Every year, McGill University’s Jewish Studies department offers at least one seminar on Jewish life in the Islamic world. These classes are important: most people know little about Mizrahim (Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, a region often abbreviated as MENA). But in highlighting Mizrahi/Sephardi identities, some academics—sometimes intentionally—attempt to separate them from the broader Jewish experience. This makes it much easier for student activists to demonize Zionism as a white, Ashkenazi idea even though Jewish “solidarity” is an ancient concept.
One reason for this trend is that many people casually believe in the Jewish-Muslim “coexistence” narrative. The main argument for this is the 8th-13th century Al-Andalus “Golden Age” in Muslim Spain. But in recent years, historians have recognized that this Andalusian “convivencia,” if it was real, was limited. Mark Cohen, for instance, noted at a 2007 Medievalist conference that while Jews like Maimonides did achieve incredible things, Sephardim largely lived within strict legal confines and there were periodic violent outbreaks.
I asked about this in one Jewish Studies class. In response, my instructor argued that anti-Jewish laws were “rarely enforced” in Muslim countries. This claim is hard to verify, but if it is true, it was also the case in Europe. Briefly consider two revealing examples: ancien regime France—in principle, a hostile place for anyone that was not Catholic—tolerated a surprising number of Jews, and one even became a Lord. And contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence that warring parties in the 1618-1648 Thirty Years War targeted Jews. Habsburg forces even escorted the entire Jewish community back to Vienna after the city council expelled them in the 1620s.
Misconceptions about Jewish history seem rife in some McGill departments. Jordana Schiff wrote just last year that she heard professors in Islamic Studies claim Israel “created Islamophobia.” Even in Jewish studies, one of my professors implied that Zionists built Tel Aviv explicitly because they did not want to live with Arabs in Jaffa. In fact, Jews settled there—despite adverse conditions—because they wanted to form an entirely new thing: a “garden city” commune. Similar utopian Jewish experiments prevailed throughout the late 19th-century and early 20th-century Yishuv, as well as in North America. My family, for example, embraced the Am Olam agriculturalist movement.
Another problem I have seen in academia involves secondary sources—especially for contentious topics like the 1941 Iraqi Farhud. Although professors in Middle Eastern history courses often assign Orit Bashkin’s New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq, syllabi often encourage us to take her book at face value. This is problematic as she makes heavily contested claims. For example, she suggests that the Farhud also killed non-Jews, and that Nazi-inspired ideology did not play a pivotal role in the disaster. According to Mizrahi-British journalist Lyn Julius, Bashkin has no evidence. The Israeli-born professor may also exaggerate the Nahda cultural movement and its role in integrating Iraqi Jewry (something many also take for granted).
Minor misconceptions like these are not just anodyne academic debates. When students misunderstand the relationship between the Farhud and Nazism, for example, it is easy to conclude that Zionism—not ancient anti-Jewish prejudice—is the reason why so many Iraqi Jews suffered. Historical distortions like these are difficult to disprove, and when PhDs voice them, they sound more credible than they really are. McGill students deserve to learn a full, nuanced Jewish history. Faculty must offer balanced perspectives, not just those designed to undermine Zionism’s intellectual underpinnings.
Jonah Fried is a 2022-2023 CAMERA Fellow and studies Jewish history at McGill University.
This article was also published in the TheJ.ca