Thursday, August 19, 2010

Martin Gilbert's new book hits the bookshelves

Studying the book in Tunisia, 1958

At long last, Sir Martin Gilbert's new book In Ishmael's House: A history of Jews in Muslim lands puts the history of Jews in Arab countries, Iran and Turkey, within reach of the ordinary man and woman in the street. But in this review, The Economist is underwhelmed, accusing the celebrated historian of not tackling the question of Muslim anti-semitism head-on. The reviewer is more impressed by Gilbert Achcar's new work ( a sentiment not shared by this blog, here and here).

In Ishmael’s House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands. By Martin Gilbert. Yale University Press; 320 pages; £25 and $35. Buy from,

The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives. By Gilbert Achcar. Metropolitan Books; 400 pages; $30. Saqi; £25. Buy from,

FROM 624 to 628AD, several Jewish clans in the Arabian peninsula joined forces with an Arab tribe, the Quraysh, to make war on a renegade Qurayshi named Muhammad who had had the chutzpah to claim he was a prophet of God. They lost. Piqued at the Jews for rejecting a creed that—with its dietary laws, ritual circumcision and daily prayers towards (at first) Jerusalem—was so closely modelled on their own, the Prophet Muhammad decreed that they, along with Christians, would henceforth be considered dhimmiyeen under Islam; “protected” as fellow monotheists, but subject to a heavy tax and various other indignities.

Dhimma status was later extended to other religions, then abolished by the Ottoman Turks in the 19th century. It is often still invoked by Islamophobes today as proof that Islam is inherently intolerant and, specifically, anti-Semitic. Martin Gilbert, a British Jew who was knighted in 1995, and Gilbert Achcar, a Lebanese-French Christian, have both written books in which this question looms large. It would be hard to find two more different treatments.

For Sir Martin the dhimma restrictions form the conceptual framework, such as it is, of “In Ishmael’s House”, his history of Jewish life under Muslim rule. He relates how, although they often lived in peace and wealth and sometimes reached the very top posts in Muslim administrations, as dhimmiyeen the Jews remained second-class citizens who never knew when prosperity might give way to pogroms.

Sir Martin is no Islamophobe, and his is a solid and balanced, if unexciting, chronicle of both ups and downs in Jewish fortunes. But it is nothing more. Although he gives a clear-eyed account of the conflict that prompted Muhammad to impose dhimma status on the Jews, he offers virtually no political or social context for the actions of any Muslim leader thereafter. This makes for a monotonous and ahistorical narrative: under more tolerant caliphs the Jews prospered, yet still suffered isolated attacks; under crueller ones they were oppressed, yet individual Muslims still performed acts of kindness, and so on for 12 centuries. Moreover, Christians and other dhimmiyeen are absent from the tale, so there is no sense of whether Jews were being singled out.

Things improve a little in the 20th century, the second half of the book. Here Sir Martin, best known as Winston Churchill’s official biographer, is on home turf, and he writes about the obvious effects of world wars, colonialism and the rise of Israel on the decline of Jewish-Muslim relations. There are some gripping moments in the eyewitness accounts of anti-Jewish riots in Cairo or Baghdad, but here again he remains largely silent on Muslim thinking and perceptions.

It is not clear whether the author was trying to avoid controversy or is just uninterested in anything but what Jews experienced. Either way, the extraordinary result is that not once does this book about Jews under Islam tackle the question of Muslim anti-Semitism head-on. (The phrase does not even appear in the index.)

By contrast, Mr Achcar’s “The Arabs and the Holocaust” looks at it in considerable detail.

Read article in full


Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

minimizing the role and weight of haj amin el-husseini is one of Achcar's tricks in his apologetics for Arab nationalism. Propagandists write books all the time. Husseini was merely the top leader of the palestinian Arabs between the world wars.

if I had world enough and time, as the poet said, I would go into this more thoroughly. But it is too hot in Jerusalem and I don't have the time.

Anonymous said...

OT (I've printed the piece and not yet read it) but I think you will like that. The BBC has a piece on Mossad in which one agent describes the rescue of the Ethiopean Jews.

In case you listen to it and catch the name of the Israeli thriller writer who is also interviewed in the piece I'd love to know. (Nothing like a good page turner to make me imbibe stuff;-)

The Mossad or 'Institute of Special Tasks', is one of the most feared and fabled security services in the world.

bataween said...

Dear Silke
Ah yes, I listened to that programme, thanks - and remember thinking it wasn't bad considering this is the BBC.
Gad Shimron wrote a book, 'Mossad Exodus' - could he be the writer you are thinking of?

Anonymous said...

Gad Shimron was the other guy and thanks for the name, a really interesting sounding list of books he has. The thriller writer was again somebody else, never mind, but what a shame the BBC doesn't have all their names on its web-site.

"it wasn't bad" - for me it was straight back to the good ol' times when Israelis had all that romantic dare devil feel for us
Can you imagine what a revelation Moshe Dayan was for a German girl in 1967? An obviously not broken but very strutting guy with an eye patch, short sleeves and well muscled arms - and he was a general ...
You youngsters don't know what you have missed
- all that excitement of change and a better world just around the corner with evil now finally so well known, this time surely it would work and nothing of that old bad stuff would ever happen again - can you imagine that in 1967 when it was still illegal we girls decided it was OK that a gay colleague brought his partner to a party and when the straight guys started to protest we told them to leave it or leave the party - they relented and it became a really nice evening, the straight probably talking for the first time to the gay ones as if they were decent human beings - yes the whole bleeding heart thing once started as something very sweet and beneficial.

Sorry for going on like that but listening to that Mossad-piece today and all the memories it brought got me all nostalgic.


Anonymous said...

just making sure you don't miss this


Anonymous said...

The Last of the Arab News


Anonymous said...

The last of the "Arab Jews" in Yemen:

Anonymous said...

Iran's Jews doing just fine:

Anonymous said...

whoever wrote the review in the Economist is a bit of a jokester
"is just uninterested in anything but what Jews experienced"
Gilbert is writing a book about Jews and gets blamed for not being interested enough in Christians or Muslims? Well yes, how dare he ;-)

I dimly remember that there is a book on the history of the button, I sincerely hope its author will have given due weight to the zipper in the same volume. ;-(