In her review for The Evening Standard of Martin Gilbert’s new book, Marina Benjamin, the daughter of Iraqi Jews, finds the Ashkenazi author less than comfortable with his material. She reproaches him a failure to take the stories of those she (irritatingly) calls ‘Arab Jews’ ‘with a pinch of salt’ – as if they would be inclined to exaggeration. She accuses them of being racist towards their former Arab hosts, as if this might excuse Arab behaviour towards Jews.
IN ISHMAEL’S HOUSE, A HISTORY OF JEWS IN MUSLIM LANDS by Martin Gilbert (Yale University Press, £25)
Martin Gilbert is well known for his accessible rendering of modern history. His trademark style, routinely praised, is comprehensive, often involving broad sweeps of time. His scholarship is meticulous, his tone balanced, and he takes care to include painstaking details — often in the form of first-hand testimony, collected over many years as his quiet obsessions brew at the concept end of a well-oiled production line.(…)
It’s all rather exhausting if your intention is to read for pleasure rather than to score points; for this kind of book is most handy when slammed on the table mid-argument with a determined “I told you so!” Gilbert says at the outset that his intention is to explore the fundamental tension that long governed relations between Muslim and Arab Jews. This tension, “that swung rulers between the two extremes of protection and intolerance”, is rooted in the inherent duality of the dhimmi status, conferred on Jews in the eighth century by the Covenant of Omar. In return they were granted communal autonomy, freedom of religion and security of life and property.
But that freedom came at a price. Jews had to pay a hefty annual poll tax to the caliphate, and observe a host of restrictions (often ridiculous: for example, they couldn’t wear turbans) that served as permanent reminders of their second-class status. There is meat in this tension — for it is via the dhimmi concept that we’ve inherited the notion that merely tolerating a minority group is somehow a good thing. There is promise, too, of narrative possibility. Unfortunately, most chapters succumb to a structural inertia: on the one hand, they tell us, the Jews achieved x. On the other, they had to put up with y. What interest there is lies in the detail, in what particular individuals could or couldn’t do — become a powerful banker, or wellplaced physician — and what idiosyncratic oppressions particular regimes managed to get away with.
What is plaintively lacking is story. There are vignettes aplenty, minibiographies of scholars, mystics, political advisers, social critics, bankers and enterprising rabbis. The trouble is, you forget them instantly: as soon as the page is turned you’re on to the next country, next era, next slice of repetition.
My sense is that Gilbert doesn’t feel quite at home with his material. Like the white boy in the hood, he likes the rap music but can’t always understand the lyrics. Among Jews from Arab lands (I know this because I am one), there exists a culture of complaint, a cult of victimhood and a strong undertow of racism. “How we suffered!” they like to wail, before cursing their former overlords. Gilbert, as an Ashkenazi, can’t tell when to listen respectfully from when a large pinch of salt is required.
There is no arguing with the fact that 850,000 Arab Jews were expelled from their native countries after Zionism trounced Arab Nationalism, brandishing the Israeli state as its trophy. Most Arab Jews are also furious that their forced exile has nothing like the profile given to the plight of Palestinians, spat out of Israel at the same time and in roughly equivalent numbers.
But that’s where the self-pity ends. Arab Jews wouldn’t dream of going back to countries they now see as primitive. For them, there is no homeland outside America, England, Holland, Israel or Canada. Gilbert tells us that some Muslims think of their Jewish compatriots as “dogs”. Yet he appears clueless as to the slanders that Arab Jews reserve for Muslims in return.
Marina Benjamin is the author of Last Days in Babylon: The Story of the Jews of Baghdad (Bloomsbury).