Space, Subjectivity, Symbolism

A Report from the Conference:
“Jews in Muslim Societies,” October 2017
by Katharine Halls*

In October 2017, Berlin’s Jewish Museum welcomed scholars from across the Middle East, Europe and North America for a conference organized by a tongue-twisting array of institutions: the W. Michael Blumenthal Academy of the Jewish Museum Berlin, and the research network Re-Configurations: History, Remembrance and Political Transformations in the Middle East and North Africa, based at Philipps-Universität Marburg, in cooperation with the Center for Jewish Studies Berlin-Brandenburg and “Europe in the Middle East - The Middle East in Europe” (EUME), a research program of the Forum Transregionale Studien. The conference asked participants to consider the theme of ‘Jews in Muslim Societies – History and Prospects’ unfettered by constraints of time, place or scholarly discipline. The packed program offered too much fascinating scholarship to cover in a short report, especially one written by a humble scholar of the twentieth century for whom the many brilliant contributions on the pre-modern era were uncharted territory; so, I reflect here on some of the broader themes which the conference left me contemplating.

Thoughtful keynotes delivered by Mark Cohen, Orit Bashkin, and Aomar Boum raised issues which arose again and again during the conference. Mark Cohen began with a detailed explanation of why Jews fared better under Islam than in Christendom, aptly setting the tone for the following three days, in which broad-brush narratives of Jewish misery in Muslim societies were regularly subjected to careful scrutiny. In particular, Cohen underscored the imperative of always studying the history of Jews in its proper political and economic context, and in connection with that of other dhimmis, since their changing fortunes were usually closely linked. Many papers developed this theme of Jewish contact with other religious minorities, such as those by Carsten Walbiner and Alexandra Cuffel, who argued that literatures of encounter and understudied points of social interaction like conversion and slave ownership stand to tell us a great deal more about multilateral inter-confessional connections in Muslim-majority societies.

The second keynote, by Orit Bashkin, discussed ‘the Jew as metaphor’ in Arabic writings of the nahda (or Arab ‘renaissance’) era. The 1876-1921 period, she explained, saw intensive discussions about Jews in reformist and intellectual circles. Set against a backdrop of growing nationalism, anti-colonialism, and Islamic revival, these discussions often centered around European anti-Semitism, which these Arab writers deplored; Western racial theories, which—being Semites themselves—they critiqued and adapted; and notions of tyranny and liberty which applied equally to other oppressed groups in society, such as women or other religious minorities. In short, Jews provided Arab thinkers with a vehicle to express ideas about their own identities and their place within global hierarchies, and to discuss issues related to inter-confessional relations in the Ottoman Empire. Bashkin’s paper left me pondering the question of what it is that makes Jews such good metaphors, and whether—even in the absence of actual hostility towards Jews—there is something intrinsically dehumanizing about using another group of people as a symbol or abstraction.

Finally, Aomar Boum’s exploration of cemeteries as sites for the memorialization and revival of the Jewish presence in Morocco, with the attendant figure of the Muslim caretaker, was the first of many methodologically exciting contributions which took physical and geographic space as starting points for an examination of patterns of Jewish settlement and movement and of the interactions between Jews and their neighbors. Michelle Campos’s cartographic presentation of demographic diversity in the walled city of Jerusalem, to give another example, drew a vivid picture of the neighborhood of Mahallat al-Silsila in which Avraham al-Maliah was born and raised. There, he rubbed shoulders with Jews of North African origin (like his own parents) as well as Muslim residents who ran the socioeconomic gamut from the prominent Palestinian al-Khalidi family, to ordinary Jerusalemites, peasants who had moved from the countryside, Sudanese and North African guards, Indian and North African dervishes, and various converts to Islam.

The writings of Avraham al-Maliah and his generation offer poignant reminders of an age in which Jews were indigenous and mobile within the Arab and Islamic world, a topic which formed a starting point for Yuval Evri’s paper. Lamenting the many divisions which have become embedded in Jewish history—like Arabic/Hebrew, Israel/Palestine, Sefarad/Andalus—Evri argued that we must methodologically ‘de-partition’ our scholarship by decoupling Jewish modernization from the Jewish experience in Europe and avoiding imposing the framework of the Arab-Israeli conflict on histories which predate it. I would add that we as scholars must also attempt to be as linguistically and culturally ambidextrous as Evri’s turn-of-the-century Arab Jewish thinkers were if we are to have any hope of fully appreciating the intellectual heritage they have left us.

At times these partitions do seem indestructible, prompting Aline Schlaepfer to wonder if we, as scholars of a bygone era of Jewish normality in Muslim societies, are doomed to an inescapable nostalgia. This feeling is certainly one I have shared at some of the sadder moments of my research into the imprisonment and deportation of Egyptian Jews following the outbreak of the 1967 war. Yet as Evri reminded us, Jews and Muslims continue to live together in many places—most obviously, on the streets of Berlin just outside the rooms in which we were gathered, but also in Morocco, Israel-Palestine, Tehran and elsewhere; to this I would add that Muslims and Jews also coexist in less tangible but no less significant spheres of transnational cultural and intellectual interaction. Seth Anziska’s paper, which traced the story of an Israeli pilot who refused orders to bomb a boys’ school in Sidon during the 1982 Israeli invasion, brought together history, contemporary art, and urban legend into a social history which provided a good example of this ongoing contact.

In cases such as this, questions arose regarding the researcher’s subjectivity and difficulties faced in conducting fieldwork or archival research in places where the Jewish presence remains a thorny subject. Brahim El Guabli, echoing Aomar Boum, reminded us that in Morocco, local scholars of the country’s Jewish past face mistrust and suspicion, as such research is felt to be the sole province of foreign historians and anthropologists. Holders of Western passports, too, may forge research paths across borders—like that which separates Israel and Lebanon—which remain inaccessible to local scholars. Faedah Totah recalled during her talk that her very name—which by sheer coincidence she shares with a prominent Damascene Jewish family—raised suspicions amongst certain of her interlocutors.

The development and future of Jewish studies in the Middle East and North Africa region were touched on in a roundtable featuring Mohamed Hawary of Ain Shams University, Cairo, Mohammed Kenbib of Mohammed V University, Rabat, and Marc David Baer of the London School of Economics (who discussed the case of Turkey). Sadly, the impression one was left with was that of a vast gulf between institutional academia in the region and the cutting-edge research being pursued by young scholars, in many cases abroad, some examples of which—like İlker Hepkaner’s perceptive work on the Jewish Museum in Istanbul, or Iskander Ahmad Abdalla’s exploration of a nascent philo-Semitism in Egyptian pop culture—we had the privilege of hearing during the conference. All was not gloomy, however. A fascinating comparison of two recensions of a 19th-century refutation of Judaism by Muhammad Rida Jadid al-Islam—once a rabbi, later a Shi’ite Muslim—by Mohammad Ali Tabataba’i and Heidar Eyvazi, gave a glimpse of the research being undertaken at the Research Institute of the Quran & Hadith in Qom. We were also reminded—for example by papers on Arabic novels by Brahim El Guabli, Najat Abdulhaq, and Ronan Zeidel, and by Mazin Ali’s paper on journalism and cultural production in Iraq—that new and critical thinking in the Middle East and North Africa about Jews past and present is by no means the sole province of academia.

I do not share the unmitigated optimism with which the region’s revival of interest in its Jewish past is viewed by some and, as Orit Bashkin demonstrated at the conference’s outset, discourses about Jews are sometimes actually about something else entirely. Nevertheless, it is clear that the time is ripe for a conversation about Jews in the Middle East and North Africa that casts aside tired tropes, old prejudices, and outdated methodologies, and brings together Jewish communities and diasporas with those who have been their neighbors both past and present. The conference left me hopeful that this conversation is one to which, with care and sensitivity, academic researchers might contribute fruitfully.

* Katharine Halls is a researcher and award-winning Arabic-to-English translator. She holds a BA in Arabic and Hebrew from the University of Oxford, an MA in translation from the University of Manchester and an MA in Middle East studies from the American University in Cairo. Her current research focuses on the modern history of Egyptian Jewry.

Copyright by Sephardic Horizons, all rights reserved. ISSN Number 2158-1800