Tuesday, December 20, 2011

How to reconcile conflicting narratives about Jews?

Are there two conflicting narratives when it comes to discussing Jews in Arab countries? Did they enjoy tolerance and coexistence, or were they discriminated against and abused? Elder of Ziyon has turned up a fascinating passage from a book dating back to 1871, in which both narratives are present. As colonial rule became entrenched in the late 19th century, the position of the Jew became less arbitrary and more secure: (with thanks: Emet)

The Jews have eight synagogues in their quarter in Cairo; and not only enjoy religious toleration, but are under a less oppressive government in Egypt than in any other country of the Turkish empire. In Cairo, they pay for the exemption of their quarter from the visits of the Mohtesib; and they did the same also with respect to the "Walee, as long as his office existed. Being consequently privileged to sell articles of provision at higher prices than the other inhabitants of the metropolis, they can afford to purchase such things at higher rates, and therefore stock their shops with provisions, and especially fruits, of better qualities than are to be found in other parts of the town. Like the Copts, and for a like reason, the Jews pay tribute, and are exempted from military service.

Sounds like things were pretty good. But then the authors dig a little deeper:

They are held in the utmost contempt and abhorrence by the Muslims in general, and are said to bear a more inveterate hatred than any other people to the Muslims and the Muslim religion. ...It is a common saying among the Muslims in this country, "Such a one hates me with the hate of the Jews." We cannot wonder, then, that the Jews are detested by the Muslims far more than are the Christians.

Not long ago, they used often to be jostled in the streets of Cairo, and sometimes beaten merely for passing on the right hand of a Muslim. At present, they are less oppressed; but still they scarcely ever dare to utter a word of abuse when reviled or beaten unjustly by the meanest Arab or Turk; for many a Jew has been put to death upon a false and malicious accusation of uttering disrespectful words against the Kur-an or the Prophet. It is common to hear an Arab abuse his jaded ass, and, after applying to him various opprobrious epithets, end by calling the beast a Jew.

A Jew has often been sacrificed to save a Muslim, as happened in the following case.—-A Turkish soldier, having occasion to change some money, received from the seyrefee (or money-changer), who was a Muslim, some Turkish coins called 'adleeyehs, reckoned at sixteen piasters each. These he offered to a shopkeeper, in payment for some goods; but the latter refused to allow him more than fifteen piasters to the 'adleeyeh, telling him that the Basha had given orders, many days before, that this coin should no longer pass for sixteen. The soldier took back the 'adleeyehs to the seyrefee, and demanded an additional piaster to each; which was refused: he therefore complained to the Basha himself, who, enraged that his orders had been disregarded, sent for the seyrefee. This man confessed that he had been guilty of an offence, but endeavoured to palliate it by asserting that almost every money-changer in the city had done the same, and that he received 'adleeyehs at the same rate. The Basha, however, disbelieving him, or thinking it necessary to make a public example, gave a signal with his hand, intimating that the delinquent should be beheaded. The interpreter of the court, moved with compassion for the unfortunate man, begged the Basha to spare his life. "This man," said he, "has done no more than all the money-changers of the city: I, myself, no longer ago than yesterday, received 'adleeyehs at the same rate." "From whom?" exclaimed the Basha. "From a Jew," answered the interpreter, "with whom I have transacted business for many years." The Jew was brought, and sentenced to be hanged; while the Muslim was pardoned. The interpreter, in the greatest distress of mind, pleaded earnestly for the life of the poor Jew; but the Basha was inexorable: it was necessary that an example should be made, and it was deemed better to take the life of a Jew than that of a more guilty Muslim.

Read post in full


Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

Again we have to remember what the Rambam said, that the Arabs-Muslims were the worst persecutors and oppressors of Jews [Maimonides, Iggeret Teyman, Letter (or Epistle) to Yemen].

Karsten Niebuhr, the Danish explorer in the service of the Danish king, reported on the oppression and humiliation of Jews in Egypt in the late 18th century, about 35 years before Napoleon's invasion.

Can we finally put this big lie to rest about benevolent Arab-Muslim treatment of Jews? Probably not because many powerful political interests need it. See link:


bataween said...

Eliyahu, please check the link: it says 'not found'

Sylvia said...

"Can we finally put this big lie to rest about benevolent Arab-Muslim treatment of Jews?"

The irony is that the same people/institutions who have built that big lie when it was their interest- the Israeli government and academics of that time, the very ones who ejected us from history and emprisoned all of us in the straightjacket of "Mizrahism" - are now being asked to help in correcting their version of history.

I am as Zionist as they come, but fact is fact.

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

Bataween, could you please try the link again as well as the link below it. If those don't work [they work for me], go into my site and search for "niebuhr".



Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

Sylvia, the big lie goes far beyond Israeli politicians and academics [and the foreign ministry in the good old or bad old days], this big lie has been used as a justification for anti-Israel policies in the USA and UK for many years.

Indeed, it was used back in the 1950s and 1960s as a reproach against American Jews who supported Israel. By saying that the Arabs had always been good and kind and benevolent towards the Jews in Arab lands, they were telling American Jewish supporters of Israel that they were ungrateful for all that good treatment and that they should let the State Dept and the oil companies [esp. ARAMCO] do what they wanted with Israel and the Arab states. Walt-Mearsheimer in their recent anti-Israel tract made the same argument among many other falsehoods.

Benjamin H. said...

How much scholarship on Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews has been carried out -by- the Mizrahi and Sephardi, out of curiosity? I read a piece on the respective groups 'disapprove'/show contempt for the mainly Ashkenazim interpretation of their history (I believe I found the article here). I know Bat Ye'or did research on it, but it'd be interesting to see more of their reactions.

Anonymous said...

by using your mother's image instead of yours, you show your lack of faith in this modern world of madness.

You say Dassin is one of your favourite film directors, do you know he is also the father of Joe Dassin a singer we all loved and who is now buried in the Hollywood Jewish cemetary
syzt vidal

Sylvia said...


Israeli historiography's poor record in regard to the histories of Jews from Arabo-Muslim countries has been debated times and again. So we know the who the why and the how and the names.

In a nutshell: The two first generations of historians in particular the so-called "Jerusalem school", the most influential among them perhaps being Shmuel Ettinger, have set the path. Haim Hillel Ben Sasson was part of it but he had little influence.
One generation worked in the pre-Israel era the other immediately after.

After Shmuel Ettinger was criticized for the absence of information on the subject, an impressive "History of the Jews in Muslim lands" in three volumes appeared in which Ettinger's philosophy played a great role.

The book depicted the relations between Jews and Muslims as being quasi idyllic and this is what has served as supporting evidence to Arab claims of good treatment of the Jews.

As to government input in History books, there is plenty to say about it. One major decision affecting us to this day was taken at a KNESSET debate, where it was decided to call the histories and cultures of Sephardi Jews not history and culture but mere "ORIENTAL heritage", just to give you one example of government interference.

Sylvia said...

Indeed that has been a claim but there was plenty of information if one wanted to look for it.

In fact they had some of the information right under their nose: Andre Chouraqui published his "Condition juridique de l'israelite marocain" (the Legal status of the Moroccan Jew" in 1950, before Bat Yeor expanded the topic to include all Jews under Muslim rule.

Those historians have been criticized but in "correcting" their mistake they only added insult to injury.

In a 1973 book, Bernard Lewis already blew the wistle on "The Pro-Islamic" Jewish intellectuals from the 19th century - today we'd call them Orientalists.

There is no doubt that many of the first historians of the state came from that school of thought.

It is unfortunate that most if not all of the criticism came from the ranks of the "post-Zionists".