For the last decade and a half, I have had the honor and the pleasure of discussing and debating what our sages termed inyana d'yoma (issues of the day) with my friend and colleague Saeed Khan. Our conversations and exchanges on a broad range of topics have taken place in a variety of settings — at Muslim and Jewish communal institutions, on the radio (usually WDET, and once on WJR), in the classrooms of Wayne State University, and, in passing, on Campus Walk. The immediate aim of our public exchanges has been an exercise in comparison of the differences and parallels between the Jewish and Muslim views of, to name a few examples: citizenship in America, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the importance of Jerusalem, prayer, ethics, and holy war.
Our broader aim has been two-fold. First, we try to help our audience and ourselves look beyond current presumptions regarding Muslim-Jewish relations that tend to be oriented around the present and recent past, by reflecting on the Millennium and a half long relationship between Muslim and Jews; and, above all, to shine a light on the fact that the tense relationship between these two communities during the last century has been more the exception than the rule — a difficult proposition for many Jews and Muslims to embrace in the twenty-first century. Many in our audience are surprised to discover that, for the first thousand years of Islam it was better to be Jewish in a Muslim country than in a Christian country. (Sadly, this is becoming less difficult to grasp in the light of the uptick in Jew hatred among self-proclaimed pious Christians in America).
Our second aim has been to highlight Metropolitan Detroit as a remarkable exception to the current popular trend — a metropolitan area where more than one hundred thousand Jews have lived largely without incident alongside a quarter of a million Muslims and Arabs for the better part a century — and Wayne State as a reflection of this situation. At a time when increasingly boisterous and aggressive anti-Israel agitation has begun to morph into outright antisemitism, Wayne's campus, despite its large Muslim and Arab student population has remained a hallmark of civil discourse and constructive debate — a microcosm of the larger situation in our city. As with my conversations with Saeed, familiarity breeds the polar opposite of contempt. The more Saeed I and talk, the more we realize that we are more similar than we are different.
In this sense, our overarching goal has been to re-examine and critique what historian Marc Cohen called the "neo-lachrymose" view of Jewish history. Cohen coined this phrase as a corollary to the "lachrymose view" of Jewish History, an older term coined a century ago by historian Salo Baron.
The lachrymose view pointed to the tendency to reduce Jewish History in all of its complexity down to a never-ending Jewish suffering and adversity, a tendency that Baron (correctly) identified as overly simplistic and one-dimensional. The focus of this outlook, Baron noted, was the experience of Jews in Medieval Christendom and modern Europe.
In response to this Christian-centered focus on the persecution of Jews, a twentieth century Egyptian Jew named Gisele Litman, who was forced to leave Egypt with her family in the 1950s and wrote under the pseudonym Bat Ye'or, objected to the downplaying of Jewish suffering under Islam and claimed instead that Jews in the world of Islam have experienced as much or more adversity as their counterparts under Christendom.
Critiquing this equally overly simplistic claim was the basis of Cohen's notion of "neo-lachrymose view." The point is that neither the lachrymose nor neo-lachrymose view come close to embodying the complexity and the ebb and flow of Jewish history in the world of Christendom or Islam. While it is certainly possible to "connect the dots" from one moment of adversity to the next and fashion a timeline of Jewish suffering, this timeline ignores all of the moments in which Jews and Muslims not only coexisted but listened to and learned from each other.
To cite two examples: the Rambam and his family, fleeing from an increasingly hostile Muslim world in Spain and then Morocco (moments that are typically included in the neo-lachrymose timeline) fled to Egypt — another Muslim country; or why most Jews fleeing from the Iberian Peninsula in the 1490s fled to the Ottoman Empire and somewhere in the world of Christendom.
Similarly, Samuel Usque, a former converso who fled from Spain and Portugal and later returned to Judaism, regarded the Muslim Ottoman Empire a new safe haven for Jewish refugees, a “broad and expansive sea which our lord has opened with the rod of his mercy” where “the gates of liberty are always wide open for you that may fully practice your Judaism.”
Maimonides and Usque, despite the adversity they experienced, never ceased regarding the world of Islam as quintessentially hospitable for Jews. This is an outlook and mentality that may be difficult for twenty-first century Jews to accept and understand, but easier to embrace if you take a cue from my friendship with Saeed Khan.