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?