A Brief History of Jewish-Muslim Integration

One of the common themes you’ll hear from those who oppose Israelis and Palestinians joining together in a confederation is that Muslims and Jews are so culturally different that any mutual governance would be similar to mixing lions with lambs. Others claim that the Islam religion teaches violence; hence Jews cannot trust Muslims. While I am no expert on religion and certainly not on Islam, I can state that based on my personal experience, the opposite is true.

Let’s start with some facts. The worse betrayal of the Jews was by those who perpetrated the Holocaust. The concept of anti-Semitism, and the primitive racist theories that underpinned that concept, did not develop in the Arab world: it developed in Europe. Jews have suffered pogroms and discrimination, mass killings and humiliations by the millions— in Europe, not in the Arab world. Almost every country in Europe delivered Jews to the Nazis to be transported to concentration and death camps. Those Jews who could fled Europe; only a minority ever returned.

In contrast, when my parents left Iraq for Palestine in 1935, they did so not because life was bad in Iraq or they felt threatened in any way, but because my father was a Zionist. His parents and the rest of his extended family had a pleasant life in Iraq and were angry at him for leaving. Many family members whom I have asked about that time told me they had good memories; many said they still missed Iraq.

My family history is full of stories that illustrate their loyalty to that Arab county. My great-grandfather is said to have been protected by an Iraqi Bedouin who hid him from a Turkish officer who wanted to take him to the Ottoman army. This Bedouin man personally stood in front of the officer, who was astride a horse, pulled out his sword and warned the Turk against entering the tent where my great-grandfather was hiding.


Most of my family eventually left Iraq for Israel, but until the day they emigrated, they had excellent relations with the Muslims in their native land. They and other Jews were doing business and living safely. They were sharing the same culture with their Arab neighbors and traveling freely, not only in Iraq, but all over Asia and even into Europe. Jews in Iraq had their own schools and synagogues and were free to practice their religion. Many times I heard stories from Jews who left Iraq that their Muslim neighbors wept and hugged them while begging them not to leave. Just as there are Christian Arabs and Muslim Arabs, the Jews who lived in Iraq were Jewish Arabs.

Decades after our family had become established in Israel, my sister was saved from almost certain drowning by a group of Muslim Israeli fisherman. I know that today there are more than 1.4 million Muslims living in Israel who have excellent relationships with the Jews. The two religions coexist on almost every level. I heard on Israeli radio that Muslims donate body parts to Jews at much higher rate than Jews donate to Muslims. Any accident victim who is rushed to an emergency room in Israel has a substantial likelihood of being treated and operated on by a Muslim doctor. Muslims participate fully in Israel’s democracy; they vote and get elected in the same ratio as Jews. They participate in every aspect of life in Israel, despite the fact that it is a Jewish state. Like their Jewish neighbors, most Israeli Muslims are secular and not orthodox. A large segment of the Jewish population in Israel is of Arab descent; like their ancestors, they share the same customs and culture and way of life as Muslim Israelis.


While I can certainly understand European Jews being extremely angry at the Holocaust, it is the responsibility of Jews from Arab countries to point out the history of Jews and Arabs living in peace.

Jews and Muslims became at odds with the creation of the Zionist movement. Increasingly, Jews in the Arab world became affiliated with that movement, and this angered their Arab neighbors. Muslims sympathized with the predicament of the Palestinians who were facing a large immigration of Jews. This created a natural and understandable conflict. However the divide between Jews and Muslims is not racial, nor is it religious. It is a divide over nationalism. If the Jewish state of Israel was able to make peace with all the countries that betrayed and murdered Jews by the millions, it can certainly make peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world.

Both Muslims and Jews paid a heavy price for Europe’s anti-Semitism. They were forced to take sides with the people of their religion, and this set them against each other. The conflict has now reached tragic levels, but it can be resolved if we each teach our people tolerance. To do that, we need to expand democracy. A good way to expand democracy is by creating a confederation, a mutual government common to the peoples of Palestine and Israel.

Video illustration on how a Confederation will function is available at : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POjypzcii_8



About the Author
Josef Avesar is founder of the Israeli Palestinian Confederation, which advocates for a mutual third government for Israelis and Palestinians. An American-Israeli of Iraqi background, he practices law in the U.S., but travels frequently to Israel and Palestine.