22 October 2009

Filtering Jewish history: Sephardi and Ashkanazi

How do we look at history in general and at Jewish history specifically? Tracing the Tribe believes that history is always filtered through what we know today.

In the case of Sephardic history, most readers - unless they are personally connected in some to this history - are merely aware of 1492's Expulsion and the Sephardic diaspora.

A smaller group knows about the pogroms and mass conversions in 1391, across Spain. Our family believes we likely left from Catalunya around this time, as did many others, crossing into French Catalunya, into Germany, Poland and further east, eventually landing in Belarus.

Even fewer are aware of the Almohades - fanatical Moslem rulers in Spain - who, in 1148, also gave Jews and others the same old choice, convert or die. Maimonides and his family left at that time.

An interesting story by Seth Frantzman in the Jerusalem Post addresses how we look at history.

History is subject to our own modern judgments based on what we value today. History can also serve to tell us something about the future. If we choose to emphasize and romanticize certain aspects of the past it is because we imagine a future that will embody those aspects.

In the case of Jewish history and memory two periods stand out for praise in popular secular Jewish assessment. One is the "Golden Age" of Spanish Jewry from the eighth to 15th centuries.

The other is the epoch of the Jews of Germany from the 18th to the 20th centuries. The Jewish interest in this history has also affected Western perceptions of these periods.

Thus Muslim Spain has come to embody all sorts of positive traits that the humanistic West intends to want to revive for the future. Similarly there is no period in German history that is viewed through such a positive light as that of the short-lived Weimar Republic which existed between the two world wars.
Frantzman discusses two popular history books: Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by Maria Menocal and The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, by Amos Elon.

Following September 11, both books (published in 2003) seemed to suggest that Europeans examine the history of tolerance that had existed in Germany before the Holocaust and Spain before the "Reconquista."

Jewish historians are interested in both places because Jewish communities had a tragic end in both due to the Inquisition and Expulsion and the Holocaust.
But just because things end in communal destruction doesn't necessarily lead to the conclusion that the society that predated the catastrophe must have been a utopia. Furthermore even if it is logical to want to commemorate a community that was destroyed there is no reason to emphasize how tolerant the community that destroyed it had been.
Spain produced brilliant writers and philosophers, such as Meir Abulafia, Isaac Abravanel, Alharizi, Karo, de Leon, Maimonides and Nahmanides. The German Jewish community also produced such as Marx, Baeck, Arendt, Heine, Einstein, Mendelssohn and others.

However, asks Frantzman, just because the community produced such individuals does it mean that the society where they lived was a "utopia of tolerance"?

The assimilated German Jews had the highest intermarriage rate in Europe. Many brilliant individuals had converted to Christianity. The Weimar Republic was, according to Frantzman, although seemingly liberal and tolerant, it was full of bigotry, extremism and weakness that led to the Holocaust.

The Spanish Golden Age was not so great either, and the Almohades provided a handy choice: convert, be exiled or die. Not so tolerant.
Most have forgotten that this Arab culture in Spain was one that included slavery. People speak of Spain as a "Convivencia" or coexistence society. This coexistence society we imagine as a utopia resembles the American antebellum South, with slavery and large wealthy estates.
The author notes that Jews also prospered in the American South, but that it is not a model for today.

The myth of Muslim Spain and Weimar Germany and the use of the flowering of its Jewish culture is one that harms the West and Jewish culture to this day, presenting a false picture of the past and determining a false hope for a utopian future based on a faulty model that will lead only to failure and self-destruction.
Frantzman is a Hebrew University researcher. Read the complete article at the link above.

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