The Divergence of Judaism and Islam. Interdependence, Modernity, and Political Turmoil

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144 · Daniel J. Schroeter

Africa, Jews were also outside the rural social system, which was based
on communal lands and tribal lineages. Another reason attributed to the
decline of agriculture was the restrictions of the Sabbath, more onerous
for agricultural pursuits when Jews lived as a minority population.
How much in fact Jews were alienated from the land and agriculture
is a subject of debate, and it now seems clear that in the Mediterranean
region, in both Christian and Muslim regions, Jews continued to own
rural land and pursue agriculture to a greater degree than was once be-
lieved. The Geniza provides plenty of evidence that Jews were engaged
in agriculture and owned farmland in Egypt and elsewhere in the Medi-
terranean.^3 In North Africa, evidence since the Middle Ages shows that
there were Jews who were farmers and herders.^4 Travel literature from
the sixteenth century refers to Jewish farmers.^5 Evidence of Jews cultivat-
ing the soil comes not only from the occasional observation of travelers
but also from responsa literature, rabbinical discourse on legal questions
from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.^6
It is, however, undeniable that a large measure of alienation from the
land took place and that over the course of the first millennium Jews
shifted from agriculture to more urban occupations. Even where Jews
owned agricultural lands in the Muslim Mediterranean world, they of-
ten did not cultivate the fields themselves but relied instead on Muslim
sharecroppers. For Jews the transition away from tilling the soil became
a symbol of exile, and for Gentiles it became a Jewish stereotype.
In the years preceding and following the emancipation of Jews in
Western Europe, the debates about removing the civil disabilities of the
Jews often revolved around the supposedly unproductive nature of Jew-
ish professions. For adversaries to Jewish emancipation, this essential
nature of the Jew was what made their integration undesirable. For both
Jewish and non-Jewish advocates of emancipation, Jewish productivity
was a necessity for admittance to society. What was required was the “re-
generation” of the Jews, which implied, among other things, the normal-
ization of Jewish economic and professional life. More specifically, there
were calls for Jews to return to agriculture. The pursuit of agriculture as
part of the revitalization of Jewish life was called for by both those who
saw it as a means to integrate in the societies where Jews lived and by Zi-
onists, who saw the “return to the land” as a sacred duty for the national
restoration of the Jewish people. The result of this ideology, whether Zi-
onist or assimilationist, from the mid-nineteenth century resulted in the

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