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A Muslim Community Center? Why Not?

Why Should Jews Care?

by Robin Podolsky with Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, JewsOnFirst.org, September 7, 2010

(Page 5 of 8) Print version

It is only in the previous century, through the deep Western reconsideration prompted by the horrors of the Holocaust and, most importantly, the victorious independence movements of previously colonized nations, that the 'civilizing and Christianizing' project of the West has been (imperfectly) discredited. None of that changes the fact that many Christians believe it to be their duty to witness for their faith in order to redeem the world. They have the right to do so, just as Muslims do, just as Jews have the right to assert the Jewish roots of our own values.

History
Those who oppose Park51 have been armed with the following talking point: the name "Cordoba" means conquest and oppression. Jews who are conversant with our history know a different story.

A Muslim Caliphate did indeed take over Cordoba, and all the Iberian peninsula beginning in 711 C.E. It has become an oft-repeated charge that Muslims often erect Mosques on the sites of conquests. It is true that the Muslim Governor Yusef Abd al-Rachman bought St. Vincent's church in 750 C.E and there constructed Cordoba's mosque. (Also true that, under the Spanish monarchy, the site would be redone again with a Gothic cathedral in the middle of it.) Prior to that it had been under the control of the Visigoths, who had themselves conquered the area in the early 6th Century and, according to the historian Gregory of Tours (died 594), "the Goths had adopted the detestable custom of killing with the sword any of their kings who displeased them." (Medieval Islamic Civilization, Josef W. Meri and Jere L. Bacharach, Routledge, 2005, p. 176 ff.)

Under the Visigoths, Jews had faced cruel persecution which sometimes escalated to forced conversion, torture and murder. By the late seventh century, it became a practice of the Visigoth rulers to steal Jewish children from their parents and have them baptized. Even during periods of relative calm, Jews were always subject to strictures under Visigoth rule, which obliged them to observe their religion with utmost discretion.

As Muslim rule of what would be called Spain, and what was then called Al-Andalus, was consolidated, the situation for the Jews improved greatly. Under the Umayyads, who came to power in 755, the Jews of Al-Andalus—including and notably, the Jews of Cordoba experienced what has been called a Golden Age. The period has sometimes been over-romanticized; but that may be because it provoked nostalgia by comparison to what preceded and followed it. It was an extraordinary time for Jewish scholarship, poetry, statecraft and commerce. Great philosophers emerged from Al-Andalus and poets and even generals. Muslims, Jews and Christians studied together, re-confronting the challenges of Greek wisdom and re-inventing revealed religion such that it could stand up to the challenges of science, logic and that burgeoning invention moving from east to west: spiritual interiority.

This Golden Age lasted till the early 12th century, when the more fundamentalist Almoravides and then the Almohads took control. (The great philosopher Moses ben Maimon, whose intellect had flowered in Cordoba was forced to leave the city, because of Almohad persecutions. He settled in Cairo, another Muslim city, where he achieved his greatest work while employed as physician to Saladin's vizier.) Jews were again subject to pogroms and other depredations under Almohad rule and some encouraged a second Christian invasion in the hope of finding relief. As most of us know, the situation for Jews under Christian rule was not improved for long. It became precarious in the extreme and grew worse until the expulsion of 1492.

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In this context, it is imperative to remember that the status of "dhimmis"—the category assigned to Jews and Christians in the Medieval Muslim world which has been newly rediscovered by those same savants who have "read" the Quran-- which rendered those communities protected but less than equal, was in no way more degrading or oppressive than the strictures on Jews common in the Christian world. At various times, under their Christian rulers, Spanish Jews were not allowed to build new synagogues, to employ Christian servants, to celebrate too openly or to hold any office which would put them in authority over a Christian. They were were ordered into ghettos (Juderias). They were not allowed to hire Christian servants or to eat, drink, or bathe with Christians, or hold intimate conversation with them, or visit them, or give them presents. Christian women, married or unmarried, were forbidden to enter the Juderia either by day or by night. In some places, Jews were prohibited from practicing medicine, surgery, or chemistry; from dealing in bread, wine, flour or meat; from handicrafts or trades of any kind; from public offices—and, stereotypes notwithstanding, from money lending. If the poverty brought on by these strictures did not effect a change in their dress, the law did, because Jews were ordered to wear clothing of special, coarse material and forbidden to trim their beards like gentry.

In the first years of the Spanish crown, these rules were not always in place or rigorously enforced. Sometimes, they were enforced beyond all reason. But none of the regulations regarding Jews in Christian Spain differed in kind from the strictures set out for dhimmis under Islamic law. There were no democratic republics then of our own sort. There was no part of the earth in which the prerogatives accorded to minority religions were not at the pleasure of the ruling elite. By the standards of the time, the Jews—and Christians and Muslims-- of Cordoba lived, for generations, extremely well. (Mark R. Cohen Under Crescent & Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages Princeton: 1995, pps. 111 -116.)

This changed under the Spanish Christian kings and nowhere was this change felt more cruelly than in Cordoba, where, in 1391 a bloody pogrom destroyed most of the inhabitants of the Juderia. The former home of such luminaries as Moses ben Maimon and the great commentator and poet, Abraham Ibn Ezra had been reduced to an abattoir.

Analogies
We are told further, by both Christian and Jews, that the presence of a community center containing a mosque near Ground Zero is as offensive to New Yorkers as was the presence of a Carmelite convent on the grounds of Auschwitz. The analogy fails.

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