jewish history teacher, who informed us that Sephardic history was not very important as an object of study and that only Ashkenazi history had any significance.
As we know today, the talkback has become a place where people can anonymously say whatever they want without repercussion. In the case of my comments published in the Forward article, I was to learn from one of the online respondents that not only was I wrong and misguided but also a "racist." It reminded me of how things work these days as various cable news pundits re-screened the comments of Glenn Beck calling President Obama a racist.
What struck me in the use of the word "racist" was the fact that the oppressed group, on the one hand African-Americans, and on the other the Sephardic Jews, was being attacked for standing up in the face of their persecutors, who then turned the tables on them by calling them prejudiced. Such a stance represents the tyranny of the majority, ironic in a Jewish context given that Jews are themselves a minority. It only goes to prove how some Jews feel that they are completely a part of the Christian ethos of this country.
Part of the problem Sephardic Jews now face is that, after more than a century of demographic changes, Ashkenazim now hold the upper hand numerically and institutionally in the global Jewish community. Most Sephardim have simply given up on their heritage in the face of such a massive shift in numbers and influence. Along with this shift in Jewish power relations has come a reassessment of the reality of Jewish history.
The great achievements of classical Sephardic culture have been made marginal for a number of reasons:
Sephardim sought to acculturate to new cultural models. They held to a far more liberal understanding of Jewish ritual law and were loath to promote schisms within their communities. Feeling more at home in the Muslim world of Spain, North Africa and the Middle East, Sephardim such as Maimonides took up the challenge of that new civilization, a civilization best characterized by the term "religious humanism," and produced an efflorescent literature that was matched by an economic dynamism that in the early modern period extended its reach into Holland, England, and Italy.
Ashkenazi Judaism was caught up in its disdain for the outside world and conducted an internecine battle waged over strictness in the observance of Jewish ritual. The Ashkenazi rabbis dominated their community hierarchies and brooked no opposition. Those unhappy with this religious leadership were forced to break away from the community and form their own groups.
The Sephardic model was adopted by sophisticated Ashkenazi intellectuals such as Saul Morteira, Moses Mendelssohn, and the many scholars of the nineteenth-century Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah in Hebrew). The Sephardi cultural model remained dominant in America well into the twentieth century.
But today we live in an altered cultural landscape.
Jews, in spite of their startling success in the Western world, feel more alienated and fearful than at any other time in their history. This is strange given the recent experience of the Nazi genocide. But what Zionism and the ongoing problems of the state of Israel have generated in many Jews is a sense of insecurity that has served to reframe and refocus the Jewish mindset. Alliances with fundamentalist Christianity serve as a marriage of convenience that strengthens the perceived vulnerable status of Israel in what is seen as a region of Arab-Muslim barbarians. This is back-referenced to the Middle Ages and to Islamic Spain and Córdoba, and ultimately linked to the Sephardic Jews and their Arabic culture.
This internal Jewish struggle continues without much of a fight. Sephardim have allowed themselves to be bullied into submission. They have relinquished large chunks of their own cultural past in favor of assimilating into the new Jewish order.
The demonization of Córdoba is often accomplished with the help of the very Sephardim whose history is being ripped to shreds by their Ashkenazi brothers. This Jewish fratricide is not simply an obscene act of sociocultural violence by one part of the Jewish community against another; it is a sign of a much larger problem for the Jewish world. The problem is the dangerous misanthropy that has now subsumed many sectors of the community.
While Bernard Lewis and those who think like him spew their vicious anti-Sephardi rhetoric, it is largely met with silence from the liberal Jewish community. Indeed, many liberal Jews often countenance these racist views and argue on behalf of Islam only within the context of American civil rights rather than from the historical reality of Al-Andalus and Córdoba as important cultural landmarks for Jewish identity.
Even those scholars -- in the main Ashkenazi Jews -- whose research has helped us to better understand Sephardic history have presented their work in a manner that does not consistently speak to the existential importance of this history and how it could act as an important bridge linking Sephardic Jews to the Arab-Muslim world. With the commercial and critical success of both the Cole and Kraemer books has not come a better understanding of the ties that link Jew and Arab in the larger field of world culture.
Given that for Ashkenazi Jews this is a history that is not theirs, there is no pressing concern to preserve it as a living, breathing phenomenon. The absence of Sephardim from the articulation of their own history and from the living context of Jewish-Muslim relations today has led us to the quandary we now find ourselves in.
The pronouncements of the Arab-haters and those Ashkenazim who have little concern for the feelings and values of the Sephardim teach us that the impasse we are dealing with is of our own making and could theoretically be repaired if only the complex reality of Sephardic Jewish civilization could be better understood and appreciated for what it actually is.