Uncovered Documents Tell the Story of Cooperation Between Muslims and Jews in Medieval Cairo
Allan C. Brownfeld
SACRED TREASURE — THE CAIRO GENIZAH
by Rabbi Mark Glickman,
Jewish Lights Publishing,
255 Pages, $24.95
SACRED TRASH: THE LOST
AND FOUND WORLD OF THE CAIRO GENIZA
By Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole,
283 Pages, $26.95
About 120 years ago, in a crumbling synagogue in Fustat, Egypt’s original capital and now a section of Old Cairo, a cache of manuscripts was discovered in the storeroom or “geniza.” These papers had been deposited there over many centuries and included letters, wills, bills of lading, prayers, marriage contracts and writs of divorce. There were money orders, court depositions, business inventories and receipts. The most recent deposits were made in the 19th century and there were fragments that dated to the 10th century and earlier.
In 1896, Rabbi Solomon Schechter of Cambridge University stepped into the attic of the Ben Ezra Synagogue and found this trove of medieval and early manuscripts — the largest ever discovered. He had entered the synagogue’s “geniza,” its repository for damaged and destroyed Jewish texts — which held nearly 300,000 individual documents, many of which were over 1,000 years old. Schechter’s discovery, though still being “unpacked” today, forever transformed our knowledge of the Jewish past, Muslim history, and much more. It presents a vivid picture of Jewish life in the medieval Moslem world, and shows how integrated Jews were in that world, challenging some contemporary ideas of an ancient Jewish-Moslem enmity.
These two books, one by Rabbi Mark Glickman of Congregation Kol Ami in Woodinville, Washington and Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island, Washington, and the other by Adina Hoffman, author of House of Windows: Portraits from a Jerusalem Neighborhood, and Peter Cole, whose most recent book of poems is Things on Which I’ve Stumbled, tell this interesting and often dramatic story, and complement one another very well.
Story Begins in Cambridge
The story begins on a day in May in 1896, at a dining room table in Cambridge, England, a meeting between a Romanian-born maverick Jewish intellectual and twin learned Presbyterian Scotswomen, who had assembled to inspect several pieces of rag paper and parchment. It was an unlikely start to what would prove a century-crossing saga, and one that has altered our sense of Jewish history.
These books tell the story of the retrieval of the most vital collection of Jewish manuscripts ever discovered and weave together portraits of Solomon Schechter and the other scholars engaged in the retrieval and study of these documents.
In 1896, Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, widowed Scottish sisters resident in Cambridge and scholars of Arabic and Syriac, bought a few fragments of documents on their way through Cairo. Back home, they showed them to their friend Solomon Schechter, Cambridge’s Reader in Rabbinics, who at once understood their significance. What he had in his hand was a Hebrew fragment of the apocryphal book known as Ecclesiasticus, or Ben Sira, which until then had been known only in Greek and Syriac versions. At that very moment, Schechter was engaged in a controversy with his Oxford counterpart, D.S. Margoliouth, over whether the book was Jewish at all. The idea that he was actually holding in his hand a document that proved he was right was overwhelming.
Schechter left for Cairo in the autumn of 1897. He gained the goodwill of the Grand Rabbi and the heads of the Jewish community and was allowed into the Ben Ezra Synagogue. Wading waist deep in paper, he began to look through the documents and for four weeks worked in very poor conditions, but with growing enthusiasm. The room teemed with insects, and every movement raised clouds of smoke.
Concentrating on the manuscripts, he uncovered, often stuck together, fragments of letters, bills, contracts, poems and biblical material. He filled four trunks, fearing that anything more would gain the attention of Egyptian authorities. With the assistance of Lord Cromer, the de facto ruler of Egypt, Schechter shipped the trunks to England.
For more than a century many leading scholars, mainly Jewish, working in London, Cambridge or New York, have spent their time deciphering, integrating and understanding what Schechter uncovered. Many poems have been added to the corpus of early medieval Hebrew literature and philosophical and religious controversies have been elucidated. The multitude of letters, legal documents and memos have enabled scholars like S.D. Goitein to build up a detailed picture of Eastern Mediterranean Jewish society in the early Middle Ages.
The authors of both of these books draw us into the excitement of discovery as they tell the stories of lesser-known researchers who followed Schechter. Identifying and assembling fragments like large jigsaw puzzles, these scholars were able to reconstruct the works of historical figures known only by legend. These include great liturgical poets, such as Yannai, who wrote the prayer book used by Palestinian Jews and Karaite writers Anan ben David and Yaakov al-Kirkisani, who challenged rabbinic authority in the 9th and 10th centuries. Another largely unknown figure brought to life is the freethinker Hiwi al-Balkhi, who questioned and received 31 replies from Saadia Gaon, the greatest Jewish figure of his time.
Jewish poetry was written mainly for worship until the mid-10th century, but the new Andalusian Hebrew poetry, influenced by Arabic poetry, often dealt with secular themes. Geniza scholars shed light on the founding father of Andalusian poetry, the Moroccan-born poet Dunash ben Labrat and also identified the only poem written by a woman during this period.
“Geniza,” write Hoffman and Cole, “is a barely translatable Hebrew term that holds within it an ultimate statement about the worth of words and their place in Jewish life. It derives from the Persian ganj meaning ‘hoard’ or ‘hidden treasure,’ and while the expression itself doesn’t appear in the Bible, several of the later Biblical books composed under Persian rule contain a handful of related inflections … In some communities, texts that had been stored in a geniza would eventually be buried alongside a saint or righteous individual; more frequently the scrolls and scraps were ritually consigned to the earth alone. In still other cases, it appears that removal from circulation to a geniza constituted the terminal stage of the process and brought the writings in question to their final place of rest.”
Shelomo Dov Goitein, a scholar of Islamic history at the Hebrew University in the late 1940s, was captivated by the Geniza documents relating to the everyday lives of medieval Jews. “The historical figures who interested him most — shopkeepers and scribes, beggars and brides — were those whose lives emerged from the fragments that earlier scholars had brushed aside,” note Hoffman and Cole.
They write that, “Goitein’s approach was intensely democratic. He understood from the very start of his work with the documents, it was precisely those fragments of a more humdrum-seeming daily nature … that would allow him to bring the Mediterranean world of the High Middle Ages alive on the page, in all its quotidian glory.” His 5-volume study, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World, published over a 20-year period from 1967 to 1988, is a groundbreaking work of social history.
Life in medieval Cairo is described in these terms by Hoffman and Cole: “In the relatively open ‘religious democracy’ Jews were free to practice nearly all the professions, from dyer to stucco worker to banker to phlebotomist to cheese maker to clerk to specialist in carp pickles. They could and did enter into close business partnerships with Muslims and Christians, and lived in any part of town they pleased …. No ghetto existed in that setting, and members of different communities and religions often owned and rented apartments in the very same building … Even in the most heavily Jewish areas of Fustat, at least half the Jews had gentile neighbors.”
By the end of the 10th century, there were three broad groups of Jewish subcultures. The smallest was the Ashkenazim, Hebrew for “Germany,” and Ashkenazic Jews trace their roots to Jews who settled in northern and central Europe. The next biggest group was Sephardic Jews, who descend from Spain, Portugal, Greece and other lands along the northern coast of the Mediterranean.
“The Jews of Arab Lands,” writes Rabbi Glickman, “northern Africa and the Middle East, were the largest group by far, and during the Middle Ages, many of them thrived and prospered … They were merchants and physicians, poets and philosophers: they spoke Arabic, Persian, Aramaic, Kurdish, Berber and other languages; for the most part, they dressed and acted as any good Arab should … the distinctive identity of Arabic Jews gradually melted away into the increasingly dominant Sephardic culture and practice.”
Scholars estimate that at the end of the 11th century, Ashkenazic Jews constituted only about 3 percent of the worldwide Jewish population. By modern times, however, with the political and economic ascent of Christian civilization over Islam, the balance had shifted, and Ashkenazic Jews greatly outnumbered their Sephardic counterparts.
An early scholar of this period was Moritz Steinschneider. He was born in Moravia in 1816, ordained a rabbi in Prague in 1843, and found two jobs he would hold for decades, one at the Royal Berlin Library and the other as director of a local Jewish girls school. Later, Oxford’s Bodleian Library hired him to catalogue their entire collection of printed Hebrew books.
Arabic Jewish Literature
Glickman writes that, “Steinschneider focused much of his scholarship on a thorough examination of Arabic Jewish literature. He catalogued and described not only sacred texts, but also works of astronomy, mathematics, history and more, revealing a world that other scholars hardly knew existed. They showed the influence of Islam over Jewish history and how extensively encounters between Jews and Arabs helped shape the Jewish people.”
Jews have lived in Fustat ever since it was first founded, often in great numbers. A visitor to the community in 1170 estimated its Jewish population at about 7,000 people. “Unlike their European counterparts,” Glickman notes, “the Jews of Egypt and of Fustat in particular, often thrived during the Middle Ages. Many Fustat Jews were accomplished businessmen, government officials, poets and artists. Its merchants traded with their counterparts in lands as distant as Morocco, Italy and China.”
The evidence uncovered in the Geniza shows that Fustat Jewry teemed with diversity. Not only did its residents span the economic spectrum, but there were also religious and cultural differences among the community’s three Jewish subgroups: the Palestinian Jews, with allegiance to the authorities in Jerusalem; Iraqi Jews, who cast their lot with the sages of Babylonia; and Karaite Jews, who rejected rabbinic authority and cast their lot with no rabbis at all. Divided though they were, the three populations appear to have lived in relative harmony in Fustat.
When Solomon Schechter discovered the Geniza manuscripts, Glickman writes, “He realized that he was looking at the literary ruins of a lost civilization. Where was he to start? How was he even to begin examining the chaos of treasures before him? Schechter was an expert on Jewish manuscripts, and before him sat a quantity of texts far greater than all of the manuscripts he had ever before studied. In fact, he was looking at a collection that turned out to be larger and far more important — in terms of mass, depth and range — than all other collections of antiquarian Jewish manuscripts in the world combined.”
Jews Who Spoke Arabic
Even Cairo’s Jewish community was different from anything Schechter had ever encountered. Never before had he known Jews who spoke Arabic. He had not previously encountered Jews whose dark skin made them look much like Arabs which, he discovered, they also were. This was a Jewish community deeply imbued with Arab customs and mores. Wealthy men in the city wore flowing robes, fezzes and sometimes even turbans. Cairo opened Schechter’s eyes to a Jewish culture he had heard about but whose richness he had never appreciated.
In the case of S.D. Goitein, the seeds of his interest in the Geniza were sown in the 1930s when he did field research on the Jewish community of Yemen. Unlike Jews in Europe and elsewhere, the Jews of Yemen lived deep in Arabia, largely isolated from modern industrialized society, and living in many ways as they had for centuries. He described them as “the most Jewish and most Arab of all Jews.”
Out of this work, Glickman points out, “came Goitein’s realization of the profound connectedness of Judaism and Islam. The common understanding of the relationship between these two great religions is that Islam is an offshoot of Judaism, which is to say that it shot off from Judaism and never looked back. But Goitein pointed out that the relationship is far more complex. Yes, Islam does have Jewish roots, but it was only during the Middle Ages that both religions came into their own, and then they did so while holding bands. Goitein wrote of what he called the ‘Jewish-Arab symbiosis’ and described the deep reliance each religion had upon the other. Judaism developed its defining law and philosophies under Islam, he argued … Similarly, Islam borrowed heavily from Jewish thought and practice as it developed during the Middle Ages.”
Judaism and Islam
The titles of many of the articles Goitein wrote during the 1940s and 1950s reflect these insights: “The Sanctity of Palestine in Moslem Piety,” “The Attitude to Authority in Judaism and Islam,” “Who Were Mohammad’s Teachers?” “Jerusalem in the Arab Period,” and “The Stern Religion (An Outline of the Portrayal of Judaism in Early Muslim Literature).”
Each of these articles described the symbiosis between Jews and Arab culture. In 1955, he wrote a book aimed at a popular reading audience called “Jews and Arabs: Their Contact Through the Ages,” which he updated in 1964, and again in 1974, to reflect the changing realities in the Middle East. In that small volume, Goitein gave a sense of the large, if unheralded, influence that medieval Islam exerted over Judaism, much of which he observed in the Geniza fragments he studied.
Goitein wrote: “Under Arab-Muslim influence, Jewish thought and philosophy, and even Jewish law and religious practice were systematized and finally formulated. Even the Hebrew language developed its grammar and vocabulary on the model of the Arabic language. The revival of Hebrew in our own times would be entirely unthinkable without the services rendered in Arabic in various ways a thousand years ago. Arabic itself became a Jewish language and, unlike Latin in Europe, was employed by Jews for all secular and religious purposes with the sole exception being the synagogue service.”
By 1954, Goitein had published over a dozen major articles about the Geniza including a paper about a 12th century Jewish messianic movement in Baghdad; another about Obadiah the Convert, the Italian priest who converted to Judaism during the Crusades; and another about Maimonides’ son Abraham. Within this short time, Goitein’s fascination with the documents of the Cairo Geniza made him the most preeminent Geniza scholar since Solomon Schechter.
Contradicting Zionist Narrative
“For Jews,” argues Glickman, “the Geniza story contradicts much of what we thought we knew about Jewish history. For the most part, the modern Jewish conception of Jewish history follows the viewpoint of modern Zionism. ‘In ancient days,’ this view suggests, ‘the Jewish people thrived in the Land of Israel. But then foreign invaders destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and expelled the Jewish nation from its land, thus beginning a dark, two-thousand-year period of homelessness and oppression. Throughout that entire time, Jews in exile yearned to return to their homeland, where they could live together in safety and freedom. Now, with the rise of the modern State of Israel, those dreams can finally come true.’ It is a powerful national mythos. Like every national mythos, the story is true in some ways, grossly oversimplified in others, and a reflection of its people’s deepest values and most heartfelt self-perceptions. But it is also, as we learn from the Geniza, fundamentally incorrect. Reading the Geniza documents, we read of a vibrant, prosperous Jewish community, thriving 1,000 years ago in Egypt, the very symbol of Jewish suffering and oppression. There in the very heart of the ‘two thousand years of darkness,’ we find enlightenment, security and success — not the oppression and suffering we have come to expect.”
Israel’s national anthem “Hatikvah,” speaks of “the hope of two thousand years to be a free people in our land.” Israel’s Declaration of Independence opens with, “In the land of Israel the Jewish people came into being. In this land was shaped their spiritual, religious and national character. Here they lived in sovereign independence. Here they created a culture of national and universal import, and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books. Exiled by force, still the Jewish people kept faith with their land in all the countries of their dispersion, steadfast in their prayer and hope to return and here revive their political freedom. Fired by this attachment of history and tradition, the Jews in every generation strove to renew their roots to the ancient homeland …”
Rabbi Glickman believes that, “To all of this, the overwhelming response of the Geniza would be, ‘Return to Israel? Us? No, we’re doing fine here in Egypt, thank you. Here we feel at home, here we have friends, here we are active in politics and business and other aspects of daily life. Arabic is our first language. Cairo is our hometown. Yes, we feel a deep bond with the Land of Israel — much more than many of our Jewish neighbors whose connections are with Babylonia … and, yes, we pray for a speedy return to the Land. But when we utter those prayers, we’re talking about a distant messianic future. In the meantime, we’re perfectly happy to stay here in Cairo.”
It is Glickman’s view that the Geniza documents have been downgraded in importance because they hold the entire Zionist idea open to serious question. He compares the treatment of the Geniza with that of the Dead Sea Scrolls, several of which are now housed in the Israel Museum’s Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. “There are,” he writes, “no such shrines for the Geniza documents. For the most part the Geniza manuscripts — even the several hundred now in Israel — are safely encased in plastic and stored in albums in the shelves of locked rooms rather than housed in beautiful, crowded museums. While the Dead Sea Scrolls testify to a glorious past in the Land of Israel, the Geniza documents paint a vivid picture of Jewish life thriving outside the Land — and in Egypt no less … The State of Israel has transformed Jewish life but in the process, it has also defined Jewish history. The Cairo Geniza, on the other hand, tells a very different story — one that doesn’t quite fit the narrative.”
The Geniza also shows that during the Middle Ages, Jewish tradition was anything but monolithic. Jewish life at that time was just as contentious as Jewish religious life is today. Cairo teemed with many different religious views, practices, and ideas. How long should we take to read through the Torah? What should the Jewish calendar look like? Which prayers should compose the Jewish worship service? Palestinian Jews quoted their rabbis. Babylonian Jews quoted theirs, and the Karaites rejected all rabbis on principle. The Geniza gives voice to all of these points of view. What has been seen as the monolith of Jewish tradition has been shown to be far more complicated.
Rabbi Glickman concludes that, “They say that history is written by the winners. The Cairo Geniza, however, gives voice to the losers as well. Furthermore, the Cairo Geniza clashes with modern sensibilities in terms of Arab-Jewish relations. While today it may seem that Jews and Arabs have always been one another’s mortal enemies, the Geniza, of course, paints a different picture. The Geniza people usually got along with their Egyptian neighbors. Sometimes they were friends. Sometimes they were business associates. And sometimes they were even lovers and spouses. In fact, as the Geniza research of S.D. Goitein, Mark Cohen and others has repeatedly shown, for centuries Jews and Judaism thrived far more under Islam than it did under Christianity. There are exceptions, of course — Jews did sometimes experience persecution under Islam. But these incidents tended to be the exception rather than the rule … The Cairo Geniza … was much more than a pile of old scraps. It was a collection of countless lives and stories, a massive, messy heap of humanity stored in an attic for centuries. Its every document brought a bit of immortality to the people and thoughts it preserved. Studying any one of them is to resurrect something of times long past, often in ways that help us make things better for the future. The Cairo Geniza was — and is — a sacred treasure.”
“People of the Book”
Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole come to much the same conclusion: “A certain deference to Islam and to Muslims was expected among those the Prophet Muhammad had dubbed the ‘People of the Book’ (non-Muslims to whom scripture had been divinely revealed) — but for the most part, the Jews of this Mediterranean society fared much better than they did under Christian rule; they were left to pray, work, study, eat, marry divorce … and even hand down legal judgments as they themselves determined.”
In an afterword, they tell us of the Ben Ezra Synagogue at the present time: “Once the very hub of a thriving empire, Fustat seems barely to register on the otherwise-occupied residents of crumbling, sprawling, diesel-choked modern Cairo … But it remains — marked Misr el-Qadim (Old Cairo) on the maps — hugging the Nile south of downtown … Ben Ezra probably looks better now than it has for centuries. A Canadian team carried out a major renovation project in the late 1980s and the then-derelict synagogue was restored, inch by ornamental inch … Moses was found as a baby in the rushes right on this spot (a large, engraved slab near the front of the hall is indicated and duly gawked at by groups from France and India, Australia, America and Indonesia): the Prophet Jeremiah built the synagogue with Alexander the Great’s permission, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Ezra the Scribe came here with his very own Torah scroll … In the 9th century a wealthy rabbi bought the structure (then, in this version, a Coptic church) for a great deal of cash from the caliph … and So on and fantastically on …”
With the growth of radicalism within Islam, and the increasing tension between Jews and Moslems over contemporary Middle East politics, the real history of cooperation between Moslems and Jews has been largely lost. It is time that this history is rediscovered.
Peaceful and Creative Eras
Indeed, some of the most peaceful and creative eras in Jewish history took place in the Muslim world. From the l0th to the 14th centuries, Jews flourished in Islamic countries — in Spain, Persia, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. While the Jewish communities in Christian Europe endured persecution, Jews in these Muslim countries enjoyed freedom and security. There were, of course, certain civil disabilities for Jews in Muslim societies. As “dhimmi,” or “protected” citizens, Jews and Christians were, from the age of 9 and without exception, expected to pay a yearly poll tax. For all but the most prosperous, the charge was onerous. Goitein described the “season of the tax,” when payment was due, as a time of “horror, dread and misery.” And there were occasional periods when the dhimmi were persecuted. Still, compared with their treatment in Europe, life for Jews in the Moslem world was largely peaceful.
In her book, The Ornament of the World, Professor Maria Rosa Menocal of Yale University explores the history of Jews under Muslim rule in Spain: “Throughout most of the invigorated peninsula, Arabic was adopted as the ultimate in classiness and distinction by the communities of the other two faiths. `The new Islamic polity not only allowed Jews and Christians to survive but, following the Qur’anic mandate, by and large protected them and both the Jewish and Christian communities in al-Andalus became thoroughly Arabized within relatively few years of Abd-al-Rahman’s arrival in Cordoba … In principle, all Islamic polities were (and are) required by Qur’anic injunctions … to tolerate Christians and Jews living in their midst. But beyond that fundamental prescribed posture, al-Andalus was, from these beginnings, the site of memorable and distinctive interfaith relations. Here the Jewish community rose from the ashes of an abysmal existence under the Visigoths to the point that the emir who proclaimed himself caliph in the 10th century had a Jew as foreign minister.”
Heart of the Arab World
Living in the heart of the Arab world, Jews first served their apprenticeship in the sciences with Islamic intellectual masters and, in time, became their collaborators in developing the general culture of the region. A striking example of this breadth of interest was Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, 1135-1204), a native of Cordoba. What chiefly characterized Jewish thought in this period was its search for unity — the attempt to reconcile faith with reason, theology and philosophy, the acceptance of authority with freedom of inquiry. In Arab countries in the Near East and North Africa, where there existed this free intermingling of cultures, there blossomed a rich and unique Jewish intellectuality in Arabic.
Beginning with the 10th century, especially in the kingdom of Cordoba under the enlightened Omayyad caliphs Abd al-Rahman and his son, Al-Hakin, there appeared a galaxy of Jewish scholars, historians, philologists , grammarians, religious philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, doctors and poets. During the 11th century, Ubn Usaibia, a Muslim scholar, listed 50 Jewish authors writing in Arabic on medical subjects alone.
The Golden Age of the Jews in Islamic North Africa, Babylonia and Southern Spain may be said to have taken place from the 9th to the 13th centuries. One of the earliest and most gifted mathematicians and astronomers in Spain, for example, was Abraham bar Chivya (d.c. 1136) who became known to the learned Christian world as Abraham Savasorda. He was considered the foremost mathematician of the 12th century in Europe and was the first writer to introduce the scientific method of the Greeks and the Arabs into Europe.
One of the greatest doctors of the Middle Ages — court physician to two Fatimid caliphs and a noted philosopher as well — was Isaac Israeli (b.Egypt, c.844, d. Tunis, c.955). His medical and philosophical works were carefully studied and admired by Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. His treatises “On Fever” and “On Diet” remained authoritative in medical practice in Europe for five centuries.
Professor Menocal writes that, “From its beginning, Islam explicitly recognized its special relationship with Judaism and Christianity. Muhammad had been asked to perform miracles like earlier prophets, but he refused. For him and for believers, the Quran, the book of God’s revelations, was the ultimate and undeniable miracle. He understood that it was the existence of this book that made Muslims the scriptural equals of Jews and Christians, who had their own sacred books. In the Quran’s understanding, and so a fundamental part of Islamic belief, Moses and Jesus had both been given books, which became the foundation of their communities. Thus it was that the expression ‘Peoples of the book’ came to be used by Jews and Christians, a phrase that is itself an explicit recognition of the genuineness of those earlier revelations. Indeed, while pagans were treated mercilessly by the Muslims and were required to convert to the new faith, Jews and Christians were dealt with under the special terms of a dhimma, a ‘pact’ or ‘covenant’ between the ruling Muslims and the other book communities living in their territories and under their sovereignty.”
In Spain, under the Christian Visigoths, Jews were often beaten and executed. Throughout the 7th century, they were subjected to ruinous taxes and often were forced to convert to Christianity. With the Moslem invasion of Spain in 711, Jews participated in their success. They were called upon to garrison captured cities behind Arab armies. This occurred in Cordoba, Grenada, Toledo and Seville. Later Arab geographers referred to Grenada, as well as Lucena and Tarragona, as “Jewish cities.”
Cordoba became the leading center of Jewish culture in the world. During the reign of the Ummayid caliph Abd al-Rahman III (912-61), his Jewish doctor, Hisdai ib Shaprut, brought Jewish scholars, philosophers, poets and scientists to the city. Many compared the rapport the Jewish community established with the liberal caliphs to the age of Cyrus.
Jews of Spain
In her book, The Jews of Spain, Jane S. Gerber writes that, “Judaism flourished in an unusual, indeed unique, environment as one component of the medieval Iberian scene that included Muslims and Christians. It was precisely because of this interaction that special sparks and creative energies were generated. In all of medieval Europe, only in Spain were Jews not the sole minority in a homogeneous Christian state. Consequently, Jews experienced two overlords on one soil as Iberia remained home to all three faiths from 711 to 1492 … a Jewish culture that did not adapt to new waves of thought would have become frozen in an ancient mold. To a large extent, then, the story of Jewish history is the story of creative cultural adaptation, and nowhere was this process more thoroughgoing than in Spain.”
According to Gerber, “In the minds of her sons and daughters, Sepharad (Spain) was a second Jerusalem. Expulsion from Spain, therefore, was as keenly lamented as was exile from the Holy Land … There are no other instances in Jewish history of such a close and enduring identification of the Jews with a land outside the holy land. Jews have lived in every corner of the globe, yet only Sepharad has lent its name to a division of world Jewry … Remarkably, during the turmoil of the early 1990s in Serbia, 57 Sephardic Jews of Sarajevo sought to return, not to the land of Israel but to Spain, and successfully sought asylum from King Juan Carlos.
The destruction of Muslim Spain, writes Karen Armstrong in The History of God, was “fatal for the Jews. In March 1492, a few weeks after the conquest of Grenada, the Christian monarchs gave Spanish Jews the choice of baptism or expulsion. Many of the Spanish Jews were so attached to their home that they became Christians, though some continued to practice their faith in secret … Some 150,000 Jews refused baptism, however, and were forcibly deported from Spain; they took refuge in Turkey, the Balkans and North Africa. The Muslims of Spain had given the Jews the best home they ever had in the diaspora, so the annihilation of Spanish Jewry was mourned by Jews throughout the world as the greatest disaster to have befallen their people since the destruction of the Temple in CE 70.”
Jane Gerber points out that, “In the 15th and 16th centuries … it was the Ottoman Empire, then at the zenith of her power, that alone afforded exiles a place where ‘their weary feet could find rest’ … Her sultans — Bayezid II, Mehmet II, Suleiman the Magnificent — were dynamic, far-sighted rulers who were delighted to receive the talented Jewish outcasts of Europe … Bayezid II, responding to the expulsion from Spain, reportedly exclaimed, ‘You call Ferdinand a wise king, who impoverishes his country and enriches our own.’ He not only welcomed Sephardic exiles but ordered his provincial government to assist the wanderers by opening the borders. Indeed, the refugees would find the Ottoman state to be powerful, generous and tolerant.”
Also largely unknown is the role Moslems played in assisting Jews during the Nazi occupation of North Africa and in Nazi-occupied Europe as well. Part of this story is told in the book Among the Righteous by Robert Satloff. In Algeria, when the French Vichy regime stripped citizenship from Jews, one of the main sources of support for Algerian Jews who came from the Muslim religious establishment. “Here,” states Satloff, “the shining star was Abdel amid Ben Badis, leader of Algeria’s Isla (Reform) Party. Ben Badis was an intensely devout man with a modern, open, tolerant view of the world; among his many achievements was the founding of the Algerian League of Muslims and Jews. Regrettably, he died in spring 1940, before he could lend his personal strength and charisma to the Muslim response to Vichy’s coming to power.”
During the Vichy era, that mantle was worn by Saykj Taieb el-Okbi. Like Ben Badis, al-Okbi was a reformist leader who cultivated close ties with the leading Jews of Algeria. El Okbi showed his mettle in early 1942, reports Satloff: “When he heard rumors that leaders of a French pro-Fascist group ... were prodding Muslim troops to launch a pogrom against the Jews of Algiers, el-Okbi did all he could to prevent it, including a formal prohibition of Muslims from attacking Jews.”
Beyond this, from the pulpits of Algiers mosques, imams issued instruction to local Muslims not to take advantage of Jewish suffering for financial gain. “This act of self-denial at a time when many French colonialists were getting rich at the expense of Jews,” writes Satloff, “was an especially noble act on the part of the local Muslim community.”
In Tunisia, Prime Minister Mohamed Chenik, with long-standing ties to the Jewish community, regularly warned Jewish leaders of German plans, helped Jews avoid arrest orders, intervened to prevent deportations, and even hid individual Jews so they could evade a German dragnet. Even members of the royal court hid Jews who had escaped from German labor camps.
The same story is told about Morocco, where Sultan Muhammad V did his best to protect his Jewish subjects. At the annual Throne Day ceremony, with the elite of Moroccan and Vichy officialdom gathered at the royal place, the sultan made a point of welcoming the leaders of the Jewish community in attendance. “I must inform you that, just as in the past, the Israelites will remain under my protection,” he declared. “I refuse to make any distinction between my subjects.”
It was not only in North Africa that there is evidence of Muslims who saved Jews. The head of what could be considered the most important Muslim institution in Europe, the Great Mosque of Paris, was Si Kaddour Benghabrit. Built in the 1920s, the mosque was a gift from the French government to recognize the 100,000 or so Muslim soldiers who died in World War I. Benghabrit was a religious leader, spiritual guide, and well-connected political actor at the same time.
“Stories of the mosque’s role in aiding Jews during the war have circulated for years,” Satloff notes. “The principal source was a North African Jew named Albert Assouline, a captive in a German prison camp. According to Assouline, he and an Algerian named Yassa Rabah escaped together from the camp and stealthily traversed the countryside across the French-German border heading for Paris. Once in Paris, they made their way to the mosque, where, evidently thanks to Rabah’s connections to the Algerian community, the two found refuge. Eventually Assouline continued his journey and joined up with Free French forces to continue the fight against the German occupation … the most fantastic part of the story was his claim that the mosque provided sanctuary and sustenance to Jews hiding from the Vichy and German troops as well as to other fighters in the anti-Fascist repentance.”
In a 1983 article for Almanach due Combattant, a French veterans’ magazine, Assouline wrote: “No fewer than 1,732 resistance fighters found refuge in its underground caverns. These included Muslim escapees but also Christians and Jews. The latter were by far the most numerous.” According to him, the senior imam of the mosque, Si Mohammed Benzouaou took “considerable risk” by hiding Jews and providing many (including many children) with certificates of Muslim identity, with which they could avoid deportation and certain death.
In Satloff’s view, “Assouline’s stunning story described the mosque as a virtual Grand Central Station for the Underground Railroad of Jews in France.”
Derri Berkani, a French documentary film maker, of Algerian Berber origin, was so moved by the untold story of the mosque that he made the 1991 film Une Resistance Oubliee: La Nisque de Paris (The Forgotten Resistance: The Mosque of Paris). This half-hour movie, which aired on French television, follows the story of a young Frenchwoman whose Algerian grandfather, a fighter in the French resistance, was killed on a street near the mosque. She, in turn, looks inside the mosque for an explanation of a death she never understood. What she finds is a story of a community that protected the unprotected from North African escapees from German POW camps to American and British paratroopers who found medical care and refuge in the French-Muslim hospital nearby. Most of all, the story focuses on Jews, especially Jewish children.
Berkani adds many previously unknown details: that Benghabrit had a special button installed that he would push to trigger a warning alarm in the event of a police raid and that, in emergencies, Jews would huddle in the mosque’s main sanctuary, which was known to be off limits to non-Muslims, including German soldiers. In addition, Berkani provides the testimony of a physician in the municipal department of public hygiene, a man named Ahmed Somia, who tells the story of a young Jewish orphan, 7 or 8 years old, who, Benghabrit hid in the safety of his home. “Si Kaddour felt that we had to do something for this child,” he said. The solution was to provide the boy with a false birth certificate from the mosque that certified him as a Muslim and allowed him to live openly.
More recently, in 2011, a French film “Les Hommes Libres” (“Free Men”) was released. It tells the story of Si Kaddour Benghabit, the rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, who provided refuge and certificates of Muslim identity to Jews to allow them to evade death and reportation.
In a review of the film in The New York Times, Elaine Sciolino writes that, “In the early 1940s, France was home to a large population of North Africans, including thousands of Sephardic Jews. The Jews spoke Arabic and shared many of the same traditions and everyday habits as the Arabs. Neither Muslims nor Jews ate pork. Both Muslim and Jewish men were circumcised. Muslim and Jewish names were often similar.”
Muslims Helped Jews
Benjamin Stora, France’s leading historian on North Africa and a consultant on the film, says that, “… it has not been widely known that Muslims helped Jews. There are still stories to be told, to be written.”
In doing research for the film its director Ismael Ferroukhi learned new stories. At one screening a woman asked him why the film did not mention the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern European origin who had been saved by the mosque. Mr. Stora said he explained that the mosque did not intervene on behald of Ashkenazi Jews, who did not speak Arabic or know Arab culture. “She told me: ‘That’s not true. My mother was protected and saved by a certificate from the mosque,’” Mr. Stora said.
Mr. Ferroukhi is lobbying the French Culture and Education Ministries to get the film shown in schools: “It pays homage to the people of our history who have been invisible. It shows another reality, that Muslims and Jews existed in peace. We have to remember that — with pride.” Last year, this film was featured in film festivals in the Middle East.
Now, the publication of these two important books about the discoveries in the Cairo Geniza provides us with an opportunity to carefully examine the reality of Jewish life in the Islamic world. There is a distinct lack of historical understanding on the part of those who present the current impasse over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the latest in a long history of strife and conflict. The real story, as these books show us, is far different — and far more hopeful. It may provide us with a genuine road map for the future.
There are many examples of growing interest in restoring cordial relations between Muslims and Jews. In 2005, 72 American rabbis had lunch with the king of Jordan. Quoting from both the Quran and the Torah in his speech to the group, Abdullah II offered a clear mission: “building better relations between Jews and Muslims in America and throughout the world.”
In his address, titled “Islam and Judaism: Beyond Tolerance,” he declared: “Just as Isaac and Isma’il were able to put aside the differences that had separated their mothers and come together to honor and bury their father, so too must we put aside the differences that some use to tear us apart. We must honor our common heritage, reaffirming the essential principles that lie at the heart of our faith.”
In Dec. 2011, Tunisia’s newly elected president called upon that country’s Jewish population to return. President Moncef Marzouk told the country’s Grand Rabbi Haim Bittan that Tunisia’s Jews are full citizens. Tunisia presently has a population of 1,500 Jews but in the 1960s there were 100,000. Most left after the 1967 war between Israel and Arab countries. Now, they are being asked to return.
Hope for the Future
Rabbi Mark Glickman, Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole have brought to us the story of how Jews and Muslims lived peacefully together in Cairo more than a thousand years ago. These books are not only a lively account of the Cairo Geniza, a treasure-house of Jewish religion, literature and history that was forgotten for centuries, but provide us with a hope for a future of goodwill and good relations between these two religions which, although many do not realize it, have such a positive history in common.
Allan C. Brownfeld is a nationally syndicated columnist and serves as Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and Editor of Issues. The author of five books, he has served on the staff of the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President.