The Independent reviews ‘In Ishmael’s House’

Bat Yeor is a ‘loony’ and Joan Peters the author of a ‘sheer forgery’, writes Robert Irwin, reviewing Martin Gilbert’s new book in The Independent: Gilbert’s grim account of the tragic history of Jews under Muslim rule, In Ishmael’s House, is powerful enough without recourse to whatIrwin (the correct book title is here) considers Gilbert’s use of dubious sources:

The subtitle to Martin Gilbert’s new book (his 81st?) is a little misleading. This is not really a general account of the fortunes and misfortunes of Jews under Muslim rule from the seventh century until the present day. The early centuries are rushed through and, although Gilbert is aware of the magnificent and fabulously detailed account of Jewish life in medieval Egypt provided by SD Goitein’s five-volume A Mediterranean Society, he makes little use of it.

Similarly, though Gilbert quotes Bernard Lewis once, he has made surprisingly scant use of Lewis’s brilliant articles on the Jews under Turkish rule, which drew both on Hebrew sources and the Ottoman archives. Lewis’s The Jews of Islam (1984) remains the best, most balanced and accessible account of the Jews under Muslim rule.

By contrast In the House of Ishmael reads more like a bill of indictment than a history. It is overwhelmingly focused on the sufferings of the Jews in the Islamic lands in the 20th and 21st centuries in the wake of the foundation of the Zionist movement, the establishment of Israel and the successive victories of Israel over Arab armies. The indictment is damning indeed.

From Afghanistan to Morocco, Jews were made to suffer for the successes of Zionism. They were humiliated, robbed, raped, imprisoned, tortured and killed. In Iraq and elsewhere there were mass hangings of innocent Jews. For one Iraqi Jew driven out by pogroms of the 1940s this was “a tragedy which turned out to be a blessing in disguise – it got us out of that dreadful country and away from its destructive, treacherous and savage people”.

Gilbert makes use of copious anecdotal evidence and statistics to chronicle a shameful side of Arab and Islamic history. In the aftermath of the creation of Israel, 726,000 Palestinian Arabs were made refugees, while 850,000 Jews had to abandon their homes in the Arab lands. With some difficulty, Israel succeeded in assimilating most of the Jewish refugees. By contrast, the Palestinian refugees still languish in crowded camps. The paradox is that violent Arab racism and paranoia helped populate Israel.

Gilbert has so much material and such a strong case that it should not have been necessary to stack the deck. Yet it seems to me that he has done so and his use of sources is sometimes questionable. For his account of how the Jews in 13th-century Basra were forced to wear clothing that marked their lower status he cites a Jewish traveller, Jacob of Ancona, who allegedly travelled from Italy to China. But when in 1997 the purported narrative of Jacob’s travels was published by David Selbourne as The City of Light, the Sinologists Jonathan Spence and Tim Barrett, the Jewish historians David and Bernard Wasserstein and myself all challenged the authenticity of the text. Since then no original manuscript has turned up. It would have been safer to have relied on Goitein’s material.

Gilbert’s notes cite Bat Ye’or with approval several times. When, in 2002, her book Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide appeared, I reviewed it and then threw the book away. Bat Ye’or is not an academic and her books are poorly ordered assemblages of facts, real or alleged, that relentlessly show Islam and Arabs in an unfavourable light.

She believes that there is an Islamic conspiracy to turn Europe into something she calls “Eurabia”. Those interested to get a fuller sense of the dementedly Islamophobic polemics of this woman should consult the website

When Gilbert discusses what was happening in Palestine during the British mandate, he quotes Joan Peters’s From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict over Palestine to back up his assertion that more Arabs than Jews entered Palestine as immigrants in the 1930s. But when that book was published in 1984, critics swiftly demonstrated that its use of archives and statistics was seriously flawed and substantially misleading. Yehoshua Porath, professor of Middle East History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, denounced the book as “sheer forgery”.

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  • Anon, I looked up your link to Walter Z Laqueur's counterfactual history on MESH. Bear in mind that this is a product of Laqueur's imagination, a history that might have been if only. . . But it didn't happen. So what's your point? What does it all prove? WZL himself writes at the end that there were reasons why things did not develop as his imagination would have liked them to.

    Then you write:
    the Arabs' and Muslims' records on the issue of racial, ethnic, and religious tolerance has been, on balance, far batter that that of most other nations or faiths (if the matter is measured across the full historical scale. . .

    That is a matter of controversy. If we look at certain times and places in the Muslim domain contrasted with certain times and places in Christendom, then you might be right. Otherwise, your positive verdict for Islam is dubious. Indeed, the famous Jewish philosopher Maimonides asserted that the Muslims were crueller than the Christians [in his Epistle to Yemen].

    Yes, the Muslims were religiously tolerant as long as the dhimmis paid their yearly tribute [jizya] and kept to their inferior status [dhimma]. But sometimes even so they were persecuted. Norman Stillman writes that visiting his wife's family in Morocco, he was stoned by an Arab kid, he did it as almost an afterthought, as if hardly thinking about it. But this stoning, which did not physically injure Stillman, was just performance of an Islamic precept.

  • The fact is, however, (and I am trying my best to be as objective as is humanly possible !), by all accounts (especially by non-Muslim, including Western and Jewish, eastern as well western accounts), the Arabs' and Muslims' records on the issue of racial, ethnic, and religious tolerance has been, on balance, far batter that that of most other nations or faiths (if the matter is measured across the full historical scale, that is).

    A good read of history.

    A Counterfactual History, 1848-2008


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