J.J Benjamin- The Other Benjamin of Tudela

The position of Jews in Islamic countries has always been, historically,  a very contentious one. For some time I have believed, and still do, that the position of Jews within the Dhimmi construct has always been one of oppression and suppression. Although there are numerous sources that affirm this, I found the case of JJ Benjamin to be the most interesting.

JJ Benjamin was a Jewish-Romanian scholar who interestingly was not the most educated or financially gifted man, yet he became infatuated with the famous Jewish traveler- Benjamin of Tudela. In fact, Benjamin of Romania became so obsessed with Benjamin of Tudela that he himself took up the name of his idol and began travelling the world.

Although, still very young and only just married, Benjamin left Romanian poverty and began to travel the world in search of the Ten Lost Tribes of Judah. In fact it seems that he almost traced Benjamin’s Tudela journey through Europe, the Middle East and the Maghreb in hopes of learning more about Jewish Communities.

For a decade and half JJ Benjamin traveled the world and published a few very informal memoirs which were contested by various academic communities in Europe. To this day it is impossible to tell what the validity of his writing is however, it has been verified through various letters, objects and testimonies that he managed to muster to prove his travels.

You might, ultimately ask, what is the point of knowing about JJ Benjamin? So what if he traveled? Well he not only traveled but took it up to record all of his travels, almost like adding to Benjamin of Tudela histories 6 centuries earlier. His most famous work is that of his account of the Jews of Persia, which in the 19th century was under Islamic Influence. There, he began taking note of the outstanding suppression that Jews experienced under the status of Dhimmi.

Some Examples:

If a Jew is recognized as such in the streets, he is subjected to the greatest insults. The passers-by spit in his face, and sometimes beat him so unmercifully, that he falls to the ground, and is obliged to be carried home.

 In the same manner the Jewish children, when they get into a quarrel with those of the Mussulmans, are immediately led before the Achund, and punished with blows.

 

Daily and hourly new suspicions are raised against the Jews, in order to obtain excuses for fresh extortions; the desire of gain is always the chief incitement to fanaticism.

Throughout Persia the Jews are obliged to live in a part of the town separated from the other inhabitants; for they are considered as unclean creatures, who bring contamination with their intercourse and presence.

I might be a bit close minded but does that not seem crazy?

Sources:

 Bernard Lewis, The Jews of Islam. Princeton University Press, 1984. Chapter “The End of Tradition”, pp. 181–183

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._J._Benjamin


 Published in The Art of Polemics, Issue 1, on June 18th, 2014.

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