Terra Incognita: History, memory and utopia

Terra Incognita 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. As evidence of just some of the perceptions of the importance and greatness of these two periods we must look no further than several popular history books such as the 2003 books Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by Maria Menocal and Amos Elon's much celebrated The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch. IN THE wake of the September 11 attacks and a backlash against Muslim immigrants in Europe both books seemed to be suggesting that Europeans examine the history of tolerance that had existed in Germany before the Holocaust and Spain before the "Reconquista." Some of the pathos that makes the history of Spain and Germany fascinating to Jewish scholars is that the Jewish communities in both places met a terrible end: The Inquisition and expulsion from Spain and the Shoah. 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. But in fact this is exactly what comes down through history. Spanish Jewry created legions of brilliant scholars and fostered the minds that helped mint the Zohar and other essential texts. Among the great names are Meir Abulafia (and his brother Joseph), Isaac Abravanel, Yehuda Alharizi, Joseph Karo, Moses de Leon (purported compiler of the Zohar), Maimonides and Nahmanides among others. German Jewry too was seemingly overflowing with great minds, secular and, to a lesser extent, religious. These include Karl Marx, Walter Rathenau, Leo Baeck, Hannah Arendt, Heinrich Heine, Albert Einstein, Moses Mendelssohn, Leo Strauss, Rosa Luxemburg, Robert Aumann and many others. The sheer weight of the evidence seems to contradict any attempt to downplay the importance of these communities. But this too leads to the second question; just because the community included numerous great minds, does that necessarily mean that the society around it must have been some sort of utopia of tolerance? IN FACT there was nothing great to admire about the "Golden Age" of Spain or the epoch of German Jewry. This is a controversial statement but one that is worth making. German Jewry was highly assimilated and had the highest rate of intermarriage in Europe. Many of its great minds were converts to Christianity. This "Jewish culture" was on the verge of disappearing. Weimar Germany was a highly politicized and violent society teetering on the brink of collapse. Outwardly liberal and tolerant, it was full to the brim with bigotry, political extremism, terrorism and a weak state that eventually betrayed it and its Jews to their deaths. Few of those who want to emphasize the Golden Age of Spain and how it was a land of "tolerance" want to recall that Maimonides and his family were forced to leave Spain in 1148 because the fanatic Muslim rulers, known as the Almohades, gave Jews and other non-Muslims the choice of conversion, exile or death. Yet this expulsion was never remembered. Is this the place of "humanistic beauty" that Western scholars want us to recall? Was this the "bastion of culture, commerce and beauty"? Western historians have presented this as "the intellectual community which the northern [European] scholars found in Spain was so far superior to what they had at home that it left a lasting jealousy of Arab culture." 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. Jews prospered there too and that exquisite culture produced Jefferson and Madison. But it's no 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. The writer is a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.