A Judeo-Muslim Civilization?

A UC Berkeley conference reimagines Muslim-Jewish relations -- and fails.

A conference at the University of California, Berkeley, on April 28-29, 2010 (and continued at UC Davis on April 30), “Muslims and Jews Together: Seeing From Without; Seeing From Within,” was billed as a major international symposium for “the inauguration of the Program for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations at UC Berkeley and the establishment of a UC-wide and West Coast working group for the study of Muslim-Jewish relations .”

The conference was a collaborative effort between the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) at UC Berkeley and the Jewish Studies Program at UC Davis. Its stated purpose was to use the frameworks of traditional Middle East studies and Jewish studies to develop a new academic field focused on the historical interaction between Muslims and the Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews who once lived among them. Most of the participants were historians or anthropologists specializing in North African Jewry, particularly Morocco.

CMES chair Nezar AlSayyad introduced the conference with a discussion about “building bridges” by re-framing the term, “Jews of Islam,” into something that could be equated with Judeo-Christian civilization: something he called “Judeo-Muslim civilization.” CMES vice-chair and conference organizer Emily Gottreich echoed AlSayyed’s comments in her introduction to the first panel, describing the “Jews of Islam” as “an awkward and unfortunate” construction and seconding the notion of “Judeo-Muslim civilization.”

The emphasis throughout this first panel, which was titled “Framing,” was on synthesis, symbiosis, and challenging “the dichotomy.”  How does one teach about Jews in a Muslim country and teach about Muslims in a Jewish country? The first part of the question, however, cannot be answered, because very few Jews remain in the same Muslim countries where, prior to 1948, there were large, ancient communities. The reason for this exodus—the forced removal of Jews in response to Israel’s founding that year—went unexamined by panelists.

Oren Kosansky, an anthropology professor at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and the first speaker on this panel, brought up the concept of the dhimmi: the historical subservient, second class citizenship of Jews and other minorities in Muslim lands. Although dhimmi legal status entailed a whole series of humiliations and penalties for Arab Jews, Kosansky did not elaborate on the details. He claimed that the research on dhimmi status was “overstated” and that an “overly dyadic picture has been drawn, and relationships in daily life have been under-emphasized.” Religious identity was not the only identity, he continued, as there was also economic, gender, regional, and class identities. In what seemed to me a Western-centric omission, he left out clan or tribal identity. Kosansky then claimed that the “emergence of Zionism exaggerated the differences” between Moroccan Jews and Muslims. In fact, the function of Zionism was to rescue these Jews from intolerable environments.

During the discussion period for this panel, Lital Levy, assistant professor of comparative literature at Princeton University and a panelist at the UC Davis “Muslim-Jewish” conference, contradicted Kosansky. She disagreed that Zionism had resulted in an exaggeration of differences, and she pointed out that Jews who had converted to Islam were still considered Jews. It was, she maintained, an identity, a specificity that stuck to the individual in the Middle East over many centuries. She asked for a comment, but none of the panelists were willing to respond.

Daniel Tsadik, an assistant professor of Sephardic and Iranian Studies at Yeshiva University in New York and a visiting assistant professor at the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism, spoke next on the first panel. He claimed that the emphasis on religion blurs other, more significant, factors, and said he wished scholars would focus more on the reality of Jews and Muslims living together in a given place and as members of one society, rather than as majorities or minorities.

Tsadik questioned whether the framework of “Jews in Muslim lands” focuses on a true common denominator. He lamented the alleged political agenda of Jewish scholars attempting to “know the enemy,” as well as the dependence on written texts, which, he worried, could create unbalanced data. As an example, he brought up the edicts of the Iranian ulema (Muslim legal scholars), which record all the fatwas against Jews, thereby providing written evidence of a bleak fate. However, this “bleak fate” isn’t too far from the truth.

The major theme the following morning at the second panel, “Problematizing,” was to get beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict, or what participants described simply as “the Conflict.” Almost uniformly, speakers reiterated that “the Conflict” was not the eternal metaphor or model for the 1,400 year history of Muslim-Jewish relations; rather, it was a distorting mirror.

Nonetheless, there were plenty of distortions of “the Conflict” on this panel. Joel Beinin, Stanford University history professor and well-known anti-Zionist, claimed that Iraqi Jews fled to Israel in 1950-51 due to “collusion between the Israeli state and the Iraqi government of the time.” He offered no explanation or historical record of this alleged “collusion.”

It should be noted that Beinin was one of the signatories to a statement from California faculty members (posted at the website for the “U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel”) urging the UC Berkeley student senate to vote “yes” on a divestment bill. Fellow signatory, UC Berkeley Jewish studies professor Daniel Boyarin, chaired the second panel.

Matthias Lehmann, associate professor of history and Jewish studies at Indiana University, lamented that the conflict is always perceived as religious when it’s actually—according to his view and that espoused regularly by anti-Israel propagandists—between two nationalisms. To consider it a religious conflict, he continued, is “anachronistic, ahistorical, and irrelevant.” He said nothing about the role of radical Islam in furthering strife. Extending this theme, Sami Shalom Chetrit, a Mizrahi professor at Hebrew University who recited his poetry at the conference, said that calling it a religious conflict was “the big tragedy.”

During the roundtable portion of the second panel, Lehmann did question the lack of commentary—in a discussion by UC Irvine history professor Marc Baer on Jewish to Muslim conversions that conveniently left out the concept of _dhimmi_— on power differentials. Panel chair Daniel Boyarin softly interjected that power differentials depended upon whether the location was “_Dar al-Harb_” (house of war) or “_Dar al-Islam_” (house of Islam), to which the audience laughed knowingly. No one pointed out that Dar al-Harb and Dar al-Islam are religious concepts that just might relate to the supposedly non-religious conflict.

Considering the downplaying of such important concepts, one has to wonder if future students in the Program for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations will be able to ask questions pertaining to apostasy, infidels, honor killings, Jews as “apes and pigs,” or global jihad?  In addition, will the program offer an equal number of scholars to represent both Jews and Muslims?

The makeup of the conference certainly did not inspire confidence. The brochure stated that “scholars of Middle Eastern Studies have returned—after a long hiatus—to re-discover the importance of non-Muslims within Muslim societies,” leading one to expect an inter-faith dialog. Yet, the panels consisted mostly of Jewish academics—a pattern that predominates at Muslim-Jewish inter-faith conferences.

During the reception, I pointed this out to Susan Miller, UC Davis history professor and one of the conference organizers,  and she replied that it was “not an inter-faith conference, but an academic conference, and that is who is here. It is irrelevant who they are; what matters is what they say.” In other words, she skirted the issue.

There was only one Muslim panelist on the two panels I attended: Mohammed Kenbib, a specialist in Moroccan Jewish history at Mohammed V University in Rabat, Morocco. At the reception I raised this omission to him directly by stating that “there should be more Muslims here.” To my surprise, he responded by leaning towards me and lightly kissing me on the forehead. “This is quite a warm, fuzzy event,” I said, smiling. His response was profound: “We are very far from the Middle East here.”

Indeed, and so too is the Program for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations.

Rima Greene wrote this article for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.