Dilemmas of Dhimmitude: Lyn Julius untangles the controversies about Jewish life in Arab lands
'I have not come to rediscover my memories, nor to recognize those I have distorted, nor to imagine that I could live here again. I came to bury all this, to get rid of it, forget it, even hate it, as we are taught to hate those who do not want us.
I now realize that I am behaving in a typically Jewish fashion. I came back to Egypt as only Jews do, asiring to return to places they were in such a rush to flee' – [Andre Aciman, [False Papers: essays in exile.]
Last year, the Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafy invited the Jews of Libya to 'come home'. In October, a Jewish delegation did return for the first time in almost 40 years - and was well received. They wished to visit their roots, renew business ties, seek the restoration of Jewish communal sites and compensation for lost property. (A follow-up visit of some 20 Israelis of Libyan origin was scheduled for March 2005, the first time Israeli citizens will have set foot on Libyan soil.) And Libya, anxious to be rehabilitated in the post-Saddam era, seems eager to usher in a new era of reconciliation.
Yet this was not the first time the Libyan leader had asked the Jews to return to the land of their birth. When he made a similar offer in 1975 ('Are you not Arabs like us, Arab Jews?'), Albert Memmi, the Tunisian-born French writer and intellectual, scoffed:
'Yes, indeed we were Arab Jews – in our habits, in our culture, our music, our menu. But must one remain an Arab Jew if, in return, one has to tremble for one's life and the future of one's children and always be denied a normal existence? We would have liked to be Arab Jews. If we abandoned the idea, it is because over the centuries the Muslim Arabs systematically prevented its realization by their contempt and cruelty.' 'Who is an Arab Jew?', in [Jews and Arabs[Chicago: O¹Hara, 1975]; this essay can also be read on-line here. ).
The very expression 'Arab Jews' is a misnomer to describe people who were living in the Middle East and North Africa 1,000 years before Islam and the seventh-century Arab invasion. From these communities sprang the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Hillel and the philosopher Philo. In the last 50 years, after almost 3,000 years of unbroken presence, nearly a million Jews fled persecution and legalized discrimination and overcame much hardship to build new lives - mostly in Israel - where they now account for roughly half the Jewish population. The remaining 5,000 live reasonably securely in Yemen, Morocco and Tunisia, in spite of being targeted by recent Al-Qaeda bombings. But a key chapter of Jewish history is drawing to an irrevocable close.
Some have propagated the myth that the Jews left of their own free will, or were forced out by Zionist pressure. Israel itself has been complicit in drawing a veil over the Jewish narrative, emphasizing the romance of the Zionist 'pull' factor, while glossing over the unhappy circumstances of the 'push'. The comparatively neglected story of this Jewish exodus continues to live in the shadows.
So what is the truth about relations between Arabs and Jews? The issue is loaded with political implications for today. Consider two extreme views. If Jews and Arabs can be shown to have always coexisted harmoniously, then Arabs bear no responsibility for the existence of Israel; they are the undeserving indirect victims of European antisemitism. If, on the other hand, antisemitism is seen as endemic to the Middle East, that offers uncomfortably little hope for an end to the conflict. One thing is sure: a complex reality, varying from era to era, from region to region and ruler to ruler, does not lend itself easily to sweeping generalizations.
Ask Jews themselves about the life they left behind and they will wax lyrical about the scent of jasmine and lemon trees: sunsets over Alexandria harbour; samekh mousgouf, the fish grilled on the banks of the river Tigris; sleeping under the stars on the roof; a comfortable life of leisure and servants. Yet most of these same Jews fled for their lives with one suitcase.
Many Jews like to reminisce about their charmed lives and do not dwell on their hasty uprooting. But while these rosy images of the past reflect a genuine reality, Albert Memmi insists that it was temporary, a reasonably secure interlude lasting only for the duration of the colonial era, a matter of a few decades.
So what were Arab-Jewish relations like historically? Again there are two extreme competing answers to this question. On one view, Jews and Christians enjoyed the status of a 'protected' minority under Islam, and the Jews in Muslim Spain enjoyed a golden age of peace and prosperity. Others argue that Jews and Christians were 'protected' only from extermination and were never anything but second-class.
Muslims took control of the Middle East through [jihad religious wars of conquest. The indigenous Christians and Jews were spared conversion and death if they abided by certain terms of a dhimma agreement. They had to pay a special tax, the jizya, cede the centre of the road to Muslims, ride only donkeys, not horses. They could not build a synagogue taller than a mosque, could not testify against Muslims in court, could not bear arms, and had to wear distinctive clothing. In short, their status was one of institutionalized inferiority and humiliation.
However, like all other dhimmis, writes Norman Stillman in The Jews of Arab Lands (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1979), the Jews
'enjoyed extensive communal autonomy precisely because the state did not care what they did so long as they paid their taxes, kept the peace and remained in place.'
The golden age myth
One of leading writers on Islamic history, Bernard Lewis, believes the golden age in Spain is a myth - Jews were persecuted by both Muslims and Christians:
'Belief in it was a result more than a cause of Jewish sympathy for Islam. The myth was invented by Jews in nineteenth-century Europe as a reproach to Christians and taken up by Muslims in our own time as a reproach to Jews.
If tolerance means the absence of persecution, then classic Islamic society was indeed tolerant to both its Jewish and Christian subjects more tolerant perhaps in Spain than in the East, and in either incomparably more tolerant than was medieval Christendom. But if tolerance means the absence of discrimination, then Islam never was or claimed to be tolerant, but on the contrary insisted on the privileged superiority of the true believer in this world as well as the next ([Islam in History: Ideas, Men and Events in the Middle East' [London: Alcove Press, 1973]).
The truth is that both extreme forms of Arab-Jewish relations (and many in between) could obtain in different times and different places. Conditions for the Jews were good in the early Middle Ages, worse in the later Middle Ages, dire under the Almohads, difficult under the Mamluks. Life was best in the centre of the Ottoman Empire, hardest on the periphery. As the European powers increased their influence and during the colonial era, Jews and Christians acquired near-equal status to Muslims. Crucially, however, conditions for the non-Muslim minorities deteriorated again when Arab nation states gained their independence. To blame was a sinister nexus of European fascism and an anti-western Arab nationalist movement. Today, a virulent Islamist strain of anti-westernism and antisemitism sweeping the Arab and Muslim world bears little resemblance to the more tolerant end of traditional Muslim attitudes.
When the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, a good period began for the Jews. The Ottoman Turks populated the city not with fellow Muslims but productive and creative Armenians, Greeks and Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. Unlike Europe, where the Jews were the only minority, the Ottoman Middle East was a mosaic of religions and ethnicities. Jews, debarred only from the army and the diplomatic corps, rose to prominence as doctors, merchants and courtiers, at a time, to quote Professor Norman Stone's Foreword to Lord Kinross's study of The Ottoman Empire (Bury St Edmunds: Folio, 2003) when Christian kingdoms were shovelling heretics or Jews out to sea'.
Islam, unlike Christianity, did not view Jews as Christ-killers: they were simply benighted unbelievers. As Bernard Lewis explains in Semites and anti-Semites (New York: Norton, 1986),
'The situation of non-Muslim minorities in classical Islam falls a long way short of the standard set and usually observed in the present-day democracies. It compares, however, favourably with conditions prevailing in western Europe in the Middle Ages, and in eastern Europe for very much longer.'
Lewis traces the infiltration of specifically Christian hostility towards Jews - with its blood libels, fears of conspiracy and domination, images of Jews poisoning wells and spreading the plague - to the high Middle Ages, when many Christians converted to Islam, and to the particular influence of Greek Orthodox Christians.
Over the centuries a Muslim family, the Nusseibehs, were the keepers of the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, not because the Christian sects squabbled among themselves (although squabble they did) but as a symbol of Muslim primacy. To escape their inferiority, Christians were at the forefront of twentieth-century pan-Arabism; the founder of the League of the Arab Homeland was a Christian.
Christians, more conspicuous and identified with the Ottomans' European enemies, deflected attention from the Jews. They bore the brunt of persecution the 1915 genocide of over one million Armenians being the most extreme example. But their common dhimmitude did not make them any more sympathetic to their economic rivals, the Jews - quite the contrary. It was Christians, for example, who stirred up a blood libel in Damascus in 1840 (and on 34 subsequent occasions), a Christian who first translated The Protocols of the Elders of Zion into Arabic.
Dhimmitude on the fringes
In Iran, where there were fewer minorities, and in Yemen and North Africa, where Christianity had died out, the Jews led a miserable and degraded existence subject to a much stricter application of the rules of dhimmitude. They were confined to mellahs or ghettos and periodically subject to forced conversions. Whereas the Turks had introduced the fez in Iraq in 1808, so that religious groups should not be immediately recognizable by their headdresses, in Tunisia over a century later the social rules of dhimmitude were still in force, even under French colonial rule, and Albert Memmi's grandfather was still expected to wear the obligatory and discriminatory Jewish garb. Every Jew could expect to be hit on the head by any passing Muslim, a ritual which even had a name the chtaka. Shi'ites subscribed to ritual purity prejudices until recent times. A Jewish friend who lived in Shi'a Bahrain tells how her grandmother once picked up some fruit to see if it was ripe. The fruit seller tipped his basket to the ground, crying out 'You have defiled it!' In Iran, Jews were executed for brushing up against Muslims in the rain, and so 'defiling' them.
Dhimmitude and Zionism
Why did Zionism elicit fury from the start? An explanation suggested by Francisco Gil-White in 'Whitewashing the Palestinian Leadership' (http://emperors-clothes.com/gilwhite/Israel.htm#part4, 31 August 2003) is that
'the Arab upper classes saw dhimmitude as the cement of the social fabric, helping to guarantee the loyalty of the street. Many Arabs saw in the lowly status of Jews a confirmation of their own worth. And there was special contempt for the Jews, perhaps because, unlike the Christian case, no Jewish states existed to compete with Islamic states.'
The movement for a Jewish state in Palestine overturned the natural pecking order. When slavery was abolished, American whites in the Deep South responded by lynching black slaves. Similarly, as Albert Memmi writes,
'The Arabs . . . have not yet recovered from the shock of seeing their former underlings raise their heads, attempting even to gain their national independence. They know of only one rejoinder off with their heads!'
In Histoire de chiens (Paris: Mille et Une Nuits, 2004), Nathan Weinstock, a former Trotskyist, claims that the breakdown of the traditional dhimmi relationship was one of the root causes of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Jews became the focus of Arab aggression, he believes, when in 1908 the Hashomer Hatza'ir pioneers of Sejera dismissed their Circassian guards - who protected their settlement against Bedouin raids and replaced them with Jewish guards. For the Jews, this was an ideological statement of self-sufficiency. But for the neighbouring Arab [fellaheen, they had crossed a red line. They had reneged on their part of the dhimmitude agreement: the dog-like dhimmi, who was not allowed to bear arms, should always look to the Muslim for protection. The title of Weinstock's book is taken from the battlecry of those who slaughtered members of the old yishuv in Hebron in 1929: 'The Jews are our dogs!' Because the targets were indigenous Jews, not Zionists, he argues that Palestinian nationalism was predicated on bigotry.
Continued here: What were Arab-Jewish relations really like?
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