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


  • Rabbi Goldberg complains about Martin Gilbert's mistakes in history. He does well in this department himself. I find it offensive that he blames the Zionists for Arab Judeophobia. Maimonides' Letter to Teiman [Yemen: אגרת תימן] cited by Jester describes the Arab/Muslim persecution/oppression of Jews as worse than that in Christian lands. I don't claim to be able to decide the issue of where things were worse. But since he faults Gilbert on dates, here's one mistake of his own: He writes of the Zionist "influx" starting in 1897. In fact, Jewish immigrants or "olim" who can fairly be called Zionists were coming or flowing into Israel starting at least by circa 1882 when the Bilu group arrived. Interestingly, a group from Yemen [called "aliyat Tamar"] came just a few years later, as I recall. Indeed, Jewish immigration into Israel had increased from the first half of the 19th century, with Jews becoming the absolute majority of the Jerusalem population by 1853, if not earlier.

    Then Goldberg claims, based on a quote from Bernard Lewis, that Jews in Muslim lands never suffered anything like the Russian pogroms. This is silly. The Kishinev pogrom of circa 1903 killed about 60-70 Jews. Were there no equivalent pogroms [in number] throughout the Muslim world in the 13 centuries from the Arab conquest to the First World War, before the Jewish National Home was set up and 43 years before the State of Israel?? There is contrary evidence from those "specialist scholars" that Goldberg refers to. Some of this is available in Andrew Bostom's compilation of sources on Muslim Judeophobia and Muslim treatment of Jews, The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism.

    I won't go into other errors. Another thing that annoys is Goldberg's constant effort to somehow blame Jews, even for trying to stand up straight, as with his remarks on the 1929 massacres, which were, incidentally, acquiesced in –if not instigated– by the British govt in Israel at the time. Pierre van Paassen explains this in some of his books.

    Before Goldberg keeps criticizing Gilbert, he ought to go back and study the sources and the reliable authorities in this area of study.

  • If the Guardian told me water was wet, it would be to blame the Jews for getting something wet. If the Guardian told me puppies are cute it's because they believe Jews control all dogs. I can safely disregard 100% of what the Guardian has to say about virtually anything.

  • I think the best way to describe the so-called "Spanish Golden Age" is that Jews, having no nation of their own, were used by the invading islamic empires as scapegoats for the conquered Christian populations to focus their hatred on.

    This meant that at certain times, rather than being protected like cattle with no rights, Jews were made into third class citizens at best until it was necessary for muslim rulers to put Jews back in their place as a degraded humiliated people.

    In addition, if the Jews in Spain really "had it good" under islamic rule, then why did the Kingdom of Poland (of all places) quickly become the centre of the Jewish world rather than the Ottoman Empire (and the rest of the Islamic world) when the Jewish people were expelled from Spain?

    I think the thing that bothers me most about "Rabbi's" and other fellow Jews giving glowing reviews of Jewish life under islamic rule, is that they go on about it in such a way that suggests they themselves romantically long for a time in which Jews will once more live in under islamic rule (while some go about doing their bit to sell-out their own people).

    As a Teimani Jew, I cannot help but have great contempt for such people who praise islamic rule and personally do not plan on ever living under islamic rule. It was from learning about my Teimani background that I grew to seriously loathe islam as a system, to the point where I even go as far as to dispute the notion that both Jews and muslims worship the same deity.

    Sometimes, I cannot help but wonder if the Rambam would have been as outspoken as Geert Wilder’s had he composed Iggeret Teiman in a Christian nation.


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