First of all, do not be overwhelmed by this encyclopedia 1200 pages because, while on the one hand this “history of relations between Jews and Muslims, from its origins to the present day” (Albin Michel) is a colossal sum, on the other hand it is a tumultuous journey of knowledge, an atypical course to tell the relations between Jews and Muslims, usually embroiled in an ideological straitjacket that leaves little room for the accuracy of the facts, the complexity of the history and analysis of traumatic memories.
One hundred and twenty high-level specialists (including historians, anthropologists, philosophers, etc.) have worked under the direction of Abdelwahab Meddeb and Benjamin Stora, to rebuild more than thirteen centuries of coexistence between Jews and Muslims, from the birth of Islam to the large fractures of the present "from east to west, from north to south, from Morocco to Iran and India, from Andalusia to Yemen, Algeria, Egypt or Mesopotamia, Asia Minor to the Balkans...”
Beyond the chronology and the many countries that it invites us to discover, the originality of this work also lies in its way of crossing the sources, to investigate the memories, shed light on the reciprocal representations and narratives. In particular this is what’s offered in the fourth section, dedicated to cross-cutting issues at the confluence of exegesis, literature, music, culinary arts, etc…
“We wanted to overcome the prism that isolates each of the two identities,” the two co-directors write in the introduction, “crossing the boundaries in order to overcome the constraints of communitarianism and nationalism and put this relationship on the horizon of universal history, where it is expressed. [...] We were committed to making this distanced, balanced, calm story possible, which at first seemed impossible.”
Yet doubts remain: can a book like this really be shared by both sides of the Mediterranean, from both sides of the wall that divides Israelis and Palestinians? Is there a kind of story that can “trace the paths of reconciliation” while numerous conflicts still remain without a political solution?
Benjamin StoraInterview with Benjamin Stora
Do you think this book could really help to overcome obstacles and be greeted by antagonistic communities?
I do not think the historical or academic work is sufficient to reconcile the memories, to this end political acts are indispensable. However, since half a century there is such a shortage, such a separation between Jews and Muslims, such a chasm of misunderstanding between them, such a gradual disappearance of the minorities in the Muslim public space (especially the Jews, but also Christians), that the mere fact of restoring this history is in itself a political and subversive act. Today people of 20-30 years have never seen a Jew in their usual space, and even when we talk about coexistence between Jews and Muslims in the Arab towns they have the impression that there has ever been such a thing and that this is just revisionism.
Yet there is a reminder of this co-existence, is it not transmitted by the generations who have experienced it?
There are definitely families who have lived with the Jewish communities and who have spoken with them, but there is such an ideologization among young people that this ancient family tradition is difficult to transmit. These stories are perceived as exaggerated, falsified, regarded as parts of a misplaced nostalgia for older people who do not understand the sense of history and adorn it. So the act of restoring the history and the memory becomes political.
Does this aspect raise a question about the reception of the encyclopedia?
The reception passes from the translation, and there is a battle for the translation of this book in Arabic that has not yet been won. Firstly, because there are economic problems, but also deep ideological blocs. The real challenge is to find capable actors within the Arab world to convey this story. However, there are very few great historians of the Arab world who live in the Maghreb that would be able to take charge. However even if they are few, there is someone, and he is among the contributors of this book.
You mention “acceleration of history”, could you clarify what you mean?
The separation begins in the nineteenth century with colonialism (the Cremieux Decree). But the acceleration begins in the mid- twentieth century. We need to, therefore, figure out how fifty years have managed to erase thirteen centuries of coexistence between Jews and Muslims, and what are the factors that have caused this sudden, brutal and radical separation, this removal. There are several episodes in which the liability is largely attributable to Europe: the emergence of Arab nationalism, the birth of Zionism, the creation of Israel and the Arab-Israeli wars, colonization and decolonization. We are thus faced with a series of phenomena that are mixed quickly. But the religious factor is never among the reasons, if it were so, the relationship between Jews and Muslims would never have lasted all this time. So it is the political, not religious, aspect that caused the separation between the two communities.
What is the historical approach of your work?
There are already stories of Islam and Judaism, but there are few texts on their relationships. The originality of this work is therefore to have questioned each other relatively and compared the views on particularly sensitive questions. I think of the contributions of Palestinian and Israeli historians, Elias Sanbar on Nakba (catastrophe) and Denis Charbit on the Jewish-Palestinian conflict. This way of writing history through a dynamic of confrontation is truly innovative. Yet, in a context of strong tensions between the communities, this approach was not accepted immediately, and we risked being disapproved by both sides.
A few months after its release, what sort of a reception did the book have?
This book was published in October, we are in February and already 12 thousand copies have been sold. It's a lot for an expensive book that has not had much media coverage, especially on national channels. It found resonance among the readers through the network, the meetings, via word of mouth, which shows that there was interest in the topic. Many debates were organized on the occasion of its publication: IMA , the Immigration Museum in Paris, in Strasbourg, in Marseille... Each time, there were many young, discussions were stimulating, and this means that they have a desire to reclaim and rebuild their story.
Translated from Italian by Övgü Pınar