Month: August 2010

Avi Shlaim finds ‘In Ishmael’s House’ ‘one-sided’

Sir Martin Gilbert

Another ‘lachrymose’ and ‘one-sided’ version of the history of Jews in Muslim lands, concludes Avi Shlaim in his FT review of Sir Martin Gilbert’s new book, In Ishmael’s House. Predictably, Shlaim, whose family fled Arab nationalism in Iraq, refutes Gilbert’s equivalence between Jewish and Palestinian refugees: ‘we left because we felt insecure’, he writes, falling back on the trope that Zionist agents ‘encouraged the Jews to leave their homes because the fledgling state of Israel was desperately short of manpower.’ Why fleeing for one’s life should be insufficient reason, in Shlaim’s book, for calling oneself a refugee ‘in the proper sense of the word’, is anyone’s guess – mine is that Shlaim’s political agenda only permits Palestinians to call themselves ‘refugees’.
The Jews have a fair claim to be the most persecuted minority in human history. Salo Baron, the American Jewish historian, coined the label “the lachrymose version” for the conventional accounts of Jewish history as a never-ending chain of discrimination, degradation, persecution and suffering, ­culminating in the Holocaust.

In his new book, historian Martin Gilbert tackles a relatively neglected but fascinating subject: the history of the Jews in Muslim lands. The end result, however, is essentially an extension of this lachrymose version from Europe to the Near East.

The book is ambitious in scope, covering 1,400 years of Jewish-Arab history. The narrative covers the period from the rise of Islam in the 7th century to the present day. It includes the fraught relationship between the Jews of Medina and the Prophet Muhammad, the Crusader conquest of the Holy Land, the Ottoman Empire, the impact of Zionism in the first half of the 20th century and the creation of Israel in 1948. The emphasis throughout is on the fundamental uncertainty of life under Muslim rule: the dual prospects of opportunity and restriction, protection and persecution.

Jewish life under Muslim rule naturally invites comparison with that under Christian rule. Here Gilbert quotes with approval the eminent Jewish scholar Bernard Lewis, who concluded that the situation of the Jews living under Muslim rulers was “never as bad as in Christendom at its worst, nor ever as good as in Christendom at its best”. Lewis observes that “there is nothing in Islamic history to parallel the Spanish expulsion and Inquisition, the Russian pogroms, or the Nazi Holocaust”. But he goes on to point out that there is nothing in the history of the Jews under Islam “to compare with the progressive emancipation and acceptance accorded to the Jews in the democratic West during the last three centuries”.

Gilbert is an anecdotal historian, not an analytical one. He has produced a lively chronicle of the Jews in Muslim countries from Morocco to Afghanistan. He has rich materials at his disposal and he is attentive to the human voices of individuals. But his account is both highly selective and narrowly focused on the Jews. What is missing is the wider political, social and economic context to enable the reader to place the Jewish minority in each Muslim country within its proper historical perspective.

Some examples of Muslim openness, tolerance and courage are given by Gilbert. The bulk of the book, ­however, consists of examples of ­Muslim hatred, hostility and cruelty towards the Jews.

Some of the episodes related in the book are blood-curdling, such as the Ba’thi regime’s arrest, torture, conviction and public hanging of nine Jews in Baghdad in 1969 on trumped-up charges of being Zionist spies. But episodes of this kind are the exception rather than the rule. By piling one horror story on top of another so relentlessly, Gilbert paints a misleading picture of the life of Isaac in the house of Ishmael. The reality was far more complex. As even Lewis conceded: “The Jews were never free from discrimination, but only rarely subject to persecution.”

Nowhere is Gilbert more strikingly one-sided than in his account of the consequences of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. In the course of this war, the name Palestine was wiped off the map and 726,000 Palestinians became refugees. In its wake, around 850,000 Jews left the Arab world, mostly to start a new life in the newborn State of Israel. For Gilbert, these Jews are simply the other half of the “double exodus” and he persistently refers to them as “refugees”. With few exceptions, however, these Jews left their native lands not as a result of officially sanctioned policies of persecution but because they felt threatened by the rising tide of Arab nationalism. Zionist agents actively encouraged the Jews to leave their ancestral homes because the fledgling State of Israel was desperately short of manpower.

Iraq exemplified this trend. The Iraqi army participated in the War for Palestine, and the Arab defeat provoked a backlash against the Jews back home. Out of a population of 138,000, roughly 120,000 left in 1950-51 in an atmosphere of panic and peril.

I was five years old in 1950 when my family reluctantly moved from Baghdad to Ramat Gan. We were Arab Jews, we spoke Arabic, our roots went back to the Babylonian exile two and a half millennia ago and my parents did not have the slightest sympathy with Zionism. We were not persecuted but opted to leave because we felt insecure. So, unlike the Palestinians who were driven out of their homes, we were not refugees in the proper sense of the word. But we were truly victims of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Despite all its shortcomings, Gilbert’s book is an illuminating and a moving account of the history of the Jews in Arab lands. But he is psychologically hard-wired to see anti-Semitism everywhere. The picture he paints is consequently unbalanced.

By dwelling so persistently on the deficits, he downplays the record of tolerance, creative co-existence and multi-culturalism in Muslim lands which constitutes the best model we have for a brighter future.


Avi Shlaim

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Two more reviews of In Ishmael’s House

The Winnipeg Free Press

Iraq demands return of rare Torah scroll

First Iraq claimed back the Jewish archives now being restored in the US; now it is demanding the return of a Torah scroll from Israel. The scroll, the tourism ministry charges, was smuggled illegally out of the country in the mayhem following the toppling of Saddam in 2003. This report in Monsters and Critics does not make clear where or from whom the scroll was removed (with thanks: Iraqijews):

Baghdad – Israel should return rare Babylonian Jewishartifacts to Iraq, an official at the Tourism Ministry in Baghdad was quoted as saying Monday.

In particular, the Baghdad authorities want back an ancient handwritten scroll, known in Hebrew as a Torah, which contains the core five books of the Jewish Bible

on parchment.

Iraq once had a large Jewish population, which numbered well over 100,000 people, prior to the formation of Israel in 1948. In the following decades, nearly all of Iraq’s Jews migrated abroad under turbulent circumstances, leaving behind less than a dozen members of the community when US-led troops invaded in 2003.

Abd al-Zahra al-Talqani, a spokesman for the Iraqi Tourism Ministry, charged that the scroll was removed from Iraq illegally.

‘A clear admission appeared on Israeli TV that shows there was a copy of the Torah which was smuggled from Iraq to Israel using bribery,’ he told the pan-Arab al-Sharq al-Awsat daily.

Similar claims by Iraqi officials regarding allegedly illicit exports to Israel have been made over the last seven years.

The latest charge followed internal investigations by the ministry into the missing artifacts, al-Talqani said.

The rare scroll was originally thought to have been looted, along with other precious items across Iraq, in the anarchy that reigned following the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

The United Nations believes thousands of items are missing from Iraq. Many have yet to be located, including dozens of pieces of high cultural or historical significance.

Earlier this year, Iraq pressed the United States for the return of key Jewish artifacts found by US soldiers as those artifacts were soaking in sewage water in the basement of Saddam Hussein’s secret police headquarters.

The Jews of Iraq – whose presence in the Middle Eastern land goes back to the 6th century BC, during the reign of the ancient Babylonian empire – now mostly reside in Israel. This has prompted some to say the Jewish state should house artifacts related to the community.

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Israeli-born resident sues Moroccan activists

Essaouira in Morocco, home to Israeli-born Noam Nir

Israeli-born Noam Nir has lived in Morocco for ten years. He is a one-man barometer of relations between Morocco and its Jews. But relations have taken a turn for the worse: the human rights activists of AMDH, who appear to have crossed the fine red line between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, are attacking Nir. He is alarmed enough to have filed a formal complaint. The Jerusalem Post reports (with thanks: Lily):

“I realized there was a demonstration on my doorstep, so I grabbed my camera and went outside,” Nir told The Media Line.

Outside, Nir encountered a group of high-school aged youth chanting anti-Zionist slogans.

“Standing across my property and shouting ‘Zionism get out of here,’ it was clear who they were referring to,” Nir said, implying it was directed at him.

“In a previous demonstration during Passover they chanted terrible Anti-Israeli slogans: ‘Netanyahu is a murderer, Israel is racist.’ They accused André Azoulay, the King’s Jewish advisor, of being a Mossad agent, and called on him to leave Morocco. These are unusual chants in Moroccan politics.”

Following the latest demonstration, Nir filed a police complaint against three members of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH), which organized the youth camp assembling the young demonstrators. In early August, Moroccan legal authorities questioned two of the association’s activists on charges of incitement and Anti-Semitism.

Nir, 41, has been living in Morocco for 10 years. The son of a Moroccan Jew, he says he decided to immigrate to the country following an appeal by King Muhammad VI to “people of the land” to return to Morocco and build a thriving society.

Less than 7,000 Jews currently reside in Morocco, mainly in the city of Casablanca. Before 1948 the Jewish community was 250,000 strong, but over the years most Jews left for Israel or France.

“I am very active in the Jewish community here,” Nir said. “These people are trying to incite against me because I defended the King’s Jewish advisor. The organization does not miss an opportunity to criticize Jews who are active in international processes, that is: in normalization between Morocco and Israel.”

AMDH boasts a nationwide membership of 12,000 people. In a statement published on its website following the July incident, AMDH makes a clear distinction between Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism.

“Just as all members of the Association oppose Zionism […] so they principally oppose Anti-Semitism and hatred towards Jews.”

AMDH goes on to blame Zionism for the confusion between Jews and Zionists.

“AMDH appeals to democrats and defenders of human rights abroad and points their attention to the danger of systematically mixing Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism, which stands at the base of Zionist Noam Nir’s lawsuit against members of the Association. This confusion was unfortunately successfully planted in the minds of many parts of public opinion.”

Nir claims the slogans shouted in the demonstrations could incite ordinary citizens to commit acts of violence against Jews.

“There is a danger to the Jewish community. All it takes is one man with a knife.”

According to Nir, the average Moroccan does not distinguish Anti-Zionism from Anti-Semitism.

“I have spoken to a wide array of Moroccans, from fish merchants in the market to government civil servants, and discovered that they make no distinction between anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist slogans. I tell AMDH: if you are not anti-Jewish but only anti-Zionist, go out and tell your public what the difference is.”

Khadija Riyadi, director of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights rejected Nir’s claims of Anti-Semitism on the part of her organization.

“We are responsible for what we say, not what others understand,” Riyadi told The Media Line. “Indeed there is confusion in Morocco between Judaism and Zionism, and we work to clarify the difference.”

According to Riyadi, the slogans shouted pose no danger to Jews in the Kingdom. She added that Anti-Jewish slogans run counter to the interests of her organization.

“Opposition to Judaism strengthens the Imperialistic goals of Zionism,” Riyadi says. “It encourages Jews to leave their countries and immigrate to Israel. We believe in complete freedom of religion for all citizens.”

Riyadi speculated that external powers stand behind Nir’s lawsuit. She said the Moroccan government has launched a campaign to de-legitimize her organization due to its harsh criticism of human rights abuses in Morocco, in an attempt to cut its foreign funding.

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Noam Nir features in this article, theLast Jews of Essaouira

Two more reviews of ‘In Ishmael’s House’

In his review for The Guardian of Sir Martin’s new book, Liberal rabbi David Goldberg is at pains to qualify the broad sweep of Arab antisemitism uncovered by Sir Martin with references to the Spanish Golden Age and how Zionism ‘fuelled’ anti-Jewish Arab anger and violence, while reproaching the author for failing to come to conclusions of his own. On the other hand, Robert Fulford in the National Posttakes the opposite view: Arab and Muslim antisemitism has its roots in the Koran and the trouncing of the Jews at Khaybar by Muhammed’s army has a resonance amongst Islamists today (with thanks: Eliyahu):

David Goldberg writes in The Guardian:

“The feared doyen of Judaic scholars in the US is Professor Jacob Neusner, an abrasive curmudgeon who, to borrow football manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s description of an opposition player, could start a fight in an empty room. (…)

“In this country Sir Martin Gilbert – urbane, charming, helpful; the official biographer of Winston Churchill and a member of the Iraq inquiry panel – is the polar opposite of Neusner in personality and reputation, but for sheer fecundity he is a potential challenger. He has over 80 books to his name and, one senses, more to come.

“Neither a brash TV personality nor a young turk revisionist, Gilbert writes broad-brush narrative history of the old-fashioned kind. By now his method is well rehearsed: a balanced overview is produced, based on exhaustive research of all the available material, and then illuminated with individual case stories or a telling quotation. It is a technique that proved popular in his books about the Holocaust, the state of Israel and Churchill. Now he brings it to bear on the history of Jews in Muslim lands.

“Perhaps that well-oiled modus operandi is why there is a sense Gilbert is going through the motions here. He dedicates In Ishmael’s House, somewhat preciously, to the 13 million Jews and 1,300 million Muslims in the world “in the hope that they may renew the mutual tolerance, respect and partnership that marked many periods in their history”. In truth, however, there is little fresh to be said about that long and complex relationship because it has all been covered before by more specialist scholars. Gilbert simply quotes his sources and summarises their conclusions, without attempting to offer many of his own.

“Shrewdest of the quoted sources is Bernard Lewis, the foremost contemporary authority on Jews under Islam, who wrote in Semites and Anti-Semites that their situation was “never as bad as in Christendom at its worst, nor ever as good as in Christendom at its best”. On the one hand, there is nothing in the history of Muslim-Jew relations to parallel the Spanish inquisition, the Russian pogroms or the Holocaust. On the other, there is nothing to compare with the progressive emancipation and civic equality accorded to Jews in the democratic west since the French revolution.

“Gilbert reveals his inexperience in this particular field on the very first page, when he misdates the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud by at least 500 years and the choice of Jerusalem as the Jewish capital by around 200. Thereafter – apart from appearing to regard the Biblical fable of Queen Esther as authentic – he provides a soberly accurate account of the 1,400 year propinquity between Jews and Muslims since Mohammed first proclaimed himself God’s prophet, appropriating many of Judaism’s beliefs and practices. The so-called Pact of Omar in the early 8th century formalised the rights of non-believers under Muslim rule: in return for personal safety, security of property, freedom of worship and communal autonomy, Jews and Christians had to accept inferior dhimmi status and consent to payment of the jizya (poll) tax to the local ruler.

“As in Christian Europe, the stringency or leniency with which these rules were applied – along with ancillary ones forbidding Jews to build new synagogues, wear certain clothing, ride horses or employ Muslims – varied from ruler to ruler and depending on Jewish utility to the state. Under the fanatical Almohad dynasty, Jews faced ferocious persecution – the great Moses Maimonides was one who temporarily converted to Islam to escape death during that period. But in Toledo, Seville and Granada, before Ferdinand and Isabella expelled both Jews and Muslims in 1492, many Jews rose to high office while relations with followers of Islam were so convivial that it is still referred to as the “Golden Age of Spanish Jewry“. By the same measure, conditions for Jews were generally benign throughout the Ottoman empire for centuries.

“The influx of Zionist pioneers into Palestine from 1897 onwards, and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, had a fateful impact on Jewish-Muslim coexistence. In such a bitter conflict we are all parti pris and even a scrupulous recorder like Gilbert is drawn into polemics and apologetics. For example, in detailing the shocking Arab riots of 1929 – in which 133 Jews were killed and 339 wounded – he might have mentioned that the violence was fuelled in large part by the provocations of Zionist activists at the Wailing Wall (as with Ariel Sharon’s walkabout on the Temple Mount before the second intifada). And while it is pertinent to point out that 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands have been fed, housed and absorbed by Israel since 1948 while 750,000 Palestinian refugees languish in camps, dependent on United Nations handouts, this does not invalidate the crucial fact that the latter suffered a grave injustice at Israel’s founding.

“The pogroms in Baghdad, Tripoli, Cairo and Tangier that followed events in 1948 were almost as bad as any atrocity perpetrated against Jews in medieval Europe, with its accusations of poisoned wells and revival of the “blood libel” – the accusation, recurrent throughout history, that Jews use Muslim or Christian blood in their religious rituals. The Suez crisis of 1956 and the 1967 six-day war intensified the hostility palpable in Arab streets and hastened the exodus of virtually all remaining Jews from countries such as Egypt where they had lived for over two millennia. In recent decades, growing religious fundamentalism on both sides has added a toxic new ingredient, exacerbating still further an intractable geopolitical dispute.

“For Gilbert to conclude with the wish that his book contribute to a better future for Muslims and Jews does credit to his faith in humanism – but also, some might say, signifies the triumph of hope over experience.”

The long history of Jews in Muslim lands by Robert Fulford (National Post):

“One of the 2002 Bali bombers, Amrozi bin Nurhasin, on trial in an Indonesian courtroom and headed toward execution, shouted out the message he wanted his crime to convey: “Jews: Remember Khaibar. The army of Muhammad is coming back to defeat you.”

“This was his explanation of the murder of 202 people eight years ago. Of those who died, 88 were Australians, 38 Indonesians, 24 British. None were Jews. So what was Amrozi, a Java-born Indonesian, raving about? It’s a question worth considering as we assess the recent arrests for terrorist conspiracy in Ottawa. Islamic terrorists can finds motives in ancient struggles the rest of the world long ago forgot.

“Martin Gilbert, the author of some 80 books, including the official biography of Winston Churchill, explains Amrozi’s meaning at the start of his alarming chronicle, In Ishmael’s House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands, published this week.

“Amrozi was remembering an event 1,375 years in the past, when Muhammad attacked Jewish farmers living in the oasis community of Khaibar, in what is now Saudi Arabia. More than 600 Jews were killed and the survivors lost all their property and had to pledge half of their future crops to Muhammad.

“Today, few Jews know the word Khaibar. But among certain Muslims it has permanent resonance. Khaibar set a precedent, endorsed by the actions of the Prophet. After Khaibar, non-Muslims who were conquered had to give up their property and pay heavy permanent tribute to their Muslim overseers. That form of discrimination lasted for centuries. It was this incident and its aftermath that nourished Amrozi’s homicidal ambition.

“Muslims love to recall that Jews once lived in peace among them. Of course, Jews were always second-class citizens, their rights sharply limited. Still, it was sometimes better than settling among Christians. Bernard Lewis, a major authority on Islam, says that Jewish lives under Islam were never as bad as in Christendom at its worst, or as good as in Christendom at its best.

“In the 20th century, Arab hostility to Jews took an ugly turn. Some claim that the new state of Israel “caused” the trouble. But well before Israel’s creation in 1948, Arabs were identifying Jews as enemies.

“In 1910, in the now-Iranian city of Shiraz, mobs robbed and destroyed 5,000 Jewish homes, with the encouragement of soldiers. In 1922, in Yemen, an old decree permitting the forcible conversion of Jewish orphans to Islam was reintroduced. The government searched towns and villages for children without fathers, so that they could be given Muslim instruction. The children were chained and imprisoned till they agreed to convert. In 1936 in Iraq, under Nazi influence, Jews were limited by quota in the public schools, Hebrew teaching was banned in Jewish schools and Jewish newspapers were shut down.

“Anti-Semitism intensified when Israel was created, and grew still worse after Israel won the Six-Day War of 1967. By the 1970s, about 800,000 Jews, perhaps more, had been forcibly exiled from Arab countries, their property seized. According to the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries (WOJAC), they lost property now valued at well over $100-billion.

“A majority of these exiles settled in Israel. In the 1950s, the UN recognized them as refugees and compensation was discussed. Later, the Arab states turned the UN against Israel and, by association, against Jewish refugees. In 1975, the General Assembly condemned Zionism as “racism and racial discrimination.” Various political leaders in the West (notably Irwin Cotler, the former justice minister of Canada) have continued to argue for compensation. But after the 1975 resolution, as Gilbert notes, that idea was unlikely to receive any UN support.

“The number of Jews displaced by the Arabs in the 20th century roughly equals (‘exceeds’ – ed) the number of Palestinians displaced by Israel. But the plight of the Palestinians has received several hundred times as much publicity. One reason is the constant propaganda from Muslim states and their admirers in the West. Another is that many Jews, unlike Palestinians, don’t want to be called refugees.

“Gilbert quotes an Iraqi Jew, Eli Timan, living in London: “The difference is that we got on with our life, worked hard and progressed so that today there is not a single Jewish refugee from Arab lands.” Those who suggest that this model be copied elsewhere will of course be condemned as heartless bigots.”

Evening Standard, The Economist reviews

Renovated synagogue proves Hezbollah ‘tolerance’

Fareed Zakaria

With thanks : Eliyahu

With hardly any Jews left in Lebanon and even fewer prepared to worship openly, this blog has always warned that the renovation of the Beirut synagogue would be exploited for its PR value.

But Hezbollah to be held up as a paragon of interfaith tolerance? And not by the Lebanese, but in the USA – by CNN, no less? By erstwhile Newsweek editor Fareed Zekariah, of all people, whom many thought once held quite sensible views on Islamism and the causes of 9/11?

Come on, pull the other leg.

Sadly, this expert analysis by the media watchdog CAMERA suggests that Zakaria has lost the plot. Not only does this CNN clip use the Beirut synagogue to score points against the US for its purported lack of tolerance towards the planned Ground Zero Mosque in Manhattan, but Zakaria shows that he does not really understand the bigotry and anti-Jewish hatred that makes Hezbollah tick.

Read this extract from Zakaria’s comments on the CNN programme, Last Look, and weep:

” With all the talk about places of worship and where they do and don’t belong, I wanted you to see this. This is the Magen Abraham synagogue. It’s not in Miami. It’s not in Tel Aviv. It’s in Beirut. That’s right, Beirut, Lebanon.

The synagogue is just now emerging from a painstaking restoration project. When the repairs began over a year ago, the temple was literally a shell of its former self. So why did this nation, often teetering on the brink of religious hostilities and hostilities with Israel, restore a Jewish house of worship? To show that Lebanon is an open and tolerant country.

And indeed, the project is said to have found support in many parts of the community, not just from the few remaining Jews there, but also Christians and Muslims and Hezbollah. Yes, Hezbollah — the one that the United States has designated a foreign terrorist organization.

Hezbollah’s view on the renovation goes like this. “We respect divine religions, including the Jewish religion. The problem is with Israel’s occupation of Arab lands … not with the Jews.” Food for thought.

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