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Under Islam

Jews in Iran, 1918.

In the two decades following the establishment of the state of Israel, approximately 850,000 Jews were forcibly driven out of Arab lands. Their expulsion marked the beginning of the end of 2,500 years of Jewish life in North Africa, the greater Middle East, and the Persian Gulf. Until recently, their story has been largely unrecognized and untold in the English-speaking world. That is the task undertaken by the British historian Martin Gilbert, known for his multi-volume biography of Winston Churchill and many works on Jewish history, in his new book, In Ishmael's House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands.

Relevant Links
The Other Refugees  U.S. House of Representatives. In 2008, Congress invoked the history of Jewish refugees from Muslim countries and called on the government to work for the just resolution of their claims. (PDF)
Who is an Arab Jew?  Albert Memmi, JIMENA. In a 1975 essay, the distinguished Jewish-Tunisian author offers his thoughts on what it means to be an “Arab Jew.”
The Decline and Fall of Islamic Jewry  Bernard Lewis, Commentary. Hostility to Jews is deeply rooted in the Islamic past, but in the modern era it has assumed a new and radically different character. (1984)  

Ambitious to a fault, Gilbert begins his saga a full millennium before the birth of Muhammad in the late 6th century C.E., and by the end of his first 100 pages has covered the first centuries of Islam, the age of the Crusaders, and the spread of the Ottoman empire. The remaining two-thirds of the book are devoted to the past 100 years. Here he traces the competition between the Jewish and Arab national movements during World Wars I and II, the various reactions to the 1947 UN partition resolution and the creation of Israel, Jewish life in Muslim lands since 1948, and the integration of Jews from Muslim lands into Western countries and, of course, Israel.

What saves Gilbert's narrative from a deadly superficiality, if not always from monotony, is his tight focus. Throughout, he poses one question to his material: was the Jewish minority protected, or persecuted? When Muslim rulers treated their Jews as a "protected people," the Jews, he shows, repaid the favor by contributing immensely to Muslim culture and society. When the Jews were persecuted, not only they but the society they lived in suffered. By proceeding in this fashion, Gilbert succeeds in exploding the myth, manufactured by Islamic ideologues and peddled by left-wing apologists, to the effect that pre-modern Jews always lived harmoniously with their Muslim hosts. Sometimes this was the case; often it was not.

Another virtue of Gilbert's panoramic treatment is that it helps the reader to see patterns missed by more detailed studies. Take the much-written-about case of Haj Amin al-Husseini, one of the more poisonous figures to have emerged in the 20th century's plethora of world-class thugs, gangsters, despots, and tyrants. From the beginning of his career, this "Grand Mufti of Jerusalem" was closely associated with the radical Muslim Brotherhood. In 1929 he orchestrated the Arab-Muslim pogroms in which the ancient Jewish community of Hebron was massacred. In 1937, moving on to Baghdad, he helped stir up the passions that ultimately issued in a two-day anti-Jewish pogrom.  While in Iraq he also initiated contacts with Nazi Germany, and in 1941, now living in Berlin, he created a Muslim SS division to abet Hitler's war in Bosnia.

Gilbert's bird's-eye conspectus of Husseini's career prompts a number of questions. One has to do with the relatively recent emergence of the terrorist group Hamas on the Palestinian political scene.  Hamas is a branch of the same Muslim Brotherhood to which Husseini adhered, and it is worth recalling that, during the 20's and 30's, Palestinian opposition to Zionism was indeed deeply Islamic in character. From this larger perspective, might the rise of Hamas be more correctly seen as a re-emergence, and the previous dominance of the Palestinian movement by the PLO—another extremist organization but a secular nationalist one—as but a passing interval in an essentially Islamist continuum?

Another question pertains specifically to Iraq. Gilbert describes how deeply Nazi agitation had penetrated Iraqi society in the 1930's, even before Haj Amin al-Husseini's arrival.  The mufti's soft spot for Nazi-style anti-Semitism only added to the mix. Post-World War II Iraq was known for state brutality, and one can't help wondering about the Nazi contribution to it. In one particularly grotesque case from 1969—ten years before Saddam founded his sadistic regime—nine Iraqi Jews were hanged on trumped-up charges; a national holiday was declared and a million people went to see the bodies—as Gilbert writes, "dancing, chanting, and even picnicking." How can one account for this sort of frenzied mass barbarism, unparalleled in the rest of the Arab-Islamic world? Gilbert notes that even the Egyptian government, an ardent enemy of Israel, felt compelled to protest.

Academic historians will surely find much to criticize in Gilbert's book. Although the work is copiously footnoted, his favorite source appears to be the Encyclopaedia Judaica, not your standard scholarly fare. But academic criticism has blinded itself to the crucial role that general histories play in educating the public, a role even more necessary in an age when too many historians conceive their mission as the "deconstruction" of overarching narratives. In Ishmael's House is a clear account of an important story, and whatever its deficiencies, Gilbert is to be thanked for writing it.

A final word should be added regarding the cultural significance of the work.  In his chapter on the absorption of Jews from Muslim lands into Israeli society, Gilbert quotes a Jewish Israeli public figure who proudly declares, "I am an Arab. . . . My language is Arabic, I'm a Jew but I'm Arabic." An Arabic Jew? Many Western Jews, accustomed to the capsule phrase "Arab-Israeli conflict," are likely to find such a conjunction strange, if not unintelligible. But, with exceptions, most Western Jews haven't been exposed to eastern Jewish cultures. By contrast, to many who come from the Arab world, or whose parents came from the Arab world, Arab culture is as integral to their identity as Yiddish is to the identity of Ashkenazim. If Martin Gilbert's book increases awareness of the Arab dimension of Jewish identity, it will not only have enhanced historical understanding but have contributed significantly to Jewish cultural life.

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Independent Patriot on October 21, 2010 at 7:29 am (Reply)
This book seems long past overdue. it is time the world saw the truth of the history of Sephardim from Babylon to the flight to freedom from Arab lands. It is a narrative that those of us in the Jewish community need to make sure is heard and often.
Geoff on October 21, 2010 at 9:34 am (Reply)
A good review with occasional superficialities. Like "Gilbert succeeds in exploding the myth, manufactured by Islamic ideologues and peddled by left-wing apologists..." The reviewer ignores the fact that this narrative is actually a Jewish contrivance. 19th Century European Jews "manufactured" this theme of tolerant Islam, or "The Golden Age," to make an invidious comparison to how they were being currently treated in Christian Europe and to shame contemporary "civilizated" Christians into behaving as generously toward Jews as "barbarous" Muslims once had 500 years earlier.
Itzik G on October 21, 2010 at 2:29 pm (Reply)
There are far better books to read by experts in the field using primary sources then a text by someone like Gilbert who relies on secondary sources or assistants who do the work for him.
For example, you would think that someone such as Sir Martin would actually know the true length of Queen Victoria's reign, though writes on page 36 of his History of the Twentieth Century (Vol. 1) that she had reigned "sixty-one years." A reign from 1837-1901 doesn't quite make 61 years. This is an example of sloppy editing, scholarship, or both, which makes me question why anyone would read a popular history that obviously has the subtext of a political axe to grind. Read Goitein or Stillman instead -- examples of true scholarship and good reads as well.
ben yaacov on October 22, 2010 at 10:03 am (Reply)
"I am an Arab. . . . My language is Arabic, I'm a Jew but I'm Arabic." An Arabic Jew? Good thing you question that. I have known of a few Middle Eastern Jews who refer to themselves as such but never met one personally. They are widely regarded as nutters. They are in no way representative of the community's thinking.

My family is of the Near East and refers to themselves as Iraqi Jews or Israeli Jews (from Hebron). Never ever as Arab Jews. To do so is a total repudiation of who we are. It is also equally repugnant and insulting when someone refers to us as such. To be clear not because there is anything wrong with being Arab if you are an Arab, but we are not Arab and our existence has always been one of parallel communities that coexisted along with other minorities among Arabs but always viewed as separate.

It is the same of every other N. African or Middle Eastern Jew. They will refer to themselves as Moroccan, Yemeni, Algerian, Egyptian, Persian or Iranian, Syrian, Kurdish etc. None call themselves Arab.
Aryeh Tepper on October 23, 2010 at 12:27 pm (Reply)
Ben Yaacov: I of course don't question your experience. However, my experience confirms Gilbert's anecdote: I know many Jews from Arab lands, or whose parents come from Arab lands, who refer to themselves as Arab Jews. They do so primarily because culturally speaking - food, music, language, and certain aspects of familial structure - they are Arab.
Sylvia on October 23, 2010 at 3:21 pm (Reply)
Itzik G
Goiten concentrated on the Jews in the Islamic Middle Ages while Stillman wrote about the Jews in Arab Lands. Gilbert's book is about the Jews in Muslim lands since the birth of Islam to our era. Hardly the same thing.
Julian Tepper on October 23, 2010 at 5:09 pm (Reply)
The case for the need of a work such as Gilbert's seems to be made by the comments to date.

When measured against the enormity of the feast of information Gilbert has apparently laid before the non-cognoscenti, the light-weighted, almost trivial critiques offered above are as forceful a 30-second drizzle at a picnic.

Julian Tepper
Placitas, NM
BethesdaDog on October 29, 2010 at 12:35 am (Reply)
I thought Stillman wrote the water diet
CONSERVATIVE JEW on October 30, 2010 at 1:45 pm (Reply)
Having grown up in a very secular and left-wing household and had to learn anything about my religion and heritage outside the home, I recall taking a class in religion in college where the text book clearly states (and the liberal professor reiterated) that Jews "fared better" in Arab lands than in Christian Europe. "Fared better" is a matter of degree. So, for decades I believed this myth -- that Christians were more dangerous to Jews than Muslims. It is only in recent years that I have learned that the Holocaust was not a Christian initiative because the Nazis didn't believe in Christianity either. I also have learned that the only reason Jews survived prior to the Zionist movement is because they were on par with Arabs economically -- in other words, in the lower classes, and many had to pay tribute to their Arab/Ottoman overlords to survive. When European Jews from Europe started moving into Palestine, being the skilled folks that they were, they soon started to establish businesses, farms and were rising up the economic ladder than the backward Muslim majority. This is what led to the severe anti-Jewish riots in Palestine in the 20s and 30s. The rest is history. Not wanting to "upset" the Arab majority, Britain (which had the mandate in Palestine) effectively closed off the country to Jewish immigration, even during the war when it was clear that Hitler was going to annihilate the Jews. So, the truth is that whenever Jews or really any minority starts to look like its more successful than the "majority," they immediately become scapegoated and despised. Thanks for letting me comment.

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