How Did Jews Fare in Arab Lands?

    February 2012          
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Book Review: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands

By Jay Levinson

In Ishmael's House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands
By Martin Gilbert
New York and London: Yale University Press (2010)
ISBN 978-0-300-16715-3

What went wrong? It is common belief that Jews under Moslem rule experienced virtual "honeymoon" conditions until enmity and violence broke out only after the publication of the Balfour Declaration. The epitome of cooperation was the Middle Ages, a golden age of literature and culture. Why did sweet wine turn into sour vinegar? How did friendly relations deteriorate into open warfare? Sir Martin Gilbert, a renowned British historian of impeccable repute, tries to answer these questions in a thoroughly researched study.

Gilbert's research clearly belies commonly held misconceptions. More than once he stresses that historically Jews fared much better under Moslem rule than in Christendom, but he essentially contradicts the existence of a medieval golden age. There certainly were Jews who attained high achievements, but the community as a whole were kept in dhimmi status, a polite way of saying tolerated subjects restricted in residence and employment, and required to pay special taxes. Throughout the centuries there certainly were outbreaks of anti-Jewish rioting, however by-and-large life in the Moslem world offered more security and safety than the Christian-inspired Inquisition and waves of pogroms.

As modern ideas began to take hold in the 19th century, even the decadent Ottoman Empire recognized the new value system, Jews were granted increasing equality. A new nationalism spread as the world entered the 20th century, and Jews in Moslem countries such as Iraq and Egypt rose to high positions in business and government. The 1910s and 1920s were the heyday of success and prosperity. Then, the bubble burst. Tolerance degenerated into the invasion of five Arab armies determined to squash the newly declared State of Israel.

The author ascribes the decay of relations to three basic causes: (1) the rise of Zionism seen by many as a contradiction to Arab nationalism, (2) European political interests, and (3) Nazi agitation and propaganda.

The 1920s and 1930s were a period of national movements in the Arab world, culminating in the independence of the Trans-Jordan, Syria, and other countries, eventually including Morocco and Algeria. Yet, the direction of nationalism was unclear. Pan-Arabism worked against the concept of individual nation-states. Military and dictatorial governments were pitted against monarchial rule. There was unity at the governmental level on one point --- there was no room for a Jewish state in what was perceived to be the great Arab expanse (although there are some examples of Arab leaders who supported Zionist ambitions). Gilbert does give numerous cases of Moslem-Jewish interaction at the personal level; many friendships continued despite political strains.

Middle Eastern politics cannot be divorced from European interests. England and France were struggling to hold on to their crumbling empires and were reluctant to offer too much support to Jews at the expense of angering the Arabs. Russia's primary motivation was to spread communism.

Nazis viewed the Arabs as potential cohorts, particularly in light of the staunch support that Hitler personally received from the Mufti of Jerusalem. Even before the outbreak of war Nazi radio broadcasts and written propaganda were aimed at stirring up anti-Jewish sentiment along with agitating against the British and French. This helped gain support for the Germans as their army swept through North Africa with an evantual goal of wrestling Palestine from British control.

The results of the general situation were ugly. Jews were interned under Nazi rule in North Africa, and there were instances of anti-Jewish riots even without the presence of Germans. The May 1941 pogrom in Iraq was the ugly culmination of anti-Jewish legislation promulgated in the country that welcomed the Mufti of Jerusalem as a political refugee from the British.

Fervor swept the Arab world as their armies drove into Israel in what was promised to be a quick rout of the Jews. In the eyes of many, Judaism and Zionism had become synonymous, and as Zionists became the enemy, so did the Jew become the foe. It was time to leave. The centuries of productive lives for Jews in the Moslem world were coming to a bitter end. As the years went by, life became worse for those Jews who would not or could not leave. Gilbert gives all too many examples of Jews in places like Egypt, Syria and Iraq who were jailed without cause. Their property was often confiscated, and many were lucky if they were released alive from prison.

Gilbert is steadfast in his conclusion that Jews from "Ishmael's House" are no less refugees than Arabs who perpetuate their status through such mechanisms as UNWRA. He adds one point which all too many Arabs chose to ignore --- the Arab countries have lost all of the contributions that Jewish exiles have made to literature, science, and numerous other fields.

After reading this book one wonders what the antidote to discrimination and hatred is. Have peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt obliterated popular negative feelings (particularly in Egypt where even the most basic human rights tenets were not afforded to Jews in the 1960s and 1970s)? If there is ever to be peace with the Palestinians, how will swords be beaten into plow-shares and Jews accepted as equals? This book is an excellent source for thought.


from the Febuary 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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