Benny Morris’s trajectory from leftwing revisionist historian to exponent of the Islamic jihad against the Jews appears complete in this New Republic review of two books: Andrew G Bostom’s The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism: From Sacred Texts to Solemn History (Prometheus Books) and Icon of Evil: Hitler’s Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam by David G. Dalin and John F. Rothmann (Random House). With thanks: Independent Observer
“The story peddled by latter-day Arab propagandists (and reinforced by some Jewish scholars, who tended in decades past, sometimes for apologetic reasons of their own, to highlight the medieval “Golden Age” of Islamic Spanish Jewry)–that the Jewish minorities in the Muslim Arab countries before the advent of Zionism enjoyed a pleasant fraternal existence among the majority populations–has often been trotted out for the benefit of ignorant Westerners, to illustrate Muslim Arab tolerance of minorities and, politically, to promote plans for a multi-ethnic, one-state solution for Israel/ Palestine. It also has taken hold among Western intellectuals.
“Thus as prominent a journalist as Lawrence Wright, in The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, writes that “until the end of World War II, there was little precedent in Islam for the anti-Semitism that was now warping the politics and society of the region. Jews had lived safely–although submissively–under Muslim rule for 1,200 years, enjoying full religious freedom,” until Christian missionaries, Nazi propaganda, and the rise of Israel twisted their minds and propelled them toward anti-Semitism.
“Or consider Esther Webman, of Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center, who has written that “antisemitism did not exist in the traditional Islamic world…. Antisemitism is, in fact, a relatively new phenomenon in the Arab world.” She attributed its rise to three factors: the nineteenth- and twentieth-century penetration of Western thought into that world; “the collapse of traditional political systems and of the loyalties” associated with modern nationalism; and, “most crucial, the development of the conflict [with Zionism] over the domination of Palestine.”
“But this construct, in Bostom’s view (and in my own), is wholly false. It flies in the face of the evidence, much of it presented in Bostom’s tome. Certainly modern Christian influences, nationalist enthrallment, and Jewish nationalism (and its success) have added layers to traditional Islamic anti-Semitism. But they were building on firm foundations. From its inception, Islam and its adherents, beginning with Muhammad himself, saw Judaism (and Christianity) as rival parent religions that had to be fought and overcome for Islam to succeed. The initial struggles, in the early seventh century, were existential, a matter of survival, for the Muslims bent on dominating Hijaz and then breaking out of the dismal, arid, thinly populated confines of Arabia. The first Muslims shared a deep sense of vulnerability and threat.
And so the Jews (and Christians) in the realms of expanding Islam were subjected to a regime based on an understanding or agreement–the dhimma–of subordination, marginalization, and discrimination. By the twelfth century, the great philosopher Maimonides, a successful Jew in the Islamic world, the doctor to sultans, was to lament: “God has cast us into the midst of this people, the nation of Ishmael, who persecute us severely, and who devise ways to harm us and to debase us…. None has matched [them] in debasing, humiliating, and hating us.” And the situation was to remain more or less constant in most of the Islamic lands down to the twentieth century.
Consider Bostom’s excerpt from Leon Godard’s travelogue Description et histoire du Maroc, published in 1860:
In the cities, the Jews live in separate quarters … called the Mellah, or the salted earth, dry and cursed. They are locked in from sundown to sunrise and on holidays, all day. They pay the Moorish guards who protect them…. They [pay] the capitulation tax … that the government sets for each Mellah…. They have eight days to pay the tax; after that, and without warning the Mellah can be pillaged…. According to the laws, the Jews cannot cultivate earth, own land or houses outside the Mellah, ride a horse in front of a town other than on a saddle for a mule … hit a Moslem, even to defend themselves except in their own house if it has been violated, be a witness in front of a court…. They cannot bid for food in Moslem market, or walk in some streets, in front of Mosques or Koubas, without holding their slippers in their hands, or get married without the permission of the Sultan…. They have to dress only in black or dark colors, wear a black hat different from the turban and not to tie with more than one knot the black scarf holding their headgear.
How and why this condition of degradation came about, and why anti-Semitism persists and, indeed, is on the upsurge in the Islamic Arab world is what Bostom’s anthology sets out to explain.
It all begins with the Qur’an–or, rather, with the encounter, as described in the Qur’an, between Muhammad, the prophet of the new religion, and the Jewish tribes in Hijaz, the area of western Arabia that includes the towns of Mecca and Medina, where Islam arose around 620 C.E. The Jews, not surprisingly, rejected the new faith and its prophet; and if the Qur’an is to be believed, they were contemptuous and sarcastic. (Religions notoriously do not take well to humor at their expense.) Indeed, the Qur’an asserts that the Hijazi Jewish tribes were downright hostile, even at one point trying to poison the Prophet. Muhammad, for his part, had earlier ordered the assassination of prominent Jewish opponents, and forcibly converted tribesmen and expelled many others, and slaughtered hundreds and consigned many of their women and children to slavery. (He took one of the daughters, Safiya, as his wife, after first dispatching her father and husband, according to the Prophet’s first major biographer, Ibn Ishaq.)
Partly in consequence, the Qur’an designates the Jews a “base” people and “killers of prophets” (harking back to the Christian charge of Christ-killing). The full verse (2:61) reads: “Humiliation and wretchedness were stamped upon them, and they were visited with wrath from Allah. That was because they disbelieved in Allah’s revelations and slew the prophets wrongfully.” They are also said to be usurious. The full verse (4:160-161) reads: “And for the evildoing of the Jews … and for their taking usury … and for their consuming people’s wealth under false pretenses we have prepared for the unbelievers among them [i.e., those not converted to Islam] a painful punishment.” Elsewhere (5:63-64) the Qur’an states, “They hasten to spread corruption throughout the earth, but Allah does not love corrupters!” and instructs (5:51): “Take not the Jews and the Christians for friends.” And it refers (5:60) to Allah’s punitive transformation of the Jews into “apes and pigs” (the distant theological basis for Hamas’s current designation of the Jews as “sons of apes and pigs”).
Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the current grand imam of Al Azhar University of Cairo, a supreme authority in Sunni Islam, published a book in the late 1960s called The Jews in the Qur’an and the Traditions; it was re-issued in 1986. It summarized the Qur’an’s (and Tantawi’s own) attitude to the Jews in this way: “The Qur’an describes the Jews with their own particular degenerate characteristics, i.e., killing the prophets of Allah, corrupting His words by putting them in the wrong places, consuming the people’s wealth frivolously, refusal to distance themselves from the evil they do, and other ugly characteristics caused by their deep-rooted lasciviousness … only a minority of Jews keep their word…. [But] not all Jews are the same. The good ones become Muslims.” Tantawi was later to describe contemporary Jews as “the descendants of apes and pigs.” I add in fairness that he was later to condemn the September 11 attacks, and suicide bombings in general, as contrary to Islam, though he defended “jihad” against those violating Islamic soil.
The hadiths, or sayings of the Prophet, the subsequent exegeses of the Qur’an, and the early biographers of Muhammad built on and built up this anti-Semitic tradition. Ibn Ishaq (died 761), Muhammad’s first and major biographer, as transmitted by Ibn Hisham, wrote: “The Apostle of Allah–may Allah bless him and grant him peace–declared, ‘Kill any Jew who falls into your power.’ So Muhayyisa Ibn Mas’ud fell upon Ibn Sunayna, one of the Jewish merchants with whom his family had social and commercial relations, and killed him.” One of the more famous hadiths, quoted in Bostom, from Sahih Muslim, Book 41, no. 6985, reads: “Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: The last hour would not come unless the Muslims will fight against the Jews and the Muslims would kill them until the Jews would hide themselves behind a stone or a tree and a stone or a tree would say: Muslim, or the servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me: come and kill him: but the tree Gharqad would not say [this], for it is the tree of the Jews.” This hadith appears in variants in different collections.
Major Muslim scholars followed this anti-Semitic tradition. Al Baydawi (1286-1316?), a Shafi’ite intellectual who was chief kadi of Shiraz, wrote of the Jews’ “intense obstinacy, multi-faceted disbelief, and their addiction to following their whims, their adherence to the blind following of their tradition, their distancing themselves from the truth, and their unrelenting denial of, and hostility toward, the prophets.” Ibn Kathir (1300-1373), a Basra-born historian, wrote of the Jews’ “rebellion, defiance, opposing the truth, belittling other people, and degrading the scholars. This is why the Jews–may Allah’s continued curses descend on them until the Day of Resurrection–killed many of their Prophets.” And in our own time–he is a full-fledged member of this odious tradition–Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), the “spiritual mentor” of modern Islamist extremism, wrote: “No other nation has shown more intransigence and obstinacy than the Jews. They viciously and mercilessly killed and mutilated a number of prophets and messengers. They have over the centuries displayed the most extreme attitudes towards God…. They have always boasted of their virtue and made the implausible claims of being … the chosen people of God…. Such claims are totally refuted by the Qur’an…. Theirs is a wicked nature, which is full of hatred for Islam.”
It is little wonder, then, that such anti-Semitic motifs creep into the speeches of contemporary Muslim leaders. Bashar Al Assad, the president of Syria, welcomed Pope John Paul II to Damascus on May 5, 2001 by declaring that “we notice them [the Jews] aggressing against Muslim and Christian holy sites in Palestine…. They try to kill all the the principles of divine faiths with the same mentality of betraying Jesus Christ and torturing him, and in the same way that they tried to commit treachery against Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him).” Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, described the survivors of the Holocaust as “a bunch of hooligans who emigrated to Palestine,” while his protege Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denies that the Holocaust took place at all. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon, has written: “If we searched the entire world for a person more cowardly, despicable, weak and feeble in psyche, mind, ideology and religion, we would not find anyone like the Jew. Notice, I do not say the Israeli…. If they [the Jews] all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.”
But contemporary Muslim anti-Semitism, as typified by such statements, is not all of Qur’anic derivation. It also owes a great deal to modern European hate-merchants. Without doubt, Christian missionaries, traders, and officials in the nineteenth and early twentieth century flooded the region with their religious-ideological wares. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for example, was first translated into Arabic and published in Cairo in 1920. And more modern European anti-Semitic tenets penetrated the area during the following decades. They were perfectly embodied in the person and beliefs of Haj Muhammad Amin Al Husseini.
In her book The One-State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock, the American scholar Virginia Tilley recently wrote that “the racist … incompetent and reactionary Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini” was “unrepresentative” of the Palestinian Arabs. Tilley would have her readers believe that Husseini “was never a leader of more than a few reactionary Palestinian factions.” This is nonsense. In this respect, at least, David G. Dalin and John F. Rothmann put matters aright.
From his appointment in 1921 by the British as the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Husseini was a major figure, and during the 1930s and 1940s he was the recognized leader–recognized, that is, by the British Mandate authorities and the Zionist leadership and, not least, by the leaders of the surrounding Arab societies and states–of the Palestinian Arab national movement, much as Yasser Arafat was the leader of the movement from the late 1960s until his death in 2004. And like Arafat, Husseini basked in the support of the Palestinian multitudes, led them into a series of historical disasters, and–when all is said and done–rejected a succession of compromises that would have resulted in the establishment many years ago of an Arab state, alongside Israel, in part of Palestine.