Convivencia Under Siege: Live Action Self-Hating Sephardim

By: David Ramírez

Jewish Andalusia

This is an image of a decorative fragment of a wall from the medieval Jewish Synagogue of El Tránsito in Toledo, Spain. In addition to the Hebrew writing, the Arabic word for God, الله, is seen, indicating the high degree of cultural diffusion between Muslims and Jews in al-Andalus. Photo credit: Lost Islamic History, Facebook page.

Please note: All the Facebook quotes are reprinted without change.  The typos have been retained.  The personal names of the participants have been removed. 

And just to reinforce the basic premise of the argument, the article’s final Facebook remarks were actually deleted by the person who posted them. 

It is interesting to note that, faced with the Anti-Convivencia forces and their hatred for the classical Sephardic tradition and support for Catholic Anti-Semitism, this individual felt that it was better to distance himself from those positive comments on my article dealing with Rabbi Marc Angel rather than upset the crowd. 

It is another very disturbing sign that the Sephardic heritage has become a very dangerous thing in a Jewish world that has no need for our cultural traditions. 

DS

Convivencia is a Spanish word we Spanish-speakers generally utilize to describe the acts of gathering and of sharing experiences in an easy-going social space. We trade stories, know-how, culture, music, food, and every imaginable thing of human creativity and care in an amicable ambiance. The Diccionario de lengua española defines it as, from the verb convivir, “to live in company of one another.” But this is a living beyond the boundaries of the home or a friendly dinner-party. It extends to the everyday interaction in the workplace, the park, the butcher shop, the grocer stand, etc. Class and rank are dropped, and all that remains is you and the other (me and you) in direct dynamic contact, sharing each other’s experience of life and living, as a river traveling from the mountain snowcap, down the forest, the valley, the meadow and the sea.

Co-respondence, co-mingling, co-authorship; the prefix “co” denotes a two-way street of exchange that lacks top-down status, and as such convivencia is a term that cannot be compartmentalized. The closest term in English would be convivial, but semantically it lacks the intimacy the Spanish term possesses.

The late professor María Rosa Menocal, whose academic achievements focused on bringing the full nuanced Andalusian experience to the front of our historical consciousness, was all too aware of its hard-to-place definition:

Convivencia is of course one of those much contested and vexed terms that does have to do with al-Andalus and Spain in particular, and like its equally vexed counterpart, reconquista, perhaps it is only problematic if we insist on some sort of uniformity and neatness, if we persist, despite our own likely observations of human nature, in expecting consistencies and purities of any sort.

(María Rosa Menocal, “Visions of Al-Andalus,” from the book The Literature of Al-Andalus, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 15.)

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, and the subsequent U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, the West met the Middle-East like a derailed freight train. It was for the first time in my living memory when the Western media (be these the television, newspaper, books, etc.) took on showing what the Middle-East was all about. From politics, social issues, the economy, music, history, all major networks created special segments just dedicated to the Middle-East.

The tone of this new wealth of information took on two different hues that have been brewing in Western academia for over 100 years. One hue predicated the history of the Middle-East, and its evolution impacting their politics and culture, on a traditional strand of Western Christian anti-Orientalism, where Arabs are mere infidel savages incapable of becoming civilized: They get what they deserve due to their brutishness, why should I (the civilized superior West) suffer for it? The other strand was a challenge to the first, where the near Orient is being presented with detail and context, and shows that history and its outcome is not black and white. A particular favorite of this revisionist trend has been the use of convivencia, which is set to describe a particular period of the Ummayad dynasty where Arab civilization served as a catalyst and convergence of cultures and knowledge from the Far East, the Levant and ancient Greco-Roman civilizations. Even after Reconquista was gaining ground on the former Spanish Islamic territory, the attitude of convivencia survived to a lesser degree in Christian Spain up until the expulsion of Jews in 1492.

The revisionist trend begun by Spanish historian Américo Castro (1885–1972) sought to set the record straight regarding Spanish history, demonstrating the immense cultural and intellectual wealth that Arab and Jews had impressed on Spanish Christian society. María Rosa Menocal’s work is a continuation of Castro’s academic legacy first seeded in Princeton, where he would beget a new generation of Hispanists that would follow in his footsteps, e.g. Russell P. Sebold and Stephen Gilman. We must point out that Castro escaped the hyper-Catholic fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco, and self-exiled himself to the United States in 1938.

Even so, Castro’s work was not without controversy. Serving as Catholic apologist, Spanish historian Claudio Sánchez Albornoz would create violent polemics with Castro’s work. Sánchez Albornoz also would leave a legacy of his own among scholars such as Guillermo Araya, José Luis Gómez Martínez and Eugenio Asensio.

This tension between the Catholic apologist anti-Semites and the pro-Arabist philo-Semites continues to this day, and something that Menocal lamented and said she had to contend with all through her academic career among her peers.

In my pro-Sephardic autodidact and activist experience I have had a taste of what Menocal meant. My first encounter was first with the literature of scholars such as Sánchez Albornoz, then with online exchanges via email and virtual discussion groups as found in Yahoo Groups and Facebook. Particularly poignant has been to discuss the issue with actual scholars who argue against convivencia, and more painfully heart-breaking when these scholars happen to be of Sephardic stock.

The character of their anti-Orientalist rebuttals is always two-dimensional, selective and self-victimizing. Two-dimensional in the sense that they set out to affirm a priori that convivencia is a huge bold lie, proving their arguments by selecting specific events or articles of their liking, which are completely devoid of context and missing information, choosing only what is convenient to their perceived truth. The self-victimization comes from them feeling assaulted, and overwhelmed, by what they consider to be Arabist Political Correctness, which in their view is dominant in academia. Disproving them is an easy and risible act, if not a show of the pathetic.

I have always believed in my wishful thinking two of the roles the University must have are the attainment and advancement of knowledge. It is quiet disappointing to find trained scholars who would opt to choose warped views that fit their personal feelings and political agendas. It is downright scary when these opinionated scholars are responsible to form the character and minds of our future generations.

For much flack that it may receive for its superficiality and spuriousness, Social Media does provide a raw window access to people’s immediate feelings and thoughts, unfiltered by the apparently safe space provided behind a computer screen, where normal social conventions of prudence and self-restrain are often dropped. It can be eye opening to the human condition, but also disheartening.

I share this virtual social space in Facebook with a group called Western Sephardic Debate (381 members), which is an offshoot of the little bit older The Foundation for the Preservation of the Western Sephardic Tradition (875 members), where not only Western Sephardim are members, but also other Sephardim of various backgrounds participate, as well as Ashkenazim who are most likely members of Sephardic congregations.

Western Sephardim are also known as Spanish & Portuguese Jews, whose Diaspora was exclusively founded by the Inquisition-persecuted Sephardim, otherwise known as conversos or cristianos nuevos, who fled Spanish and Portuguese Catholic dominions to revert back to Judaism throughout Protestant Europe (the Netherlands, Germany and Britain), southern France and Italy.

Because of our global trade ties afforded thanks to the Spanish and Portuguese empires, the Western Sephardim would become the most widespread and economically successful group of Jews in the early modern period, founding communities in the Americas, Africa and Asia. Intellectually, our rabbis and community members would be conversant with the latest academic and scientific trends of Europe, often creating relationships that would benefit our mutual understanding, and strengthening the safety and political standing of Jews in our host countries, as I exemplify in my article “Rabbi Moyses Aegyptius in Holland,” thus re-establishing the Maimonidean tradition of Religious Humanism, which had been utterly destroyed in Iberia by Catholic extremist mendicant orders, the German-implant the RoSh and Nahmanides.

Western Sephardic Debate was setup as an alternative to The Foundation for the Preservation of the Western Sephardic Tradition by a fellow Western Sephardi to freely discuss, argue and deliberate things too controversial for the delicate ears of Sephardim who don’t want to hear the dire state of Sephardic civilization and its erasure by the Ashkenazi establishment, and who would rather endlessly discuss the ephemera of community minhag, top hats, and synagogal melodies (the equivalent of Borekas and Haminados for Western Sephardim).

I often post articles in this group from the David Shasha’s Sephardic Heritage Update. Sometimes, I get brief positive or negative comments, but hardly reactions that go viral. Back in May 3, 2016 I posted an article titled “Rabbi Marc Angel Denies Convivencia!” which would strike a nerve among certain group members and generate over 80 responses.

Shasha was reacting to Angel’s article “The ‘Golden Age’ in Spain: How ‘golden’ was it?,” which was basically Angel’s acceptance of the Catholic apologists’ hue of convivencia, backtracking what he had written earlier for a book blurb. Particularly eye-gouging is the following sentence:

“Professor Fernandez-Morera’s book has a clear point of view. He is especially interested in highlighting the strengths and virtues of Visigothic Spain before the arrival of the Muslims in 711. He praises the Christian re-conquest of Spain. Had it not been for the ‘Reconquista,’ Islamic rule might not only have prevailed over all of Spain, but might have spread further into Europe. This would have led to the fostering of religious discrimination, the low status of women, the inhibiting of intellectual freedom; it would have precluded the emergence of the Renaissance, and would have left the Western world in the same general condition as the rest of the Muslim world.”

Never mind that Visigothic Spain persecuted and forcibly converted Jews; never mind that Catholics discriminated, persecuted, exiled and even killed other Christian sects, like Catharism and Arianism; never mind the actual status of women in Islam was superior to that of women in medieval Christian Europe by leaps and bounds; never mind that Catholic Christianity was the sole responsible for practically eliminating the knowledge and wiping out the intelligentsia of the ancient Greco-Roman civilization, and had it not been for Islamic civilization in Spain and Italy, there would not have been any European Renaissance.

It boggles the mind, particularly coming from Angel’s hand, whose own ancestors were received by the Islamic Ottoman empire in what is now Turkey, and allowed to settle and flourish, recreating the religious traditions of Sepharad, maintaining their own version of medieval Spanish known as ladino, producing a rich religious and lay literature in the forms of rabbinical legal and moral treatises, romances, theater plays, poetry; none of which can be had in post-1492 Christian Spain nor in his beloved dry and dilapidated Modern Orthodox world in 2016.

Así! De ese tamaño! A palavras locas, orejas sodras. 

This is the hollow foreground where the following precious responses from self-hating Sephardim take place, defending Angel’s position; my thoughts in italics.

“Yup; we can all build Sephardic solidarity by attacking, finger-pointing and name calling. A fabulous exhibition of the best our culture has to offer. Maybe spend more of that intellectual energy writing articles that support what you DO believe and less on lashon hara.”

As opposed to building Sephardic solidarity by destroying Sephardic history, and voting in favor of a Catholic apologist praising the very Reconquista and consequent Inquisition which had us expelled, persecuted, tortured and murdered? And how is it Lashon haRá when one can view in plain light the words written by Angel’s own hand, which happens to be a total mischaracterization of the period in question? Is Angel committing Lashón haRá against himself?

“I believe Coexistence is an Utupian myth. One can see throughout history that jews were welcomed because of their knowledge, connections and wealth, and that when things in socio-economics went wrong the jew was to be blamed for it. Like (name of group participant) pointed out it would be wise to concentrate on what you DO believe instead of just criticism.”

The first sentence above is something that serves as a wholesale rejection of convivencia as myth. It is a gut reaction born out of our current state of political affairs in the Middle-East as well as ignorance of the Andalusian period. The second sentence is the oft repeated lachrymose version of Ashkenazi history, “Oh we Jews were so great and wealthy that we were welcomed in times of bounty, but envious darn goyim kicked us out when things did not go well for them.” However, history is never that monochromatic. The Sephardim leaving Spain at the time of the Expulsion were dirt poor thanks to the strict rules set out by the Catholic monarchs, preventing them to leave with their savings or liquidating their assets in a timely and just manner. Some men sold themselves as slaves, some women gave themselves to prostitution. Many preferred to return to Spain and convert, thereby recovering their assets, rather than face dire poverty and hunger. The host countries receiving the Sephardic refugees did not draw any immediate benefit from their presence. Sephardim in exile had to rebuild their lives from scratch. 

The sole exception were the conversos returning to Judaism, the Spanish & Portuguese Jews, since their Christian status allowed them to preserve their assets, which then they could transfer once the right conditions allowed.

When I read the following one, I almost fell out of my chair:

“Ashkenazim and Sephardim live together because they see each other as equals. And if there are problems between Ashkenazim and Sephardim it is due to a different background or political reasons.”

“Listen, That guy Sasha has a filthy mouth”

To which I responded:

“The proof is in the pudding. The opening remark by Angel [in the 1976 Stern-Angel debate] completely ignores the contentious relationship between NY Ashkenazim and Sephardim at the turn of the century, as if never existed. We should not go farther than the complete omission [by the OU] of Rev. Henry Pereira Mendes as the founder of the OU.”

Later on adding,

“there is no equality between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. A quick check as to who runs the major Jewish institutions (anywhere in the world), not to mention income disparity in Israel, gives a clear answer to our marginalized reality.”

To which someone else responded:

“… he ignores it because it was not the overbidding characteristic of the community. This is why I said Stern lost the the debate. Most of what he said is speculation and not supported by the history.”

Yet another participant, first quoting from Angel’s recent article, said:

“‘This would have led to the fostering of religious discrimination, the low status of women, the inhibiting of intellectual freedom;’

What? Does he have no clue at all what Christian Europe looked like??? This is rediculous…”

The following exchange happens between the same person above (A), and the person who had said Stern had lost the debate (B):

A) “It’s really weird that people condemn the concept of “dhimma” while at the same time praising the “tolerance” of Holland and parts of Italy in the 17th century towards Jews. They don’t seem to realise that these were very similar, only the Islamic version was older and more developed.”

B) “The Islamic version was also codified in religious law that appears to have not capability to evolve. The civil law did.”

A) “Well, it did evolve… Jews in Turkey and other Islamic countries aren’t ruled by the dhimma system…”

“I’m not saying dhimma is necessarily great, just noting the inconsistency with how people talk about 17th century Dutch and Italian ‘tolerance’”

B) “The Islamic laws didn’t evolve, the ruling force behind them changed, and if it changes back the laws will return. That’s fundamentally different.”

A) “It is no different from how we were treated like less than animals by the Christian rulers of Europe, and today Jews live in equality (more or less) No reason why Islamic rule couldn’t evolve that way or even better. The fact that in most Islamic countries today that isn’t the case has to do with all kinds of factors, it isn’t the only way history could have played out. And even today a Jew in Yemen has more rights than a Jew in Medieval Christian Europe had…”

Then I am accused of “splitting” Jewry:

“You rather split Jewry than unifying?”

To which I responded:

“This argument of ‘split(ting) Jewry than unifying’ I heard many times. I do not why asking to have Sephardic thought and culture be included in the current Ashkenazi-dominated Jewish discourse is considered ‘divisive.’

Judaism today should be a multi-cultural kaleidoscope, drawing from all of our historical experiences, learning our intellectual and cultural heritage[s]. Instead, we’re being softly coerced to become a monochromatic culture where only one way of thinking and behaving pervades.”

To which two participants backed me up:

“Quite. It’s like the old saying ‘husband and wife are one in the eyes of the law, and that one is the husband’. Ashkenazim and Sephardim are All One People and that one is the Ashkenazim.”

“He is just stating the reality as many of us experience it -in Israel and the diaspora- He isn’t “splitting Jewry”. Jewry IS split. That’s far from anyone’s ideal, but it’s the reality.”

The discussion, so far, ended as follows:

“Also, if we value intellectual honesty, we should note that the paragraph being introduced with the words ‘Rabbi Angel said’ is in fact his summary of the conclusions of a book that he goes on to describe as polemical and somewhat overdone. In other words, he has accepted the critique of Convivencia but may not actually agree with the vision of what might have been if the Muslim conquest had penetrated further into Europe.”

“Look, the wider issue is that the question of whether Convivencia happened is being portrayed (at least in the Shasha article) as taking place between sane people and crackpots. That is an overstatement: Mark Cohen is one of the people in the Convivencia-as-myth camp and he is no crackpot. Meanwhile, similar claim made by no less than Cecil Roth about Italian Jewish life has been pretty convincingly crticized by Roberto Bonfil, yet he is no crackpot either, which gives plausibility to the idea that an earlier generation of historians doesn’t necessarily have to have the last word even if they were Gedolim of their field. Suppose for a moment that the Convivencia is a sure thing as has been claimed. Wouldn’t that make it possible to refute the attacks against it based on tangible evidence? If there’s an article or other body of work defending it, has anyone here read it and/or can recommend some works as proof? To me it seems academically plausible to question something like Convivencia since it was not a word that was used at the time or a way that the participants self-consciously described what they were doing. It should be possible to have such a conversation without character assassinating the other side.”

The main problem with the above two paragraphs is that there is indeed such tangible evidence for convivencia. The problem faced by the Catholic apologists is that they cannot differentiate between what Islamic, and even Catholic, decrees said and what people did or did not do in obeying those laws. When one reads the scholarly research of Menocal, Tolan and Kamen about the period, they present the actual interaction of Muslims, Christians and Jews as recorded by contemporary sources, often contravening what the Islamic and Catholic law decrees stipulated!! Many times, these decrees could not be enforced, because people did not care to buy into their extremism. And this is something that the Spanish Catholic apologists cannot wrap their heads around when it comes to the Andalusian Islamic period. 

It is particularly interesting how our last participant, a young Modern Orthodox alumn of Sephardic stock, above uses the word Gedolim in this context, thus reflecting the thought drilled in the yeshivish Ashkenazi culture that the later Gedolim have always the last word, as if Historians were scholastic legal authorities in hierarchic succession. This is all the more harrowing when one realizes this is the result of the academia of Modern Orthodoxy which supposedly balances Tradition and Modernity, but accomplishes neither. 

Of course the word “convivencia” was not used at the time of convivencia. Neither was the word “renaissance” used when the Renaissance was happening, and we can go on and on with every historic period. Those are ascriptions we create to organize and represent the fluid past in our finite minds. 

I will end this by including some positive remarks made by another participant supporting Shasha’s work, which he has deleted since. Fortunately, I did copy them and save them for posterity. 

I do not if he deleted them because of fear or does not want to be associated with Shasha’s advocacy, but here they are. You’d be the judge. 

“Rabbi Angel said:

‘Had it not been for the “Reconquista,” Islamic rule might not only have prevailed over all of Spain, but might have spread further into Europe. This would have led to the fostering of religious discrimination, the low status of women, the inhibiting of intellectual freedom; it would have precluded the emergence of the Renaissance, and would have left the Western world in the same general condition as the rest of the Muslim world.’

I cannot agree with this conclusion. Not all Moslems burn cars in Paris as an evening activity. The Moslems in Spain were not Abbasids. They were the last — and only — remnant of the Ommayads, and also some Berbers. They were the most friendly hosts to Jews that have ever existed. Had there been no reconquista there would never have been a Spanish Inquisition, and the descendants of Hasdai Ibn Shaprut and many others may still have been running aspects of the government in Iberia.

Most importantly, the Academy at Lucena may not have been destroyed. If so, its famous library would never have been lost. Thousands of intelligent and creative Jews would never have converted. As a result, the current chaotic mess everyone calls “Judaism” would never have been allowed to develop.

Convivencia was real. It is a quite different approach to Inquisition.”

Originally posted in Sephardic Heritage Update on May 25, 2016.

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