You are currently viewing Jews and Muslims: Documentary Tells Fourteen Centuries of History

“Make it understood that Jews and Muslims are not enemies by nature. ” Such is the ambition, summed up by its director Karim Miské, of the abundant documentary series “Jews and Muslims – So far, so close”, available in replay on the Arte site from March 29 until September 18.

Broadcast for the first time on the Franco-German channel in 2013, this original series, which sweeps fourteen centuries of history in four episodes of nearly an hour each, is clearly topical as a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas just entered into force Friday, May 21, after eleven days of deadly clashes in the Gaza Strip.

Make no mistake: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the subject of this documentary with the false air of an animated feature film, illustrated with elegant watercolors by Jean-Jacques Prunès which give the story a epic breath, while creating a welcome unity between the many places, characters and historical eras evoked.

Because far beyond Jerusalem, the viewer is transported from Medina to Paris via Baghdad, Cairo and Cordoba, from the year 610 to the present day. A voice-over unfolds this chronological story, interspersed with interventions by around forty specialists from all over the world, many of them Jews or Muslims.

Conflicts and cohabitation

The emphasis here is on the harmony that has long reigned between these monotheistic peoples who essentially evolved on the same lands, against a background of a common language and culture. Even if it means magnifying somewhat the Umayyad caliphate of Al-Andalus and minimizing the inconveniences of the dhimma (this inferior status reserved for minorities under the Muslim empire).

The bloody episodes that punctuate this story are not concealed, however. Among them, the massacre of Granada in 1066, in which approximately 4,000 Jews perished, but also the Crusades and the Spanish Reconquista which united Jews and Muslims against Christians – whose cruelty the documentary moreover readily highlights. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the rise of Zionism and Arab nationalism sounded the death knell for harmony and plunged Jews and Muslims into the cycle of violence that we know.

A historical tale

The main merit of this ambitious documentary is to embrace such a vast historical period without losing the viewer, thanks to the beauty of its production and the quality of its narration, which gives pride of place to strong and often unrecognized characters.

Among them, Ka’b al-Ahbar, a Jewish scholar who converted to Islam in the 7th century, who introduced into nascent Muslim culture “Whole sections of the Jewish tradition”. Or Sabbatai Tsevi: in the seventeenth-century Ottoman Empire, he was considered the Messiah by thousands of Jews before being forced to convert to Islam… leading behind him a vast conversion movement among the Jews of the time.

One regret, however: the weak place given to theological questions, such as the Koranic notion of “People of the Book” or the Muslim theory of “falsification” of the Scriptures by the Jews and then the Christians. First and foremost historical, the story culminates in a last episode devoted to the second twentieth century, where the drawings of Jean-Jacques Prunès give way to archival images, in an always neat soundtrack.


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