The ‘Golden Age’ narrative is bad history

An Image of a cantor reading the Passover story in Al Andalus, from the 14th-century Haggadah of Barcelona.

In the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, history is arguably the most powerful element. Historical narratives influence the way each side understands the environment in which the conflict occurs, and determine how each side fits day-to-day realities – like flotillas and checkpoints –  into its own collective schema.

One could contend that nothing has contributed more to shaping the political discourse surrounding the conflict than the mythical “Golden Age” narrative. The “Golden Age” refers to the efflorescent period between the mid-seventh century and the mid-13th century when Jews imitated the cultural forms of the great Islamic achievements in philosophy, mathematics, science, medicine, music, astronomy and biblical exegesis. At the time, it is contended, a cultural symbiosis between Jews and Arab-Muslims grew to maturity. 

This narrative was introduced in the 19th century, when German-Jewish historians gave rise to two historiographical constructs: the gloomy narrative of Ashkenazi history – coined the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history” by its opponents – and, the narrative that Jews under Islamic rule lived in a “Golden Age.”

Various Palestinian national movements have appropriated this narrative. Perhaps nowhere is this so clearly referenced than in Article 31 of the Hamas Charter: “Safety and security between Islam, Christianity and Judaism can only prevail under the shadow of Islam and recent and ancient history is the best witness to that effect.” 

In a battle over history, the “Golden Age” narrative serves Hamas in several rhetorical ways. First, the narrative offers a paradigm of an interfaith utopia in which long-sought peace and stability in the Middle East can be achieved. Hamas, meanwhile, presents itself as custodian of the tolerant principles popularly associated to the period. By appropriating the narrative, Hamas presents itself as a seemingly viable solution to the conflict. 

It follows that if the Hamas vision will return the once-lost coexistence, then too, under Hamas rule, will the holy sites of the three great monotheist religions be protected. Adopting the “Golden Age” construct ferments the notion of moral superiority in the conflict. The “Golden Age” moves seamlessly into a collective schema which views Islamic rule as a paradigm of inter-religious harmony between Jews and Muslims.

If this is a true account of the past, then the creation of Israel disrupted an otherwise harmonious reality. Also, if the Jewish experience outside of Israel was safe and secure under Islam, then there was no need for Jewish national independence in a Jewish state. Early Zionism, it can be surmised, revised historical truths in order to advance its criminal political agenda, which has resulted in the usurping of Muslim lands.

Palestinians are therefore the victims in the conflict, and Hamas their natural defenders. In this way, Hamas justifies the use of terrorism against Israel and its citizens as a “natural response” to perceived injustices.

But history reveals that the Jewish experience under Muslim rule was immensely complex and varied over time and place. The “golden age” narrative glosses over inconvenient realities that under Muslim rule, Jews often experienced legal inferiority and violence. The “safety and security” referenced by Hamas was often accompanied by discriminatory legislation and by social, as well as religious, prejudice. Safety and security was dependent on submission to the yoke of Islam. However, even when Jews did submit to Islamic rule, violence was often around the corner. 

The most infamous example of this occurred in the 12th century with the military successes of the Almohad Muslim sect which spread from North Africa into Spain. The Almohads brought great devastation to entire Jewish communities, and many Jews and Christians were forced to convert to Islam or face the sword. 

History records that the portrait of exaggerated harmony is nothing more than bad history. The more this truth is asserted, the less political arsenal groups like Hamas, their supporters and sympathizers, have against Israel. 

Jimmy Bitton is head of the Jewish history department at the Anne & Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, Kimel Family Education Centre.