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Eureka: Three things on modern Jewish history
by Joseph Gatt
2018-09-11 08:02:51
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Historians tend to choose what they put under the microscope. Spanish historians will tend to focus on rivalries between Marxists and Nationalists, dictatorship and monarchy because that's what Spanish history is made of. The French will tend to focus on religion and the state, inter-ethnic conflict and tensions because those are their main preoccupations.

Now having read quite a few history books (I will never have read enough of them) here are what I believe are three omissions, or blind spots that a lot of historians have when it comes to modern Jewish history.

1.      The industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th century hurt the average Jewish craftsmen. I have yet to find anything on this in history books, maybe it's mentioned somewhere but I have yet to find anything on the topic. In the 1700s and 1800s, the industrial revolution wave splashed across England, France, Germany and the effects were felt all across Europe.

jew001_400Remember the average European Jew was a craftsman, making shoes or clothes or dishes or cutlery or furniture in the margins of Europe's feudal society. When the average Jew started competing with shoes and clothes that came straight out of the factory that left a lot of Jewish craftsmen searching themselves. The first impact was that the largely sedentary Jew became something of a nomad, moving around Europe, and if they could, immigrated to the United States. That also meant Jews trying their luck with administrative or academic careers as a job in the crafts was a dwindling option. This meant the average Jew spoke French, English, German, Russian, Yiddish and perhaps even Polish and a few other languages including Hebrew which was being revived, was well-read, had contacts all across Europe. In some cases this made Jews easy targets for pogroms as the Russians who had been fighting European powers had been accusing Jews of befriending the European enemy, something Jews tended not to be accused of when their main trade was the crafts and they were mainly seen in small workshops. Of course nationalism also had something to do with the pogroms as well, as the polyglot Jews loyalty was often questioned.  

2.      The Jewish Kingdom of Khazaria. Maybe there was a Jewish kingdom in Khazaria, maybe it was just the king and his court who were Jewish. The kingdom of Khazaria is said to have been set up during the Mongol invasions where the Mongols had set up kingdoms along the Silk Road in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. Some Mongol kings adopted Buddhism, others Islam, and in the case of Khazaria, it is said that the Mongol king wanted to figure out a religion, and had to choose between Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and was convinced to adopt Judaism. Did he convert anyone? Most historians say probably not many people. Were shops closed during the Sabbath in Khazaria? No one really knows. Did the Jews try to move there to establish a homeland? Probably not.

This story was dormant among historians and picked up in the 1970s and 1980s when the Palestinians were trying to argue that the Jews had not been exiled for 2000 years but that they had in fact had a Kingdom in Khazaria and that they should probably have chosen to move there to Crimea rather than in modern day Israel. Otherwise, I'm sure the story of Khazaria wouldn't make the cut in history textbooks. We know very little about the kingdom, and Khazaria did not last very long, and no one really knows what happened to Khazaria.

3.      Kahina, the Jewish Jeanne d'Arc and queen of the Kabyles. The story goes that the Berbers had adopted Judaism as their religion until the Arab invasions of the 8th century where the Jews had retreated to the mountains of modern-day Kabylie in Algeria. The “Jews of Kabylie” were led by a mystical queen called the “Dihya Kahina” who, like Jeanne d'Arc, was a mystic and ruled over the Jewish kingdom. The Jewish kingdom eventually gave in to Islam a century or two after having fought hard to maintain the Jewish character of the Kingdom.

As much as I have great respect for other people's beliefs. Any Jew would know that traditionally Jewish women were not encouraged to read, much less rule a kingdom. But who knows. Then the myth is something consistent with other Kabyle legends, which tend to glorify women who fight wars. Again, when the French invaded Algeria, another Kabyle Jeanne d'Arc figure, Lalla Fadhma N'Soumer, is said to have had the same mystical powers and the same ability to fight and push back the French invasion. During the Algerian war of Independence, a poster displaying a woman leading a troop of Algerian men and holding the Algerian flag is found everywhere in Kabylie. Today, women with mystical and fortune telling powers are still revered.

Another important factor is, after Algerian gained independence in 1962, the Kabyle language was prohibited in the public sphere, and only Arabic had official status. So obviously Kabyles used whatever historical evidence they could use to assert the legitimacy of the Kabyle language, including the myth that the entire country spoke Berber or Kabyle before Kahina led them to retreat in the mountains where the language was spoken.

Any historical evidence for the presence of a Jewish kingdom in Kabylie? Historian and anthropologist Ibn Khaldun, who studied Kabylie, found that the Islamic Sharia law applied in all Kabyle tribes, including commerce and inheritance laws, family law and laws regarding honor and fighting wars. This was in the 14th century. Jews are only mentioned in passing, and are Dhimmis in most cases, that is they pay the protection tax to Muslims. In the 20th century, there were no synagogues in the Tizi Ouzou region, and there was only one synagogue in Bejaia. In Kabylie, there were probably around 3,000 Jews before they left after Algerian independence. The total Jewish population of Algeria was 150,000 in 1962, with virtually none left today. No traces of the former presence of a Jewish kingdom can be found anywhere in the region, not even in architecture or in law or in rituals. Some Kabyles, whose direct ancestors are Muslims, claim to have Jewish ancestors, because rumor has it it's easier to get a green card or permanent residency in France is you are Jewish, and that Algerian Jews are automatically French citizens. In sum, historians tend to put the microscope where they deem necessary. 

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