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Antisemitism in the Islamic world

Antisemitism in the Islamic world has had a distinct trajectory from that of Western Christian civilisation. Richard Breitman (2007) provides an excellent historical overview of Muslim antisemitism, which he contrasts with Christian antisemitism. Although Jews (as well as other non-Muslim groups) undoubtedly faced discrimination in Muslim countries, they were not historically denigrated as an inferior racial group (unlike in Nazi-occupied Europe). Antisemitism expressed in racial terms was rare, and the gradual appearance of antisemitic representations (such as the blood libel accusation) can be regarded as a European importation into the Muslim world during the colonial era (Stillman, 2010).

There are diverse academic views on the origins and development of antisemitism in the Islamic world. Some scholars (e.g. Aziz, 2007; Chanes, 2004; Cohen, 2002) have argued that there was no policy or practice of discrimination aimed specifi

at Jews and that antisemitism formed part of a more general discrimination towards non-Muslims. Others (e.g. Gerber, 1986; Perry and Schweitzer, 2002; Shahvar, 2009) have argued that discrimination towards Jews in the Islamic world, while qualitatively different from that of the Western Christian civilisation, was much more fervent than that directed against Christians. Most scholars emphasise the qualitative differences between Western/European antisemitism and that of the Islamic world by highlighting that in the latter context Jews were not generally regarded as a “cosmic evil” or as “racially inferior” (Lewis, 1999). There is a suggestion that antipathy towards Jews were religiously motivated and, thus, more akin to “antiJudaism” than antisemitism. Moreover, it has been argued that, while antisemitism in the Christian world was long-standing and consistent, there were considerable fl in Muslim attitudes towards Jews in accordance with social and political context (Laqueur, 2009; Kramer, 1995).

Some scholars have turned to the examination of Sharia (Islamic Law) in order to understand the existence of antisemitism. Under Islamic law, Jews were attributed dhimmi status, which meant that they were tolerated and protected as an offi minority provided that they accepted a subordinate and inferior status to Muslims (Lazarus-Yafeh, 1999; Poliakov, 1974). In return for toleration and protection, Jews were required to accept Muslim superiority and to pay a special tax known as the jizya. There were other social and political restrictions which varied in accordance with jurisdiction – for instance, in some contexts, Jews were required to wear clothing or insignia that clearly distinguished them from Muslims and, in others, they could not serve as witnesses in litigation cases against Muslims (see also Lavarus-Yafeh, 1999). In his historical overview of antisemitism in Iran, Shahvar (2009) argues that Shiite Islam has a long history of radical antisemitism and that the position of Jews in Shiite Iran was more perilous than in Sunni Muslim countries.

Stillman (2010) observes that, although both the Jews and Christians were attributed the dhimmi status, Muslims generally regarded Christians as more sincere, less treacherous and less infi than Jews. However, Goitein (1971, p. 283) notes that, unlike in Christian societies, in Islamic societies antisemitism was generally
“local and sporadic, rather than general and endemic”. It appears that anti-Jewish sentiment increased and that anti-Jewish stereotypes emerged when Muslims were led to believe that Jews did not act in accordance with their dhimmi (subordinate) status as dictated by Islamic law. Although there were certainly outbreaks of violence against Jews during medieval times (Perry and Schweitzer, 2002), this was not comparable in scale or magnitude to the anti-Jewish pogroms and mass executions observable in medieval Christendom. It is noteworthy that many Jews continued to live in Islamic countries until well into the mid-twentieth century, even after the establishment of the State of Israel (Simon, Laskier and Reguer, 2002).

While antisemitism in Western Christian civilisation (and even in Nazi Germany) clearly drew upon Christian theology in order to substantiate its arguments, Islamic Holy Scripture was relatively ambivalent about Jews and Judaism. Given that Muslims regard the Koran as the verbatim word of God, communicated through the Angel Gabriel, this in turn created ambivalent attitudes towards Jews in the general population. In examining Koranic representations of the Jews, it appears that the Prophet Mohammed held a generally positive attitude towards the Jews during his early stage of his career when he lived in pagandominated Mecca. Both Judaism and Christianity were positively evaluated as “ahl al-Kitab” (“people of the Book”), a reference to the monotheistic Abrahamic religions with a revealed scripture, vis-à-vis polytheist traditions that prevailed in Mecca at that time.

However, the Prophet's attitudes towards Jews appeared to worsen when in Medina in 622 he encountered the large, educated Jewish communities from whom he was subjected to ridicule and rejection (Stillman, 2010). The Koranic verses revealed in Medina referred to the Jews as “Yahud” and “Hud” (“Jews”) and “alladhina hadu” (“those who are Jewish”), which have negative connotations (Durán and Hachiche, 2001). Furthermore, there are overtly negative verses in the Koran, which inter alia anchor Jews to interconfessional tensions and conflict (Sura II:113); represent them as self-righteously believing that only they are beloved of God (Sura II:111); indicate that Jews deliberately distort the meaning of Holy Scripture and therefore invite the wrath of God (Sura IV:46). Similarly, some of the Ahadith (the deeds and sayings which are commonly attributed to the Prophet) depict Jews as dishonest, untrustworthy and malevolent. Perry and Schweitzer (2002, p. 266) argue that the Ahadith are “even more scathing (than the Koran) in attacking the Jews”. Jews were depicted as “men whose malice and enmity were aimed at the Apostle of God” (Ibn Hisham, Sira 1, 516), as malicious and self-centred (Al-Waqidi, 363ff). Moreover, the following Hadith, attributed to the Prophet Mohammed but related by Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari (810–870), has been widely interpreted as evidence of the theological origins of antisemitism in the Islamic world:

The Day of Judgement will not come about until the Muslims fight against the Jews and the Muslims kill them until the Jews hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say “O Muslims, O Abdullah, there is a Jew behind me,
come and kill him.” Only the Gharkad tree would not do that because it is one of the trees of the Jews (Salih Muslim, 41:6985)

This interpretation can be attributed to the fact that some social, religious and political institutions in the Islamic world have cited this Hadith in pronouncements, often in relation to the State of Israel. For instance, the Hamas Charter also includes this Hadith as evidence of the necessity to combat the Jewish State (see Litvak, 1998, for a discussion of the Islamicisation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). Moreover, some literature in the Islamic world (e.g. books, stories and poetry) delegitimised and dehumanised Jews as rodents, apes and dogs (Perry and Schweitzer, 2002), although there were no accusations of a Jewish world conspiracy, ritual murder or the poisoning of wells as was observable in European literature (Lewis, 1999). In Islamic theology, representations of Jews and Judaism appear to be ambivalent – sometimes positive and at others highly condemnatory. However, as demonstrated by Hamas's use of the above-cited Hadith, Islamic theology can constitute a source of antisemitic representations for those who wish to delegitimise and demonise the Jewish people.

Kramer (1995) argues that Islamic tradition did not provide the theological or cultural resources for the development of the antisemitic representation of the “Eternal Jew” and that this must have been imported into Islamic contexts from European antisemitism. There was a tenuous representation of the Machiavellian Jew in the Islamic argument of Tahrif which referred to the accusation that Jews had falsified their scripture (Lazarus-Yafeh, 1999), although this accusation was also employed to discredit other religious groups and their texts. Moreover, as observable in the above-cited Hadith (Salih Muslim, 41:6985), Jews were certainly perceived as inviting the wrath of God due to their alleged actions. Modern antisemitic representations of European origin, which emphasised the Machiavellian character of Jews, appeared to complement and extend the subtler theological representations in Islam.

In contrast to the overt anti-Judaism in the Islamic world, it appears that European antisemitic myths first surfaced among Arabic-speaking Christians in Syria who maintained close social, cultural and economic ties with European nations and thereby served as a “bridge” connecting Europe and the Arab world. On the one hand, Arab Christians shared Arab Muslims' contempt and disdain for Jews and, on the other, they were familiar with the negative images of Jews held by Christian European traders and missionaries. Although some European antisemitic representations, such as that of Jews as deicide and that of Jews as a cursed people, were observable among Arab Christians, the blood libel and host desecration accusation and the representation of Jews as an inferior race were generally unknown in the Middle East. The blood libel accusation first appeared in Aleppo, Syria in the 1700s and gained momentum after the notorious Damascus Affair in 1840. This was an incident in which eight prominent Jews in the city of Damascus were accused of murdering a Christian monk for ritualistic purposes
(Florence, 2004). The accused were imprisoned and tortured and several of them died, and the local community pillaged a synagogue in a suburb of the city.

Subsequent to the Damascus Affair, the blood libel accusation lodged itself in cultural consciousness and was more systematically levelled against Jews in Syria, Palestine and Egypt throughout the nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was translated and published in Arabic and began to be cited and publicised by Arab nationalists. Similarly, Mein Kampf was translated and published in Beirut in 1935. Despite their discrediting in the Western world, the Protocols and Mein Kampf have become bestsellers in the Islamic world (Wistrich, 2010), where they are praised and recommended by religious and political leaders alike. Antisemitic literature like the Protocols and Mein Kampf and also the close political ties between the Arab world and Nazi Germany helped to engender antisemitic social representations in the Arab world, which were to be enduring and fervent (Hirszowicz, 1966). Indeed, antisemitism was so firmly established in Nazi-allied Iraq that on 1st July 1941 Jews were blamed for the fall of the pro-Nazi al-Gaylani regime which had just fled Baghdad and a deadly anti-Jewish pogrom broke out in the capital, claiming the lives of 179 Jews and injuring hundreds more. Though unprecedented in the region, antiJewish pogroms were to follow in Egypt, Tripolitania (Libya) and Syria. Through the proliferation of antisemitic literature, the Muslim world has come to accept and internalise many of the discredited antisemitic myths, such as that of the blood libel and that of the “all-powerful and all-controlling Jews”, that were subsequently rejected and ridiculed in post-Holocaust Europe (Berenbaum, 2009, p. 6).

Today, the highest levels of antisemitism tend to appear in Arab Muslim nations where between 80 to 85 per cent of the population manifests high levels of antipathy towards Jews. It is noteworthy that Jordan, a nation with no Jewish population and which signed a peace treaty with the State of Israel in 1994, has a 98–100 per cent unfavourability rating (Anti-Defamation League, 2007, 2009). As Perry and Schweitzer (2002, p. 10) note, in many Muslim countries, “antisemitism is pervasive and vicious, routinely employing Christian and Nazi myths, which most westerners now regard as repulsive”. Hence, the boundaries of acceptability in many parts of the Muslim world seem to permit the dissemination and encouragement of antisemitism at both institutional and social levels. Government officials and political leaders play an important role in fomenting antisemitic sentiment among Arab and Muslim populations (Simon and Schaler, 2007). Just a cursory glance at newspaper reporting in many Arab and Iranian newspapers clearly demonstrates this – journalists regularly depict ugly caricatures of Jews with hooked noses, hunchbacks and kippas and as animals in order to dehumanise them (see Chapter 6). Moreover, even in Malaysia, a Muslim country with which Israel has had no dispute, the Prime Minister reportedly attributed the fall of the ringgit (the Malaysian currency) to a Jewish conspiracy against Muslims (see Perry and Schweitzer, 2002). In her detailed account of antisemitic imagery in the contemporary Arab-Muslim world, Yadlin (1999) notes that, as in European antisemitism, competing and contradictory accusations are levelled against
Jews, such as the charges of having invented communism and capitalism, and democracy and dictatorship. Moreover, Spencer (2010) argues that antisemitism is quite central to the worldview of political Islamists. As Chapter 3 demonstrates, antisemitism is manifested in a multitude of ways, usually in conjunction with anti-Israeli depictions, but one of the most overt forms of antisemitism which persists in the contemporary world is Holocaust denial.

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