In the difficult, current climate for Jews and Israel, the writer Howard Jacobson must be applauded for being one of the rare public figures in Britain prepared to speak up against antisemitism. In the BBC World Service programme On Background (the segment begins at 34:20 ), he explains how antisemitism is still a serious problem in the West after 2,000 years. Traditional anti-Jewish Christian libels and tropes of Jewish power, he adds, are now being applied to Israel, the Jewish state.
But 50 minutes into the programme, he drops this bombshell:
“There was not really a problem with Muslim antisemitism. Islam comes later on. Jews were able to live reasonably well in Muslim countries, condescended-to a bit, second-class citizens, but they were not treated as vilely as they were in Europe.”
What? Tell that to institutionally-inferior dhimmi Jews stoned by small children, Yemenite Jews made to clean the sewers, Bokharan Jews forced to convert to Islam, ‘untouchable’ Persian Jews, Berber-Jewish serfs to their tribal masters, Algerian Jews who survived the 1934 Constantine riots, Iraqi Jews who lived through the 1941 massacre known as the 1941 Farhud.
I could go on.
As a self-described student of antisemitism, Jacobson is found wanting when he says that Jews lived reasonably well.
He is not alone: Every 20th century Jewish home had the classic work by Heinrich Graetz ‘The History of the Jews’ on its bookshelf. Graetz wrote:
“This religion (meaning Islam)…has exercised a wonderful influence on the course of Jewish history and on the evolution of Judaism.”
Even Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, believed the myth. He said: ‘I would not like to do any injustice. The Muslim world has treated the Jews with considerable tolerance. The Ottoman Empire [of which the Arabs were a major part] received the Jews with open arms when they were driven out of Spain and Europe, and the Jews should never forget that.”
True enough. But Britain and Holland — outposts of Christian Europe — also welcomed in Sephardi Jews. And less than 100 years after welcoming them in to Constantinople, sultan Murat III called for the liquidation of the Jews.
The great historian Bernard Lewis says that the myth of Muslim tolerance is one of the great myths propagated by 19th century Jewish historians who wanted to embarrass the west into giving European Jews greater civil rights. Belief in the myth of Muslim tolerance 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,” he writes.
Scholars are beginning to re-assess the myth of peaceful coexistence. Even the so-called Golden Age is not as guilded as it is cracked up to be. Jews under Islam had few rights and no security.
The great rabbi Moses Maimonides fled the fundamentalist Almohades in Spain: “Never did a nation molest, degrade, debase, and hate us as much as they,” he declared.
Of course there were times when Jews did live well, but there were times and places when the great mass of Jews did not.
Jacobson has made a speciality of studying European antisemitism. But he does no-one any favours by denying or downplaying the existence of Muslim antisemitism. Israel provided a haven from pre-existing persecution, but the effect of Jacobson’s words is to blame the establishment of Israel for ruining the ‘harmonious’ relations between Muslims and Jews.
It’s untrue and hardly the impression Jacobson, a staunch defender of Israel, should have wished to convey.