Jewish Ideas Daily has been succeeded and re-launched as Mosaic. Read more...

Why Rachel's Tomb Matters

All cultures build on what came before them. But how they treat the past is a measure of cultures in the present. The treatment by Muslims of Rachel's tomb, lately much in the news, is a case in point.

Relevant Links
Ibrahim and ibn Rabah  Sarah Honig, Jerusalem Post. In endorsing the false Palestinian claim about Rachel’s tomb, representatives of  Western democracies have dealt a destructive blow to their own heritage. 
In the Beginning was al-Aqsa  Nadav Shragai, Haaretz. Yitzhak Reiter has meticulously reconstructed the emergence of Palestinian denial of a Jewish temple or a Jewish connection to Jerusalem.
Before It is Too Late  Alma Rachel Heckman, Diarna. An account of a visit to the Benchimol hospital in Tangiers weeks before its sudden demolition earlier this year.    

Genesis 35:19-20 states: "And Rachel died, and was buried on the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rachel's grave unto this day." While references in the biblical books of Samuel and Jeremiah seem to place the tomb north of Jerusalem, subsequent traditions accept the southerly location specified in Genesis. Through the centuries, Jewish and Christian travelers and pilgrims often visited the site near Bethlehem and remarked on its pillar, made of eleven stones symbolizing the tribes of Israel, named after the sons of Jacob (excluding the twelfth and youngest, Benjamin, the ordeal of whose birth occasioned his mother Rachel's death).  Of course, we cannot know whether the site is "really" the burial place of Rachel, the "eternal mother," but it was firmly engraved as such in Jewish and Christian consciousness.

Islam reached Jerusalem in 638 C.E. Though scholars debate whether and to what extent the event qualifies as a "conquest," there can be little doubt that it brought about a cultural disjuncture. Earlier conquerors and regimes, most notably the Romans and Byzantines, had wreaked their havoc, but they had acknowledged the past even as they erased it. Thus, in renaming the land "Palaestina" in order to sever the Jewish link, the Romans were ironically driven to a term derived from the Bible that simultaneously affirmed that link. They were similarly unsuccessful in renaming Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolia and denying Jews the right to reside there; Jews lived and worshiped elsewhere, but Jerusalem continued to be the center of their faith.

As for the Christian Byzantines, they built churches over the remains of Jewish shrines and synagogues. This was theft, but the linear connection of Judaism to Christianity was never denied; even though church fathers from Paul onward devised practical and theological ways to increase the distance between the two faiths, the connection remained strong.

Islam, however, was different. In setting out to remake the world in large ways and small, it enjoyed a singular advantage over the Romans. As an offshoot of both Judaism and Christianity, and one purporting to be the final revelation, it not only incorporated the parent traditions but claimed them as its own, mining the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels for stories and personalities that were then Islamified. Abraham, for instance, became the first Muslim, a prophet and ancestor of Muhammad through Hagar. The brief word for this is usurpation.  In a concluding step, the originating communities were then accused of having corrupted their own texts. 

So too with the landscape itself. The building of mosques on the Temple Mount was the most salient act, planting the flag of Islam on Judaism's holiest site and making it forever irretrievable. This was standard procedure. In India, thousands of Hindu temples were destroyed and thousands more converted into mosques. The Parthenon in Athens went from Byzantine and Orthodox church to Ottoman mosque and then Ottoman ammunition dump. Zoroastrian temples and Jewish synagogues met the same fate. Even the Kaaba in Mecca was originally a pagan shrine. Few of these are likely to be returned to their original owners.

Rachel's tomb marks a partial exception to the rule. The Russian deacon Zosimos, who visited the site around 1421, described the building as a mosque, but in 1615 Mohammad, Pasha of Jerusalem, rebuilt it on behalf of the Jews and issued a firman granting them exclusive use. In modern times, as chronicled recently by the Israeli journalist Nadav Shragai, Jewish possession was confirmed more than once by the Ottoman rulers; in 1841, Moses Montefiore gained official Ottoman permission to renovate the site.

Then, during the period of the British mandate, Muslim claims were again put forward and taken seriously. And in the 1990's, during the Oslo period, the tomb became a bone of contention between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). As Shragai points out, the PA largely ignored the site in its official publications, but in 1996 it began to refer to the tomb as the mosque of Bilal ibn Rabah—the name of an Ethiopian slave in Muhammad's household who according to Islamic tradition was buried in Damascus. Which brings us back to the present.

Early this year, the Netanyahu government listed Rachel's tomb in a formal inventory of Jewish heritage sites on both sides of the "Green Line"—a decision that predictably enraged Palestinians. Now UNESCO, no less predictably, has declared the site a mosque (and, for good measure, pronounced the cave of the patriarchs in Hebron to be the "Ibrahimi mosque"). The Palestinian claim has spread far across the Muslim world. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a Saudi newspaper in March that the cave of the patriarchs and Rachel's tomb "were not and never will be Jewish sites, but Islamic sites."

To be sure, official Palestinian denial of the Jewish past and hence of the Jewish connection to Israel is nothing new. Yasir Arafat famously assured Bill Clinton that there had never been a Jewish temple in Jerusalem—a position shared by Ikrima Sabri, the mufti of Jerusalem, as well as by Hassan Ali Khater, editor-in-chief of the Al Quds Al-Sharif Encyclopedia, the current Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, and others. The Israeli scholar Yitzhak Reiter has documented at length the modern Islamic tradition according to which Jerusalem was never associated with the Jews.

As against this behavior, Israel itself has been repeatedly willing to sacrifice "heritage" in the name of peace. Thus, the Israeli supreme court recently denied a suit brought to stop the Islamic wakf's unsupervised construction work on the Temple Mount. Instead, the state has chosen to let the evisceration of the site continue, just as it earlier chose to look the other way as the wakf excavated and cleared space for underground mosques. Whatever prudential considerations may lie behind such decisions, they have hardly served to discourage the Palestinian tactic of creating supposed facts on the ground—as with the recent overnight appearance of Muslim "graves" on the proposed site of a Jerusalem museum.

It is true that Muslims are not alone in the impulse to deny Jews their past: consider the regularity with which Jewish cemeteries continue to be vandalized in Christian Europe. But Islam seems especially intent on erasing Jews from history on theological grounds. Flashpoints like Rachel's tomb (or "Ezekeiel's tomb" near the site of ancient Babylon) are especially vulnerable because they represent personages specifically claimed by Islam, but they are joined by houses of worship like the Great Synagogue in Oran, Algeria, seized and converted into a mosque in 1960, and communal buildings like the Haim Benchimol hospital in Tangiers, suddenly seized and torn down this year. Admittedly, there are showcase exceptions: the Maimonides synagogue in Cairo, the tiny Jewish communities in Morocco and Tunisia, preserved as if in amber for their considerable value as tourist destinations. But the vast number of sites that formed the living fabric of Jewish life—the cemeteries, synagogues, and schools, not to mention homes and places of work—are forever lost.

When it comes to the Jews, Christian Europe is today schizophrenic, embracing the destroyed Jewish past while incubating bilious subcurrents of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Islam, by contrast, is almost uniformly negative, and its stubborn denial of the Jewish past is hardly a hopeful sign for the present. Recognizing the theological roots of this Islamic disposition is an important corrective to fashionable but gauzy notions of Jewish-Muslim convivencia in the gardens of medieval Andalusia, and even more so to the notion that the Arab-Israeli conflict today is merely a matter of territorial or national rivalry.

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,


Independent Patriot on November 19, 2010 at 8:46 am (Reply)
It is not just the Moslem world that is attempting to delegitmize Jewish claims to Eretz Yisroel, the US State Department has condemned Israel's placing of such sites as Rachel's Tomb and the machpeleh under Jewish heritage listings.
Hillel on November 19, 2010 at 10:44 am (Reply)
On the one hand, this piece is helpful in pointing us to information and assessments that deserve thoughtful consideration. I also do appreciate that it isn't easy to provide all the data needed to judge a 1,400 year old culture in ~1400 words. On the other hand, shouldn't we be more reluctant in coming to the point of this article, which (unless I'm misreading it, sorry!) is that Islamic culture is, well, evil? If you don't mind my asking, doesn't a sweeping condemnation of Islam tend to undermine the reader's trust in a balanced and fair presentation of the facts?
Gary B. on November 19, 2010 at 3:13 pm (Reply)
"A sweeping condemnation of Islam" was not the purpose nor conclusion of the article, and the article made no claims towards being "fair and balanced," whatever that phrase may mean to various persepctives. The article says clearly that many Jewish sites are lost, many of them through the acts of Muslims, and some modern Muslims deny the Jewish historical roots themselves, with the goal that those remaining should be also be lost. If trying to turn "Hillel" on his head to be "fair and balanced," then such a critique of this article becomes tantamount to deriving a synthesis from good and evil, as if such a synthesis would be of some value. It would only wither the good. Perhaps to a Hegelian or Marxist, but not to the namesake of "Hillel," who taught "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?" Let the Jewish world and those who would support ir be FOR it, which does not abrogate the later parts of the statement. Being "fair and balanced" means nothing when the fate of Rachel's tomb could be either Jewish, or wiped away by the force of Islam coupled with "fair and balanced" anything. There is no "fair and balanced" and no possible synthesis between Rachel's tomb and mosque. It is an either-or proposition, which is ultimately neither fair nor balanced. But a very real problem nonetheless.
Herbster on November 19, 2010 at 5:36 pm (Reply)
With due respect to Hillel's moral relativism comment, Mr. Joffee's article presented facts, not etherial "Balance." There is no balance between Israel and her enemies. Her enemies want to kill every last Jew - no matter where they are in the world. Istael needs strong leadership if she is to survive. Is Netanyhu the answer? I don't know. What I do know is that warrior spirit leadership of men like Moses, Joshua, etc., is what is needed. Israel , and especially Jerusalem must be defended at all costs. Unfortunately, our present leadership - or, lack thereof - in our country affects Israel. We are sending millions of (Tax) dollars to the PA. For what use? Bettering the lives of their people, or buying arms from Iran, etc. You be the judge.

"History is philosophy, teaching by example," said Dionysius. Take this and compare Israeli examples with Islamic examples. Case closed.

Read the Book of Joel, Chapter 3.
cares1996 on November 19, 2010 at 9:08 pm (Reply)
It's in Israel and Mr. Netanyahu was right in laying claim to it,Israel is a Jewish state and Rachel's Tomb is a sacred place.
Eliyahu on November 20, 2010 at 1:31 pm (Reply)
Alex, I don't know which "scholars" dispute that Jerusalem was conquered by the Arabs in 638 CE. There are firm Christian traditions in fact about a long siege after which the city, led by Sophronius, capitulated to the Arabs. Now whether the city was conquered by force every step of the way, or whether it capitulated after a siege, it was conquered. I don't see a valid dispute here. [For more info on the conquest, see books and articles by Moshe Gil & Joshua Prawer.]
Hillel on November 20, 2010 at 9:20 pm (Reply)
Facts are useful and it's also important to assess them. Prof Joffe offers this assessment: "When it comes to the Jews.... Islam, by contrast, is almost uniformly negative" To judge all of Islam, throughout history, in this manner is to draw a sweeping conclusion, not a fact. Still, I would be surprised if the author were to disavow (with GaryB & Herbster) an interest in a fair and balanced assessment. Does he?
Mark L. Berch on November 21, 2010 at 8:15 am (Reply)
The article omits an important fact: when Israel took over the Tomb, following the 1967 war, it was, in fact, a mosque. In 2001, the Jerusalem Post ran a wonderful feature on Rachel's Tomb, “Who weeps for Rachel?” which even provided some details on how “Rachel's Tomb was clearly changed from a mosque to a synagogue”, e.g. niches used by Moslems for candles were turned into places for prayerbook. You can read the piece, which also describes how, prior to 1948, Jews and Moslems would pray there at the same time at Whether Moslems should have build this domed mosque is a different question, but the essay ought to have mentioned that even in mid 20th century, it was used as a mosque.
Gary B. on November 21, 2010 at 10:14 am (Reply)
"Facts are useful and it's also important to assess them" is a remarkable sentence. Facts are facts, and an assessment of facts means what exactly, aside from muddying clear waters with pop gobbledegook?

As to judging Islam, given the overt threats by many leaders of Islamic states to "destroy" Israel by varying means, I think it apt to judge Islam by such statements. Moreover, "death to America" and "death to Israel" seem rather unequivocal and clear statements. Shall we further "assess" them to consider their relative meaning? I think it foolish to do so.

I still await any definition of "fair and balanced" as a phrase used by someone who seems to employ relativist perspectives by which to "assess" facts.

Shall I be asked to be "fair and balanced" when I would be condemned to destruction by a threat? What indeed is there "fair and balanced" about such a placard as was carried through London reading "behead those who insult Islam?"

Given the tiny percentage of Jews in the world's population "balanced" against the enormous percentage of Muslims, how shall one be "fair and balanced?" What does the phrase mean?

Lastly, one notes facts such as these. Some of the most recent attacks on mosques have come from Muslims attacking Muslims. One hears no outrage in a "fair and balanced" Western press on behalf of the Muslims attacked nor condemnation of the attackers. From the bombed Buddhas in Afghanistan to mosques in Iraq, to America's 9-11, to the attacks in Mumbai, to the London underground bombings, I see something far, far nearer to "Islam" than Judaism is at work. I would argue this is indeed both a "fair and balanced assessment" of the modern state of Islamic affairs, one in which the cutting off of hands in Iran, the use of rape in war in North Africa, and suicide bombings around the world seem to cluster as facts around a religious strain in this tapestry which is man, and that religious strain is NOT Judaism, nor Rachel's Tomb. It is embedded almost daily in the news about Islam today.

I wait to learn what is not fair and balanced about the above statements, much less Alex Joffe's statement. And as to that "sweeping statement," it is the conclusion of a scholar based on many facts which are not refuted by claiming such facts are in need of "assessment" or "fair and balanced" consideration.

Cries of "fair and balanced" and pleas to "assess" facts are not the mark of cogent thinking, but the inverse. Such slogans, oft repeated, advance neither discussion not clarify issues. Like a stick in a clear pond, mostly they only serve to muddy the water.
Eliyahu on November 21, 2010 at 1:39 pm (Reply)
Hillel, there are some favorable references to Jews in the Quran, although some of these are abrogated by other verses. The post-Quranic traditions, the Hadiths, etc., are, as Alex says, "almost uniformly negative." Now that is on the doctrinal plane. In practical matters and concrete cases, Muslim rulers [such as the Ottoman sultans] and even judges in shari'a courts were sometimes fair to Jews or tried to be fair within the limits of Muslim law. Sometimes sultans or other rulers protected Jews against fanatical or greedy groups of local Muslims in various places who wanted to get hold of Jewish private or communal property, such as the Tomb of the Prophet Samuel northwest of Jerusalem [in Nebi Samwil]. But Muslim law already was stacked against Jews and other non-Muslims, including in Muslim courts where a non-Muslim's testimony was usually worth half of a Muslim's. So I believe that Alex is right here. Furthermore, Maimonides said that the Muslims/Arabs treated Jews worse than others [that is, worse than Christians did].
Hillel on November 21, 2010 at 11:47 pm (Reply)
Eliyahu, it seems to me that Prof Joffe's claim is not about doctrine but rather social practice writ large (cf. the assessment of Christendom). As such, wouldn't an assessment of all Islamic cultures, over many centuries, require an enormous amount of data, esp to demonstrate that Islam was "uniformly negative?" I'm guessing that few if any scholars have fully examined the requisite data, so wouldn't it be warranted to make a more limited or qualified claim? When I imagine the shoe on the other foot, reading a non-Jew's analysis of Jewish history, I'd be pretty wary of a generalization of this type. (E.g., the claim "Judaism is a patriarchal culture that is uniformly negative to women" would require more than 10 or 20 or 100 illustrative facts.)

(GaryB, thanks for your input, but ridicule is not very conducive to a discussion of Jewish ideas. Still, I am curious about why you think that a phrase like "fair and balanced" connotes moral relativism. Isn't "fairness" a key principle for most if not all ethical theories, not to mention professional expectations in journalism and academia? Best wishes, H)
Gary B on November 22, 2010 at 3:25 am (Reply)
"Isn't "fairness" a key principle for most if not all ethical theories, not to mention professional expectations in journalism and academia?" I think fairness is not a word central to Pirkei Avot, as one example, by which to respond to your odd challenge. Perhaps you might cite "fairness" in the Talmud, Maimonides or other Jewish sources which have caught your interest in formulating a view about Islam. Which seems "H's" intent? "Professional expectations?" An odd addition to the discussion.

"Fairness" is another red herring dragged across such a discussion, one in which it is suggested that "more than 10 to 20 or 100 illustrative facts" be brought to bear on any opinion which dares comment on any topic. In writing about what is "fair" and not "fair" in a discussion about Jewish values, which Jewish value(s) to you cite now in complaining about Joffe's observations in his essay? So far the citation of fairness as a "key principle for most if not all ethical theories" does not hone in on a specific definition of fairness within the scholarly and historical traditions of Judaism. In writing words like "Judaism" and "Islam" we are not discussing "all ethical theories." Moreover "theory" is not my choice for speaking about an ethical stance, tradition or philosophic ground; rather it evidences that Gramsci-Lukacs game of relativism as a goal of obfuscation.

Requiring "an enormous amount of data" to make an assessment of fairness as "H" sees it indicates that he cannot assess anything as "fair" without citing "enormous amounts of data," a strategy designed not to further discuss one issue, such as Rachel's tomb, but to obfuscate it. Rachel as a historical figure is claimed by Judaism, Christianity and Islam in their varying narratives, and this with its resultant "enormous amount" of surrounding information which may be cited says nothing of Joffe's observations.

Joffe states clearly that Islam views Jews and especially the state of Israel negatively.

Shortening his sentence for clarity, he writes, "When it comes to the Jews... [Islam] is almost uniformly negative...."

What about this statement disturbs any notion of "fairness?" I await citation of an "enormous amount" of "illustrative facts" by which "H" can defend Islam as being "almost uniformly negative" to Jews, as Joffe's statement maintains.

In order to prove to be "fair," one might expect that "H" will now discuss some of Islam's positive views on Israel and Jews in general, rather than merely attack Joffe's use of an adverb as being "unfair" or not up to "professional expectations."

This is not ridicule of an individual involved in a discussion, but it most assuredly is ridicule of the notion of "fairness" without reference to what and how one should be "fair."

From that which I read about Islam's view of Israel and Jews in general, I would agree with Joffe's assessment that Islam views Jews in an almost consistent and negative light. Is this "fair"?
Hillel on November 22, 2010 at 6:00 am (Reply)
GaryB, hi again, thanks for focusing on the concept of fairness. Though it may not reflect one single theory of justice, Pirkei Avot repeatedly articulates notions of fairness (and balance). 1.6 Judge all people favorably (lit. towards merit; in the scale of merit). 2.5 Do not judge your fellow until you have been in his position. 2.14 Let the honor of your fellow be as dear to you as your own. 2.16 …hatred of people "puts a person out of the world." 2.17 Let the property of your fellow be as dear to you as your own. (Arguably, cf. 1.9, 1.13, 1.18, 2:4, 2.7, 2.21)

Why shouldn't readers want the lead article on JIDaily to meet "professional expectations" (both journalistic and within the author's discipline)? Don't you think the JIDaily editors have professional standards? Indeed, I would assume in good faith that Prof Joffe shares these expectations.

In any case, we agree that Prof Joffe has arrived at, as I said, "a sweeping condemnation of Islam." As you quoted him: "When it comes to the Jews... [Islam] is almost uniformly negative...."

While I'm not qualified to judge the historical record myself, nor to discuss "defend Islam" or "Islam's positive views" (as you say), why shouldn't we ask an expert for a balanced and fair assessment? Or to limit his claims within the scope in which he can make such an assessment?
Hillel on November 22, 2010 at 6:03 am (Reply)
(Should mention: Pirke Avot transl from SRH. Thanks - H)
Gary B. on November 22, 2010 at 11:41 am (Reply)
You are a clever debater, but tactics are telling as you call for an opinion with which you can or will agree, while standing as if one not qualified to render an opinion. Yet you render an opinion on Joffe's opinion.

You wrote, "While I'm not qualified to judge the historical record myself, nor to discuss 'defend Islam' or 'Islam's positive views' (as you say), why shouldn't we ask an expert for a balanced and fair assessment? Or to limit his claims within the scope in which he can make such an assessment?"

What a fascinating response. What makes you assume that the article in question is NOT fair and balanced, and has come up with the statement "almost uniformly negative" as regards Muslim reactions to Israel and Jews in general?

It strikes me that this conclusion is in fact "fair and balanced" given both the historical record and the modern coverage on this subject as I have seen it.

That you admit to not allowing your own view to be somehow qualified all the while you complain that another's is not "fair and balanced" demonstrates a fixation with this notion which evades being pinned down and defined.

As to the quotes from the "Ethics," the citations mentioned to not eviscerate that after consideration of "favorable" notions, one might still render a seemingly harsh judgment.

Taking Islam "when it comes to the Jews" to be "almost wholly neagtive" is not a matter of jurisprudence or even rabbinic responsa or pilpul. It is a matter of individual judgment, and Joffe's judgment seems clear. Yours does as well, and it stands in opposition to Joffe's.

Offering the complaint that Joffe's conclusion is not somehow "fair and balanced," you call for another. Given that you admit to not being qualified to render judgment and reminding that you wish to be deemed as unqualified in this, you judge Joffe as unqualified by calling for another scholar, as if Joffe were unqualifed.

The bio states, "Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research." If a research scholar is not enough for you and you deem yourself not qualified, how shall you judge any opinion by another, especially should another scholar's conclusion reflect Joffe's opinion rather than the one you pretend not to hold, which is that Joffe's conclusion is neither fair nor balanced.

Who is among those "fair and balanced" scholars whose conclusions you might accept, that you might identify some of them for us?

Moreover, what is not "fair and balanced" in observing that Islam's views of Jews and Israel are "almost uniformly negative?" Explaining this might move the debate along a step or twelve.
Hillel on November 22, 2010 at 1:16 pm (Reply)
Good, it seems like we have a common interest that might be formulated as: How does one undertake a fair and balanced assessment of Islam's treatment of the Jews (and the Jewish past) and would it conclude that Islam (compared to Christianity) is almost uniformly negative?

One way to answer this question is to imagine assessing Jews/Judaism in a parallel manner, e.g., how do we assess Jewish views and treatment of non-Jews?
Surely the Tanakh should be considered, but that would be insufficient. Talmudical literature is fair game, but insufficient, and it would need to be placed fairly in historical context. Is it ok to ignore the Geonic period? Can the medieval period be surveyed by considering Ramban's polemics alone? Or is Mishneh Torah and Sh"A enough? Would we want to look at medieval philosophical, homiletical, and aggadic genres? Would we see value in beit din records and non-rabbinic writings in the early modern period? In the 18th century, can we generalize from Ashkenaz or would we want to include N. Africa and Yemen? Do we emphasize Haredi veiws or Moses Mendelssohn? How do we add up Rav Kook, Abraham Heschel, Meir Kahane, Menachem Begin, Ovadiah Yosef, and Emma Goldman? How do we take into account diverse kabbalistic views of non-Jewish souls?

Personally, I am skeptical that Jewish thought and history (on any topic) can be summed up in a generalization in the form of "Judaism is almost uniformly [XYZ]." Why would we think that Islam is much less diverse, or much easier to assess, than our own complex history and literature?

For this reason, doesn't it seem better to ask a scholar, any scholar, to avoid sweeping condemnations and narrow their claim to fit the data they are analyzing?

(Regarding Prof. Joffe, I gather that his strengths are in NE archaeology and contemporary Middle East. I don't know his knowledge of medieval and pre-modern Islamic cultures, Islam in South Asia, Sufism, etc. But he presumably reads quite broadly.)
Hillel on November 22, 2010 at 1:29 pm (Reply)
(Gary, thanks again for your thoughts about fairness. Let me briefly respond to: "...Joffe's judgment seems clear. Yours does as well, and it stands in opposition to Joffe's." Incorrect. Nothing I have said implies a positive judgment of Islam, merely that any summary judgment is implausible and undermines the credibility of the piece.)
Gary B. on November 22, 2010 at 4:12 pm (Reply)
"...a summary judgment" is an opinion. That you found little credibility in the article was obvious from your first comments, clothed in notions of "fair and balanced" opinion making.

If one stands in opposition to an opinion, it is sensible to assume that such opposition exhibits the existence of another and opposite opinion. Your opinion, as best I read it, was that Joffe's "summary judgment" was not "fair and balanced," and that you held yourself as the judge that this was so, while hiding behind quotes from the "Sayings" to suggest that you were not being judgmental yourself, or that somehow judgment was ill advised. In your words, implausible.

You called for other approved scholars, not yourself, to enter an opinion about Islam's view of Judaism of which you would approve, having not approved of Joffe's. Therefore one must assume that you judged Joffe's opinion and were to judge the next scholar's opinion as well.

Opinions not my own are fine with me, including yours as best you have made it clear. Cloaking judgments like yours by means of calls for other scholars to overturn a "summary judgment" merely puts another cog into the logical machine of discourse, as one sifts through words to the meaning lying over those words, in the perspective of Barthes' notion of texts and meaning.

As I read your condemnation of Joffe's "summary judgment" as implausible, i.e., provoking disbelief in the dictionary sense, I note that your message says the piece is undermined in your judgment, that you do not believe his statement. This is an opinion, a judgment, a conclusion, which you made at the outset, dressed in the clothes of a call for scholarly reassessment of that opinion. The opinion stated as I cited Joffe's conclusion, Islam's views of Jews and Israel are "almost uniformly negative."

As you have shown that you are of an opposing opinion by calling his conclusion implausible, I now ask for what your opposing opinion is. If "Islam's views of Jews and Israel are almost uniformly negative" is implausible, then what is plausible to you? That one should not have an opinion on the subject? That Islam's views are not almost uniformaly negative?

That you disagree with Joffe was obvious; that you dismiss his conclusion is plain. What is missing from your responses would complete the statement, "Islam's views on Jews and Israel are...." Reasonable? Justified? Understandable? Not "almost uniformly negative?" What is your opinion about Islam's views on Jews and Israel?
Hillel on November 22, 2010 at 5:43 pm (Reply)
GaryB, thanks for your patience in discussing this. I'm not sure what to say about this last comment, except to restate that I don't have a scholarly, well-informed opinion about "Islam's view of Jews and Israel." Sorry, it's not my field.

(Ok, based on my knowledge of Western cultures and history, it's my hypothesis that "Islam" is not easily characterized as having a "uniform" approach to Jews/Judaism, but rather it's multivocal, shifts over time, differs by sect and locale, etc. By the way, in case you skipped my 1:16 comment, please look. It discusses further why it's hard to generalize about Islamic or Judaic culture in toto.)

Anyway, I do have training and experience in analyzing professional and academic writing. Since I'm skeptical about Dr. Joffe's sweeping generalization about Islam -- a highly diverse culture, intellectually and organizationally, with centuries of historical events & interactions with Jews -- I'm asking whether and how it can be justified. Is there a fair and balanced way to condemn Islam per se? If not, why not constrain the argued claim to better fit the scope of data available (e.g., about Rachel's tomb)?

Thanks again.
Gary B. on November 23, 2010 at 9:53 am (Reply)
H, you wrote, "I'm asking whether and how it can be justified. Is there a fair and balanced way to condemn Islam per se? If not, why not constrain the argued claim to better fit the scope of data available (e.g., about Rachel's tomb)?" Are all generalizations forbidden to you which lie outside your area of expertise? Have you no generalized images or opinions about Islam, Judaism, other religions, other cultures, politics, arts, life styles and so on?

That you self-confess no "scholarly, well-informed opinion" about the topic at hand is informative. Your commanding notion of "fair and balanced" as adjudicator suggests that you deny others their scholarly, well-informed opinions, on the one hand, or deny that Joffe, a research scholar, might not be well-informed on the other hand.

To evidence your "fair and balanced," I challenge you to opt into the debate by providing some documentable antithesis of Joffe's conclusion, such that opposing data points might falisfy his opinion. Will you do this? Can you do this?

Will you provide perhaps two documentable quotes from Muslim sources which evidence less than an "almost uniformly negative" view of the Jewish side to this? Doing so would be most instructive to me, as it will be to you. Until I be shown and be able to document "almost uniformly positive" views by Muslims of Israel and Jews in general, I must side with Joffe's claim that such views have been "almost uniformly negative." Your citing sources to dilute this claim would go a long way to advancing your critique, while being unable or unwilling to cite sources would make your critique an unsupported counterclaim, neither fair nor balanced.

(As to further explication of citations from the Pirkei Avot, I encourage you to consult your rabbi.)
Hillel on November 24, 2010 at 4:15 pm (Reply)
Good to hear from you again.

As I stated previously, I don't have the expertise for a well-informed generalization about Islam. I'm not sure why you'd encourage people to make uninformed generalizations, but I'm not inclined to do so. As I stated, I think it's extremely difficult to fairly characterize a religion (e.g., Judaism, Islam) in a sentence. *Again*, I do not deny but rather *affirm* that Dr. Joffe has expertise in this area, though I'm not sure that he (or anyone) could have mastered the full historical and cultural range of the subject.

To respond: Yes, I can make educated generalizations about Judaism. But perhaps the moderator will reject this comment as off-topic. Let's see. "Negative Jewish views of Christianity are responsive to both anti-Semitism as well as doctrinal ambivalence about whether Christianity constitutes avodah zarah. On the other hand, negative Jewish views of Islam are less likely to stem or be reinforced by Jewish doctrine on avodah zarah."

By the way, do you happen to disagree with my hypotheses that Islam's approach is "multivocal, shift over time, differ by sect and locale" or Islam is "a highly diverse culture, intellectually and organizationally, with centuries of historical events & interactions with Jews." Thanks, GaryB, look forward to hearing from you or others.
Eliyahu on November 28, 2010 at 9:42 am (Reply)
Hillel, here are views from a scholarly source about Muslim treatment of non-Muslims during the Ottoman period, and in particular local Muslim efforts to usurp a Jewish holy place. These efforts were initially opposed by the Ottoman sultans but the local usurpers were ultimately successfully. This case is also relevant in the case of Rachel's tomb.
Gary B. on November 28, 2010 at 11:55 am (Reply)
The clever give-and-take of cultural relativism sails on through the use of generalizations, to suggest that generalizations cannot and should not be made. It is the old first game of Philosophy 101.

H writes, "do you happen to disagree with my hypotheses that Islam's approach is "multivocal, shift over time, differ by sect and locale...." This partial quote illustrates that relativism runs rampant.

One might easily write a religious or cultural entity named "X" (any "X") is "multivocal, shift[s] over time, differ[s] by sect and locale...." The point of writing in this manner is to wiggle quickly out of issues regarding the correctness of a specific issue or opinion. It seems clever on its face, but it remains relativist.

The other sport with words is "X is "a highly diverse culture, intellectually and organizationally, with centuries of historical events & interactions with Y." Nothing with which to disagree, because there is no specific content within such a statement. It is so general that it includes all within its leaky borders.

Backing away from such statements by deconstrutcing them in the way deconstructionists like to do shows there to be words but little opinion within them. "Highly diverse culture?" And which culture is not? "Centuries of historical events and interactions?" Which religion or culture does not evidence this?

There is no need to disagree with such statements, for they say little in many words.

The disagreement is simple. One argument says nothing can be generalized while generalizing itself, while the other side suggests informed generalizations are possible. Without more specficity, this dialogue becomes am oval, revisiting the same perspectives like a donkey yoked to a mill stone.

But the key sentence tells much. "I'm not sure why you'd encourage people to make uninformed generalizations, but I'm not inclined to do so." In asserting that I encourage "uninformed generalizations" the argument becomes moot. While incorrect by factual standards and while awaiting any facts to the contrary, such a statement shows the willingness to judge another's opinion on the simple and ruling basis that one's side in the debate is also the moderator of the discussion and final arbiter of what is and is not approved. I never encouraged "uninformed generalizations," as accused. the adjective is a debate strategy, falsely attributed.

To generalize that one cannot make generalizations is the triumph of cultural relativism.

One who writes "I can make educated generalizations about Judaism" should be able to allow that others mught make "educated generalizations" about Islam. Alas, in attacking a research scholar's generalization which offends one's relatvistic approach to Islam, one reveals also that the claim to being concerned about generalizations in general is a red herring.

Around the mill stone again?
Hillel on November 28, 2010 at 1:41 pm (Reply)
Eliyahu -- thanks for the references to Amnon Cohen's book. This does leave the interpretive question -- if a Muslim official is more equitable than (pshat) Islamic law, or is more corrupt than Islamic law, how are these added up in judging Islamic culture? Is Islamic culture judged only by doctrine/law, or how do we factor in practice, custom, facts on the ground? Also, should (corrupt or fair-minded) Ottoman officials be considered representative of Islam, or, say, representative of colonial empires?

GaryB -- Thanks for sharing your views. I'd politely ask that you desist from labeling my views (especially but not only because I think you do so incorrectly) and I thank you for the courtesy. Anyway, as I said, I agree with you that informed generalizations are possible. In terms of exercising caution, perhaps you would find this interesting:

"The study of anti-Semitism in the Muslim world is more than a definitional and semantic exercise. It is a study in theology and politics and their unique amalgam in time and space. Jews and Muslims have coexisted continuously since the birth of Islam, sometimes symbiotically and at other times antagonistically. Their interaction has been on such a wide historic canvas and in such a variety of circumstances that any generalization about the status of the Jews will be schematic at best. Even during its era of greatest unity (ca. 800-1200) the Islamic empire was not one historical entity but rather a dynamic human reality compose of a melange of different languages, people, cultures, and regimes. Disparities in time, attitude, and general cultural level characterize the Jews under Islam so palpably that comparison even within the Muslim orbit is extremely difficult.
By juxtaposing the situation of the Jews in smoothly functioning, pluralistic, sixteenth-century Ottoman society and the virtual caste system of rigidly stratified nineteenth-century Yemen, or the exuberant Jewish life of Fatimid Egypt and the degradation of nineteenth-century Cairene Jewry, the historian is confounded. Although the same theoretical framework regarding Jews prevailed in the courts and bazaars of fourteenth- and eighteenth-century Morocco, the quality of Jewish life in the two instances differed markedly. Indeed, so varied is the historical experience of Jews in Muslim lands that virtually any thesis, be it negative or positive, can be buttressed by historical evidence." (73-74) Gerber, Jane S. "Anti-Semitism and the Muslim World" in History and Hate: The Dimensions of Anti-Semitism, ed. David Berger. JPS 1986
Gary B. on November 28, 2010 at 3:46 pm (Reply)
"Indeed, so varied is the historical experience of Jews in Muslim lands that virtually any thesis, be it negative or positive, can be buttressed by historical evidence."

And as such, with the proof that Berger and others opine that "virtually any thesis" can be "buttresed," we come to the logical conclusion that this exchange of words is wholly an exercise in relativism. When any thesis can be "buttressed," then all theses have equal merit and none at the same time. This is the end game of cultural relativism as filtered through the Frankfurt School forward across a century, in which all is relative. Any thesis. Berger's. Mine. Yours. Joffe's too.

Everyone is "buttressed" with "historical evidence."

Now that this is solved, this donkey needs no longer circle one particular millstone. Rather the shackles may be thrown off, and the circle discontinued.
Eliyahu on November 28, 2010 at 6:06 pm (Reply)
Hillel, over time, the formal laws and rules are likely to be determinant unless somehow rejected. According to some historians of Islam, the dhimmis [non-Muslim subjects of Islamic states] were treated better in the earlier period when they were more numerous and bigger part of the whole population than in later centuries when their proportion in the population and their total numbers had dwindled. I would say that the Christians in Iraq or in the Palestinian Authority's zones of control in Judea-Samaria were treated relatively better than in past centuries when they formed a larger proportion of the population. The fewer dhimmis around, the more the Muslims wanted to impose the harsher Islamic teachings of how to treat them. The more dhimmis proportionately, the better they are treated. So in the long run the harsh, cruel anti-dhimmi laws win the day against the political considerations of rulers.

I wrote above that Ottoman sultans and judges in shari`a courts could be fair to Jews. But that was done, as I wrote, within the framework of Islamic law. Muslim law is inherently unfair to dhimmis. So Islamic judges could mitigate the system within the framework of the law by interpreting it more to favor the cause of relative fairness for the dhimmis. But the law could not be truly fair since there was no equality between Muslims and dhimmis. As you know, a dhimmi's testimony in court was worth half that of a Muslim. So again, I agree with Alex. Fairness [that is, relative fairness] was a matter of a judge's whim, not a matter of law. I also agree with Gary that you seem to be trying to propound relativism.

Rich dhimmis could get fairer treatment of course by paying bribes. But that's not fair.
Hillel on November 28, 2010 at 8:09 pm (Reply)
Eliyahu, thanks for your thoughtful input. According to the analysis of dhimmis you mentioned (citation?), Muslim regimes treat Jews better or worse in direct (not inverse) relation to the proportion of Jews in the population. Is this what you mean by relativism? What other factors might be involved? For instance, might treatment of Jews vary with level of peace/warfare or prosperity/deprivation in the society?

You stated: "the formal laws and rules are likely to be determinant unless somehow rejected." If so, do you think this applies to Jewish law? If not, why not? For instance, do Jews (eventually) treat Hindus according to the law on the books? To what extent does the better/worse actual treatment of Hindus, by any individual Jew, reflect on Jewish culture overall? Does it matter whether the individual Jew obeys or tends to reject Jewish law?
Eliyahu on November 29, 2010 at 8:47 am (Reply)
Hillel, I mean by "relativism" more or less what Gary means by it. I mean moral, cultural and intellectual relativism.

As to Muslims treating dhimmis better when there are more of them, I think that history bears that out. But if you want a citation, here is a succinct and concise one: "The living conditions of the dhimmis worsened when they were transformed into a minority." [in the original: "Le condizioni di vita dei dhimmi peggiorarono quando essi si trasformarono in minoranza."] Roberta Aluffi Beck-Peccoz (University of Turin), "Dhimma" in Massimo Campanini, ed., Dizionario del Islam (Milan: BUR 2005), p. 85.

Your last paragraph, asking me how Jews might hypothetically treat Hindus in a strict Jewish religious state, seems to be an effort at distraction, which is what Gary complained about, inter alia, in your method of arguing. In fact, Israel has rejected Jewish religious law, halakha, in practice, for better or worse, although the halakha is recognized as a potential source of law. There are Hindus living in Israel, Indian diplomats, students, workers and the like.

Again, Alex Joffe is right about Islam. Since you are likely to continue to look for red herrings, I will probably not comment anymore on this thread.

Comments are closed for this article.

Like us on Facebook! Follow us on Twitter! Pin us on Pintrest!

Jewish Review of Books

Inheriting Abraham