Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Historical Confusion

As a historian toiling on relatively esoteric topics, it is nice when something you work on appears in a major media outlet. This morning’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has a nice article on the upcoming Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival, featuring Sephardic music. The first three paragraphs offer a somewhat confused account of Spanish history, however:

There was a time when Jews and Muslims lived in a more peaceful coexistence than we know today.
It was called The Golden Age, a fusion of Arab and Jewish intellects in astronomy, poetry, science and mathematics beginning in Spain around 900. Although there had been some inherent tensions, it wasn't until 1492, under Ferdinand and Isabella, that both the Arabs and the Jews -- unless they were converted to Catholicism -- were expunged from Spain during the Inquisition.
Known as the Sephardic culture, it was dispersed all over Europe and the Mediterranean...

All of this is not quite wrong but also not quite right. And some of it is simply wrong. To the tiny subset of humanity that reads this blog and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, please read the following for some clarifications and corrections:

1) There were lots of times and lots of places where Jews and Muslims lived in peaceful coexistence. One can point to any number of examples of Jewish-Muslim coexistence in addition to the Spanish “Golden Age.” In many places in the Muslim world for much of the Middle Ages and the early modern period, Jews--and Christians--were discriminated against and were second-class citizens (more accurate to say subjects), but were tolerated (in the limited sense of the word before the Enlightenment). Historians debate just how “peaceful” the coexistence was, and the debate not only raises questions of what happened, when, and how often it happened, but just what it means to talk about “toleration” and “coexistence” in the pre-modern world.

2) The lead is an attention-seeking gambit (as leads in print journalism are meant to be), but let’s remember that we’re talking about a local music festival. Yes, anti-Jewish sentiment among Muslims resulting from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is probably at an all time high, but it’s not like Jews and Muslims are brawling in the streets of Pittsburgh. (Okay this is more a criticism of the journalism than of the history. Let’s get back to the history.)

3) What is interesting about medieval Spain--in terms of inter-group relations at least--is that the coexistence (“convivencia”) involved Jews, Muslims, and Christians, living mostly under Christian rulers (from the twelfth century on). While there are other medieval examples (Sicily, some places in Eastern Europe, and the Crusader Kingdoms in Palestine), for the most Muslims were not a tolerated minority in Christian Europe. (Jews were almost everywhere and almost all of the time except for a period of expulsions in western Europe in the late Middle Ages.)

4) The Inquisition was not an event or a period “during” which anything could happen. It was an institution that existed in Spain from the late fifteenth century through the early nineteenth century. While some Inquisitors lobbied for the expulsion of Jews in the early 1490s, non-baptized Jews and Muslims were not subject to the jurisdiction of the Inquisition (unless they were accused of aiding Judaizing or Muslim practice by converts). The first thing I tell my students about the Spanish Inquisition is “contrary to what you think, the Spanish Inquisition did not target Jews.” Now, that gets their attention.

5) “Arabs” were not expelled from Spain in 1492 along with Jews. After the conquest of Granada (the last Muslim-ruled kingdom), Ferdinand and Isabella embarked on a fairly aggressive campaign to convert Muslims in Granada and elsewhere in Castile. After a revolt in Granada, in 1499-1501, Islam was outlawed in Granada in 1501 and in the rest of Castile in 1502. In the early 1520s, rebels in Valencia (part of Aragon) forcibly converted many Muslims there and in 1525-26, Islam was outlawed in all of Aragon. Many Muslims who were thus converted to Christianity--called Moriscos--resisted efforts of the Inquisition to force conformity to Christianity and there were revolts of the Moriscos in subsequent years, notably in the late 1560s. Finally, during the period 1609-1614, Moriscos were expelled from all of Spain. In other words, two different expulsions took place over a century apart, under quite different circumstances, and technically were aimed at different types of “threats” to Christian society (in the first case, unbaptized Jews who were thought to aid and abet the Judaizing of baptized Christians; in the second case, baptized Christians who were thought to be backsliding into their previous beliefs and practices and who were also seen as a political threat to the stability of the monarchy due to their sheer numbers).

6) This clarification is needed because of the confusing beginning of the third paragraph where the antecedent of “it” is unclear. Because the last sentence mentioned Jews and Arabs (i.e. Muslims) together, one could construe this sentence to mean that “Sephardic” culture includes the culture of the Jews and the Muslims (actually Moriscos) who were expelled from Spain. But “Sephardic” refers only to Spanish Jews and their descendents.

You could put across more or less the same point (a rich legacy resulting from the cultural tapestry that was medieval Spain) with an accurate and more concise opening. Something like this:

There were times in the past when Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived in a more peaceful coexistence than we know today.
One such time was the “The Golden Age” of medieval Spain, which saw a fusion of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish intellects in astronomy, poetry, science and mathematics beginning around 900. Although there were some inherent tensions, this era lasted until 1492, when Jews were expelled from Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella, unless they were converted to Catholicism.
Known as the Sephardic Jews, the exiles took their vibrant culture with them as they dispersed all over Europe and the Mediterranean...

This lead-in to the article would still be subject to some criticism for romanticizing convivencia (although the “inherent tensions” disclaimer wards off some of this criticism). But it would avoid some of the howlers of the story as printed.

And I’m pretty sure the photograph accompanying the story is Sarah Aroeste not Anna Levenstein. Whoops.

Elsewhere in the historical confusion department, we have the Honorable Pete Stark accusing the Republican right of acting like “Pharisees”, also reported in today's Post-Gazette.

But Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., scoffed that he didn't need an ethics lecture from DeLay, who is under House investigation for possible ethics violations. "Our scientific policies should not be decided by [presidential political adviser] Karl Rove and self-appointed gurus," Stark said. "Don't tell my constituents we can't alleviate their suffering because it might offend modern-day Pharisees."

Now this is obviously a reference to the Pharisees qua bad guys in the New Testament, whose rigidity in regard to strict observance of the Law ran up against Jesus’ more “liberal” teachings. But the Pharisees qua actual historical group were the “liberals” of the period vis-à-vis interpretation of the Law and they were also the Second Temple sect that the historical Jesus was most likely closest to in his teachings. The legacy of the Pharisees was later claimed by the Rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud. (That last sentence was very carefully phrased). The Talmud (not surprisingly) takes no position on stem cell research. But, let’s put it this way, the range of views on the beginnings of life, the status of the fetus, and abortion in Rabbinic Judaism, are such that one cannot simply line up Rabbinic teachings with the “pro-life” position as espoused by DeLay, Rove, et al. (For a brief introduction into this subject on the web, see here, here, and here. For a longer introduction, see Daniel Schiff’s comprehensive Abortion in Judaism.) In other words, there is some reason to think that “modern-day Pharisees” would be on Representative Stark’s side on this.

Update: See Paleojudaica for some references on views of the beginning of life in the Talmud.

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