The ambiguity at the heart of Martin Gilbert’s book

Sir Martin Gilbert (Photo: Marc Israel Sellem)

How does Sir Martin Gilbert square his history of Jews in Muslim lands– a ‘litany of horrors’ in the words of Ilan Evyatar, who reported on Gilbert’s talk in Israel for the Jerusalem Post – with his hope that future relations between Jews and Muslims will ‘express the best of the past’? I’m not convinced by Gilbert’s argument that Maimonides could be a model. He did indeed experience both the worst of the worst and the best of the best of life under Muslim rule, but it was always as a dhimmi, whose skills were useful to his Muslim masters. It is not clear how the mark of dhimmitude can be erased without a major cultural shift in the Muslim world.

In an e-mail exchange with Gilbert that took place after his return to London, where he has been engaged in the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War, I asked him why he had chosen to begin his talk with the case of the Bali bomber and whether he saw Jewish- Muslim relations as eternally marked by that initial encounter and by the shadow of dhimmitude.

Gilbert referred me to the dedication to his book, saying that it was one of optimism. He added that “although the ‘mark’ of dhimmitude is clearly there today in many Muslim minds, I cannot believe that anything like that is necessarily eternal – if people can be found on both sides willing to work to moderate and erase it.”

Asked how the concept of dhimmitude projects on the ability of the Arab nations to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, Gilbert goes back to the Emir Feisal, the son of the grand sharif of Mecca, and later the king of Iraq, who in 1919 signed an agreement with Chaim Weizmann “welcoming the Jews to their national home in Palestine.”

Feisal would also write to the American Zionist leader Felix Frankfurter stating: “We Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement… We will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home.”

“Feisal,” says Gilbert, “could become a model for Arab nations to follow his lead. He was, after all, the ultimate Arab patriot and nationalist. His attitude to Zionism was modern and pragmatic, not linked to an ancient concept of second-class citizenship.”

But if there is one figure who, for Gilbert, perhaps sums up the vagaries of the Jewish experience under Muslim rule, it is Maimonides, the great philosopher and physician of the Middle Ages.

First of all, Gilbert explains, Maimonides fled ferocious persecution of the Jews by the Almohads in Spain, where his teacher had been among those butchered. Then, after finding sanctuary in Fez in Morocco, he was forced to convert to Islam under an obligation enforced shortly after his arrival on all Jews. Later he was arrested by the Muslim authorities on a charge of relapsing into Judaism, an accusation he would only escape when a Muslim friend attested to his good Muslim character.

Maimonides, Gilbert continues, then managed to leave Fez and make his way to Egypt, where he became the leader of the Jewish community, highly regarded by the local Muslim authorities to whom he became a leading adviser on both medical and ethical questions.

Yet, Gilbert relates, in a letter to the oppressed Jews of Yemen, who had asked for his advice on how to deal with the threat of persecution and forced conversion, Maimonides wrote: “No nation has ever done more harm to Israel than Ishmael. None has matched it in debating and humiliating us. None has been able to reduce us as they have.”

Maimonides, says Gilbert, understood what the extremes of persecution could be, yet he was able himself to lead his Jewish community to a time of considerable prosperity and acceptance by the local Muslim rulers.

Explaining the experience of Maimonides, Gilbert says: “One of the themes that emerges from my work and that of many scholars is that there always were Muslim rulers who were tolerant and more than tolerant of the Jews and understood what the Jews could contribute to their societies. But any ruler who cared to fall back on the tenets of Islam could simply end that tolerance overnight.”

Gilbert presents what can only be described as a shocking litany of horrors endured by Jews in Muslim lands, yet when asked how that history resonates for relations between Israel and Arab countries and how he would respond to criticism that his work overly focuses on that aspect, he replies that he also shows the long periods of “cooperation and calm, when Jews and Muslims found common cause and mutual and beneficial respect.”

Responding to a question put by a member of the audience on what can be learned about the future of Arab-Jewish relations – whether it is the history of persecution or the history of tolerance and cooperation that will prevail – Gilbert quotes Churchill: “The future, though imminent, is obscure.”

He concludes his history by expressing a hope that it will “promote a better understanding of the past, and help to make possible a future that emulates only the best aspects of the past.”

Is he optimistic that in the foreseeable future, given the current climate, that can be the case? “The current climate can surely change, hopefully in the foreseeable future. One can but hope – and pray,” he replies. “Both Jews and Muslims must try to set aside any instinct to racism and rejection of each other as suitable partners that sometimes clouds discourse, and work for a common platform – and a common cause: the well-being of mankind, of which both are an integral part.”

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  • There is a big typo problem in the quote of Maimonides. Can you guess where it is?

    "No nation has ever done more harm to Israel than Ishmael. None has matched it in debating and humiliating us. None has been able to reduce us as they have.”

    It should read "debasing" instead of "debating". That's how it is in the original writing. And it makes sense.

    I wish he meant debating, but it is far from truth. In fact, Maimonides in his writings amply claims that there can be no debate with islam doctrine, and no way to sway the muslims to look at the Torah, because they think that it was tempered with by jewish scholars to hide the name of their "madman prophete" [word of Maimonides "Ha-Meshuga"].

    Maimonides goes even further to claim that it would be easier to debate and sway the christians to the right path of the Torah then Muslims, because of the formers attention to the old testaments of the Hebrew prophetes.

  • As an ashkenazi Jew, I have learned so much about my other family: Sephardis- who lived in arab lands, over the past year.In fact, i like them better. At school I was bullied by (other)ashkenazi Jews and will never forget! Please forgive my ignorance. This is the problem with ashkenazis: they have no idea what Sephardic Jews lived through. It is almost as if the ashkenazis like Sir Martin blame them for suffering dhimmitude. However, he is kidding himself if ashkenazis lived any better. Of course there were rich and poor ones. The poor were like the canary in the coal-mine- when something went wrong and the christians turned on the Jews to blame them, the poor ran first, or were killed in a pogrom. Sir Martin's group memory has failed him and that is fatal for a historian.
    PS I just wonder if he was knighted for his services to convenient forgetfulness!


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