Bostom versus Lewis: a study in contrasts

Writing in the American Thinker Robert Caplan contrasts Dr Andrew Bostom’s new book: The legacy of Islamic antisemitism with Professor Bernard Lewis’s very different interpretation of Muslim attitudes to Jews:

A broad survey, Bostom’s book informs readers about an area of history unfamiliar to most. Whereas readers will know of many cases of persecution of Jews in Christendom (the Crusades, the expulsion of the Jews from England, France, various German states and Spain, the Inquisition, the Chmielnicki massacres, the Kishinev pogroms, the Dreyfus Affair and so on), few will be able to point to similar occurrences in the history of Jews under Islam. Bostom fills in the canvas of such events.

One might have heard of the 1839 forced conversion of the Jews of Meshed, Iran (one of the four examples of Muslim persecution of Jews mentioned in the approximately one half page devoted to the subject in the Encyclopaedia Judaicas 72 page article on “anti-Semitism”) but know nothing of the 4,000 Jews killed in Moslem riots in Grenada in 1066, the 6,000 Jews massacred in Fez in 1033, the hundreds of Jews slaughtered in Muslim Cordoba between 1010 and 1015, the Almohad depredations of Jews and Christians in Spain and North Africa between 1130 and 1232, the 1834 pogrom in Safed where raging mobs killed hundreds of Jews, the 1888 massacres of Jews in Isfahan and Shiraz Iran, the oppressive conditions imposed on Jews in Hamadan Iran in 1892, the 1910 pogrom in Shiraz, the pillage of the ghetto of Fez Morocco in 1912, the pillage and destruction of the Casablanca ghetto in 1907, the 1679 expulsion of 10,000 Jews of Yemen to the unlivably hot and dry Plain of Tihami from which only 1,000 returned alive in 1680.

One might have heard of the 1941 pogrom in Iraq but be unaware of the 1291 pogroms in Baghdad and its environs.

Readers will be familiar with the Koran’s description of Jews as descendants of apes and pigs but probably not be aware of numerous other ugly and antagonistic references to Jews in Islam’s sacred writing: that Jews are the greatest enemies of Islam, that Jews are associated with Satan, the Jews killed Mohammad, that the Jews falsified their sacred books in order to expunge all references to Mohammad and more.

One might know that under Islam’s rules dhimmis (Christians and Jews) are not allowed to ride horses but be unfamiliar with numerous other restrictions, limitations, humiliations, indignities and abuses they prescribe: the poll tax (jizyah) required from each dhimmi and paid in a manner calculated to demean the payer, the dress codes that enforce on dhimmis undignified attire, the compulsory wearing of a colored patch of cloth to identify the wearer as a Jewish or Christian dhimmi, the requirement to address Moslems with honorific terms, the denial of the right of self defense against attack by a Moslem and more.

It is fairly well known that before Israeli rule of the Old City of Jerusalem it was common for Jews coming to pray at the Western Wall to be pelted with stones by Moslems. From Bostom’s book one learns that throwing stones at Jews was common throughout the history of Islam, as was spitting upon them, hitting them, and pulling their beards.

Bostom’s book is part of an ongoing debate about the comparative situation of Jews under the crescent and the cross. In this debate Bostom is in sharp disagreement with Bernard Lewis, the well known and much quoted authority on the history of Islam. Lewis has written:

“On the whole, in contrast to Christian anti-Semitism, the Moslem attitude toward non Moslems [including Jews] is not one of hate or fear or envy but simply contempt.”

“Jews of Christendom suffered incomparably greater persecution [than the Jews of Islam]. Persecution, that is to say violent and active repression was rare and atypical. Jews and Christians [dhimmis] under Moslem rule were not normally called upon to suffer martyrdom for their faith.”

“They [the Jews] were not often obliged to make the choice which confronted Muslims and Jews in reconquered Spain, between exile apostasy and death.”

How is it that Lewis and Bostom evaluate Islamic antisemitism and the experience of Jews living in Muslim societies so differently, given the fact that though they might disagree on a few particular points of fact, the body of information they begin with is essentially the same?

Bostom’s picture of Moslem antisemitism is much more somber than Lewis’s. One source of difference lies in the fact that compared with Lewis’s his writing includes considerably more detail of the anti-Jewish elements in Islamic religion, culture and history. By quoting the words of Jews who lived under the Muslims and non-Moslems visiting their lands, Bostom’s text conveys emotions of sympathy and indignation regarding the oppressed condition of Jews which Lewis’s academic, non-emotional style largely omits.

The structure of Lewis’s and Bostom’s arguments are also quite different. Employing a genetic approach, Bostom shows that Islam’s holy books, the Koran, the hadith and the sira all have sharply negative things to say about Jews, that these have been emphasized and reinforced by Moslem thinkers, jurists and preachers throughout the history of Islam, and that the attitudes and ideas engendered by them have directly influenced the actions of Moslem rulers, clergy and mobs both in their oppression of Jews as dhimmis and their aggressive excesses against Jews which have included pogroms, forced conversion, pillage and expulsion. The status of dhimmi to which Jews and Christians are relegated under Islamic law is one entailing serious suffering and indignity in the best of circumstances. Frequently circumstances were far from the best.

Lewis puts Islam’s record regarding Jews in a favorable light mainly with the generalizations he makes rather than the particular facts he marshals. These generalizations, which crumble under the slightest scrutiny, are of four general types. One holds that the least onerous version of Moslem oppression is typical of Moslem practice [Lewis writes “dhimmitude was a minor inconvenience Jews learned to live with…under Muslim rule the status of dhimmi was long accepted with gratitude by Jews.” In making this improbable claim he gives no evidence or explanation. Could he mean that the Jews were grateful for not being killed?]

A second type of generalization claims that the worst of the behavior of Christians towards Jews was the norm. [“Jews of Christendom suffered incomparably greater persecution (than Jews of Islam). Persecution (under Islam), that is to say violent and active repression was rare and atypical. Jews and Christians (dhimmis) under Moslem rule were not normally called upon to suffer martyrdom for their faith….They (the Jews) were not often obliged to make the choice which confronted Muslims and Jews in reconqured Spain, between apostasy and death.” Besides employing a peculiarly narrow definition of “oppression” which excludes all disabilities of dhimmitude, Lewis implies that Jews in Christendom were often obliged to suffer martyrdom for their faith or make a choice “between apostasy and death” — both of which are simply untrue.]

A third variety of generalization employed by Lewis claims that Muslim abuses are far less bad than the worst imaginable abuses by non-Moslems.[“Dhimmitude involves some rights…and is surely better that no rights at all. It is certainly preferable to the kind of situation that prevails in many states at the present time where minorities and for that matter where the majority enjoy no civil or human rights.” Offering no evidence or examples, Lewis writes as if there is any place on Earth where the majority of residents have “no rights at all.”]

A fourth type of generalization ascribes to “human nature” rather than Islam, with no basis of evidence, the unattractive characteristics exhibited by Moslems [After describing the intense anti-Semitism in the Arab world today Lewis tacks on the generalization that “No people is immune from the universal disease of ethnic or social hostility and the Arabs are no exception. Obviously Arabs are as liable (my italics) as Germans, Russians or Jews or anyone else to develop hostilities against other peoples; and their history and literature bear ample witness to this.”

Lewis’s suggestion that hatred is a trait shared by all peoples equally — Germans, Russians and Jews, Britons, Italians, Canadians, Australians — as if raging mobs, as familiar in the annals of Moslem history as to today’s television viewers, are typical of all peoples; as if hate filled speeches by clerics are common in all religions; as if survey statistics of harbored hatred are not vastly higher among Moslems than among others; as if Moslem converts to Christianity do not regularly report their revulsion at the hatred which saturates the Moslem religion with which they were familiar. Replace Moslems with Danes, British, Russians Jews, Brazilians, Japanese or whoever and imagine, if you can, raging mobs rioting and killing over a newspaper cartoon.]

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  • perhaps it was published by the
    American Zionist Emergency Council

  • Thanks for your suggestion, Eliyahu. I’ll try and follow up.

  • Bataween, around 1946-47, Prof Cecil Roth wrote a booklet or pamphlet on the Arab oppression of Jews throughout history as well as during WW2. I know that the booklet was published in the US, maybe by the American Zionist Emergency Committee, but I’m not sure. It was probably published in Britain too.

    If you come across this booklet, it might be helpful for you.


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