Breaking New Ground

MAAS alumna Judith Mendelsohn Rood talks about her doctoral research as a Lady Davis Dissertation Fellow at Hebrew University and as the Islamic Court of Jerusalem’s first female researcher.

Judith Mendelsohn Rood   

Interview by Steven Gertz

As part of its commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of World War I, CCAS interviewed for its Summer/Fall 2014 newsletter MAAS alumna Dr. Judith Mendelsohn Rood as to why Palestinians supported the Ottomans prior to and during the war. In this interview, we talk with her about her studies at CCAS (1980-82), and ask her what advice she might have for today's students and recent graduates.

What was your experience like at CCAS, and who were some of your favorite professors and why? 

Three professors that immediately come to mind are Ibrahim Ibrahim, Hisham Sharabi, and Michael Hudson. I found Ibrahim Ibrahim especially helpful because, like me, he was interested in and knowledgeable about German Jewish thinkers. He was also involved in writing a constitution for the U.A.E., and we had many different conversations about what a regime was, and what was the proper place for minorities in it. He talked a lot about how difficult it was for him to be a Palestinian in Germany, and he could relate to the Jewish thinkers he liked to read, like Hannah Arendt and others. As for the others, I loved Dr. Hudson’s courses because he was concerned with legitimacy and from where it is derived. Also, Hisham Sharabi instilled in me an appreciation for the dangers of religious extremism.

How did your studies at CCAS shape where you went next?

When I was in my MAAS program, I discovered the whole field of study that the Ottoman empire represents. Until then, I was aware of but really had not thought about Turkey’s impact on the Middle East. But when I decided I wanted to study Palestinian history in a doctoral program, I came to the realization that I needed to take Ottoman studies seriously. When I began my PhD program in Modern Middle East History at the University of Chicago, I discovered that the Ottomanists were there in full force. There was a professor there by the name of Abdul-Karim Rafeq who was doing pioneer work in the Islamic Court archives in Damascus. I enjoyed his seminar very much and wondered if there were similar archives in Jerusalem that I could use for my dissertation. When I asked Dr. Rafeq about this, he told me about Prof. Amnon Cohen of Hebrew University who at the time was doing research in the Islamic Court archives in Jerusalem. I connected with Israeli professor Moshe Ma’oz, who had been a visiting professor at Georgetown while I was there, and he helped me to get in touch with Dr. Cohen, and that’s how I ended up doing the research that I did.

Tell us a little about your research. What kinds of questions did you ask, and were there any surprises along the way? 

Judith Mendelsohn Rood and Shaykh AsadGoing to the Islamic Court in Jerusalem was like going to a different country for me, as I was the first woman to ever research in what until then had been an entirely male environment. All of the materials I was studying were in Arabic but not a form of Arabic for which I was prepared at Georgetown. It was somewhere in between fast colloquial Arabic and Ottoman Arabic, and I had to learn the particular "dialect" of Arabic in order to read records dating from the 1820s to the 1840s. I was especially interested in the question of what Palestine was like before the Zionist moment. I wanted to know how Palestine was governed, and I thought that the legal records would help me answer that question.

But what I primarily discovered through my research was how Islamic law really worked from the ground up. Instead of reading about Islamic law from a theoretical perspective, I was seeing how the law was actually being implemented and what the concerns of the various parties of the law were. The study focused on the relationship of Jerusalem to other districts in the wilaya of Damascus and with the central government in Constantinople. That’s what my book is really about. 

For those students who are thinking about going on for a doctorate following graduation from the MAAS program, what advice and/or encouragement would you give them?  

Getting a PhD is not for the faint of heart. Pursue a doctorate out of love of research, not as a means to an end. Tenure-track positions are increasingly rare and competitive, and most of the hires are in American and European studies, even today. In history, adjuncts outnumber full-time faculty, who have little to say about hires. If you are serious about scholarship, you have to go into it with the idea that you are going to be a researcher, and figure out how to get funded in a changing financial environment. Be teachable, humble, diligent, and tenacious. Find mentors, and figure out what’s important to them. Try to become involved with their work—that speeds things up—and try to publish with them if they are willing. Study language intensively, and keep at it. If you are really good, you may just land on your feet! But be prepared for disappointment. Don’t define yourself by your academic endeavors, and have a life beyond your work.

Judith Mendelsohn Rood is Professor of History and Middle Eastern Studies at Biola University and the author of Sacred Law in the Holy City: The Khedival Challenge to the Ottomans as seen from Jerusalem, 1829-1841 (Brill, 2004). She teaches classes on the history of the Middle East and Islam; Jewish, Christian, and Muslim relations; the Arab-Israeli conflict, Jewish history, the history of Zionism and Israel, the history of the city, historiography, and world civilizations.