When Israeli planes smashed Egyptian airfields in the opening hours of the Six-Day War, announcers on Radio Cairo took to the airwaves, calling on Arabs in neighbouring countries to attack any Jews they could find. In the Libyan capital of Tripoli, then home to about 5,000 Jews, rioters responded with an orgy of murder, arson and looting that lasted three days. Even after the survivors had fled to Israel and the West, leaving Libya effectively judenrein, the anti-Semitic bloodlust remained unquenched. It was “the unavoidable duty of the city councils,” opined one Libyan newspaper, “to remove [Jewish] cemeteries immediately, and throw the bodies of the dead, which even in their eternal rest soil our country, into the depths of the sea … Only then can the hatred of the Libyan people toward the Jews be satiated.”
Shocking words. Yet they do not come as a shock when one comes upon them in Martin Gilbert’s newly published history of Jews in Muslim lands, recently excerpted on these pages. By that point in the chronology, I had become so numbed by the author’s relentless catalogue of pogroms, executions, expulsions, forced conversions and the generalized terrorizing of Jews that the atrocities had lost their power to appall. It is not that Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill and author of books too numerous to count on Jewish and Israeli themes, is an unimaginative storyteller; this simply is the grim, unchanging nature of the epic hatred he has taken as his subject.
The Koran contains several very specific curses against Jews. And as modern terrorists often like to remind their YouTube audiences, Muhammad himself was a prolific Jew-killer. This passage from In Ishmael’s House, for instance, describes events that took place after the Prophet’s soldiers captured members of the Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe in the year 627: “[All] 700 Jewish men were taken to the market at Medina. Trenches were dug in the market square and the men, tied together in groups, were beheaded. Their headless bodies were then buried in the trenches while Mohammed watched … All Jewish males who had not reached puberty, and all the remaining women and girls, were sold into slavery.” This mass slaughter came to be described in Muslim religious literature as the product of divine revelation. To this day, it is cited as clear proof that Allah permits the most hideous forms of punishment to be meted out against nonbelievers.
In the decades following Mohammed’s death, the rapid expansion of Islam across the Levant, North Africa, Iran, Central Asia and parts of Europe swallowed up a great multitude of ancient Jewish communities. In some cases, Jews initially welcomed, and even joined, Muslim armies, expecting deliverance from the bigotry and cruelty they suffered under Christian and other pre-Islamic regimes. And in many Muslim lands, Jewish religious and commercial life was permitted to continue.
But even in the best of circumstances, Jews were not treated as anything near equals. The eighth Umayyad caliph, Omar Abd-al-Aziz, commonly is credited with enumerating the rights of Jews and Christians — “People of the book” — under his codified rules for dhimmi communities. Yet his rules (whose spirit survives in many modern Islamic societies to this day) also declared that dhimmis could not ride horses, only donkeys; had to wear special clothing and shoes; could not serve as a witness in a case involving a Muslim; could enter bathhouses only when wearing a special sign around their neck; could not inherit property from a Muslim, or even bequeath their own property to their children.
The prospect of a Muslim being in any way subservient to a Jew was seen as especially obscene. In this regard, Gilbert describes a telling 19th-century episode from the Moroccan town of Entifa, where a 65-year-old Jewish man took in an impoverished Muslim woman as a servant during a period of extreme famine. When the town’s governor caught wind of the arrangement, he thundered, “Can a Jew have a Moorish woman serve him? He deserved to be burnt!” The man was nailed to the ground and beaten to death.
Gilbert avoids broad generalizations. As his narrative moves forward from century to century, he shows snapshots from different Muslim lands — emphasizing scattered instances, such as in Cordoba and, later, the Ottoman Empire, where truly humane and enlightened Muslim leaders took pains to protect Jewish subjects. In the courts of such leaders, Jews often rose to positions of wealth and power — typically as doctors, linguists and commercial liaisons. Yet these successes didn’t help Jews win acceptance but rather the opposite: Muslims saw Jews’ good fortune as an insult to the revealed order of the universe. In this climate of poisonous jealousy, it took only a single isolated violent spark for an entire Jewish community to be engulfed in an inferno of murder, rape and looting. In 1066, for instance, the murder by a single Jewish vizier in Muslim Spain was followed by pogroms that killed 5,000 Jews.
Centuries later, the appointment of a Jewish vizier by the Mongol emperor Arghun Khan led to similar massacres of Jews in Persia and Babylonia.
It goes without saying that Muslim civilization has no monopoly on violent and systematic anti-Semitism: Spasms of murderous Jew-hatred were common all across Christendom during the 14 centuries of Islam’s existence. But in recent generations, Western societies at least have tried to come to terms with their history in a morally serious way. Gilbert’s book makes clear that this self-critical approach to history remains foreign to Muslim societies, especially where Jews are concerned. While Israelis have wrung their hands for three generations over the relatively minor (by historical standards) bloodshed incurred in their nation’s creation and the wars that have unfolded since, no equivalent soul-searching has accompanied the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Muslim lands in the middle of the 20th century or the persecution and pillaging of countless Jewish communities throughout the entire history of the Islamic faith.
To this day, in fact, bloody episodes from early Muslim history involving the killings of Jews are often cited casually in Arab propaganda against Israel. No effort is made to interpret these stories in any sort of allegorical sense; instead, they are celebrated at face value as victories that validate the foundational Muslim narrative of conquest and submission.
The historical pattern Gilbert describes should inform the current debate over Muslim enmity toward Israel, and the exterminationist rhetoric and deeds that flow out of it. In the dream world of foreign-policy pop-punditry, it often is taken for granted that Jews and Muslims will get along like North and South Dakotans once Israel agrees to become an even smaller country than it already is. Yet this argument — reflecting Western leaders’ Asperger’s-like fixation on international law and lines drawn on maps — finds absolutely no support in the region’s history. In the unending account of violence Gilbert has compiled, it is hard to find a single episode that centres mainly on real estate: The issue was always the fact of Judaism itself rubbing up against Muslims‚ pride and conceits.
The creation of the Zionist movement radically changed the Western understanding of the Muslim-Jewish conflict — sweeping up generations of campus intellectuals who have projected upon it all their own obsessions with colonialism and class struggle. But in the Muslim world, Gilbert’s narrative shows us, Israel’s creation actually didn’t change the Muslim-Jewish dynamic as much as is commonly imagined. (...)
Aside from its value as a purely historical exposition, In Ishmael’s House is a splash of cold water for all those supporters of Israel who imagine that the world can be brought around to their side if it can just be made to appreciate how successful and advanced the Jewish state has become. As the author shows us, the continued vibrancy and economic success of Jewish civilization — so close to Islam’s very heartland — is precisely what has fed Muslim rage and jealousy for 14 centuries. The obscure, hardscrabble Jewish holy cities of Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed and Tiberias attracted little attention from Muslims when they were poor. It was only once the desert started to bloom during the Zionist period that Muslims became obsessed with a holy city that doesn’t warrant even a single explicit mention in the Koran and that Muhammad seems never to have visited. (...)
In past eras, spiteful Muslim leaders and mobs gave expression to their ugliest sentiments by unleashing violence against defenceless Jewish communities. Until Iran gets the bomb, the closest they can come to replicating this in our own era is by way of occasional bouts of suicide terrorism and missile volleys — which is why those acts are encouraged and fetishized in such a lurid manner and why so few Middle Eastern Muslims regard them as a disgraceful or even regrettable part of their culture. However self-destructive such acts may seem to our eyes, they faithfully reflect a hateful pathology rooted in 14 centuries of Muslim history.
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