Princeton News has this interesting profile of Professor Mark Cohen. An expert in the medieval history of Jews in Arab lands, Professor Cohen thinks Jews were better treated under Islamic rule than in Christendom, and that antisemitism is a modern import into the Muslim world. His critics, however, charge that Professor Cohen gives insufficient weight to the humiliations suffered by Jews under Islam. His ‘excruciating even-handedness’ and belief that Judaism and Islam share a great deal of common ground does not address the Islamic view of Jews as perennially inferior to Muslims under sharia law.
Cohen’s 1994 book, “Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages,” broke ground by dispelling myths about the historical relationships between Jews, Muslims and Christians. The first in-depth study of its kind, the book meticulously compared how Jews fared when living in predominantly Muslim countries and predominantly Christian countries in the Middle Ages. Cohen tried to explain in new ways why Jews were treated oppressively in Northern Europe and ultimately expelled, whereas they fared much better in the lands of Islam.
André Aciman, a professor of comparative literature at the City University of New York who has written a memoir of his own life growing up in Egypt, wrote of the book, “Cohen’s is a polemical text in the best sense of the word; it tries to open debate, not stifle it, and asks questions where they are traditionally shouted away.” Aciman called the book “a reassuringly balanced and judicious assessment of Jewish life in the Middle Ages.”
Cohen strove to be excruciatingly evenhanded in the book, he said. “I do not condemn, and I do not take sides. I talk about persecutions in the Islamic world as well as in the Christian world, and I do not cover up anything. The book was written against a stream of literature claiming that Islam was a persecutory religion, that it had treated Jews miserably and was in its origins anti-Semitic,” he said.
The book has been translated into Arabic, French, German, Hebrew, Turkish and Romanian, with a Spanish version forthcoming.
Another major scholarly project of Cohen’s has helped illuminate the early relationship between Jews and Muslims. Cohen and his now-retired Princeton colleague Abraham Udovitch founded more than two decades ago a groundbreaking project in Jewish-Muslim studies: building a database that catalogs a unique cache of documents about daily life in Cairo’s Jewish community during the medieval period.
The Princeton Geniza Project grew out of the discovery, in the late 19th century, of hundreds of thousands of documents from the Middle Ages that had been buried inside the walls of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo. The term Geniza refers to the Jewish custom dictating that any document with the word God was to be buried so it could decompose naturally. In the dry Egyptian climate, the centuries-old texts were preserved. While the majority of the 300,000 documents were liturgical, rabbinic and other literary texts, some 15,000 were business contracts, letters, wills and other documents that dealt with everyday life.
“The Geniza documents tell us an enormous amount about Jewish commerce and commercial cooperation in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries,” Cohen said. “It’s extremely important because it shows Jews living in a Muslim society as second-class subjects, but nonetheless interacting more or less easily with Muslim neighbors, not only in economic endeavors but in social settings.”
Following the discovery, the synagogue’s documents were dispersed and ended up in libraries all over the world. The Princeton Geniza Project, which was launched in 1986, has created a database of transcriptions of more than 4,000 of the documents, searchable in Arabic, English and Hebrew by keyword and available to scholars all over the world.
Sasson Somekh, professor emeritus of Arabic literature at Tel Aviv University, called Cohen one of “the foremost scholars on the Geniza, which has showed us how people lived in those remote centuries, what they did in their daily lives. We had a picture in black and white before the Geniza. Now we have it in Technicolor.”
Increased interest in the Islamic world since the terrorist attacks has meant more newspaper articles and blogs about Islam, with some writers promulgating the notion that anti-Semitism is rooted in core Islamic beliefs. As he saw this idea repeated in the media, Cohen felt he had to act.
“I decided that as an authority, if I didn’t speak out more publicly, my silence would be deafening,” he said.
His article “The New Muslim Anti-Semitism,” which stated that Muslim anti-Semitism was a recent development, not a foundation of Islam, was published in the Jerusalem Post in January 2008. Pieces in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post and The Jewish Daily Forward followed, with several focusing on the controversy over the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero in lower Manhattan.
“I saw the blatant abuse of history in the service of political ideologies on both sides of the fence,” Cohen said. “There are readers out there who don’t know much, and they’re being exposed to points of view without solid historical basis. They hear that Islam is the new devil, and they believe what they hear. People are inclined to believe the worst about Islam. I just hope I can bring a little bit of balance to the discussion.”