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Your Home in Jerusalem Pay 6 Stay 7 days » Opinion » Op-Ed Contributors » Article

The new Muslim anti-Semitism

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Talkbacks for this article: 72

Jewish-Muslim relations are at a nadir today. But the mutual hatred and anti-Semitism on the Muslim side are relatively new phenomena, born of political, rather than religious factors. When the Islamic caliphs ruled large swaths of Asia and Africa, their Jewish subjects enjoyed a protected status their brethren in Christian Europe - victims of anti-Semitism - never thought possible.

Today, Muslim apologists have distorted this age of coexistence. They appropriate an old Jewish myth about an "interfaith utopia" in the Middle Ages and blame the Jews and Zionism for destroying the traditional harmony between the two peoples.

In response, there is a new Jewish "counter-myth" that claims that Islam has persecuted Jews from its origins and that anti-Semitism is endemic in the religion. This counter-myth has been propagated by Jewish writers in the Diaspora especially since the 1970s. It parallels a similar conviction among some Oriental Jews in Israel. Seeking to find their place in a predominantly European Jewish world scarred by centuries of Christian persecutions culminating in the Holocaust, they claim that Islam has persecuted Jews from its origins. By implication, they have a past of suffering like the Ashkenazim, including dislocation from their ancient homelands, and are thus eligible for a larger piece of the Zionist pie than the mostly Ashkenazic founding fathers of Israel have granted them.

THE HISTORIC plight of Oriental Jewry falls somewhere between these two extremes. To discover it, one must move past the layers of propaganda and mutual recriminations that have obscured our view of history.

First of all, however, let us not make the mistake of thinking that Jews lived in the Middle Ages as the equals of Muslims. They were second class citizens, at best. They were classed along with other religious minorities as unbelievers who did not recognize the prophethood of Muhammad and the truth of the Koran. But this kind of unbelief was not as threatening to Islam as Jewish unbelief was to Christians, for unbelief in Christianity means rejection of Jesus as Messiah and as God, a greater affront to the dominant faith than Jewish unbelief was to Islam because it challenged the theological basis of the whole religion.

Moreover, restrictions on Jewish (and Christian) life - they were not to build new houses of worship and were required to wear distinctive garb, avoid Muslim honorific titles, and so forth - were intended not so much to exclude them from society as they were meant to reinforce the necessary hierarchical distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims within a single social order.

Non-Muslims were to remain "in their place," avoiding any act, particularly any religious act, that might challenge the superior rank of Muslims or of Islam. Non-Muslims, however, occupied a definite rank in Islamic society - a low rank, but a rank nevertheless. They managed to co-exist more or less harmoniously with the higher-ranking dominant Muslim group because both sides recognized and accepted the place of the other - whether superior or inferior - and this facilitated interaction with a minimum of conflict.

THE FLIP SIDE of the discriminatory regulations imposed upon Jews is that they (as well as Christians) were a "protected people," ahl al-dhimma or dhimmis in Arabic, who enjoyed security of life and property, religious freedom, freedom from forced conversion, communal autonomy, and equality in the marketplace. For all its religious exclusivity and hostility towards the Jews, expressed in the Koran and in other Islamic literature, Islam contains a nucleus of pluralism that gave the Jews in Muslim lands greater security than Jews had in Christian Europe. For other important reasons, too, Jews in the Islamic orbit were spared the damaging stigma of "otherness" and anti-Semitism suffered by Jews in Europe. They were indigenous to the Near East - not immigrants, as in many parts of the Christian West - and largely indistinguishable physically from their Arab-Muslim neighbors.

Moreover, Jews were one of two and in some place three non-Muslim minority religions, which also diffused the natural hostility towards the "other." The contrast with the Christian West is revealing. Although for a few centuries in the early Middle Ages (up to the 11th century) Jews enjoyed a more or less secure place in the natural hierarchical order of Christian society, as well as substantial economic rights, a combination of factors led to the expulsion of most of western Jewry by the end of the 15th century. These factors include the loss of the pluralism that had marked the Germanic, "barbarian" early Middle Ages; the spread of Christianity to the masses by the 11th century; the commercial revolution that relegated Jews to a few, despised economic activities like money lending; the erosion of the old doctrine of St. Augustine that Jews must be allowed to live in Christian society as witnesses to the triumph of Christianity; and, finally, the gradual political unification of European countries, especially England, France, and Spain, which left the Jew even more of an outsider than in the past.

ISLAM AND Judaism had (and continue to have) much more in common than Judaism has with Christianity. This mutual recognition of religious similarities includes monotheism, which made Islam more tolerant of Jews than of Christians, whose Trinity smacked of polytheism, the greatest sin in Islam, and made Jews more tolerant of Islam for much the same reason. Another well known commonality are laws concerning animal ritual slaughter and other kashrut/halal practices. Partly because of shared religious beliefs, Islamic polemics against Judaism and the Jews in the Middle Ages were minimal and banal compared to the large body of anti-Jewish polemics in the Christian world in the 13th century. This led to the burning of the Talmud in France - an act of aggression against Judaism that had no parallel in the Muslim world and which was accompanied by other violent excesses like the blood libel that wrought the anti-Semitism whose tragic outcome in the 20th century is all too well known.

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72. How did classical European anti-Semitism reach the Muslims?
Lodewijk - Netherlands (01/04/2008 11:22)
71. According to the Koran the Jews are enemies of allah
David - UK (01/04/2008 11:18)
70. #68
Pete - (01/04/2008 11:07)
69. #66 eugene
Linda - (01/04/2008 11:05)
68. #64
Gene - USA (01/04/2008 10:18)
67. James #46 NO NO NO
Mike - USA (01/04/2008 09:21)
66. Jews fought the christian messiah and won
Eugene - (01/04/2008 08:47)
65. reply to #18- your both anti-semite and anti-zionist
Not Bill clinton - great satan (01/04/2008 08:32)
64. I ve seen and lived through it
Bahram - (01/04/2008 07:39)
63. Christians seeeing the light
Kathy - USA (01/04/2008 07:28)
62. You don't have to be constantly killing Jews to still be extremely anti-Semitic
alex - (01/04/2008 07:13)
61. Jews must NOT embrace Jim Crow!
Al - USA (01/04/2008 08:14)
60. Insane Malaysian Munchkin would not agree to allow East Kuala Lumpur become the capital of new state of Chinalysia for the Chinese people (Part 2)
chanan - USA (01/03/2008 23:24)
59. Insane Malaysian Munchkin would not agree to allow East Kuala Lumpur become the capital of new state of Chinalysia for the Chinese people (Part 1)
chanan - USA (01/03/2008 23:23)
58. Islam and the Jews
Jacques - USA (01/03/2008 22:21)
57. What Maimonides said
Madge - USA (01/03/2008 22:08)
56. #27 Insan Muknim
yaakov - USA (01/03/2008 20:56)
55. Islamic massacre of Jews
yaakov - USA (01/03/2008 20:47)
54. European anti-semitism always was method to remove competition.
Zvi Ticker - Canada (01/03/2008 20:36)
53. Ridiculous
mnjam - (01/03/2008 20:32)
52. Saidism
James Dill - NY (01/03/2008 20:31)
51. #18 Mike -- Germany: "Antizionism, not Antisemitism"
nehama purta - Israel (01/03/2008 19:41)
50. re:27. The problem is that Jews don't want to share Jerusalem. They are not satisfied with just West Jerusalem.
Jay - Canada (01/03/2008 19:47)
49. Youssef Mohamed
siegfried Buchwalter - usa (01/03/2008 19:44)
48. Truncated talkbacks
nehama purta - Israel (01/03/2008 19:34)
47. Muslims
Pamela - UK (01/03/2008 19:06)
46. Jew is a people, not a religion
James - US (01/03/2008 18:56)
45. Islamic world was not monolithic
BD - USA (01/03/2008 18:55)
44. Insan Muknim
Pamela - UK (01/03/2008 18:51)
43. Looking at History with jaundiced eyes
jaundice - Saudi Arabia (01/03/2008 18:41)
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