Writing in Midstream magazine, Elliott A Green reminds those who have forgotten that Jews, oppressed as dhimmis by Islam, were historically at the bottom of the social heap, especially in Jerusalem. Those who claim today, like Professors Walt and Mearsheimer, that Arab Palestinians were victims of the Jews, invert the truth:
Jews and Zionists are generally and deplorably unaware of conditions for Jews in the Land of Israel after the Arab Conquest [634-640 CE]. Many believe that Arab-Muslim rule was benign for the Jews, not merely compared with conditions in Christian lands.
Further, many used to believe even a few decades ago that the conflict with the Arabs over the Land of Israel was strictly a matter of competing nationalisms. However, since the relatively unsuccessful 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York by jihad fanatics, the informed public in the West has become more aware of the powerful Muslim religious dimension in Arab politics.
This understanding has been reinforced by the Hamas’ rise among Palestinian Arabs. The Hamas is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its charter is clearly a Judeophobic document, drawing on medieval Judeophobic Muslim sources. It is not merely anti-Israel. Article 7 of the Hamas charter repeats the medieval Muslim fable about the Jews at the End of Days, which I summarize:
At Judgement Day, the Muslims will fight the Jews who will hide behind rocks and trees. The rocks and trees will cry out: O Muslim, a Jew is hiding behind me. Come kill him. (..)
Books, articles and document collections by Bat Ye’or, Norman Stillman and others, have done much since the early 1970s to demonstrate the nature of the dhimmi status, the dhimma, for the intelligent reading public, and have highlighted the position of the Jews under Islam. In addition, recent decades have seen a broad stream of information about Islam become more available to the general educated public, although Muslim apologetics have flourished as well, perhaps even more so. Christians, Jews (including Samaritans), and Zoroastrians were subject to the dhimma in Middle Eastern countries, and this status was later extended to Hindus farther east.
Tolerated non-Muslims in lands conquered by Islam –dhimmis-- were required to pay tribute, the jizya, either personally or through their religious-ethnic community. The grounds for this in Islamic law are found in the Quran [sura 9:29 ]. The jizya can be considered a license to live for another year until the time comes for the next payment. Qur’an 9:29 and 2:61 also require that non-Muslims, specifically Jews and Christians, People of the Book, are to be “brought low,” that is, humiliated. Islamic society developed and refined these rules of dhimma over the centuries.
These regulations stipulated that dhimmis could not bear arms. Their garments must differ from Muslim garments. They had to always show respect and deference for Muslims, such as dismounting from their donkeys when encountering a Muslim on the road. A dhimmi’s testimony in court was worth half of a Muslim’s testimony. This list is incomplete and, of course, the body of rules varied somewhat with time and place. Further, when Muslim states were weak, not all of the rules could be enforced. For instance, mountain-dwelling dhimmis could often ignore many of the humiliations as long as they stayed away from Muslim cities. It is significant that the dhimmis’ status tended to worsen over time as their proportion of the population decreased.
Here’s an illustration of one of the dhimma humiliations as viewed by the Danish traveler, Carsten Niebuhr (1761-1762):
In Cairo, no Christian and no Jew can show himself mounted on a horse. They only ride donkeys and must get off as soon as they encounter an Egyptian, even the least important. The Egyptians never go about except on a horse, preceded by an insolent servant who, armed with a big club, warns the man on the donkey to show the obligatory marks of respect for his master, by crying out: "Infidel, get off! . . ."
`Niebuhr visited Egypt almost four decades before Napoleon, which is significant, because the late Edward Said argued that similar reports made after Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition were invalid since they were tainted with imperialism.
Moshe Gil found accounts –in the Cairo Geniza documents-- of Jews in Jerusalem being squeezed to collect the jizya and other taxes in the pre-Crusades period. (..)
Jacob Barna’i found records of the Jerusalem Jewish community for the late 18th century revealing a startlingly similar situation to that before the Crusades found by Gil. Not only did Jews pay jizya to the Ottoman state but a series of unofficial fees, taxes, exactions and mandatory bribes to local Muslim notables and strong men.
Now, contrary to what many Jews and other people have believed, conditions in Muslim lands were often worse for Jews than in Christendom. At least this was the opinion of the great Jewish philosopher, Maimonides (1135-1204), who fled Spain due to persecution by a fanatical Muslim sect and ended up as a Jewish leader in Egypt and physician to the famous Sultan Saladin. He wrote in his famous Letter to Yemen:
[as punishment] God has hurled us into the midst of this people, the Arabs, who have persecuted us severely, and passed baneful and discriminatory legislation against us… Never did a nation molest, degrade, debase, and hate us as much as they.
Maimonides was in correspondence with far flung Jews, from Europe to India, and knew of the conditions in the various places. Here he means that Islamic society treated Jews worse as a rule than did Christian society. The next question is whether Jewish and Christian dhimmis were equal in their inferiority in Islamic society, and if not, which were in the superior position. (..)
The Italian historian of Islam, Francesco Gabrieli, wrote that:
“the name ‘Yahudi’ [=Jew] acquired on Muslim lips the same odor of hostile scorn for the Jews that the term ‘Jew’ had in the Western world, more hostile and scornful than that of the epithet ‘Nasrani’ [= Christian].”
Like al-Jahiz, (historians) Gabrieli and Panella explain this by the Muslim memory of the Medina Jews’ political resistance to Muhammad.
This Jewish social inferiority is confirmed not only by the medieval Baghdadi Arab
al-Jahiz but by a Turk quoted by Bernard Lewis. This 19th century Turk referred to some Greek Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman Empire who regretted the Ottoman equalizing reforms of the mid-19th century. This shows that Ottoman Christians considered their status superior to that of the Jews.
… whereas in former times, in the Ottoman state, the communities were ranked, with the Muslims first, then the Greeks [Greek Orthodox], then the Armenians, then the Jews, now all of them were put on the same level. Some Greeks objected to this, saying: “The government has put us together with the Jews. We were content with the supremacy of Islam.”
A British envoy confirmed this ranking. Dr John Bowring was in Lebanon and Syria –Israel’s neighborhood— in the 1830s, shortly before the first of these Ottoman reforms (1839). Muhammad Ali of Egypt, who had wrested rule over the Levant from the Ottoman state at that time, had already introduced greater equality between Muslims and dhimmis in his domains. Bowring noted:
The Mussulmans. . . deeply deplore the loss of that sort of superiority which they all & individually exercised over & against the other sects. . . a Mussulman. . . believes and maintains that a Christian –& still more a Jew — is an inferior being to himself.
And although the Jews’ situation did improve somewhat under Muhammad Ali’s rule in the Levant, the condition of the Jews forms, perhaps, an exception [to the general improvement of non-Muslims] and cannot be said to have improved comparatively with that of the other sects.
The above quotes and authorities sufficiently demonstrate that in general the Jews were at the bottom of the barrel in Arab-Muslim society. It would logically follow that Jews were also at the bottom of the barrel in Jerusalem under Muslim rule. Nevertheless, this should and can be demonstrated by sources.
Jews inferior to Christians
Towards the end of Mamluk rule –which lasted from the Mongol withdrawal in 1260 to the Ottoman conquest in 1517-- a monk named Francesco Suriano lived in the Franciscan monastery in Jerusalem for some twenty-five years on and off. For six years he was Custos Terrae Sanctae or Guardian of the Holy Land for his order. That is, he was the highest ranking Western Christian official in the Land of Israel, charged by the pope with overseeing Roman Catholic interests in the Christian holy places and Church affairs in the country, and with helping Catholic pilgrims. He did not like Muslims but he did appreciate how they treated Jews. He described how they treated Jews in Jerusalem as follows:
“I wish you to know how these dogs of Jews are trampled upon, beaten and ill-treated, as they deserve, by every infidel nation, and this is the just decree of God. They live in this country in such subjection that words cannot describe it. . . there in Jerusalem, where they committed the sin for which they are dispersed throughout the world [i.e., the Crucifixion], they are by God more punished and afflicted than in any other part of the world. And over a long time I have witnessed that . . . No infidel [= Muslim] would touch with his hand a Jew lest he be contaminated but when they wish to beat them, they take off their shoes with which they strike them on the mustaches; the greatest wrong and insult to a man is to call him a Jew. And it is a right notable thing that the Moslems do not accept a Jew into their creed unless he first become a Christian. . . And if they were not subsidised by the Jews of Christendom, the Jews who live in Judea would die like dogs of hunger."
The Ottoman Empire seems to have improved the Jews’ status in Jerusalem, although this was done against the resistance of local Muslims. Nevertheless, “The Jewish community… paid the jizya at rates somewhat higher than the [Greek] Orthodox.”
About 300 years after Suriano, Chateaubriand, the great French writer, found the Jews still on the bottom of the social barrel. He visited Jerusalem in 1806, and later wrote:
Special target of all contempt [i.e., of both Muslims and Christians], they lower their heads without complaint; they suffer all insults without demanding justice; they let themselves be crushed by blows... Penetrate the dwellings of these people, you will find them in frightful poverty...
Nothing can prevent them from turning their gaze towards Zion. When one sees the Jews dispersed throughout the world,... one is probably surprised, but, to be struck by supernatural astonishment, it is necessary to find them in Jerusalem.. . to see these legitimate owners of Judea, slaves and strangers in their own land. One must see them under all oppressions, awaiting a king who is to redeem them.
Yet, not all Christians living in Jerusalem were eager to hate Jews. Neophytos was a Greek Orthodox monk belonging to the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher, which governed Orthodox church affairs in Jerusalem. A Cypriot native who lived in Jerusalem for many years, he showed a certain sympathy or pity for the Jews, not excessive to be sure. Neophytos had lived through persecution and threats against his own community during the Greek revolt against the empire, when the Greek Orthodox in Jerusalem paid large sums –including golden religious objects -- to the local Muslim-Arab notables in order not to suffer massacre in revenge for the Greek rebellion of the 1820s. Describing Muhammad Ali’s relative magnanimity towards the dhimmi communities after he had crushed an Ottoman-backed Muslim revolt against him in Israel (1834), Neophytos remarks that this magnanimity extended even to Jews. Under Ottoman rule, he points out, they dare not even ask permission to repair their synagogues:
"As we are on the question of repairs, we must say something about the Jewish Synagogue. One year ago only, seeing the liberal dispositions of Mehemet Ali Pasha [Muhammad Ali] and Ibrahim Pasha [his son, general, and deputy], they dared to speak about their Synagogue. They asked that their House of Prayer, being in a ruinous condition and in danger of falling in, might be repaired. So, those who did not even dare to change a tile on the roof of the Synagogue at one time, now received a permit and a decree to build.”
Neophytos’ words: “those who did not even dare,” imply the inferiority of the Jews even to the Christians. This shows the depth of Jewish degradation in the Jewish holy city of Jerusalem.
The next witness about the Jews’ lowly status in the city is none other than Karl Marx, a surprise witness to be sure. In his report in the New York Daily Tribune (15 April 1854) on the origins of the Crimean War, Marx describes conditions in Jerusalem, where religious rivalries focused on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher served the Powers as pretexts for the war:
“The Mussulmans, forming about a fourth part of the whole, and consisting of Turks, Arabs, and Moors, are, of course, the masters in every respect, as they are in no way affected by the weakness of their Government at Constantinople. . .
"Nothing equals the misery and the suffering of the Jews at Jerusalem, inhabiting the most filthy quarter of the town, called hareth-el-yahoud, in the quarter of dirt, between the Zion and the Moriah, where their synagogues are situated -- the constant objects of Mussulman oppression and intolerance, insulted by the Greeks, persecuted by the Latins . . . " [emph. added]
Note that Jews were humiliated by the Christians in the city, as well as by Muslims. To be sure, Marx was never in Jerusalem. His report of the data above is almost wholly quoted or paraphrased from a book by the French diplomat and historian, Cesar Famin. (..)
We have shown above 1) the state of oppression, humiliation, and economic exploitation, dhimmitude, of Jews and Christians in traditional Arab-Muslim society, 2) the Jews’ worse status under Arab-Islam than elsewhere (according to Maimonides), and 3) the Jews’ inferior status even to Christian dhimmis in Arab-Muslim society in general and in Jerusalem in particular.
This history is important because history does not go away. When there is a void in general knowledge of history in a situation of national conflict, one’s enemies may fill the void with false history, inventing what suits them and their goals and interests. Hence, forgetting history is dangerous.
Jews 'victimising' innocent Arabs?
In this vein, a line stands out here from the anti-Israel tract of Professors Walt and Mearsheimer, quoted approvingly by a leading British journalist, Max Hastings:
…while there is no question that the Jews were victims in Europe, they were often the victimisers, not the victims, in the Middle East, and their main victims were and continue to be the Palestinians.
These authors moralize. They develop the themes of guilt and innocence. Yet it’s hard to be sure which historical period Walt and Mearsheimer are referring to. Is it all of history or the present or some past time? The indefinite, the insinuation, and the evocative rather than the specific or explicit, are features of their prose. In another passage, however, they indicate that the Palestinian Arabs were innocent when Israel became a state.
A third moral justification [for Israel] is the history of Jewish suffering in the Christian West, especially … the Holocaust… Jews suffered greatly from the despicable legacy of Anti-Semitism and… Israel’s creation was an appropriate response to a long record of crimes… But… the creation of Israel involved additional crimes against a largely innocent third party: the Palestinians.
Walt and Mearsheimer disarmingly admit that “the Christian West” made Jews suffer. But they implicitly exculpate the Arab-Muslim East generally –and Palestinian Arabs explicitly— of harming Jews throughout history, perhaps insinuating that Jews were not even present in that part of the world till the 20th century. Yet we have shown above that traditional Arab-Muslim society oppressed, exploited, and humiliated Jews, in Israel as elsewhere. Therefore, are the authors justified in calling Palestinian Arabs “largely innocent” towards Jews after they entered the modern world in the mid-19th century?
From this time, the late Ottoman period saw improvement in the status of the dhimmis, largely thanks to intervention by European powers. This was so in Jerusalem more so than many places in the Empire. Nevertheless, World War I brought real fears that Jews in Israel might suffer the fate of the Armenians. In this context, the Balfour Declaration and international approval for its principles brought hope. However, Britain –that had protected Jews in the country in the late Ottoman period—betrayed its Mandate to foster the Jewish National Home, sometimes encouraging Arab pogroms on Jews. This started in 1920 in Jerusalem. It was followed by a series of Arab pogroms in 1921, 1929, 1936-39. The massacre and “ethnic cleansing” of the ancient Hebron community (68 Jews killed, hundreds expelled in August 1929) are remembered with special bitterness by Jews in Israel and abroad. These pogroms took place years before there was a state of Israel.
Likewise, before Israeli independence, Palestinian Arab representatives demanded in 1939 that the British end Jewish immigration into the country. This was on the very eve of the Holocaust when few countries were willing to allow more than token Jewish refugee immigration. The British fundamentally complied with this demand in the 1939 Palestine White Paper, thereby closing off even the internationally designated Jewish National Home to more than a token few Jewish immigrants. Subsequently, Arab nationalists, most notably Haj Amin el-Husseini, the chief Palestinian Arab leader, collaborated in the Holocaust more directly. Husseini was effective in preventing release of thousands of Jewish children and other Jews from the Nazi-fascist domain, having Jews sent instead to Poland, where, in his words, they would be “under active supervision,” his euphemism for the death camps.
It is obvious that when the UN General Assembly recommended a “two-state solution,” that is, partition (29 November 1947), the Palestinian Arabs were hardly innocent in regard to the Jews. Nor were they innocent afterwards. Arabs under Husseini’s leadership attacked and killed Jews throughout the country in response to the UN recommendation.
While much has been heard since 1948 about Arab refugees, little has been heard about Jewish refugees in that war. The first refugees in the war who could not return to their homes after it were Jews who fled the Shim`on haTsadiq quarter (in what is now “East Jerusalem”) near the end of December 1947. Indeed thousands of Jews throughout the country could not return home after the war. Moreover, Jordan and Egypt forbid Jews to live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. To be sure, Arab refugees eventually outnumbered these Jewish refugees. But Jewish refugees from Arab lands considerably outnumbered Arab refugees from Israel. From nearly a million in 1948, hardly more than a few thousand Jews remain in Arab states today. Arab League states expelled their Jewish populations according to a plan drawn up before the UN partition recommendation. So much for Arab or Palestinian Arab innocence before or after 1948.
Skipping over Arab provocations, wars, and terrorist attacks from the 1950s through the 1980s, we come to what many saw as a new beginning in relations, the 1993 Oslo Accords. Contrary to many expectations, signature of the accords was followed by increased terrorism, suicide bombings, drive-by shootings, etc. (...)
Nevertheless, many today –like Walt, Mearsheimer, and Max Hastings too-- wish to claim Arab and Palestinian Arab innocence. Now, the claim of Arab innocence was prominent in the 1940s and 1950s, although then the Palestinian Arabs were not called simply “Palestinians” as today, as if they were a people separate from other Arabs. In those days, the argument explicitly claimed that Arab-Muslim treatment of Jews was regularly benign, thus making Israel’s alleged misdeeds in 1948 all the more repugnant. The argument was first used long ago. It was meant to urge particular policies towards Israel and the Arabs. It has always been instrumental, not factual, scientific, or historical. It depends on general public ignorance of the real history, in particular ignorance among Jews and Zionists.
The evidence presented above shows that throughout history, this claim has not only been false but is the very opposite of the truth. This false notion of history, of the relations of Jews and Arabs in Israel over the centuries, is widely held in academia, State Department circles, and the media. The way to dispel the falsehoods is knowledge of history, of the institution of the dhimma, of Jewish history, Arab and Muslim history, particularly the history of Jews in the Land of Israel, in all periods from ancient times through the Middle Ages to early modern times and recent times, up to the latest Qassam rocket that landed on the town of Sderot. Ignorance of history can be considered an obstacle to Israel-Arab peace.
This article is based on a version published in Midstream magazine (New York, September/October 2008).