King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 14, 15

The affair of the young Arab Mu’atiyah. It was clear that he was a subject of the Caliph Abd er-Rahman: as indeed were they, the Jews of Septimania, at least in theory. Did they not pay to the Caliph the kharaj and the jizya, the land-tax and the poll-tax? And did they not guard their gates against his enemies and those of his Faith, the Christians and the Franks? It was true that that guard did not extend in any way to limiting trade with their near-neighbors, true too that the tax payments were made according to calculations done by the council itself, which would not have passed muster with the Caliph’s own tax-collectors, none of whom any longer courted embarrassment by appearing in the city. Nevertheless—so said the majority on the council—there was no precedent for imprisoning the young man merely to prevent his return to his master.

As the council debated, the old prince watched his learned men, stroking his beard. He knew what Solomon would have said, had he been here. That the Arab would immediately flee to his master and report that the Jews had made common cause with the barbarians, the polytheists, that they were providing a base for a hostile fleet which had fled from contact with the Greeks and now planned its own attacks on the peaceful countryside. Little of that was true, but that was how it would be presented, and how it would be believed.

In any of the Christian dukedoms or princedoms of the border country, such a matter would have been the simplest thing in the world. Ten words, and the Arab would disappear. If he ever were inquired about, polite regret and ignorance would be expressed. And the baron or duke or prince would have thought no more about it than about pruning his roses.

In a Jewish community, that was not possible. Not even desirable. Benjamin ha-Nasi approved of what his wise men would decide, though he knew it would be a mistake. A mistake in the short term. In the long term the fortress of the Jews, the place where they had kept their identity in the long centuries of flight and persecution, was the Torah and the Law. As long as they held to that, history had taught them, they would survive—as a people if not as individuals. If they abandoned it, they might thrive for a while. Then they would merge with the sea around them, become indistinguishable from the lawless, unprincipled, superstitious believers in Christ, their false Messiah.

Tranquilly the prince listened to the arguments, conducted as much to allow all members of the council to show their learning as to affect the final decision. Those who were putting the case for continued detention, in the way that Solomon might have done, were doing so passionately but insincerely, according to a convention understood by all. Against them was the deep reluctance of any Jewish community to order imprisonment as a punishment. Freedom to go as one pleased was one of the inheritances from the desert which they shared with the Arabs their cousins. It was the other side of the horror of exile from the community which was the council’s ultimate threat against their own.

The learned Moishe was summing up, and preparing his final peroration. He was the Amoraim, the interpreter of the Mishnah. “And so,” he said, looking round fiercely, “I will now speak of the Halakhah, which is the ultimate conclusion of this matter debated. First it was spoken and passed on from generation to generation, now it is written and fixed for ever. ‘Treat the stranger within your gates as you would your brother, for this you will be thrice blessed.’ ”

He ended, looking round. If his audience had not been constrained by the dignity of their place and cause, they would have applauded.

“Well spoken,” said the prince finally. “Truly is it said that the learning of the wise is a wall to the city. And that it is the folly of the unlearned that brings woe upon it.”

He paused. “And yet, alas, this young man is unlearned, is he not?”

Moishe spoke up. “By his own account, prince, he is the wonder of the world for learning. In his own way and his own country. And who should condemn the customs of another country, or its wisdom?”

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Categories: Harrison, Harry