A conference at the University of California, Berkeley, on April 28-29, 2010 (and continued at UC Davis on April 30), “Muslims and Jews Together: Seeing From Without; Seeing From Within,” was billed as a major international symposium for “the inauguration of the Program for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations at UC Berkeley and the establishment of a UC-wide and West Coast working group for the study of Muslim-Jewish relations .”
The conference was a collaborative effort between the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) at UC Berkeley and the Jewish Studies Program at UC Davis. Its stated purpose was to use the frameworks of traditional Middle East studies and Jewish studies to develop a new academic field focused on the historical interaction between Muslims and the Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews who once lived among them. Most of the participants were historians or anthropologists specializing in North African Jewry, particularly Morocco.
CMES chair Nezar AlSayyad introduced the conference with a discussion about “building bridges” by re-framing the term, “Jews of Islam,” into something that could be equated with Judeo-Christian civilization: something he called “Judeo-Muslim civilization.” CMES vice-chair and conference organizer Emily Gottreich echoed AlSayyed’s comments in her introduction to the first panel, describing the “Jews of Islam” as “an awkward and unfortunate” construction and seconding the notion of “Judeo-Muslim civilization.”
The emphasis throughout this first panel, which was titled “Framing,” was on synthesis, symbiosis, and challenging “the dichotomy.” How does one teach about Jews in a Muslim country and teach about Muslims in a Jewish country? The first part of the question, however, cannot be answered, because very few Jews remain in the same Muslim countries where, prior to 1948, there were large, ancient communities. The reason for this exodus—the forced removal of Jews in response to Israel’s founding that year—went unexamined by panelists.
Oren Kosansky, an anthropology professor at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and the first speaker on this panel, brought up the concept of the dhimmi: the historical subservient, second class citizenship of Jews and other minorities in Muslim lands. Although dhimmi legal status entailed a whole series of humiliations and penalties for Arab Jews, Kosansky did not elaborate on the details. He claimed that the research on dhimmi status was “overstated” and that an “overly dyadic picture has been drawn, and relationships in daily life have been under-emphasized.” Religious identity was not the only identity, he continued, as there was also economic, gender, regional, and class identities. In what seemed to me a Western-centric omission, he left out clan or tribal identity. Kosansky then claimed that the “emergence of Zionism exaggerated the differences” between Moroccan Jews and Muslims. In fact, the function of Zionism was to rescue these Jews from intolerable environments.
During the discussion period for this panel, Lital Levy, assistant professor of comparative literature at Princeton University and a panelist at the UC Davis “Muslim-Jewish” conference, contradicted Kosansky. She disagreed that Zionism had resulted in an exaggeration of differences, and she pointed out that Jews who had converted to Islam were still considered Jews. It was, she maintained, an identity, a specificity that stuck to the individual in the Middle East over many centuries. She asked for a comment, but none of the panelists were willing to respond.
Jews in Fez, Morocco, whose job it was to feed the sultan's lions, sheltering in the adjoining cage from a 1912 pogrom