I recently spoke on Islam and my new book at a local senior center. As
members trickled in, a white-haired man approached me and announced, “I
have never known an Arab or a Muslim who wasn’t anti-Semitic.”
I replied, “I’m not anti-Semitic and I have many Jewish friends.”
“Congratulations,” he said sardonically.
I sighed and smiled wryly.
“You know, ” I said, “when Arab Muslims conquered Jerusalem in 638,
they invited the Jews – who’d been banished by the former Christian
rulers – back to live and worship in the city. They left the Christians
free to live and visit the holy places, too.”
Seeing no response on his still face, I continued. “In the seventh
century, Muhammad urged his followers to fast on Yom Kippur, in
solidarity with the Jews. The Qur’an states that fasting is prescribed
for Muslims, just as it was prescribed for those (the Jews) before
After a pause, he said, “Thank you. I didn’t know that.” Turning, he shuffled to his seat.
I couldn’t spare the time then, but later I grieved that Islam is
perceived as anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism has no place is Islam, just as
Islamophobia has no place in Judaism. For their time, these two
religions sought to decrease violence and bigotry in the world. The
weight of history, if we can but remember it, is on the side of
Ali-Karamali then goes on to point to specific examples throughout history of muslim tolerance, especially towards Jews, often in stark contrast to the Christian realms. The point here is not to point to the forgotten glories of pluralism in the past, but to recognize that the admitted fact of modern anti-Semitism by muslims is a function of the modern age and not, as her interlocutor implied, something embedded within the fabric of Islam itself.
Self-styled experts on Islam will point to various pieces of evidence from the Qur’an or historical record, of course. The most often-invoked example is the famed verse from the Qur’an which allegedly refers to Jews as “apes and pigs” (5:60). However, a simple look at the surrounding verses, even in common translation, reveals that the Qur’an makes no such insult whatsoever. Much is also made of a single Jewish tribe, the Banu Qurayza, who the Prophet SAW is said to have slaughtered; in reality, the Qurayza betrayed Muhammad SAW in an wartime alliance and conspired with his enemies to have him killed. The Prophet SAW left their fate in the hands of an arbitrator, whom the Qurayza approved. That arbitrator decided the Qurayza men would be beheaded and the women and children spared. It was brutal by our modern standards – but considering the fate of Dresden or Hiroshima, perhaps not as brutal as it could have been.
The evidence of historical muslim tolerance and pluralism, especially in contrast to Christendom, is not a matter of debate. The historical record of Islamic tolerance towards the Jews is important to reiterate and emphasize, because it shows that a modern articulation of religious pluralism can be made within an Islamic context, and provides ammunition against those muslims who seek to use hatred and fear of Jews to their own evil ends. This is a battle you would expect Jews to support, as we mainstream muslims seek to reclaim the language of faith from an extremist minority.
Unfortunately, in that battle against muslim anti-Semitism, Jewish Islamophobia plays an obstructing role. A great example is the response to Ali-Karamali’s piece by my Beliefnet colleague, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, who accuses her of whitewashing Islamic history:
Even if one makes a solid case for the relative merits of Islam over
Christianity vis a vis the past treatment of Jews, which is entirely
appropriate, we can not ignore the second-class status imposed upon
Jews even under the crescent. Of course, as Ali-Karamali proudly points
out, Jews were honored as people of the book, but they were hardly
equal citizens. Jews were also relegated to the status of protected
minorities forced to pay a Jewish head tax.
good comparison may be to the status of Black Americans living under
Jim Crow laws in more tolerant communities. Her failure to point that
out turns her reflections on Muslim anti-Semitism into little more than
patting her own tradition on the back, and misses an important
opportunity for the kind of balanced exploration which is needed if she
wants to be heard by those she hopes to convince.
This deeply saddens me. For a learned man such as Rabbi Hirschfield to equate the flowering of Jewish civilization in the classical Islamic period with the barbaric Jim Crow laws of the 20th century, is to betray a shocking ignorance of Jewish and American histories alike. It seems that the rabbi has been reading too many polemics by Bat Ye’or instead of gripping historical memoirs like Memories of Eden, the story of the Jews of Baghdad (recently and expertly reviewed in the London Review of Books by Adam Shatz – highly recommended). Far from Rabbi Hirschfield’s grim invocation of the dreaded Dhimmitude, Shatz points out that that the Jewish community played an outsized and prosperous role in Iraqi society:
Recent polemics – and pro-Israeli websites – have made much of the
indignities of Jewish life under Ottoman rule, seeking to expose the
‘myth’ of Muslim tolerance. This tolerance, it’s argued, is a euphemism
for dependence on the goodwill of capricious, if not cruel Muslim
overlords. The memoirs of Iraqi Jews, however, tell a very different
story: Shamash, who was born in 1912 and spent the last twenty years of
her life recording her memories of ‘my Baghdad, my native land’, is not
alone in describing her family’s life before the arrival of British
troops in World War One as ‘paradise’. Memories of Eden provides as sumptuous an account of the world of the Baghdadi Jewish elite as we’re likely to get.
Jewish life under the Ottomans wasn’t without its hardships: few
Jews lived in palaces like the Shamash family, and as members of a
non-Muslim ‘millet’ community they were obliged to pay a discriminatory
tax, but they were mostly left to look after their own affairs, and
further advance seemed inevitable. The vast majority lived in cities,
apart from a handful of Kurdish Jews. As bankers, traders and
money-lenders the wealthier members of the community had made
themselves indispensable: so much so that Baghdad’s markets shut down
on the Jewish Sabbath, rather than the Muslim day of rest. By the 19th
century, Baghdad was famous for its Jewish dynasties – the Sassoons,
the Abrahams, the Ezras, the Kadouries – with their empires in finance
and imports (cotton, tobacco, silk, tea, opium) that stretched all the
way to Manchester, Bombay, Calcutta, Singapore, Rangoon, Shanghai and
When Balfour announced Britain’s support for the
creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, leaving Mesopotamia for the
kibbutz was the furthest thing from the minds of Baghdad’s Jews. ‘The
announcement aroused no interest in Mesopotamia, nor did it leave a
ripple on the surface of local political thought in Baghdad,’ Arnold
Wilson, the civil commissioner in Baghdad, reported to the Foreign
Office after a meeting with a group of Iraqi Jewish notables.
Palestine, they had said, ‘is a poor country and Jerusalem a bad town
to live in’
What of Dhimmitude, then? was it really second-class status as the good rabbi claims? Any number of excellent historical and academic resources are available for the casual reader to inform themselves and draw their own judgments. But even the worst excesses of the dhimmi system can not, in conscience or honest sincerity, be equated even remotely to the true barbaric evil that was Jim Crow.
The truth of why the muslim world today is host to the infection of anti-Semitism is a complex one. Anti-Semitism is a European import, and the complex interplay of post-colonialism, the fall of the Ottomans, and the founding of Israel all play a role in its transmission to the muslim polity. However, while no one can or should deny that anti-Semitism is a modern problem that must be faced head-on without apology, those who insist on tying it to the Islamic faith are themselves, in a way, perpetuating this status quo. Islamophobia is no answer to anti-Semitism, but rather its ally. In this, Jews and muslims must stand together in opposition.