The relationship between Muslims and Jews has become a major topic of controversy since the establishment of the state of Israel. Is Islam intrinsically anti-Semitic? Historically, how were Jews treated in Muslim countries? These and other important questions are addressed by Professor Mark Cohen of Princeton, a leading expert in this field.—Anthony Manousos
Professor Cohen Illuminates controversial relationship between Jews and Muslims
by Jennifer Greenstein Altmann
Posted February 7, 2011; 12:00 p.m.
Princeton professor Mark Cohen studies the history of Jews living in Arab lands in the Middle Ages. But recently he has waded into controversial debates — such as whether Islam is fundamentally anti-Semitic — and forged a reputation as a voice of reason in a highly charged atmosphere. Throughout his career, Cohen has used rigorous research to explode commonly held myths regarding Jews, Muslims and Christians.
Princeton professor Mark Cohen has spent his 40-year academic career in a quiet corner of Jewish scholarship, studying the daily life of Jews who lived in the Muslim world 1,000 years ago. But in the decade since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, his once-obscure area of expertise has been catapulted into the limelight.
After decades of guiding students through the historical relationships between Muslims and Jews, Cohen has seen his profile rise outside of academic circles as he has added his voice to the vociferous discussions in the media and on blogs about the historical relationship between Islam and Judaism.
“As a medievalist, I never dreamed I would ever be involved in something with so much contemporary relevance,” said Cohen, the Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East. “But I think I have something to say.”
Cohen has waded into controversial debates — such as whether the Muslim religion is fundamentally anti-Semitic — and forged a reputation as a voice of reason in a highly charged atmosphere. Last year Merrimack College’s Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations awarded him the first Goldziher Prize, which recognizes scholarship that promotes understanding across religious faiths. Throughout his career, Cohen has used rigorous research to offer insights into medieval history to scholars and students, and to explode commonly held myths regarding Jews, Muslims and Christians.
“Consistently over the decades he’s stood for a very sane, balanced attitude on the position of Jews in the medieval Islamic world, and for careful scholarship based on documentary sources,” said Michael Cook, Princeton’s Class of 1943 University Professor of Near Eastern Studies.
The Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo, which recently was renovated, is where a trove of documents dealing with Jewish life in the Middle Ages was found in the 19th century. Cohen co-founded the groundbreaking Princeton Geniza Project, which has built a database of transcriptions of more than 4,000 of the documents, searchable in Arabic, English and Hebrew by keyword and available to scholars all over the world. (Photo courtesy of Mark Cohen)