Islam vs. Jewry

Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice.
by Bernard Lewis.
Norton. 283 pp. $18.95.

“By following daily events in the occupied land, we get day-after-day proof beyond any doubt that what is termed ‘Zionist racism’ is just an extension of talmudic teachings and development of the same teachings. As the Jews refuse to dwell in the same home with a non-Jew, so the society of the bigger ghetto refuses to live in the same house with other societies.” This statement, from the book The Matzah of Zion by Mustafa Tlas, currently the Defense Minister of Syria, provides a striking confirmation of one of Bernard Lewis’s major themes in his latest work: namely, the ways in which the revival of anti-Semitism at the highest levels of contemporary Arab regimes and in the ranks of the Arab intelligentsia is exacerbating hatred and extremism in the Middle East. Tlas’s assertion, and others to be found in Lewis’s book itself, also give the lie to the official Arab stand that the Arab states are only anti-Israel and anti-Zionist, but not anti-Jewish.

In point of fact, as Lewis demonstrates here in lucid and elegant prose, and with a rare kind of unflappable urbanity that veils the passionate, controversial nature of his subject matter, “classical anti-Semitism is an essential part of Arab intellectual life at the present time.” What is more, the current eruption of anti-Semitism in the Arab world is, we learn here, not confined to the margins of society; rather, its influence is extensive and at times pervasive. If the Arab-Israel conflict is not quickly resolved, Lewis concludes, there may be no escape “from the unending downward spiral of mutual hate that will embitter the lives of Arabs and Jews alike.”

Lewis’s central thesis is that anti-Semitism is a relatively new phenomenon in Muslim lands, having arrived there in the 19th century mainly through Greek Orthodox and Catholic Arabs influenced by European and especially French anti-Semitic literature. Then, in the course of the 20th century, as a result of the conflict over Palestine and the impact of the West—in particular of Nazi and fascist models—Muslim Arabs became infected with European Christian and ultimately racist anti-Semitism. Today, in its vehemence, ubiquity, and obsessiveness, the Arab variant, while lacking the personal, visceral quality of its European forerunners, is reminiscent of Nazi anti-Semitism.

While broadly agreeing with Lewis on this last point—indeed, in my own recent book, Hitler’s Apocalypse: Jews and the Nazi Legacy, I have suggested something similar from a different starting-point—I believe that one can argue with some of his explanations as to how it has come about.



It seems to me, first, that Lewis somewhat downplays the significance of the legal disabilities, humiliations, and persecution inherent in the “protected” (dhimmi) status of the Jews under Islam in the premodern era. The documentation provided in books like Bat Ye’or’s The Dhimmi or Norman Stillman’s The Jews of Arab Lands suggests that Muslim prejudices against Jews were a good deal more serious than Lewis implies by the phrase, “compatible with human relations and even with the beginnings of a political dialogue.” Not that Lewis accepts the Arab myth of an interdenominational utopia before the rise of Zionism or that, in his own recent book, The Jews of Islam, he paints the life of the dhimmi as especially rosy. But in the present work he does tend a little too readily to relegate the sufferings of non-Muslims under Islam to the category of common, conventional, or even “normal” prejudice.

No doubt, the Jews were more marginal to Muslim than to medieval Christian theology; no doubt, too, Islam lacked a deicide myth, and Muhammad, unlike Jesus, emerged victorious from his encounter with the Jews. One can even agree with Lewis that the myths of the Jew as ritual murderer, as poisoner of wells, as satanic conspirator, and as agent of cosmic evil striving for world domination are distinctively Christian and European in provenance. Nevertheless, we may legitimately ask whether on the ground, and at the level of intercommunal relations, the fate of Jewish communities under Islam was that much better than their everyday experience in the Christian world. Certainly by the late 18th and early 19th century, as Lewis himself acknowledges, Jews were subjected to a level of degradation in North Africa and the Middle East that suggested precious little difference. Indeed, as time went on, the Jews of Muslim lands were increasingly dependent for their protection and sustenance on the intervention of their more fortunate brethren in the Christian West!

I raise this point because it seems to me that in this book Lewis has slightly overstated the impact of Christian-European influences on Arab anti-Semitism and neglected its more local and indigenous roots. This is ironic, because few scholars are as aware as Lewis himself of the centrality of Islam in modern Arab ideologies and cultural traditions. It is not just a matter of the harsh anti-Jewish expressions in the Qur’an, or of the tendentious use of those expressions by contemporary Arab and Muslim ideologues in the war against Zionism. It is, rather, a question of the entire tradition of religious supremacy and triumphalism in Islam, as well as the related belief in Arab political superiority—notions which have profoundly shaped attitudes to Jews and Judaism. If Arab Judeophobia were not able to draw on such a rich legacy of Islamic religious literature and teaching, together with a long history of institutional discrimination, it is surely doubtful whether the integration of anti-Semitic themes from medieval Christian, populist, and Nazi sources could have proceeded so smoothly and effectively.

As Lewis rightly emphasizes, in the modern period these themes have been “Islamicized,” but for precisely that reason one fears that they may enjoy considerably more popularity in the Muslim world than he would wish to believe. Whether the anti-Semitism really comes from above rather than below, whether it can be switched off at will, whether dialogue à la Sadat can reduce the level of hatred remains a moot point. The openly anti-Semitic agitation taking place in the organs of the Egyptian opposition ever since the peace treaty with Israel is not encouraging in this regard. Indeed, Lewis’s hopes—which all men of good will must share—seem to be contradicted by his own graphic account of the popular cult that has developed in Egypt around Sulayman Khatir, the soldier who murdered defenseless Israeli women and children at Ras Burqa a year and a half ago.



This brings me, finally, to Lewis’s treatment of the Arab-Israel conflict, which he regards as being essentially political—“a clash between states and peoples over real issues, not a matter of prejudice and persecution.” Yet in this book Lewis is concerned, precisely, not with the rights and wrongs of the conflict or with the “real issues” but rather with the myths, confusions, prejudices, and hatreds it has engendered. He fears (with ample justification) that the conflict is being escalated by the poisonous anti-Jewish rhetoric which currently contaminates the body of Islam. (Interestingly enough, Lewis warned of this danger fifteen years ago, but did not then regard it as imminent.)

I agree with Lewis, and feel that his book is a timely, important, and powerful warning. At the same time, it does not seem to me altogether credible to depict this anti-Jewish hostility as predominantly a function of the war with Israel. It is not by accident that the Islamic fundamentalists (whom Lewis, significantly, does not discuss at any great length), drawing for the most part on classical Muslim sources, can depict the Jew as an enemy of the Muslims and an agent of dark forces of evil. Just as notions of Jewish treachery, subversion, cruelty, and malevolence did not need to be brought in from the outside, neither did they require the emergence of Zionism and Israel for their articulation. As Lewis is well aware, Jews were traditionally seen as persecutors of the prophets and perverters of Allah’s truth, as deniers of the Islamic revelation and conspirators against the Islamic mission. It was the challenge to these conventional notions of Jewish lowliness and depravity—a challenge that itself came from the modern, secularizing West—which so upset traditional hierarchies of thought and created the background against which an updated Islamic anti-Semitism could flourish. Israel, with its unexpected military triumphs over the humiliated descendants of an ancient warrior-faith, was the last straw in a long chain of traumatic defeats, which had their roots in a failure to adapt successfully to modernity.

Disagreements aside, however, Semites and Anti-Semites remains a very important contribution to the general literature on 20th-century anti-Semitism, and especially its Muslim-Arab brand, to the study of which Bernard Lewis brings an erudite, inquiring, and far-ranging mind.



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