Friday, December 10, 2010

Gilbert does well with a complicated history

Martin Gilbert's book 'In Ishmael's House' is a good introduction to the history of Jews in Muslim lands in highly-readable 'good clean prose', though lacking the in-depth analysis to give a nuanced picture, Howard Seltznick writes in JWeekly:

In September 2000, the Jewish Museum in New York opened an exhibit of Moroccan Jewish art. In the exhibit’s catalog, King Mohammed VI paid tribute to “one of the most remarkable experiences of tolerance of our time,” writing of the “reverence felt by Moroccan Jews all over the world for their homeland.”

The picture of Moroccan Jews may be a bright light compared to other Muslim countries. In Morocco, anti-Jewish feelings and attitudes were focused in the street rather than in the halls of government. However, as with all Muslim countries, the light flickered and dimmed over time and finally went out in the 1950s. Of the 265,000 Jews living in Morocco in 1948, only about 5,000 remain today.

Sir Martin Gilbert is best known as Winston Churchill’s official biographer, but he could be a candidate for the official historian of the Jews. “In Ishmael’s House” is a wide-ranging history of Jews in countries from Persia to Morocco. Gilbert’s main sources are previously published material, including his “Letters to Auntie Fori,” similar narratives such as Norman Stillman’s “The Jews of Arab Lands” and other writers’ first-hand accounts of life in such places as Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Kurdistan.

In Islamic countries, Jews were theoretically tolerated as a protected minority. The reality was often different.

From the anecdotal evidence, readers may conclude that Jewish life in Muslim countries was harsh. Other say that Jewish life in these countries was better than in Christian Europe. In fact, Jews’ experience in either place was about the same. Both had pogroms, ghettos and expulsions, and treated Jews as second-class citizens. Descriptions of Jewish life in Muslim countries after World War II as Zionist efforts peaked sound chillingly like Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Gilbert uses vignettes and stories of individual exploits, case studies, laws and regulations to paint a picture of Jewish life Muslim countries. However, there are no simple characterizations in this book.

Sometimes life was good; sometimes it was bad. It was definitely arbitrary and unpredictable, ranging from trust to suspicion, wealth to poverty, tolerance to persecution, assimilation to expulsion. There were persecutions, murders, appropriations, expulsions and humiliations. There were also righteous Muslims who protected Jews at great risk.

Consequently, a picture of daily life for such people is difficult to grasp. Between the ugly incidents, did people live in constant fear? It’s not possible to tell by the stories presented. Future historians writing about Jews in 20th- and 21st-century America may conclude that life was difficult for Jews because of synagogue fires, graffiti, ravings of fringe groups and even the World Trade Center bombings.

Gilbert’s writing is straightforward and accessible. It’s highly readable and has no jargon or verbosity, just good clean prose. “In Ishmael’s House” could easily be a high school or college textbook. English teachers would be thrilled with his paragraph structure: a topic sentence, supporting statements and conclusion. History teachers would be pleased at the extensive footnotes, maps, five-page glossary of Arabic and Hebrew words and 19-page bibliography.

Gilbert’s book lacks the in-depth analysis to give a nuanced picture of Jewish life in Muslim countries. However, the broad-brush approach works well as an introductory history.

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