JONATHAN A. BOYARIN: My name is Jonathan Boyarin. I am a member of the Anthropology and Near Eastern Studies departments here and director of the Jewish Studies program. It's a particular pleasure to chair this session and to introduce an old and dear friend, albeit one whom I do not get to see nearly as often as I would like.
Zvi Ben-Dor Benite is professor of history and Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University, where he also serves as Associate Vise Chancellor for global network faculty planning. He is the author of The Dao of Muhammad, A Cultural History of Muslims in Late Imperial China, The 10 Lost Tribes, A World History, and co-editor of Modern Middle Eastern Thought, Writings on Identity, Culture, Politics, and Sovereignty. His talk titled, Impostures, Empire and Orientalism, Fantastic Tales of War Across the Globe, will be followed by a response from Ross Brann, Milton R. Konvitz Professor of Judeo-Islamic studies, Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow, and acting chair of our Department of Near Eastern studies-- Zvi.
ZVI BEN-DOR BENITE: In 1523, an unusual person shows up in Rome and met with Pope Clement. The man identified himself as, quote, "David, son of King Solomon and brother of King Yosef, King of the Israelite tribes of Reuven, and half of Manasseh from the desert of Arabia, or in short, David Reubeni. The pompous, entirely fictional title was part of a show. David wanted to make the pope and all of Christendom an offer they could not refuse.
He was proposing a military and political alliance between Christendom in the Kingdom of the mighty Israelites in Arabia, an alliance directed against the Muslims, the Arabs, and the Ottoman Turks. David presented himself not only as a prince, but also as a field-marshal of these kingdom's army, quote, "300,000 combatants strong," end quote. The Kingdom was somewhere in the desert of [? Habor ?] in Arabia, he said. And according to the Vatican's records of the interview, David asks for, quote, "armaments against the Muslim, Arabs, and Turks," end quote.
He told the pope that his people were in the midst of a military struggle against the Muslims in Arabia, and that the Muslims were winning lately because of their superior artillery. David explained that his people lacked knowledge in this type of warfare, as well as the technology, and requested that, quote, "a craftsmans to make cannons and gunpowder be sent to help." David even suggested a plan to achieve the desired effect.
Quote, "It could be done easily with a Portuguese boat that would come through the Red Sea," he offered. And he offered also to lead the expedition personally, and promised that when his people will get the requested weapons, they would, quote, "overcome all Muslims in war and subjugate Mecca," end quote. In return for these great services, David had a small request, letters of reference so he could travel in Europe and meet with various kings and Palestine for the Jews, of course.
His whole story was a complete lie. But the pope was inclined to entertain the possibility of allying with the mysterious Israelites. The pope did not buy the story about the 10 tribes. But he did believe that the man was a Jew from Arabia, and that was enough.
He sent several letters to the relevant Christian kings asking them to consider helping David with his requests. That David was a Jew was apparently a problem that all could overcome, said the pope, mainly because he was offering to fight Muslims. Quote, "Even though the Jews are the enemies of Christians, sometimes the Lord chooses to fight his enemies with other enemies," wrote the pope to the King of Portugal.
In his letter to the King of Ethiopia from where the attack on Mecca was to be launched, the pope repeated his idea saying, quote, "Sometimes God uses enemies to castigate enemies," end quote. Eager to get the African Christian ruler interested, the pope threw in another carrot, Egypt, mentioning that Ethiopia could benefit from a possible, quote, "Jewish attack on Egypt." An attack on Egypt was something that David did not discuss with the pope at all. It was purely the fruit of the pope's own desire to see a global war against Islam gaining momentum.
This desire is one of the reasons why David was so well-received. Furthermore, David's plan to interfere in global politics and obtain weapon from world powers sounds farfetched. Yet it makes sense in the context of the times. The idea of a Christian alliance with powerful non-European, non-Muslim force coming from the East that was to crush the Muslims was an oft-entertained idea in Europe over the centuries, and had been at least like this since Bishop Hugo of [? Gabbalah ?] produced the story of Prester John centuries before.
This is the region I'm talking about. As the story goes, David had initial success in steering things in Europe and becoming a celebrity in some European courts. He certainly loved his self-assigned role. Once, tells us one admiring contemporary observer, quote, "Some important men in Rome came to see David at his home. And he pushed them away and refused to accept them. He rode a mule in Rome to see the wonders of the land. And when he entered the Palace of San Pietro, he refused to dismount the mule. And with him there were 10 Jews and 200 Christians," end quote.
John Batista Ramusio, the great orientalist that interviewed David several times in 1530 after David showed up in Venice and intrigued the authorities-- because he tried to get a house outside the Jewish ghetto-- mentioned in his report that David, quote, "Was much fixated on the question of Palestine," and that, quote, "He wanted to return the people of Israel to the promised land," end quote. Ramusio added, however, that David seemed to him a bit derailed.
No doubt, David was a character. He even managed to compose a lengthy journal detailing his journey from that secret location in Arabia where the 10 tribes lived through the Sudan in Egypt all the way to Europe. That's the journey-- with the exception of the starting point-- was actually studied by scholars and was found quite accurate. David's journal was found in the Bodleian in the late 19th century. And it is the main reason why we even know the story today.
Now, why did anyone in Europe-- that is, the pope-- believe such a fantastic story to begin with? Elsewhere, I deal extensively with David's story analyzing the implications of his identification as a member of the 10 lost tribes of Israel on European geographical imagination and political thinking of the time. That context aside, if we follow an analysis of his language done in 1970, and my own recasting of the story within the Indian Ocean and Arabian circumstances, we should be able to identify the man as a Yemeni Jew probably from Aden.
We can easily place the man within the context of espionage, adventure and intrigue that accompanied the early Portuguese in expansion in the Indian Ocean during the 16th century and the Ottoman increasing power in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and, to a certain extent, in the Indian Ocean. This scene is a foggy scene involving the Portuguese, the Ottomans, the Ethiopians, and numerous adventurers of various backgrounds, Germans, and other Europeans of all sorts, Armenians, and local Jews. If we put the little lie about the 10 tribes aside, David was, in fact, presenting the pope with a reasonably good reading of the situation in the Indian Ocean after the coming of the Portuguese in the early 1500s. He plugged himself and his plans nicely into the contemporary global theater of wars.
But this does not explain everything. There should be no doubt that David's identity and appearance as an Arab Jew played a crucial role in building his story in Europe. In his record of the conversation with David, Pope Clement makes two references to this.
He first speaks of David as a, quote, "Jew coming from Arabia." And later in the entry, he specifically refers to David's people as the Arab Jews. Before we get excited for having discovered another Arab Jew, let us remember that this ethnic category Arab with which we are familiar to day certainly does not exist at the time, and certainly not in early modern Europe.
We should, therefore, allow for the possibility that the pope was simply acknowledging that the men came from Arabia. That is to say, instead of Arab Jews, we should understand the record to be saying Arabian Jews. However the switching in the language from quote, "A man from Arabia" to Arab Jews does give us the sense that there is more in Arab Jews than simply a geographical notation.
Other contemporary reports from Italy support this. The aforementioned Ramusio notes on David, quote, "He is really an Arab. The form of his person and his color demonstrate that he is not of our lens. And he is very desiccated and meager looking like the Indians, " end quote.
Jewish observers had similar views. [INAUDIBLE], the Jewish banker who helped to set up the meeting between David and the pope, described him as, quote, "Dark-looking, short, thin, his language Arabic with a little Hebrew," end quote. Another Jewish observer wrote that he was, quote, "A bit black and speaking Arabic," and quote. Many other Jewish contemporaries in Italy also commented that it was harder to understand David's Hebrew because of his strange accent. In short, David was perceived to be an Arab in some cultural and, quote unquote, "ethnic way" to allow some anachronism here says.
He was undoubtedly a Jew. But he was also an Arab. And this needed some accounting in the reports about him, as the repeated references to David's color, looks and language suggest.
David ended up, however, miserably-- let me go back to this one. His appearance in Portugal as a diplomat carrying paper letters and a mighty Israelite prince triggered a massive Messianic tide among the country's vast [INAUDIBLE] population. That scared the king.
In 1532, on a mission to Emperor Karl V of the Holy Roman Empire-- who was then ruling Spain-- David was arrested and surrendered to the Spanish Inquisition. He was burned at the stake in Llerena on September 8, 1538. It was the King of Portugal who initially accepted David in his court that delivered him to the hands of the Inquisition. Thus came the end David's career in Europe. And soon, he was forgotten completely for centuries.
David first resurfaced as a footnote in the early professional Jewish historiography of the mid 19th century when a version of his journal was found in Hamburg. Soon after that, Abraham Neubauer, the Jewish librarian from Oxford, found another version of the journal in the Bodleian and published it. David came back to life. And here is where things got weird.
Against all the evidence suggesting that the man was a native Arabic-speaking Middle Easterner, we see a bizarre desire to identify David as a European Jew, a desire that increases as time passes by. The first professional Jewish historians of the early part of the 19th century, such as [INAUDIBLE] and Heinrich [INAUDIBLE] simply identified David as quote, "Oriental Jew," reflecting the language of records and testimonies that I have presented above. But in later accounts, things began to change.
Abraham Neubauer, the scholar from Oxford who was the first to publish a specific study on David 1895, was ambiguous about his identity. Quote, "All I can say with certainty is that the Hebrew style of David's journal is that of an Ashkenazic German Jew," end quote. Neubauer, a polymath and polyglot who was himself a Hungarian Jew that served for a while as an Austrian diplomat in the Austro-Hungarian Consulate in Jerusalem-- he still had to account for the Arabic of David. So he soon added, quote, "David might have been native of Egypt, who knew Arabic as his mother tongue," end quote. One can sense Neubauer's ambiguity concerning David's Arabness, so he turned him into a German Jew born in Egypt.
Soon after that, all ambiguities disappeared. In 1925, David became the hero of a beautiful novel by Max Brod, the great author, composer and dramaturg from Prague and an associate of Franz Kafka. In his Reubeni, [INAUDIBLE] or Reubeni, Prince of the Jews, Brod depicted David specifically as an Ashkenazic Jewish person. Brod located the entire story in Europe. He even dedicated several lines to describe David's pale complexion and his appearance as if he wanted to dispel any Arab feature from the man's image.
Brod's novel came out in Munich in 1925 and was translated from the German into Hebrew and English shortly after that. Numerous other fictional works on David, mostly plays, quickly followed in the next few years, coming out in New York, Tel Aviv, and several Eastern European capitals from Bucharest to Vilnius. Undoubtedly, David's turbulent career in Europe prove to be a treasure trove of drama and suspense.
And so, David appeared on stage, as it were, in Yiddish, Hebrew, Romanian, German and several other languages. Following Brod's depiction of him, David appeared as an Ashkenazic Jew in all of these plays. This new image also caught with professional historians.
Aharon Zeev Aescoly, an ethnographer in Jerusalem and the historian of Jewish Messianic movements, dedicated almost a decade of his short life to working on this story. He fiercely insisted that David was an Ashkenazic Jew. In 1937, he published a lengthy study dedicated to the question of David's identity.
In it, he laid out the questions concerning David's identity. Quote, "Who was David? Was he an Oriental Jew from one of the Arabian countries, or was he an adventurer motivated either by an ideal or by sundry of other reasons from one of the romance, Germanic or Slavic lands," he asked.
It is interesting to see how the question of David's identity, rising from the fact that he masked his true origins with the mystique of the 10 tribes, was now reduced into two categories, an Oriental Jew and a European cast as mutually exclusive. Note also the change of the language in Aescoly's words. He speaks of, quote, "European adventure are motivated by an ideal," yes, on the one hand, and simply says, Oriental Jew on the other.
Aescoly went on to criticize earlier historians who identified David as an Oriental Jew or allowed for this possibility. He then marshaled the large number of proofs, all purporting to be corroborating the supposition that David was a European Jew, ending his study with an exclamatory statement that David was Ashkenazic. That exclamation mark got me thinking about the problematic of David's identity.
In a way, it expressed the strong desire to see David as an Ashkenazic Jew, and perhaps, an equal desire not to see him as an Arab Jew. This was evidently the case later during the 1950s in what now became the state of Israel. Aescoly's proofs not withstanding, scholars writing about David still had to account for the thorny, unequivocal identifications from the 16th century made by Christians and Jews alike, which plainly stated, this one is really an Arab.
And so people started arguing that the David was, quote, "An Ashkenazic Jew who traded in the Indian Ocean and learned Arabic." It was also suggested that he was, quote, "A Polish Jew who had moved to Yemen as a child." Some speculated that he was a Polish Jew educated in Egypt. Others suggested that he was an Ethiopian Jew. And one even suggested that the man was an Indian Jew.
It seems as if a community of historians was determined about one thing, David could be anybody, just not an Arab Jew. Let us ponder why. In contrast to early 19th century Jewish historians who accepted David's Arab identity, why did later historians reject it beginning in 1895?
The answer, as should be evident to all by now, lies in the episode's, quote, unquote, "nationalistic aspects." With the rise of various forms of Jewish political thinking-- let's see what I have here-- with Jewish political thinking and Zionism, these aspects were not lost on anyone. Think first of the several plays and novels written about the video in the 1930s, which expressed a desire to see a military-like hero rising to, quote, "save the Jews," as Europe was swept with an unprecedented wave of brutal anti-Semitism, not just in newly-created Nazi Germany, but elsewhere in Europe.
Perhaps, it made perfect sense as Jews sat in theater halls to imagine the prince of the Jews and the field-marshal as a European Jew who devised an elaborate scheme to save his brethren. An unfamiliar darkish figure that spoke Arabic would not have been the same thing. Aescoly himself, who, in 1940, published the entire journal of David, along with his various studies about the man, dedicated to his own brother who had been murdered by the Nazis in occupied Poland that year. Furthermore, in his evaluation of David, Aescoly said that he was interested in the historical episode that David represented, and urged readers and fellow historians to discard the, quote, "romanticism of the 10 tribes" and see David for what he was, a tragic, nationalist hero, who, quote, "aimed at the elevation of the terrible sufferings of his people."
The profoundly European nature of Zionism should also be taken into account here. In 1963, the prominent Jewish British historian Cecil Roth echoed Aescoly's Zionist sentiments. For Roth, David was, quote, "Not an imposter, but an ardent Jewish nationalist, who, in one of the darkest hours in Jewish history, endeavored to reconquer Palestine for the Jewish people by force of arms," end quote. He proceeded to say that the present generation owes it to David's memory to restore him to his place, a precursor, quote, "of Jewish nationalism."
Roth's essay, not incidentally, was published in Midstream, a publication of the Theodore Herzl Foundation. Roth's message could be understood thus. David Reubeni is a precursor to none other than Herzl himself. And one might ask, how could the precursor of Herzl be an Arab Jew? In other words, the Zionization of David's strange episode in Rome entailed his Europeanization, as well.
The debate did not end there. It continued throughout the 1960s and the 1970s. The idea that David was a Yemeni Jew surfaced first in 1970 by a rabbi that analyzed his language. But it was simply ignored. This is the theory that I now support based on a newer global regional analysis.
This hypothesis is still rejected. The last instance from 2011-- and we are now after the political, theological, mystical turn in the historiography of Zionism in the wake of Shaolin. So the last instance claims that David was an Iberian Jew from Jerusalem who came up with his plan after reading a mysterious Kabalistic book from the 13th century that foretold the coming of the Ottomans.
Let me move to another time. In 1872, a mighty prince arrived in London. His name was Prince Hassan. And his father, Sultan Solomon, was, quote, "The King of a Muslim rebel state in Southwestern China in the province of Yunnan north of Indochina."
What did Prince Hassan want? He wanted weapons, financial support for the state, and an alliance with the British. Britain was then based in Burma across the border from Yunnan and had plenty of trade interest in the province.
What was the backdrop of the mission? The Chinese Muslims of Yunnan rebelled against the Qing Dynasty. And theirs was not the only rebellion of China at the time. But it was not the only Muslim rebel of China, either. Yes, the [INAUDIBLE] in Xinjiang in Chinese Turkestan and the Muslim populations in Northwestern provinces of China were also in a state of rebellion since the 1780s. We must we must not forget, also, the Taiping Rebellion, Christian-inspired, in Southeastern China.
The Yunnanese case was somewhat different. The leader of the rebellion, Du Wenxiu was, indeed, a Muslim from the province. But it was not clear at all that is cause in rebelling against the Qing was defined by his Islamic beliefs, not to mention that we cannot really talk about his religiosity as a Muslim. He was mostly reacting to the many social and ethnic problems and ongoing friction between Muslims, Hans, and other ethnicities in the province.
The province also suffered from a particularly bad and abusive management that only made things worse, and made Beijing look more distant and hostile to local Yunnanese. Simply put, the government's response to ethnic violence in the province was coming in and massacring Muslims. In 1853, following yet another violent incident, a full-blown rebellion erupted.
And Du found himself elected as its leader. Du was the son of a Han Chinese that converted to Islam. He displayed a rare mixture of charisma, vision, and an inclusive approach with regards to ethnic problems. As part of the local provincial literate elite, he received formal education in the Chinese classics, and was familiar with Chinese history, law and bureaucracy. This is important to understand.
The rebellion was not part of, quote, "an Islamic cause," real or imagined. Du let not only Muslims, but also many Hans and many other communities of other ethnic minorities in the province. He set his capital in the city of Dali, an ancient capital of the former kingdom that once existed in the region before it was conquered by the Mongols in annex to China.
Du styled himself as a Muslim leader, but also as a Chinese ruler. He had a dual title, Generalissimo of All Armed Forces and Calvary-- [SPEAKING CHINESE] in Chinese-- and Leader of All Muslims in Arabic-- [SPEAKING ARABIC]. The Chinese title is, in fact, a military rank that goes back to Mongol times. The Arabic one is probably made up. I found no other instance where it is used.
To make a long story short, Du managed to halt to the rebel state that he created around Dali, which he named [INAUDIBLE] pacifying the South for about 17 years. But his career was shorter. The state began losing power already in 1867. And the Qing, having overcome the Taiping Rebellion in Southwestern China, and having received some aid from the French forces that were based in Hanoi, managed to break the rebelling coalition and destroyed the rebel state.
Du turned himself to stop the bloodshed and was decapitated. But the government still massacred many in Dali and destroyed the city. Du went down in Qing history as a, quote, "bandit."
Things radically changed 90 years later in 1953. In that year, a most distinguished groups of communist historians, among them one leading Chinese Muslim historian, published an extensive collection of Qing documents in four volumes about the Muslim rebellions of the 19th century. The whole single volume was dedicated to the Du rebellion in Yunnan.
Despite the fact that the documents published were mostly official state-generated primary sources from the 19th century, the title given to the collection conveyed a message that was reinterpreting this historical episode. It was called the [SPEAKING CHINESE], or Righteous Uprisings of the Muslims. This title was significant. It signaled a reversal of verdict.
Whereas the Qing state condemned the Muslim rebels as bandits, the new communist state declared that their cause was righteous, just, [INAUDIBLE], in Chinese. The leader of the Yunnan rebellion, Du Wenxiu, was therefore a national hero. This also corresponded with the CCP's re-definitions of China's Muslims as a national minority, as opposed to a religious one. Du was the, thus, a Chinese national hero, as well as a Chinese Muslim national hero.
However two things later, things changed dramatically. In 1955, another leading communist historian, Fan Wenlan, published a new definitive history of China and called Du Wenxiu, quote, "a traitor who betrayed both the motherland and his fellow rebels," end quote. Around the same time, Guo Morou, perhaps the leading intellectual at the time, wrote that Du was a traitor that betrayed China and its Muslim national minority.
How did Du Wenxiu turn so quickly from a national hero into a national traitor? This brings us back to Prince Hassan. In 1954, documents about his mission-- the one I mentioned above-- were discovered in archives in London. No one knew who found these materials and how.
Only a few weeks ago, I finally was able to find out that it was a Burmese Muslim, [INAUDIBLE], who found the documents about the mission while writing a dissertation on the British and the Chinese Burmese trade in the 19th century. She submitted her thesis to the University of London in 1954.
In her dissertation, she mentions the press has an episode only in a page and a half. But this was enough for the leading historians in China to pass a new judgment on Du Wenxiu. They, by the way, never quoted her. From a national hero, he turned into Sultan Suleiman, a Muslim founder of an Islamic rebel state that tried to seek help from British imperialism to break the integrity of China.
The story was now that Britain sent spies to the rebel state in 1858. And sultan Suleiman was cooperating with them. In 1871, Ren detailed, he sent his adopted son, Prince Hassan, to London as part of the scheme to allow Britain to invade Yunnan. In the wake of such condemnations by two leading Chinese historians, Du Wenxiu immediately fell from grace.
Exhibit praising his heroic deeds were hurriedly removed. And others with condemnations were placed instead of them. Do Wenxiu remained in this status until the early '80s. Defending him was out of the question given the authority of the historians that condemned him before.
Only after the Cultural Revolution, another brilliant scholar, [INAUDIBLE], discover the truth. Prince Hassan was an imposter. He was a Chinese Muslim from another province by the name of [INAUDIBLE]. [INAUDIBLE] traveled extensively in Southern China at the time of all the rebellions and witnessed firsthand the upheavals, the destruction, as well as the powers of the Anglo-French interventions in different locations.
When the rebellion in Yunnan started, he came to Dali and tried to entice Du Wenxiu to solicit French or British support. In 1870, he wrote a memo outlining his plan to Du Wenxiu. But we don't have any evidence that Du even saw it.
In this memo, he offered himself as an envoy to Britain on behalf of Du Wenxiu to make the deal. When his effort to get Du Wenxiu's attention failed, [INAUDIBLE] moved south to the Burmese Yunnanese border. And from there, he came to Rangoon where he made contacts with British officers based in the city.
Acting only on his behalf, he tried to get them interested in his plans. As it happens, at the same time, when [INAUDIBLE] arrived in Rangoon, the King of Burma decided to send a delegation to London. The King, a supporter of the Qing government and an enemy of its Yunnan's Muslims, apparently wanted to solicit British help in suppressing the rebellion. Such a move was, indeed, against the interest of the British Imperial Offices in Rangoon.
And so they came up with their own plan. They were going to send [INAUDIBLE] as Prince Hassan, son of Sultan Suleiman, to London. The prince was supposed to present a letter to Queen Victoria from his father, Sultan Suleiman, and, quote, "pledge allegiance on the behalf of the Muslim rebel state in Yunnan." The key terms, Prince Hassan, Sultan Suleiman, and Muslim rebel states were all invented by the British officers in Rangoon.
And so [INAUDIBLE], now traveling under the identity that the officers invented for him, arrived in London via Calcutta four days before the official Burmese delegation arrived in London. What happened in London? Nothing.
The Office of Foreign Affairs was angry mostly with the fact that the colonial government in India spent money on the mission and tried to ship the fake prince back to Rangoon. The prince, aided by local officers in London, sent two letters to the Duke of Argyll, the responsible minister, in which he presented himself as prince and provided an elaborate plan of alliance his father was offering. In the second letter, he even promised that his father, Sultan Suleiman, would personally lead an attack on Yunnan's provincial capital in [INAUDIBLE].
The irony is that while all of this was happening in London, the Sultan, who didn't even know he was a Sultan, was already dead. No one in London knew that yet. But in any event, the Duke was not impressed and never responded to Prince Hassan. The prince was sent away. And after an attempt to sell himself to the Ottomans in Istanbul-- they did not buy this either-- they arrived in Rangoon and disappeared.
The whole story surfaced again when the letters were found in 1954 and triggered the debate in China. It was not until 1981 that historians in China, following [INAUDIBLE], begin the slow process of clearing Du Wenxiu from the accusations he was a national traitor and restore his reputation as a national hero. My examination of the scholarly debate in China over this issue suggests that, at least until 2009, historians, many of them Chinese Muslims from Yunnan, were still working to provide further proof that Du had nothing to do with the fantastic tale the British imperial offices in Rangoon and one impostor concocted.
The context of today's rehabilitation of Du is also designed to make it possible to commemorate the Qing Massacre of many Muslims near Dali. And I was there a few years ago. And it's quite a moving scene there. This is the monument erected there.
Let me finish with some concluding remarks. That was me showing off that I was there. Both of these fantastic stories were, at the time of occurrence, historical non-sequiturs, mere footnotes maybe. In both cases, the foggy nature of the circumstances on the ground helped the impostors gain some traction, but eventually, not much.
The case of David is a footnote on the margins of the story of Portuguese expansion in the Indian Ocean, Ottoman increasing power in the Middle East and Mediterranean, and Christendom's wars with Islam, the story of Prince Hassan, a footnote in the margins of a story of a struggling Chinese dynasty and British trade in colonial interest in the Indo-Chinese region. What gave these stories life?
At the moment of taking place was a hefty dosage of what we could call variations of Orientalism. Evidently, it was David's Arabness that made him attractive to Pope Clement and lent some credibility to his story. Eventually, it did not get him very far.
In [INAUDIBLE] case, it was his Muslimness that made him attractive to the officers in Rangoon. And it was Islam that gave birth to a tale about Prince Hassan and Sultan Suleiman. By the way, both of them picked Suleiman as their father. In both cases, to be fair, the impostors were able to display a relatively good reading of European interests in the region. And that gave them some mileage, as it were, in their interaction with some of their interlocutors, the pope and the local British officers in Rangoon.
Second conclusion-- however, in both cases, those with real power and knowledge did not buy the story. The Venetians, then trading with the Ottomans, concluded that David was nuts. The Portuguese, who, unlike the pope, knew much better what they were doing in the Indian Ocean, delivered him to the Inquisition. They did not see any opportunity to defeat Islam. And they knew why.
In London, the Minister of Foreign Affairs was furious. They still prefer dealing with the Qing. Typically, they complained about the use of government money to fund the fake prince and even bothered to move him to a cheaper hotel before they got rid of him. In both cases, the academic life of these impostors was far more significant and more prolonged. And it was much later.
In David's case, it was the rise of Zionism that sparked a scholarly debate about his identity, his motives and the meaning of his mission. In Prince Hassan case, it was the rise of an anti-imperialist, communist, atheist state that sparked a debate about the true identity of the fictional prince and King Suleiman, and consequently, the meaning of their actions. Do rehabilitation in China, of course, now within the context of rising nationalism and special attention to Islam and Muslims within China proper, as opposed to Xinjiang--
I leave the stories like this, thinking sadly on moments where impostors and crooks like, for instance, [INAUDIBLE], and others, some of them academics, do manage to sell fantastic plans to various powers. The price, in such cases, is real, not academic. And many people paid. Thank you.
ROSS BRANN: The version of Zvi's talk that he sent me Friday says-- the title is Zvi Cornell. And we take that to mean that you're going to stay here after this all blows over.
ZVI BEN-DOR BENITE: [INAUDIBLE] I hope so.
ROSS BRANN: OK, although, I think other individuals here might want to weigh in on that prospect. So I'm going to go very easily on you for two reasons. The first and the least important is because I think your critical and historical reflections on David Reubeni-- and I'm going to concentrate on that, because that's at least one area of academia where I can comfortably pretend to know something, rather than the Chinese sphere, where I can't even pretend to know something. So your critical and historical reflections on Reubeni and he's appealed to Christian authorities anticipates alliances developed during the early 20th century that have only deepened, sadly, since September 11, 2001. This was simply dazzling.
But the second and a far more important reason that I'm going to go so easy is that you serve, as we heard, at NYU as Associate Vise Chancellor for Global Network Faculty Planning. And I suspect that it was your office that upgraded my seat to business class and its incredible opulence on Etihad last year when I was invited to NYU Abu Dhabi to participate.
ZVI BEN-DOR BENITE: That was more my turn, because before my turn was someone from England--
ROSS BRANN: Oh, OK. I thought you were just going to say something like that. Anyway, I want to thank you for that upgrade. And my apologies to the provost.
In Zvi's masterful talk, he provides us with an illustration of how a cultural historian excavates the complex details of a paradigmatic episode and its ensuing traditions, in order to illuminate larger historical and political transactions and transformations. He extracts new meaning from the riveting story of David Reubeni, the enigmatic, early modern, Jewish religio-political activist who claimed to command a Jewish army numbering hundreds of thousands. Arriving in the lands of Christendom, we heard, allegedly, from somewhere in Arabia-- and most likely Yemen-- Reubeni recounted far-fetched adventures in Africa and the East, and then hatched this outlandish scheme to restore the Jews to sovereignty, I suppose, in an anticipated post-Ottoman Palestine through aligning them with Christians in what would shape up to be an eschatological battle against Islamdom.
Now a literary historian reading all of these texts would associate Reubeni's bewildering tales about a remote Jewish kingdom governed by his brother, Yosef, with some narrative and thematic elements of Arabic [INAUDIBLE] literature, literature on things that are marvelous, wondrous, fantastic and somewhere else so that you can't check the details. And on the other hand, with elements in Talmudic lore. All of these are very much found in these texts. If we extend our temporal perspective, as Professor Benite has done in his fabulous book, The 10 Lost Tribes of World History, we can identify Reubeni with an older, enduring tradition of Jewish travelers in Islamic lands presenting themselves to Jewish communities elsewhere as emissaries of the 10 lost tribes.
Otherwise, the stuff of legend-- rather than history, as we've heard-- such eccentric figures and their tales were of keen interest to European Christians and some Jews of David Reubeni's period because of their determination to at least control Middle Eastern lands and their resources. Jewish tradition long identified the Arabian Peninsula as one of the most likely whereabouts of at least some of the 10 lost tribes. And for its part, Yemen produced numerous Messianic figures and movements in the centuries before David Reubeni.
In '83, a mysterious character named Eldad ha-Dani from Yemen or Ethiopia supposedly turned up in [INAUDIBLE], and speaking only Hebrew, announced that he belonged to the Danites-- here we're going to have to call on Professor Monroe in a little bit-- one of the 10 lost tribes living in a distant land beyond the rivers of Ethiopia under the Aegis of a powerful and wealthy Jewish King. For our purposes, I direct our attention to a significant trope attributed to Eldad in later sources, the vocation of his lost tribe with Jewish warriors. This is what it says.
"We have a tradition from father to son that we, the sons of Dan, were aforetime in the land of Israel dwellers in tents. And among all the tribes of Israel, there were none like us, men of war and mighty of valor." The Jewish communities of the [INAUDIBLE] in the late ninth century and Al-Andalus are said to have welcomed Eldad in excitement. Perhaps, they even invented him. We don't know.
Eldad's mystifying appearance, his cryptic declarations, and astounding tales of his adventures, and in fact, references to where one could find all of the 10 lost tribes, each of them prospering in independence in a root stretched from Ethiopia to China were treated cautiously, but with general interest by contemporary rabbinic authorities in Baghdad, to whom the [INAUDIBLE] religious leaders turned for guidance. What are we supposed to do with this guy? We like his stories. But is it OK?
Eldad's phantasm reports of a Jewish King, a Jewish kingdom, and a Jewish army fueled [INAUDIBLE] geographical and religio-political imaginations before he disappeared completely into legend, much as the 10 lost tribes from whence he supposedly came. The tradition relating Eldad's claims and experiences was the first of its kind in medieval Jewish literature. What was the response to this figure and to the fantastic accounts attributed to him? The ideology of the Jews of Islamic Spain, Al-Andalus, during the 10th to 12th centuries, their diplomatic correspondence with and various literary references to the Jewish King of the [INAUDIBLE] and his Eurasian kingdom-- and that's real-- and the manuscript history of the Eldad traditions all testify to its lasting appeal among Andalucia Jewish and, subsequently, Spanish Jewish elites hoping to negotiate a place for themselves in history, or alternatively, to escape their sociopolitical predicament living the marginal lives of a small community, lives in between Islamdom and Christendom.
It's also worth mentioning, as Zvi does in his book, that Eldad ha-Dani is related in complex ways to Reubeni and to the 12th century legend of Prester John, the mythical Christian priest king whose own racialization in European literature is analogous to Pope Clement VII's picture of David Reubeni-- and I would add, some of the other figures you mentioned-- their racialization of David as a very dark complexioned Arab Jew. Unlike Eldad ha-Dani, who restricted his late ninth century field of operation to the Islamic world. David Reubeni is one of several post-1492 figures whose apocalyptic vision and gambit in an age of rampant millenarian expectations and activity relied upon earlier fantastic traditions, such as Eldad ha-Dani, but sought to cultivate Christian support for Jewish empowerment in the Holy Land at the expense of the Muslims. Not long before Reubeni's mysterious appearance in Portugal and Italy, the eminent rabbinic scholar, Ovadia de Bartenura, 1487 to 1540, left Italy for Jerusalem.
Ovadia's his own letter journal detailing his travels comments on the Ottoman capture of Constantinople and the repercussions for its Jews, as well as on peaceful relations between Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem and throughout the land of Israel. He also stoked Messianic fervor with passages such as the following. This is Ovadia.
"The Muslims on pilgrimage from Egypt to Mecca pass through a great and terrible desert, usually with 4,000 camels. Sometimes they are overtaken in that wilderness by an enormous people, colossal as giants, one of whom can chase 1,000. The Muslims call this people the Arabians, Sons of the Almighty, B'nai El-Shaddai because in their battles, they always invoke the name of the Almighty God. The Muslims assert that one of these people is able to bear the burden of a camel in one hand"-- that's pretty impressive-- "while in the other, he holds the weapon with which he fights. It is well-known that they observed the Jewish religion. And it is said that they are descendants of [INAUDIBLE]."
What exactly is the relationship between these astonishing tales of empire and war that Professor Benite told us and the academic production of knowledge concerning the modern Middle East, especially here in the United States, but not only? Professor Benite illuminates the power of cultural tropes embedded within tradition to inform subsequent socio-historical developments, or to be made to inform them. He observes that the various legends with their martial images and representations of Jewish power and sovereignty appealed to modern Zionist historiographers and modern Zionist literary intellectuals, bent as they were on identifying Zionism as a secularized Jewish Messianism and as the necessary culmination of Jewish history, rather than as a constructed, decidedly modern European nationalism.
He also suggests, although he does not identify them explicitly, that two branches in that Zionism of the 20th century-- political Zionists and general Zionists-- of the end of the 19th and early 20th century were enamored of an alliance with the colonial powers, and that they were, in effect, deploying a modern version of Reubeni's strategy with its nascent proto-Orientalism and Islamophobia of turning to Christian authorities to help restore the Jews to sovereignty in their ancestral homeland. David Reubeni's failed stratagem, and even more, it's significance in Zionist historiography, involve a subversive undermining and a deliberate forgetting of a more established medieval trope and paradigm from earlier apocalyptic ages, according to which the Jews were, of course, in league with Islam and Muslims aligned against Christianity and Christians. In Jewish texts from the seventh century until the 13th-- and again, at the outset of the Ottoman age-- when refugees from Catholic Spain and Portugal were offered asylum in Ottoman lands, Islam and Muslims were frequently represented as divine instruments for liberating the Jews from Visigothic Christian and Catholic rule, and torment in the West, Byzantine domination and persecution in the East, and subsequently, from the harsh crusader kingdoms in the Levant.
In particular, texts of Eastern provenance celebrate the Muslims' role in the reopening of the Holy City of Jerusalem to Jewish habitation, from which they were excluded by the Byzantines and then by the Crusaders in the seventh, and the 11th, and the 12th and 13th centuries. For example-- and I'll just name a few and read just a couple of snippets-- the secrets of Rabbi [INAUDIBLE], a late Midrashic text in the form of a revelation given to a rabbinic authority from late antiquity, reassures the Jews of the Near East that the Kingdom of Ishmael and its prophet are divinely appointed specifically to deliver the Jews from the Wicked Kingdom of Edom, meaning Rome and Byzantium, that is, Christendom in its widest iteration. In the religious imagination, these events lead directly to the Messianic age, as suggested by the attention the second King of the Ishmaelites pays to Jerusalem and the restoration of the Temple Mount. This is the passage.
"The second king will be set up from Ishmael. And he will conquer all the kingdoms. And he will come to Jerusalem and will prostrate there. He will make war with the Adamites. And they will flee before him. And he will have taken the kingdom by force. He will become a lover of Israel, and repair the fences, and guard the temple, and carve out the Temple Mount, and make all of it a plane, and call to Israel to build buildings on the temple."
Similarly, a Geneza letter sent from the Jerusalem Rabbinical Academy to the diaspora communities in the 11th century indicates this memory was passed down and preserved by the Jews of Palestine. It was thanks to God who turned toward us the compassion of the Ishmaelite Kingdom, that it stretched out its hand and captured the Holy Land from the Adamites and came to Jerusalem. With the Ishmaelites were Jews who showed them the site of the temple and remained with them in Jerusalem from that time to this very day. And there are more, but that's for another talk.
From the historical perspective, Islam can be said-- and from these literary and religious imaginative perspectives. From these perspectives, Islam, in effect, can be said to have saved the Jews on more than one occasion, and certainly, provided the socioeconomic conditions in which they culturally thrived in the Middle Eastern lands. This alternative, pre-modern history of Arab Jews at home in Middle Eastern lands in counterpoint to Reubeni was not unnoticed in modern Europe-- of course not.
One of Benjamin Disraeli's and I'll just remind all of us. Disraeli was from a family of converts. But he had, as a romantic, a profound sense of attachment to Jewish history, and the Jewish people, and other peoples of what they called the Orient in the East. Anyway one of Disraeli's contemporaries famously commented on his Near East Policy during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 as follows.
"For many ages, there has been among large sections of the Jews the strongest sympathy for the Mohammedan peoples. A common enemy is a great bond of friendship. And as the Christian was equally the enemy of the Mohammedan and the Jew, they were thereby brought into a certain alliance with one another. In the time of the Crusaders, the Jews were friends who aided the Mohammedans in keeping back the tide of Christian invasion. And in Spain, the Jews were the constant friends and allies of the Moorish against the Christian inhabitants of that country."
As a Jew, Disraeli is a kinsman of the Turk. And as a Jew, he feels bound to make common cause with the Turk against the Christians. Now I realize there's a political edge to this, although this turns up in a biography of Disraeli when much of this was already decided. But I think, even if we acknowledge the political edge of that paragraph, there's more that's going on here that intersects with what we've been discussing on this panel.
These historical memories and others like them might have provided a counter-narrative designist historiography completely dominated by Ashkenazi Jews at a time when many Jews of Middle Eastern lands were at home in Arab culture and sensitive to the political aspirations of their Muslim and Christian neighbors in late Ottoman Palestine. Some such Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jews even embraced the prospect of a shared homeland based, alternatively, on Civic Ottomanism or fidelity to Arabism, as revealed in our former colleague Michelle Campo's work, Ottoman Brothers. Considering the last 100 years of unrelenting conflict between Jews and Arabs in the land west of the Jordan River, that counter-narrative and the political future it imagined sounds today like a fantastic illusory tale of its own on a par with those that we heard this morning.
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The Middle East, the Academy, and the Production of Knowledge conference took place on Sunday, November 12, 2017 in G10 Biotechnology Building.
Since Edward Said's seminal study Orientalism almost forty years ago, scholars have been aware that the Middle East is not just a site for study, but one invested with multiple meanings on the politics and pitfalls of how to study a place, generally. Situated at a crossroads of geographies, religions, and histories, the Middle East is contested terrain in every sense, and on a daily basis.
This conference brought together a group of scholars from within and outside the United States, who looked at this trope across a range of disciplines. Through this gathering of expertise and perspectives, they interrogated some of the ways that knowledge about the Middle East is produced, and shed critical light on that knowledge. What does the Middle East mean in the modern academy? Who produces this knowledge, and toward what ends? Participants looked at these formulations and others over the course of a stimulating - and provocative- day of collective discourse.