Profile of ‘excruciatingly even-handed’ Mark Cohen

Cohen teaching his course ‘Jews, Muslims and Christians in the Middle Ages’ (Photo by Brian Wilson)

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.”

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  • Does Cohen advocate 'excruciating even-handedness' when discussing the behaviour of the Allies and the Axis during WW2?

  • The fact that Prof. Mark Cohen declares that Jews were better treated under Islamic rule than in Christendom, proves that Prof. Cohen recognizes the fact that Jews were badly treated by both: Christendom and Islam. If Christendom really did it more badly than Islam, is not of any consolation to me. They both did it.
    God Bless the State of Israel, which is not for granted at all, but just a miracle, where nobody could badly treat us.
    Levana Zamir – Israel

  • If the Arab nations are so prone to sharing riches with their people, why are we witessing one revolution after another?
    so before picking lice in Israel's head, go there and visit.
    Awesome country
    Suzy Vidal aka Sutlana latifa

  • When Israeli artist Rafram Chadad visited Libya to document its once-thriving Jewish community, he was accused of espionage and put in jail. Now free, he tells of his five months in captivity.’s-captive/

    A Tunisian-born Jew who had immigrated to Israel in his youth, Chadad, who is fluent in Arabic and well-traveled throughout the Arab world, did not hesitate. A respected artist who has exhibited his installation work in the prestigious Venice Biennale, Chadad is also well known in Israel as an accomplished chef who once cooked a meal for the crown prince of Lichtenstein and is a coordinator for the Israeli slow-food movement. For a romantic adventurer like Chadad, the opportunity to experience the exotic sights, sounds, smells, and especially tastes of Libya was too much of a temptation to resist—not to mention the fact that he would also be able to do something in which he believes. “I decided to do it because preserving Jewish heritage in Arab countries is a cause dear to my heart,” he tells me. “I deal with this theme in my art and my food. And I felt as if I would be doing a mitzvah.”


  • just found this one – let's hope it is the joy this program so often is

    17th February 2011
    Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life, times and legacy of the great Jewish medieval philsopher, Maimonides. Also known as Rambam, Maimonides was a philosopher, theologian, lawyer and physician whose works are still influential today. Melvyn is joined by John Haldane, Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews; Sarah Stroumsa, Alice and Jack Ormut Professor of Arabic Studies and currently Rector at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; and Peter Adamson, Professor of Ancient and Medieval Philosophy at King’s College London.

    19.4 MB
    Weitere Informationen …

    and this is the website

  • bataween, not sure if you or any of your contacts were at joseph's bookstore on tuesday night for a jcc organised event called arab, israeli book review but you would have been pleased to hear samir el-youssef a palestinian author talk passionately about the scourge of arab anti semitism. ar the next event in may there will be a discussion off the book the falafel king is dead.

  • Cohen rejects the Maimonides' assertion that the Muslims/Arabs treated the Jews worse than the Christians did in the Middle Ages. He also rejects the view of Prof Moshe Sharon that Jews in Muslims were treated worse than the Christians in places where both groups were found.

    I always get the feeling that his position on this issue is more political than scholarly. I am also aware of a pro-Muslim, pro-Arab bias in American universities that has been there since the 1940s. Nevertheless, I did not live in the Middle Ages in the Muslim-ruled lands or anywhere. Neither did Cohen. So I would rather rely on Maimonides.


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