Marina Benjamin reviews ‘In Ishmael’s House’

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).

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The Economistreview


  • My father used to tell me about the Jews in Iraq. he used to appraise them and clearly liked them. In commercial and social aspects they were highly trusted. They lived, suffered and died as Iraqis on their birth land. Iraqi Jews are the most Loyal,kind and social Jews on the face of the earth.

  • To be fair to Martin Gilbert, he DOESN'T refer to Jews from Muslim/Arab
    countries as 'Arab Jews', except to give those two examples on p 320.

  • One thing is to mention on page 320 that there are those who for a reason or another refer to themselves as Arab Jews, another is for a historian to use the term to refer, globally and throughout the book, to Jews from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean by that name – which is what Benjamin does. I can name others who have used that identity to serve their political activity for a limited period, such as Albert Memmi and Abraham Serfaty. There is also a handful of radical Israeli leftists whose parents came from Arabo-Muslim countries to Israel, who don't know a word of Arabic – most of whom live now in the US or Europe – who like to call themselves "Arab Jews", or "Oriental/Mizrahi Jews", eager as they are to pick up the crumbs thrown at them by the Ashkenazi establishment.
    A serious historian like Gilbert , however, cannot do that, as it is illegal to call a group by a name they have never used for themselves as a group.

  • I can see Sylvia's point – and strictly speaking, very few Jews would ever identify themselves as Arab Jews unless they were far-leftists trying to make an anti-Zionist political point.
    Sassoon Somekh identifies himself primarily as a Jew of Arabic culture. Martin Gilbert gives a further example on p 320 of an Arab Jew – Zvi Yeheskeli, TV Arab Affairs correspondent – in fact he calls himself an Arab. But although of Iraqi roots, ZY was too young to be born in an Arab country, and what he really means is that he too is of Arabic culture.
    This whole issue is a minefield (amply discussed on this blog), because there are plenty of Arabic-speaking non-Jews who also deny they are Arabs.
    Perhaps Gilbert should have been more sentitive to the nuances of what can be a loaded expression.

  • Sylvia said:
    I haven't seen the book, but I doubt very much that "Arab Jews" is the term Gilbert used. No serious historian would write that.

    I have seen the book. On page 320:

    "Some Israelis with origins in Muslim lands spoke at the start of the Twenty-First Century of their sense of Arab identity. One such Israeli was Sasson Somekh, who left Iraq at the age of seventeen, and who became Professor of Literature at Tel Aviv University and a close friend of the Egyptian writer Naguib Favouz. An Israeli expert on Arabic literature, he served for three years in Egypt as director of the Israeli Academic Centre in Cairo. Professor Somekh explained why eh considered himself an 'Arab Jew': 'An Arab Jew is someone who is immersed, or grew up in, Arab culture, with Arabs, and who knows the way of the life.'

  • "his intention is to explore the fundamental tension that long governed relations between Muslim and Arab Jews."

    I haven't seen the book, but I doubt very much that "Arab Jews" is the term Gilbert used. No serious historian would write that.
    Never mind that the book's title specifies that it's about the Jews "in Muslim lands". Does she know the difference?

    "Duality" is about as close an assessment of the true nature of those relations/behaviors as anyone in the West has been able to figure out, though Gilbert is not quite there yet. Very perceptive of him. There are those who divide Islamdom into radicals and moderates, yet others contend that Islam is radical and there is no such a thing as moderate Islam. It's much more nuanced than that.

  • It's an absurd review, because the work is 448 pages long, and only the last section is to do with the 20th century.

    All she can do is complain that Gilbert doesn't fit with the metanarrative of imperial Islam, and the place of Jews she thinks Jews had or should have had in it. I suspect Gilbert does document that, in meticulous detail.

    So what is she complaining about? That it isn't a tale of unrelieved glory to the imperial Islamic society to which Jews were subject?

    And the assertion that Islam originates the notion of tolerance of minorities?

    Clap trap. What about the Greeks, Romans, Babylonians and Persians?

    She is a neo-dhimmi apologist for Islamic empire. OK, fair enough. But if she thinks that should inform Gilbert's history, she should write her own history.

  • She's just sour grapes. She hasn't the discipline of scholarship to undertake such a task. All she can do is snipe, as if with what Arab Jews allegedly slander Arab Muslims after their expulsion is remotely relevant to the account of it.

    She needs to write her own book: how ungrateful Arab Jews were to Arab Muslims, and what they did to deserve Arab Muslim treatment and views of Arab Jews, post and ante factum.

    She does sound like a neo-Dhimmi, yearning for a lost age, denied her by her grandparents.

  • Quite agree, with you, Eliyahu – she is being PC.
    Her parents were actually born in India so she is two generations removed from Iraq, but she did visit the old country in 2003, which explains why she qualifies

  • Marina Benjamin is trying strenuously to be politically correct. Now, you, Bataween, say that she is the daughter of Iraqi Jews, and presumably did not live there herself. If so, maybe her own experience of the situation is limited, although she calls herself a Jew "from Arab lands." Maybe she should show more respect for those who underwent experiences like the Farhud which she does not mention.

    Then she is shocked that Jews say and said mean things about Arabs in return [not in public of course]. Does she not understand human nature?

    Her noxious political correctness shows up in her claim that Palestinian Arabs were "spat out" of Israel at about the same time. In fact, it was the Arab side that started the war that we now call the Israeli war of Independence. It began shortly after the UN general assembly recommendation of partition on 11-29-1947. The first attacks of the war were Arab irregular forces attacking Jewish civilians in various parts of the country. The first people driven out of their homes in the war were Jews driven out of homes in south Tel Aviv and the Shimon haTsadiq Quarter in Jerusalem [December 1947]. It was the Arab side that was trying to "spit out" the Jews. Don't forget that the Arabs had the upper hand militarily at the start of the war.


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