Under Islam

By Aryeh Tepper
Thursday, October 21, 2010

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.

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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