Interpreting Violence

How we interpret violence in the Middle East says much about how we view the ongoing Arab-Muslim war against the Jews there and how we tend to view Arab and Jewish cultures, more generally. Take the story of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens’ murder in Benghazi, Libya. The initial reports that I heard from the left press, as well as progressive-left websites like Daily Kos, claimed that concerned onlookers pulled him out of the wreckage in order to carry him to safety in the hopes that he might still be alive.

In more recent days, however, I am reading reports that these people did not carry him out of the wreckage in order to help him, but dragged his corpse through the streets triumphantly crying out “Alahu Akbar!” In Arutz Sheva, Phyllis Chesler writes:

I have been looking at the photos and the brief video of Ambassador Stevens and I have spoken to two different Arabists, who assure me that the mob dragging Steven’s body are chanting a song of victory over one’s enemies and are praising God for it.

Chesler, a woman who lived for a number of years in an Arab country as a young woman, does not believe for one second that the Libyans were trying to help Stevens, but she does not go nearly so far as Mark Tapson in a Front Page Magazine piece entitled, “The Sexual Pathology of the Libyan Attackers.”  Tapson writes:

Soon after the terrorist attack that left four Americans dead in Libya, reports began coming in that U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens was not only murdered by the Muslim mob, but also sodomized both before and after his death, and his corpse dragged through the streets. This grotesque defilement was willfully suppressed by the mainstream media…

It seems fairly obvious that the more well-disposed one is toward the Arab-Muslim world the more likely one is to believe that the Libyan’s sought to carry Stevens away from the site of violence and the less well-disposed toward the Arab-Muslim world the more likely one is to believe that it was a violent mob, even a mob who sodomized the man both before and after his death.  Since I have no way of knowing the truth of the matter I have decided, at least for the moment, to withhold judgment.

Nonetheless, it seems clear that this question of interpreting violence tells us much about how we view the Palestinians and the Jews in the conflict.  The more sympathetic one is toward the Palestinian people the more likely one is to interpret Palestinian violence, up to and including suicide bombings, as legitimate resistance against a racist, imperialist enemy.  The more sympathetic one is to the Jewish people, however, the more likely one is to interpret Jewish-Israeli violence as understandable reactions to Palestinian provocations.

We look at the same thing and we see something very, very different.  Progressives (pretending to be liberals) look at Jewish-Israeli violence and they see the iron boot of a militarist state.  Friends of Israel and friends of the Jewish people, however, tend to view Palestinian violence not as “resistance,” but as terrorism grounded in theologically-inspired race hatred towards Jews.

The question then becomes, what is the most reasonable way of broadly interpreting Middle East violence, both Arab and Jewish?  It seems to me that the only fair way of interpreting such violence is through looking at the numbers of people involved in the conflict on both sides as well as the history of Arab-Jewish relations in the region since the 7th century.

In terms of the numbers there are various ways of breaking it down.  At the moment there are 5.5 million Jews in the region along with 300 to 400 million Arabs.  From that perspective the Jews are a tiny minority surrounded by a largely hostile population.  From that perspective Jewish violence can easily be interpreted, particularly given the Holocaust, as a means of self-defense.  However, if we remove the Arab world, more generally, from the equation then we have a powerful Jewish state using violence against an allegedly oppressed minority, the Palestinians.  Is it the Jewish David versus the Arab-Muslim Goliath?  Or, is it the Palestinian David versus the Jewish-Israeli Goliath?

If you answer that question then you tell me almost all that I need to know about your views on the conflict.  But then, of course, there is history.  A pro-Israel Daily Kos blogger who goes under the monkier dhonig used to like to say that “History did not start in 1967.”  What he meant by that, of course, is that the conflict long precedes the Israeli re-acquisition of Judea and Samaria and that if we are to truly understand what is going on we must understand what preceded the “occupation” of the so-called “West Bank” and I heartily agree.

In fact, if we truly wish to understand the conflict we need to understand the nature of Jewish life in the Arab-Muslim world since the imposition of dhimmitude on the Jewish (and Christian) populations after Mohammad’s armies roared out of the Saudi peninsula in the 7th century.  The historical fact of the matter is that Jews living In Ishmael’s House, in some places and in some times had it considerably better than other Jews in other places and in other times.  The history of Jewish dhimmitude is long, but it is not monolithic.

Historian Martin Gilbert tells us:

At the core of the Covenant (of Omar – my note) was a promise to protect Jews and Christians – People of the Book – based on three essential benefits: security of life and property, freedom of religion and internal communal autonomy.  Each benefit was guaranteed provided certain conditions were met.  First and foremost among these conditions, dhimmis had to pay the jizya tax to the local ruler and accept the condition of ahl al-dhimma.


In addition to codifying existing rules, Abd al-Azziz formulated new ones.  Several of these were identical to laws against the Jews that were already in place in Christian Byzantium, but they were nonetheless new in the Muslim world.  There could be no building of new synagogues or churches.  Dhimmis could not ride horses, but on donkeys; they could not use saddles, but only ride sidesaddle.  Further, they could not employ a Muslim.  Jews and Christians alike had to wear special hats, cloaks and shoes to mark them out from Muslims.  They were even obliged to carry signs on their clothing or to wear types and colours of clothing that would indicate they were not Muslims, while at the same time avoid clothing that had any association with Mohammed and Islam… A dhimmi could not – and cannot to this day – serve in a Muslim court as a witness in a legal case involving a Muslim… Men could enter public bathhouses only when they wore a special sign around their neck distinguishing them from Muslims… Sexual relations with a Muslim woman were forbidden, as was cursing the Prophet in public – an offence punishable by death…


(Martin Gilbert, In Ishmael’s House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands, Yale University Press, 31 – 33.)

And so on and so forth.  This is the type of thing that Jews lived with under Arab-Muslim rule for 13 centuries until our liberation early in the twentieth century.  However good some Jews in some places may have had it as dhimmis, the institution of dhimmitude, at its best, was never better than the way African-Americans had it in the Jim Crow south and was often considerably worse.

When we look at the history of the Arab war against the Jews from the early twentieth century to the present it must be understood, if it is to be understood at all, within the context of the long centuries of Jewish abuse and oppression under the boot of Islamic imperialism.  When we think about the so-called “occupation,” i.e., the checkpoints that so humiliate Palestinians and the blockade of Gaza, we must understand that the Jewish state of Israel does not employ such methods out of a sense of meanness, or some irrational desire to punish the local Arabs, but out of a powerful sense of Jewish self-preservation and self-defense after centuries of abuse.

Furthermore, the conflict is not merely a conflict between Palestinian Arabs and Jews, but of the Arab nation, more generally, against the Jewish people of the Middle East.  If that were not the case, the Arab governments would not have waged war against us and they would have normalized relations by now, but they have not.

While I may not know at this point just what to make of the treatment of Ambassador Stevens by those who pulled him from the rubble, there is one thing that I know for certain.

The Jews remain a tiny, abused minority in the Middle East desperately trying to survive a deeply hostile majority population there that outnumber them 50 or 60 to one.

Anyone who doesn’t honestly understand that, doesn’t understand the conflict.

About the Author
Mike Lumish is a PhD in American history from the Pennsylvania State University and has taught at PSU, San Francisco State University, and the City College of San Francisco. He regularly publishes on the Arab-Israel conflict at the Times of Israel and at his own blog, Israel Thrives ( He has in recent years given conference papers on American cultural and intellectual history at The International Society for the History of Behavioral and Social Sciences in Dublin, Ireland, as well as at the Western Historical Association in Phoenix, Arizona and the American Cultural Association in New Orleans, Louisiana. Lumish is also the founding editor of the scholarly on-line discussion forum H-1960s. He can be contacted at