What’s the Truth about . . . Muslim Anti-Semitism?

Misconception: Unlike the Jews of Christian Europe who suffered pogroms, blood libels, Crusades, et cetera, the Jews living under Islamic rule were not persecuted. It was the rise of the Zionist movement that spurred Muslim anti-Semitism.

Fact: Jews living under Islamic rule were no strangers to persecution.

Background: Founded in the early seventh century, Islam quickly conquered vast areas and “persuaded” many to convert. For some 1,400 years, Jews lived under Muslim rule in various Arab lands. There were better and worse times, depending on the particular time period and country. But even in good times, Jews were always regarded as second-class citizens. Islam views itself as Din al-Haqq, the “religion of truth,” while Judaism and Christianity are viewed as Din al-Batil “religion[s] of falsehood.” Therefore one who adheres to a religion of falsehood can never attain the status of one who accepts the “religion of truth.”

At the time Mohammed founded the religion, Jews lived in every major town in the Arabian Peninsula. Initially he hoped to interest the Jews in Islam, but when they refused to convert, he led a brutal campaign against them. In addition, the terms imposed on the surviving Jews which designated them as dhimmis, “protected” non-Muslims subject to sanctioned discrimination, set the precedent for subsequent Islamic law.1

The Jews, together with other non-Muslims, were to live as a subject population as outlined in the Pact of Umar, the document of surrender offered by the victorious second caliph, Umar b. al-Khattab, to the Christian patriarch of Jerusalem in 637.2 One of the terms of the pact is that non-Muslims must wear distinctive clothing, a decree that took many forms over the centuries.

For example, in 807, Baghdad’s caliph forced the Jews to wear a yellow badge, which was later adapted by Christian Europe and ultimately, by the Nazis. In Yemen, the Atarot Edict of 1667 prohibited Jews from wearing amana (headgear), and the Earlocks Edict made it compulsory for Jewish men to grow earlocks (peyot).3

Rambam, born in Cordoba, Spain in 1138, experienced persecution and exile firsthand when the Almohads, a Muslim sect with a policy of forced conversions, conquered Spain.4 His family fled to Fez, Morocco in 1160, then to the Crusader-ruled Land of Israel in 1165 and finally to Egypt in 1167. Once in Egypt, Rambam spent much of his life living in a tolerant Muslim society. However, many Jews living in other regions under Islamic rule feigned allegiance to Islam and practiced Judaism in secret, prompting the Rambam to pen his famous Epistle on Martyrdom (Iggeret HaShmad), in which he offered solace to forced converts. Some years later, the Jews of Yemen, threatened with forced conversion, turned to the Rambam for advice. In response, in 1172, he wrote his celebrated Epistle to Yemen (Iggeret Teiman) where he wrote: “Remember, my coreligionists, that on account of the vast number of our sins, God has hurled us into the midst of this people, the Nation of Ishmael, who have persecuted us severely, and passed baneful and discriminatory legislation against us . . . No nation has ever done more harm to Israel.”5

The Rambam’s teacher in Fez, Judah ibn Sussan, was martyred in 1165. This was followed in 1232 with the massacre of the Jews in Marrakesh. Following a brief respite, persecution of Jews in Morocco resumed and the first mellah, or ghetto, was established in Fez in 1438. The late eighteenth century again saw the widespread plunder and slaughter of Moroccan Jewry.6

Even during relatively peaceful times, conditions for Moroccan Jews were tough. They were forced to walk barefoot in certain towns,7 and in other towns, had to wear sandals of straw. Muslim children would often throw stones at Jews in the streets.8

For the most part, the situation for Jews in Arab lands was precarious. In eleventh- century Granada, the leading Jewish authority, Shmuel HaNagid, was vizier for over three decades until his death in 1056, and times were peaceful for the Jewish population. Then in 1066, Shmuel HaNagid’s son Joseph was murdered by a frenzied mob. His body was crucified on the city’s main gate and the following morning the savage mob slaughtered the entire Jewish community of Granada, an estimated 5,000 Jews, and razed the Jewish Quarter.9

Around 1140, during the “Golden Age” of Muslim-ruled Spain, Rav Yehudah HaLevi, a poet, philosopher and physician, chose to leave the Diaspora and move to Eretz Yisrael. While at the time his leaving a relatively comfortable life probably raised a few eyebrows among his fellow Jews, less than a decade later the Almohads overran his native Spain and imposed forced conversions.

The blood libel, a European Christian invention that first arose in the twelfth century, made its way to Islamic countries by the seventeenth century. The most famous Muslim blood libel was the 1840 Damascus Affair that resulted in torture, death and destruction.

Even Jews living in the Land of Israel prior to 1917, when it was under Islamic rule, were subject to persecution. It was not the Zionists who initiated the return to the Land in modern times, but rather the followers of the Gra who, in the early nineteenth century, made their way to Eretz Yisrael from Europe. Settling in Safed, they bolstered the local Jewish community, which by 1830 numbered about 4,000, constituting half of the city’s population. The day after Shavuot in 1834, Arab villagers attacked the Safed Jews, raped the women, destroyed the synagogues, and drove the Jews from their homes. Rabbi Neta, the son of the famous Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov, hid in a cave in the cemetery. When the mob found him, they gouged out one of his eyes. After thirty-three days of mayhem in which several Jews were killed, many more wounded, 500 Torah scrolls desecrated, and almost all of the Jewish possessions stolen or destroyed, relative calm was restored to Safed.10 Thus, even before the advent of modern Zionism, the local Muslims could not live in peace with their Jewish neighbors.

In Iran, the situation for Jews was no better. Iranian Shiite Muslims carried anti-Jewish laws to absurd heights. In the seventeenth century, Jews in Iran were not even allowed to go outside in the rain, for fear of contaminating rainwater. Jews had to wear different clothes, live in smaller houses, salute Muslims and ride donkeys instead of horses. On March 26, 1839, a Muslim boy, upset at the wages he received from a Jewish woman, ran through the streets of Mashhad screaming that the Jews had killed a dog and called it Hussein to mock Muslims on their holy day. Thousands of frenzied Muslims stormed the Jewish Quarter. They destroyed everything in sight and burnt the synagogue. They killed thirty-two Jews and gave the rest an ultimatum: conversion or death. The Jewish population converted and for the next 100 years the Mashhadi Jews lived a double life.11

To be sure, over time there have been and there continue to be examples of moderate Muslims. In 909 the Fatimid Caliphate started to take shape in North Africa, and in 969 the Fatimids conquered Egypt. The Fatimids were ruled by an imam who was perceived to be infallible and thus could act as he wished towards the dhimmi; he did not impose the required discriminatory tariffs on dhimmis, and a period of relative prosperity ensued, leading to the flourishing of two historically significant yeshivot in Kairouan, Tunisia. Unquestionably, the best years for Jews under Islamic rule were the Islamic High Middle Ages (900 to 1200, a period that included the “Golden Age of Spain”). While Jews were cognizant of their status as dhimmi during this period, for the most part they prospered and lived in peace throughout North Africa.

However, throughout history, peaceful times for Jews under Islamic rule were overshadowed by periods of mayhem—murders, massacres, pillaging, destruction of synagogues and forced conversions. No Jewish population was immune. Events occurred in Tunisia (in 1864, the synagogues of Djerba were burned), in Libya (in 1588, Jews endured forcible conversions and in 1785, hundreds were slaughtered), in Yemen (Jews were banished from 1678 until 1681)12 and in Algeria (in 1805, dozens of Jews were murdered).13

Ottoman Turkey is perceived as having been a tolerant society, especially because Spanish and Portuguese Jews fled there in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to escape the Inquisition. But In Ishmael’s House, A History of Jews in Muslim Lands, historian Martin Gilbert (p. 92) relates that “when there was a lull in persecution—bless them—they called it ëthe golden age.’ It was not a golden age. It was an age when the Jews were persecuted less.” Or as an Israeli scholar of Yemenite descent explained to me, the Jews of Yemen experienced the same discrimination in the twentieth century as they did in the seventh century. As dhimmis, he would compare them to a battered wife—when they were slapped on only one cheek instead of two, they would say that things were good. But they never truly were.

One sometimes hears Jews of Sephardic ancestry fondly reminisce about the good relationships their grandparents had with the Arab neighbors. Those stories are usually from the European colonization period. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the European powers occupied much of the Muslim countries in North Africa and the Middle East. During these periods of foreign domination, the Jews often viewed the Europeans as their ticket out of the dhimmi status and played significant roles in the European administrations. It was during this period that Jews attained upper middle class status, prospered and essentially lived peacefully in Muslim countries. But in reality these countries were not under Islamic control at the time. Furthermore, the Jewish “collaboration” with the foreign governments triggered the deadly backlash that occurred with the rise of Arab nationalism and the eventual withdrawal of the Europeans.

The facts are clear: Muslim persecution, which at times extended to all “infidels,” i.e., non-Muslims, and at times specifically targeted Jews, dates back to the founding of Islam. Moreover, it existed in all Muslim countries through the generations. It was not the establishment of the modern State of Israel, nor the founding of its precursor, political Zionism, that is the source of Muslim anti-Semitism. Nor can it be attributed to the liberation of Judea and Samaria, or to a Jewish presence on the Har Habayit. Muslim anti-Semitism is an ancient phenomenon that is deeply entrenched within Islamic culture and religion. Knowing and understanding the history of Jews under Islamic rule is important because, as Princeton historian Mark Cohen writes in Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages [(Princeton, 1994), 7]: “The proposition that historical Islamic tolerance gave way in the twentieth century to Arab hostility in reaction to Zionist encroachment became a theme of Arab propaganda against Israel14 both in politics and in writings about Jewish-Arab history.”

This article has dealt with the experience of Jews living as a minority in Muslim-ruled lands. Today, for the first time since the founding of Islam, Jews have an independent state in which lives a sizable Muslim minority. The overwhelming majority of Jews have been willing to treat the Muslim citizens as equals and that is what is enshrined in Israeli law. There is no apartheid or institutional discrimination in the Jewish State against Muslims. Muslims are found in nearly all aspects of Israeli society, from the Knesset to the hospitals, Supreme Court, universities and the IDF.

1. Martin Gilbert, In Ishmael’s House, A History of Jews in Muslim Lands (New Haven & London, 2010), 20-22.
2. Norman Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands (Philadelphia, 1979), 25-26.
3. Reuben Ahroni, The Jews of the British Crown Colony of Aden (Leiden, 1994), 43.
4. While some Jews chose to become “anusim,” the Rambam was adamant that when faced with religious persecution, one must flee.
5. David Hartman, Crisis and Leadership: Epistles of Maimonides, translated by Abraham Halkin (Philadelphia, 1985), 126; Stillman, 241.
6. Heskel Haddad, Jews of Arab and Islamic Countries (New York, 1984), 75.
7. Moses Montefiore traveled to Morocco (Jan 26, 1863) to negotiate rights for the Jews from the sultan and describes in his diaries (vol. 2, p. 152) that “the Jews here are not allowed to walk the streets except barefooted.”
8. Stillman, 83-84.
9. Martin Gilbert, The Jews in Arab Lands: Their History in Maps (London, 1976), 48-49.
10. Avraham Yaari, The Goodly Heritage, abridged and translated by Israel Schen (Jerusalem, 1958), 37-44.
11. Dan Ross, Acts of Faith: A Journey to the Fringes of Jewish Identity (New York, 1982), 67-82.
12. Mark Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages (Princeton 1994), 169.
13. Gilbert, Jews in Arab Lands, Map 4.
14. Unfortunately, the myth is perpetuated by Jews too. Extreme anti-Zionist Jewish groups use it to bolster their claim that Muslim terrorists are not anti-Semitic, they are merely anti-Zionist.

This article was featured in the Spring 2016 issue of Jewish Action.
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