Jews and the Muslim World

Colloquium 07 – Summer 08

Since the advent of Zionism, the Arab and Muslim worlds have become obsessions in Jewish life. And since September 11, 2001, the world of Islam has become an obsession in American life. Similarly, Jews and Americans take the center stage in the Muslim perception of evil. The demonization of the Jew in Muslim propaganda during the past forty years echoes the strident hatred of German fascist leaders before and during the Second World War.

For most of the past fourteen hundred years the fate of the Jew in the Islamic world has been kinder than his fate in the Christian world. While there are harsh tales of Muslim persecution of the Jews, the steady stream of murderous assaults that defines the experience of Jews in Christian Europe is absent from the Muslim chronicles. Jews were not loved in the countries of Islam, but they were not demon­ized. In Spain and in many other places Jews and Muslims established alliances of conve­nience, which lasted for centuries.

Both Judaism and Islam had Semitic roots. The patriarchs of the Hebrew Bible were just like the patriarchs of Arab recollection. The detestation of painting and sculpture, the reverence of unhewn stones, the Bedouin abhorrence of pig meat, the love of animal sacrifices, the attachment to polygamy and secluded women – all of these cultural tastes were shared by Jews and Arabs. There was a compatibility of spirit and practice between the Jewish and Muslim societies that did not exist between the Jews and the Greco-Roman culture of the Christian world. Even the status of the Jewish and Muslim clergy and their pri­mary role as interpreters of sacred scriptures stood against the functioning of the Christian clergy as masters of ritual and worship. Ac­commodating to Muslim practice was easier for Jews than adapting to the cultural milieu of the Christian nations.

It was in the Christian world that the Jews were demonized. The militancy of the Crusades, the emergence of the aggressive missionary activity of the Franciscans and the Dominicans, and the persistent hostility to the banking and commercial activities of the Jews encouraged intense hatred. The Third and Fourth Councils of the Western Church, held in 1179 and 1215, respectively, turned the Jews into devils whom neither conversion nor baptism could cure. It was in the Christian world that Jews become racial pariahs that later secular writers would appropriate for modern antisemitism. The Jewish devil became the Jew­ish conspiracy to dominate the nations of the world. Zionism was a response to the intensity of Christian hostility to the Jews.

But Zionism sought to solve this Jewish problem in the Muslim world. Jewish na­tionalism chose a Muslim territory for Jewish settlement, a territory that had played host to a Muslim majority for more than one thousand years. While Christian antisemites were happy to see the Jews leave Christian Europe for Mus­lim Asia, the Muslims did not share their joy. The arrival of the Zionists reminded them of the arrival of the British and French. While the Jews saw themselves as the victims of Christian antisemitism, the Muslims saw the Zionists as the last invasion of European colonists. They saw no virtue in solving a European problem by transporting the Jews to a Muslim land. The European arrogance of using the whole world as a place to solve European problems infuriated the Arabs and triggered an Arab and Muslim hatred of the Jews that had not existed before.

The Muslim obsession with the Jews is something new. The advent of Zionism was the provocation. A noble and idealistic move­ment to rescue the Jews was perceived by its Muslims enemies as a travesty of justice. Jewish victims became Jewish villains. Jewish settlers were viewed as Jewish invaders. The vision of Jewish suffering was turned into an image of Muslim suffering. No genocide or Holocaust could reverse the confrontation. The victimiza­tion of the Jews was no excuse for the victim­ization of the Arabs.

The 1967 war turned hatred into antisemi­tism. The Jewish victory in the Six Day War was an ultimate humiliation. The Muslim world struggled with the question of how this defeat was possible. Antisemitism provided the an­swer. Straight from Hitlerian Europe came the reply. The Arab and Muslim worlds were not defeated by tiny Israel. They were defeated by a giant world conspiracy organized and financed by the world Jewish community. This com­munity controlled all Western governments and every development in the global economy. Jewish leaders had already sponsored two depressions and two world wars to enrich themselves and to enhance Jewish power. They had initiated the saga of the Holocaust to hide their ruthlessness and to persuade the Gentile world to see them as sufferers and not as conquerors.

After 1967 antisemitism became an im­portant ingredient of Muslim propaganda and Muslim politics. Anti-Zionism was replaced with the detestation and demonization of the Jew. Only the “Jewish enemy” of antisemitism could inspire the terrorist assault on Israel, the Jewish Diaspora, and their perceived allies. The assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968 by an enraged Palestinian was the beginning of the Muslim war against the devil. America had become the tool of the Jews. The Muslim fundamentalist assault on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 2001 was a con­tinuation of this war. New York, “the real capital of the Jews,” was to feel the brunt of Muslim revenge.

The Jewish response to this confronta­tion is fear and contempt – fear of Muslim numbers and Muslim power and contempt for the ignorance that allows this antisemi­tism to be believed. With some Jews, fear and contempt have united into hatred. The enemy has arranged for us to turn into mirror images of themselves.

Is this confrontation between Jews and the Muslim world irresolvable? Are we con­demned to eternal war? Or is there a real possi­bility of “shrinking” the hatred, of diminishing the confrontation?

The Rabbi Writes: 1986

The Jewish Humanist, January 1986, Vol. XXIII, Number 6

1986. 

A new year. A new agenda for problem solving. Old issues unresolved. New issues waiting to take center stage. 

What will be the major issues of 1986 – for Americans, for the world at large, for Jews in particular?  

1.As Americans, we will be devoting our attention to the following issues.  

Tax reform. Reagan’s proposal to provide more equity and simplicity for the taxation system has encountered so much hostility from both the left and the right that it is doubtful that any reasonable facsimile of the original proposal will ever pass Congress. But Reagan is determined that some form of tax reform bill be passed, even if the Democratic House distorts it. The momentum of his fiscal “revolution” and the prestige of his administration rest on success in this campaign. 

Budget balancing. The rebellion of Reagan’s own Republican followers in the House of Representatives against the deficit removal plan designed by Democrats, but endorsed by the President, was a political surprise. Arbitrating the debate between the left-wingers who want to cut defense expenditures and right-wingers who want to cut welfare money is no easy task.  But even liberals now concede that a sound economy demands a balanced budget. So the battle will continue-with every vested interest willing to eliminate every government benefit except its own. 

Farm devastation. The plight of the American farmer remains in the spotlight. Despite the new farm credit relief bill, a substantial minority of our agricultural entrepreneurs face bankruptcy. Americans are trapped by ambivalence. Farm subsidies are unpopular because they interfere with a balanced budget. Allowing the farm population to shrink is equally unpopular because most Americans believe that the last reservoir of traditional American virtue lies in the family life of the rural population. Resolving the ambivalence will provide a lot of public agony. 

Crime. Prison overcrowding and the early release of dangerous criminals has captured the public attention. Nothing is so personal as the universal fear of assault that both urbanites and suburbanites live with. Renewed calls for capital punishment will not subside. They, most likely, will grow stronger. Feeding, housing, and rehabilitating a large criminal population is a fiscal and moral issue that confronts the alternative use of the same money for more productive purposes. 

Congressional election. The performance of last year’s do-nothing congress has highlighted the impasse which now exists in the two legislative assemblies. Chaotic individualism and the breakdown of the old party discipline has frustrated the leadership in both parties and rendered constitutional decision-making unpredictable. The fact that all the Representatives and one-third of the Senators will be running for re-election this year suggests that this year will be worse than last. Most legislators will not want to take sides on controversial issues. 

Reagan. Always superb handling the personal side of the presidency, Reagan has proved himself less than superb in his second administration in getting what he wants. Poorly formulated public policies, insensitive staff people, squabbling cabinet ministers, and Congressional rebels continue to frustrate his political ambitions and the political legacy he wants to bequeath to posterity. Reagan’s leadership effectiveness will be an important issue for 1986. Democrats will be eager to exploit his new weakness. 

 AIDS. No disease has captured public attention in a long time to the same degree that this African plague has done. The media are obsessed with providing information, both reliable and scandalous, about the pervasive dangers of contracting AIDS. The struggle between self-protection and compassion continues to make headlines. The victims of the disease, whether homosexuals, drug abusers, or children, have aroused more fear than sympathy. As the number of cases increases, the media will continue to focus on this public anxiety.  

2. As members of the world community, we will be devoting our attention to the following problems in 1986. 

Russia. Disarmament talks between America and Russia appear to have gloomy prospects in the light of the Reagan administration’s decision to proceed with the development of “Star Wars” technology. But there is such a broad International alliance of public opinion, even from conservative European circles, for something to be done that desperation will force the leaders of both countries to provide some hope. Gorbachev, in particular, since he invested his prestige in the summit conference and in the creation of some new form of detente, will not let the issue die. 

South Africa. The intransigence of the Afrikaner government is leading to civil war and martial law government. Provoked by black (sic) terror, the Afrikaners will become more adamant and English-speaking whites will begin their flight. The confirmation will continue to divide world opinion between those who are outraged by the injustice to Blacks and those who most fear the loss of South Africa to Marxist control. 

Chile. Only two military dictatorships survive in South America – Paraguay and Chile. The latter is, by far, the more important and the more volatile. Demonstrations against the dictatorship of General Pinochet are bound to increase and become more violent, especially as long as economic decline continues. World attention will be dealing with the prospects for the future. Will the left or the center return to power? 

Nicaragua.  The continuing American campaign to unseat the Sandinista government enjoys wide American support and very little world support.  The presence of a second Marxist government in the Americas is intolerable to most U.S. conservatives, who see the present regime in Nicaragua as a form of dangerous Soviet penetration of the security belt of our country.  Support for the contras will remain a controversial issue. 

Philippines.  The corruption of the Marcos government, the killing of his chief opponent, and the rising Communist insurgency make the forthcoming election an intriguing test of alternatives.  If Corazon Aquino is able to unseat Marcos, will she yield to pressure from anti-American forces in her own party to repudiate the American alliance?  If Marcos remains in power, will his victory incite civil war and lead to the growing success of the Communist rebels?  As a strategically important nation in Southeast Asia, the Philippines merits our concern. 

3. As members of the Jewish people, we will be dealing with the following anxieties in 1986. 

Pollard Case.  The unfortunate spy fiasco in which Israeli agents were caught paying an American Jew to procure military secrets from a military ally was a traumatic embarrassment for Israel and the Jews who support it.  Questions of dual loyalty and the patriotism of American Jews resurfaced.  The desirability of the Israeli alliance was challenged by angry politicians.  And the Israeli government was confronted with a major crisis.  Given the fact that Pollard will face a public trial, the Israeli “perfidy” will remain very much in the public eye, and enemies of Israel will take advantage of their new opportunity. 

Peace.  The attempts of the Israeli Labor government to establish some basis for peace negotiations with Jordan and other Arab states will continue.  Most likely, in order to strengthen his hand and to avoid handing over leadership control to YItshak Shamir, his political opponent, in accordance with the coalition agreement, Shimon Peres will call an early election.  If Labor wins, the prospects for some form of peace negotiations will be good.  If Labor loses, confrontation will return. 

As you can see, the problems of 1986-like the issues of 1985-are formidable.  But we have no choice but to deal with them.