Commentary Magazine


Jews and Arabs, by S. D. Goitein

Judaism and Islam
by Ray Alan
Jews and Arabs. By S. D. Goitein, Schocken Books, 257 pp. $4.00.

Of all the societies with which Jews and Judaism have come into contact through the centuries, none has borne their imprint or itself marked them more profoundly than the great medieval civilization which, for want of a more precise term, is best labeled “Islamic.” As Dr. Goitein puts it, Islam “is from the very flesh and bone of Judaism. It is, to say, a recast, an enlargement of the latter, just as Arabic is closely related to Hebrew.” Because of this close kinship, Judaism, for its part, “could draw freely and copiously from Muslim civilization and, at the same time, preserve its independence and integrity far more completely than . . . in the modern world or in the Hellenistic society of Alexandria.” How comes it then that, for the modern headline-reader, the very title of this book will seem to epitomize racial and even religious incompatibility and strife? Is there no prospect of a new Jewish-Arab symbiosis—or, at least, reconciliation—coming into being in the 20th-century Near East?

Dr. Goitein, chairman of the School of Oriental Studies in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of a number of works on Arab-Jewish social relations and Oriental Jewry, is well placed to tackle these questions, but the reader who, misled by the tabloid, eyecatching title, seeks a direct, black and white, journalistic answer to them in this book is likely to be disappointed. My guess is that the publisher chose the present title, whereas the author would probably have preferred something like “A Study in Jewish-Arab Contacts Through the Ages.” Goitein’s method is essentially “to let history speak for itself”—to provide the reader with the factual raw material from which to produce his own answers to basic questions. Political and military considerations are excluded. The result is a book of permanent rather than merely topical value, in which Arabs and Jews are discussed for their own sakes and not as pawns in someone else’s geopolitical chess game.

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Dr. Goitein rejects with something like asperity the 19th-century myth that the Jews were, in origin, a pastoral Arabian folk, but he fails, to my mind, to make a convincing case for his own dogma that they were from earliest times “an entirely agricultural people whose whole life, both secular and religious, was centered in agriculture.” History suggests, surely, that the earliest “Jews” and “Arabs,” like most other Near Eastern peoples who were, primarily, neither riverine peasants nor urban traders and craftsmen, lived in a mixed economy that was part agricultural and part pastoral, and whose internal balance varied from area to area and year to year at the whim of climate and geography—until two important and roughly contemporaneous, if incongruous, developments gave a firmer orientation to their lives: the crystallization of Hebrew monotheism and the domestication of the camel. It was these developments which led “Jews” and “Arabs” along different paths, strengthening sedentary impulses among the former and “Beduizing” the latter (by extending the range over which pastoralism was possible), and stamping both with an identity and sense of cohesion which enabled them to survive when other Near Eastern peoples were absorbed or simply destroyed by successive invaders.

The two rediscovered their family relationship through Islam, which in turn established new bonds between them. Unfortunately, however, the local exigencies of Mohammed’s quarrel with the Jews of Medina colored parts of the Koran with a fanatic-seeming tinge which, while uncharacteristic of the Prophet’s teachings as a whole, has cost Jewish communities dear during Islam’s occasional relapses into intolerance. These occurred with increasing frequency from the 9th century on, when the Arabs themselves were ill used by non-Arab rulers and sought to work off their anger and humiliation on a community weaker and poorer than themselves. But at no time were the Jews or any other minority in the Islamic world the victims of barbarism comparable with that they encountered in 20th-century Germany.

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The only really tragic chapter in the long story of Jewish-Arab relations is the one now being written. It was opened by the remarkable coincidence of the interacting national revivals of the two peoples. “The year 1922, which saw the establishment of the first great Arabic-speaking kingdom, Egypt, witnessed also the international endorsement of the Jewish National Home in Palestine. In 1925 both the University of Cairo and the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, were solemnly opened, both after preparations lasting for many years. Israel became an independent state only a few years after its northern neighbors, Lebanon and Syria, and had the opportunity to vote in the United Nations Assembly for the creation of another Arab state, Libya.”

Acts like Israel’s vote for Libya and her sponsorship of social reform and technical advancement in the areas occupied by her Arab minority, and the welcome emulation her social policies have directly inspired in neighboring Arab states (for example, the emancipation and enfranchisement of Arab women in Israel led the Syrian government to give its educated womenfolk the vote, and Jordan and Egypt to announce that they were considering the possibility) could, in the long run, if not endear her, at least make her acceptable to progressive Arabs. I myself have been told by Jordanian and Lebanese border villagers of their desire for normal trading relations with Israel and have heard an educated Palestine refugee leoturing other refugees on the need to copy Israel’s methods of agricultural organization. It is obvious that, backed by oil revenues and 20th-century technology, a new association of the two peoples and the devotion of their talents and resources to pacific purposes could bring both to a new level of prosperity and even spiritual satisfaction.

Unfortunately, a simple Arab-Jewish rapprochement is no longer sufficient. Near Eastern history is made, in 1956, not in Jerusalem and Cairo but in Washington and Moscow, and by harassed officials with little or no intimate knowledge of or concern for Arabs and Jews. Dr. Goitein writes, in one of his rare incursions into the topical scene: “Peace or strife in the Middle East depends largely on forces outside it. Those who lived in Palestine in the mid-twenties of this century, when British prestige in Arab Asia was almost unchallenged, will remember how peaceful the world appeared at that time. If there is once more to be a power able to exercise a stabilizing influence, there may be a prospect for conditions leading ultimately to peace.” This is a vital point. One power acting alone or a group of like-minded powers working closely together could stabilize the Near East. But the Western powers frittered away the precious years during which they enjoyed an effective hegemony of influence in the region, and now, having opened the door to Soviet intrigue and intervention by their puerile pact-mongering, no longer have even the remnants of a policy. For this ineptitude the best interests of Israelis and Arabs, as well as of the West, must inevitably suffer.

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