Jews at the Wailing Wall, Jerusalem, 31st December 1889 (The Bridgeman Art Library)
Our leading historian of the Holocaust, Martin Gilbert, has a particular technique. Devoid of obvious statements of opinion, or even literary style, his method, as he himself describes it, is that of a "tireless gathering of facts". This is most obviously designed to counter the dedicated and persistent Holocaust deniers, who would seize on any rhetorical flourish or subjective assessment by a historian known to be a practising Jew and committed Zionist.(...)
There is, of course, nothing in the history of the Muslims’ oppression of the Jews approaching the industrial programme of mass extermination that took place in 20th-century Europe; and for parts of the period covered by Gilbert, the Ottoman empire offered Jews a safety and security that many Christian countries did not.
Thus he accepts the verdict of Bernard Lewis, in Semites and Anti-Semites, that the experience of Jews living under Islamic rulers was "never as bad as in Christendom at its worst, nor ever as good as in Christendom at its best…there is nothing in Islamic history to parallel the Spanish expulsion and Inquisition, the Russian pogroms, or the Nazi Holocaust".
The minimal obligatory anti-Zionist line in the Middle East — and here, too, as a matter of fact — takes this a stage further, asserting that the UN-backed creation of the state of Israel in 1948 perversely punished the Palestinian Arabs for the anti-semitic sins of Europeans. Gilbert’s latest book is, in essence, a corrective to that view, which now amounts almost to conventional wisdom.
Gilbert starts from the fundamental historical point that the territory once known as Judah was inhabited and in parts ruled by Jews for many centuries before there were any people who could be described as Muslims: Jerusalem had been the Jewish capital for more than 600 years before it was seized by the Babylonians, and the much later triumphant military campaigns of the prophet Muhammad came a millennium after that. As Gilbert points out, deadpan: "Jerusalem, not mentioned in the Koran, is mentioned 654 times in the Hebrew Bible" — a point worth bearing in mind as you read newspaper accounts of the modern Israeli government’s allegedly unreasonable demand to retain control over Jerusalem in any final settlement with the Palestinians.
Nobody can doubt that the indignities heaped on the Palestinian Arabs over the past 60 years have been bitter; but the tale of Gilbert’s book is that of the humiliations heaped on Jews by Muslim rulers over 1,400 years, largely through the subjugation known as "dhimmitude". Under Sharia law, non-Muslims are referred to as "dhimmis", regarded as a lower category of people, and therefore subject to institutionalised discrimination. In many cases the rigorous codes set up to enforce this were more humiliating even than the segregationist rules imposed on black South Africans by the apartheid system.
Gilbert characteristically does not lack for documentation; here, for example, are some of the 22 “dhimmi” regulations imposed specifically on Jews in the Persian city of Hamadan at the end of the 19th century: "Jews…are forbidden to wear matching shoes... If a Muslim insults a Jew, the latter must drop his head and remain silent... The Jew cannot put on his coat; he must be satisfied to carry it rolled under his arm... It is forbidden for Jewish doctors to ride on horseback... Jews must not consume good fruit."
One can see here how much creative effort and imagination were devoted to the pastime of gratuitous humiliation of the Jewish population — one echoed in the Iran of the present day in the law stipulating that if one member of a Jewish family converts to Islam, he can inherit the entire family’s property.
The Zionism of the modern era was the natural political consequence of centuries of such humiliations: not just a biblically sanctioned campaign for the Promised Land, but a realisation that two millenniums of meek acquiescence had never brought acceptance, or even security. That would require a nation that Jews could call their own — and an army to defend them.
Naturally, it seemed incredible to the five Arab armies that launched an attack on the day-old Israeli state in May 1948 that a people they had been taught to regard as the lowest of the low could defeat their combined forces. Azzam Pasha, the secretary of the Arab League, had declared, with macabre relish: "This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre."
When it turned out that the Jews were not going to be driven into the sea, but indeed were able to defeat the Arab military entirely on their own, the rage throughout the Muslim world was all but uncontrollable: the next few years witnessed savage vicarious reprisals against Jews across the region, most notably in Iraq, where a large Jewish community had existed ever since their original exodus from Jerusalem after the Romans’ destruction of the Second Temple in AD70 (in fact the Babylonian exodus dated back to 586 BC - ed).
In this sense, at least, the scale of the displacement of the Palestinians was partly the result of the Arab world’s own actions. In the four years between 1948 and 1951 a total of 687, 739 Jewish refugees reached Israel; yet as Gilbert points out, only about 100,000 of these were Holocaust survivors from Europe: more than half a million were those fleeing Arab and Muslim lands, giving up all their wealth and property not just to avoid the rage of the mob but also that of the militarily defeated host governments.
More fundamentally, if the Muslim world had accepted UN resolution 181, partitioning the British mandate of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, then the Middle East might have been at peace these past 60 years. Gilbert’s book explains exactly why such a happy ending was (and is) so improbable.