Benjamin Rubin

Toronto 2024 is not Berlin 1930. It’s Cordoba 1150

Protestors on the route of the Toronto UJA 'Walk for Israel,' June 9, 2024. (Benjamin Rubin)

Why 12th century Andalusia and the rise of Almohad fundamentalism is a more apt parallel to our time.

As a contemporary Jew with a passion for Jewish history, I am a particularly dyed-in-the-wool Zionist. After retiring from the practice of law in Canada, my Israeli-born wife and I now spend our winters in Tel Mond. I still get an incredible charge by living (part-time) in Israel, and every day that I am there, I revel in the modern Jewish miracle of the ingathering of the Exiles in Zion, the flourishing of Hebrew culture, and the return, after 2000 years of wandering as a diaspora minority, to Jewish sovereignty in our ancient homeland. But you only have to read the headlines in The Times of Israel and The Globe & Mail to be keenly aware of the existential peril that Israel is in, isolated internationally, a nation that dwells alone, with millions around the world who hate her very existence, and powerful religious extremist enemies with proxies and missiles – and, sooner or later, nuclear missiles – who publicly yearn and openly call for Israel’s destruction. We live with the poignant awareness that despite our vows of “Never again!”, there are no guarantees for Israel’s survival.

But as a Diaspora Jew, with a half-completed MA in Jewish history from the University of Toronto, I am also interested in the fate of the Jewish community in which I grew up.  Discouragingly, my study of Jewish history shows that almost every major Jewish Diaspora community – from Moslem Andalusia to Catholic Spain to the Eastern Orthodox realms, from Weimar Germany to the post-War Arab and Muslim lands – ended badly: in extreme discrimination, convert-or-die, death or exile.

Will North America be the exception?

I had always thought so, based (as the young people say) on my “lived experience”. Born in 1957, I grew up in the North American Jewish Golden Age after World War II. Until quite recently, I thought that Jews, although a tiny minority in Canada, were highly favoured, and despite the unfortunate record of previous Jewish Golden Ages, the Canadian Jewish Golden Age would continue.  But now I am less hopeful about my children’s future, even less so about my grandchildren’s. Seemingly overnight, the demographic and ideological landscape has changed.  A kind of climate change. Canadian Jews, the vast majority of whom support Israel, are learning once again what Jews in past Diasporas experienced, of no longer being part of a favoured minority, and instead, being part of what the 12th century Andalusian Hebrew poet and Arabic philosopher of Judaism, Yehuda HaLevi, called (in the sub-title of his book, The Kuzari,) “al-din al-dhalil”, a despised belief system.

Maybe I’m being spooked by the 100% rise in anti-Semitic crimes – the May 25, 2024 shooting at a Jewish school in Toronto, the May 29, 2024 shooting at a Jewish school in Montreal, the May 30, 2024 arson at a Vancouver synagogue. Or the February 13, 2024 nighttime trespass, loud chanting in Arabic in front of the polite Canadian “HOSPITAL Quiet” sign, as two unidentifiable males scaled scaffolding to plant a Palestinian flag on the front entrance roof of Toronto’s Mount Sinai hospital.  Or the November 10, 2023 blood-red paint on the glass doors of the midtown Toronto flagship store of Canada’s largest booksellers, which is owned by a pro-Israel Jewish woman.

But maybe to find out what Canadians really think about Jews requires looking past the violent actions of what may be only a few?

In early 2024, Robert Brym, a University of Toronto sociology professor, conducted an attitudinal study to find out.  Rather than counting “incidents”, Brym, in collaboration with EKOS Research, asked a group of 3,000 Canadians a series of questions about what they thought of Jews, and of Israel, after the Hamas attack on Oct. 7. There were also questions in light of the Hamas Health Ministry’s reports about tens of thousands of Palestinian casualties as a result of Israel’s ongoing war against Hamas in Gaza.

With qualifications, Brym concluded that most Canadians actually have strongly positive feelings about the Jewish community.

“We’ve still got 83 percent expressing positive attitudes towards Jews. The number of people who express extremely negative attitudes towards Jews is very small,” Brym told the Canadian Jewish News Daily on May 9, 2024.

Sounds like good news.  What’s the bad?

Brym found that in Canada in 2024 there certainly ARE more antisemites — but almost all of the anti-Jewish and anti-Israel hate is coming from a small section of Canadian society: Muslims, political extremists on both sides of the left-right spectrum, university students, and French Canadians in Quebec.

Given that there are now 2 million Muslims in Canada (vs 400,000 Jews), French Canadians in Quebec are about 20% of Canadians, and university students are tomorrow’s Canadian elites, that’s not exactly reassuring news about the Jewish future in Canada.

I am also less hopeful because of my history-based understanding of “human commonality”.  True, humans have a remarkable ability to cooperate – that seems to be baked into our DNA. But also baked in – human tribalism, even if contemporary “us vs them” is based on an alliance of ethnic, religious and ideological tribes, united against a common enemy.  The history of humanity is one part progress towards cooperation, and one part a long unrelenting story of conflict.

I don’t think the correct historical parallel to what is happening to the Jews in Toronto – and throughout the West – is “Berlin in the 1930s”.  Nazism was a racial antisemitism. If even one of your grandparents was “racially” Jewish, there was nothing you could do.  Even the most assimilated anti-religious anti-Zionist Jew in Germany was to be deported to the East.  By contrast, the current anti-Israel version of antisemitism is more “religious” in that it is only about your “beliefs”.  If you are “racially Jewish”, (better yet if you grew up in any sort of Jewish environment, extra points if you’re a descendant of Holocaust survivors), then so long as you publicly denounce Israel as a white colonial settler entity, and publicly declare your hostility to Zionism, (like members of “Jewish Voices for Peace”, or Vancouver psychiatrist Gabor Mate and his children), then you are not only acceptable, but especially welcome. You can be a spokesperson.

In light of this distinction, the proper historical parallel is not the end of the German Jewish Golden Age in the 1930s but the end of the Arabic Jewish Golden Age in Andalusia – Moslem Spain – in the 1150s, when the fundamentalist Almohads swept into Southern Iberia and overcame the relatively moderate “get along go along” Muslims of Cordoba, Granada and Seville.  If Arabic-speaking Andalusian Jews were willing to publicly convert to Islam, they could stay.  And some – the Gabor Mates and Norman Finkelsteins of their day – did publicly convert.  However, most Andalusian Jews fled, either to the relatively more accepting Christian north of Spain, or across the Mediterranean to North Africa, Italy, Egypt. The wandering minority Jew off to a new exile.

Another reason 12th century Andalusia and the rise of the Almohad fundamentalists is a more apt parallel to our time is because the persecution of the Jews by the Almohads, (specifically, no longer allowing Jews to have dhimmi status by paying the jizya “head tax” for the privilege of being allowed, in a Muslim polity, to live openly as Jews), was just one plank of the Almohad program. The Almohads, who had crossed over the Mediterranean into southern Iberia from the mountains of North Africa, were zealous Islamic fundamentalists, chiefly opposed to Andalusia’s mainstream Muslim ascendancy, which the Almohads judged as insufficiently righteous.

The Almohads condemned the taifa kingdoms of Cordoba and Granada for engaging in trade with Christian kingdoms, for sometimes even going into alliance with Christian kings to defeat rival Muslim taifa kingdoms. And Almohads condemned taifa kings for employing Jews as doctors, just because of Jews’ knowledge and skill, while ignoring their religious adherence to a non-Islamic faith.

Like the woke movement now, Almohads had a binary Manichean vision of the world, divided simplistically between, on one hand, God’s chosen path of righteousness: a pure fundamentalist kind of Islam; and the evil ones, being those who, in today’s parlance, “were complicit in support of the system that opposed their program”. The 12th century Arabic-speaking Jews, who had to choose between public conversion to Islam, or exile, were not even the Almohads’ primary enemy. Muslim moderates who weren’t sufficiently religious were as much a hated enemy as the Jews.  But through violence and political consolidation, Almohad ideology came to dominate Andalusia, and as a side effect, it spelled the end of the Jewish Golden Age of Muslim Spain.

As has been widely noted, springing from once obscure academic theories, today among young Western elites there now prevails a purist fundamentalist Manichean worldview that divides the world into two camps: white European colonialist settler oppressors, who are powerful and evil, and any actions they take, no matter how justified, are pure evil (killing civilian shields, for example, is “genocide”); and across a sharp moral divide are dark-skinned non-European indigenous victims, who are weak and are thus pretty much purely good, and therefore any actions they take, however violent or apparently evil, are justified (murder, taking hostages, rape, for example, is “resistance”).

In Canada, when anti-Israel protests are held by Palestinian-Canadians, I can understand, as they naturally identify with family members and fellow Palestinians in Gaza. I naturally identify with my brother and sister and their kids, and other fellow Jews, in Israel.  I can even understand how non-Arab Muslims, from Pakistan or Afghanistan, are supportive of Hamas, and hate even the idea of a Jewish state in lands once conquered by Islam. After all, Hamas is a fundamentalist Islamic movement, not merely a national liberation movement. When they killed Jews in Kfar Aza, they didn’t shout: “Two State solution Now!”. They shouted “Allah Akbar!”.  When the young Palestinian called back on his victim’s cell phone to his Gaza parents, he didn’t say: “Mom, Dad you’ll be so proud of me, I killed 10 Israelis!” but “I killed 10 Jews!”  So while to me it’s deeply regrettable, it’s understandable that Palestinian-Canadians, or Arab-Canadians, or even Muslim Canadians, would participate in anti-Israel demonstrations.

But as a Canadian Jew it is much harder to see ultra-liberal college students, who in every other context are vehemently opposed to even verbal violence against women, let alone rape; who on abortion are strictly pro-choice; who are queer-friendly and trans-friendly; joining forces with those who support an Islamic fundamentalist movement violently opposed not only to Jews but to equal rights for women, homosexuality, even the playing of music. And how ultra-liberal college students, who will take great offence if the wrong pronoun is used, as it might make a trans listener feel “unsafe”, can engage in chants and actions that definitely make another minority (namely Jews) feel unsafe.

I have my own “dime store psychology” explanation. For non-Arab non-Muslim demonstrators, who are anti-Israel because “Israel is an evil white European colonialist settler project which commits genocide against pure dark skinned non-European indigenous victims,” a good part of the emotional energy behind those strongly taken positions is a displacement of their own white guilt. After all, it is not clear that Israeli Jews, of whom 60% are descendants of dark-skinned refugees from Arab countries, and a significant portion of the other 40% are descendants of refugees from an actual European campaign of genocide, who returned to their historic homeland, are really the best model of “white European colonial settlers”.

On the other hand, Canada and America ARE, without a reasonable doubt, white European colonial settler projects. But here white college students are in a bind. They certainly can’t call for the return of Canada to the indigenous population.  They won’t chant: “From the sea, to the sea, Turtle Island will be free!” They can’t call for millions of colonial settler immigrants, and their descendants, most of whom were born in the settler colonial project known as Canada, to “go back to Poland!” (or to Pakistan! or to China!).  For one thing, there’s 39 million non-indigenous colonial settler immigrant Canadians; that’s too many. And also, they themselves don’t want to go back to Poland, Pakistan, or China (even if they, or their parents, came from there) because, as Canadians say to each other, “Canada is the best country in the world”.  They really enjoy the political, legal and educational systems that white European colonial settlers imposed on the land. Besides, before every public event, don’t they always make solemn land acknowledgments about how we’re living on the territory of the Wendat and the Chippewa?  So since they can’t do anything about these big settler colonial countries where they enjoy living, they join cause with their politics-makes-strange-bedfellow Muslim allies, and go after the Jewish state.

In the Western Diaspora, where demography is democracy, Jews are an increasingly small and marginal minority, swimming upstream against a strong ideological and demographic current. Canadian Jews are daily confronted by the media-amplified public performance of a Manichean narrative about Jews and the Jewish state that seems to be “in the air”, fueled by a new world of instant communication, TikTok messages, and rhyming group chants (“Four legs good!  Two legs bad!”) that make old-fashioned “soundbites” seem, by comparison, like full-fledged essays.

In Canada, October 7, 2023, is just a date among other dates, like June 21, 2024, National Indigenous Peoples Day; or November 5, 2024, the presidential elections in America.  World history moves on relentlessly.  Just as, in Iberia, history moved on after the Almohad fundamentalist takeover. During the “Reconquista” of the next century, Muslim strongholds fell to Christian armies, in the decisive battles of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212), the siege of Cordoba (1236), and the siege of Seville (1248), leaving only the small Muslim enclave of Granada as a tributary state. After Granada’s surrender in January 1492, Christian rulers controlled the entire Iberian Peninsula.

And as the Christians were, by military conquest, reducing the physical territory of Muslims, they were tightening the screws on the minority Jewish community that lived in their midst. Over four days in July 1263, in the royal palace of King James of Aragon, there was “The Disputation of Barcelona”, over then-burning questions of the Christian belief system.  Defending the Jewish position was Nachmanides, the leading Jewish scholar of his day.  On the other side, the most vociferous in attacking the mainstream Jewish belief system was the Gabor Mate of his day, Dominican Friar Pablo Christiani, a convert from Judaism to Christianity. In the aftermath, James I forced Nachmanides to leave Aragon, and ordered the censoring of the Talmud. And this was two centuries before the Edict of Expulsion in 1492.

As a student of history, as a dyed-in-the-wool Zionist, how do I find hope?

I have a sustaining messianic vision (like late 19th century Zionists) that despite present dire circumstances, turmoil in the world, and the rise and fall of empires, nevertheless, the prophetic in-gathering of Jewish exiles in Zion, the rebuilding of the Jews’ ancient capital Jerusalem, and the post-Enlightenment creation of the State of Israel will persist and flourish. That the power of Israel’s “Almohadian” Jewish fundamentalists will be replaced by a renewed liberal Zionist ideology.  And – most messianically – modern Israel will flourish in conjunction with a post-Enlightenment Arab world, and a post-“Islamic Reformation” Muslim world, led by economically successful moderate Arab Gulf states and by the Israeli Arab minority.  Some would say that is a dream. I would respond with Herzl: “if you will it, it is no dream”.

About the Author
Benjamin Rubin was Chair of Limmud Toronto 2018, elected to Zionist Congress, and VP of Canada-Israel Chamber of Commerce. Under his pen name eBenBrandeis, he composes YouTube poems, translated from Hebrew a pre-war Pinsk biography, edited and published a book of contemporary Jewish humour, and created, a Zionist conceptual art project. Since retiring from the practice of law, he and his wife split their time between Toronto and Tel Mond. He has an abiding interest in Israeli contemporary music, the Golden Age of Hebrew poets from Andalusia, and the Muslim-Christian-Jewish convivencia of Spain. Writer, producer and director of the Zoom teleplay series, “Golden Age Travel”, about 12th century Hebrew poet and Arabic Jewish philosopher, Yehuda HaLevi, travelling through time. Episodes of the series have been performed online at Limmud Festivals in Toronto, Boston, Seattle and Winnipeg. GAT episode VI, "Berlin 28, Paris 38, Jerusalem 61" was premiered at Limmud Toronto November 2021.
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