Islam and modern anti-Semitism
by Ken Myers
“Jews in traditional Islamic societies experienced the normal constraints and occasional hazards of minority status. In most significant respects, they were better off under Muslim than under Christian rule, until the rise and spread of Western tolerance in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
“With rare exceptions, where hostile stereotypes of the Jew existed in the Islamic tradition, they tended to be contemptuous and dismissive rather than suspicious and obsessive. This made the events of 1948 — the failure of five Arab states and armies to prevent half a million Jews from establishing a state in the debris of the British Mandate for Palestine — all the more of a shock. As some writers at the time observed, it was bad enough to be defeated by the great imperial powers of the West; to suffer the same fate at the hands of a contemptible gang of Jews was an intolerable humiliation. Anti-Semitism and its demonized picture of the Jew as a scheming, evil monster provided a soothing answer.
“The earliest specifically anti-Semitic statements in the Middle East occurred among the Christian minorities, and can usually be traced back to European originals. They had limited impact, and at the time for example of the Dreyfus trial in France, when a Jewish officer was unjustly accused and condemned by a hostile court, Muslim comments usually favored the persecuted Jew against his Christian persecutors. But the poison continued to spread, and from 1933 Nazi Germany and its various agencies made a concerted and on the whole remarkably successful effort to promote and disseminate European style anti–Semitism in the Arab world. The struggle for Palestine greatly facilitated the acceptance of the anti-Semitic interpretation of history, and led some to blame all evil in the Middle East and indeed in the world on secret Jewish plots. This interpretation has pervaded much of the public discourse in the region, including education, the media, and even entertainment.
“Another view of the Jewish component, based in reality rather than fantasy, may be more instructive. The modern Israeli state and society were built by Jews who came from Christendom and Islam; that is, on the one hand from Europe and the Americas, on the other from the Middle East and North Africa. Judaism, or more broadly Jewishness, is a religion in the fullest sense — a system of belief and worship, a morality and a way of life, a complex of social and cultural values and habits. But until comparatively recent times Jews had no political role, and even in recent times that role is limited to a few countries. There is therefore no specifically Jewish political and societal culture or tradition. Ancient memories are too remote, recent experience too brief, to provide them. Between the destruction of the ancient Jewish kingdom and the creation of the modern Jewish republic, Jews were a part — one might say a subculture — of the larger societies in which they live, and even their communal organizations and usages inevitably reflected the structures and usages of those societies. For the last 14 centuries, the overwhelming majority of Jews lived in either the Christian or Islamic world, and were in many respects a component in both civilizations. Inevitably, the Jews who created Israel brought with them many of the political and societal standards and values, the habits and attitudes of the countries from which they came: on the one hand, what we have become accustomed to call the Judaeo-Christian tradition, on the other, what we may with equal justification call the Judaeo-Islamic tradition.
“In present-day Israel these two traditions meet and, with increasing frequency, collide. Their collisions are variously expressed, in communal, religious, ethnic, even party-political terms. But in many of their encounters what we see is a clash between Christendom and Islam, oddly represented by their former Jewish minorities, who reflect, as it were in miniature, both the strengths and the weaknesses of the two civilizations of which they had been part. The conflict, coexistence, or combination of these two traditions within a single small state, with a shared religion and a common citizenship and allegiance, should prove illuminating. For Israel, this issue may have an existential significance, since the survival of the state, surrounded, outnumbered and outgunned by neighbors who reject its very right to exist, may depend on its largely Western-derived qualitative edge.”
— from Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (Oxford University Press, 2002)