We are not against the Jews. On the contrary, we are all Semites and we have been living with each other in peace and fraternity, Muslims, Jews, and Christians, for many centuries.
The relationship that enabled Arabs and Jews to live together for centuries as neighbors and friends has been destroyed by Zionist ideas and actions.
—King Hussein of Jordan
There are two theses that have won widespread credence in recent years as interpretations of the condition of Jews in the Arab world. The first, strongly advanced by Arab and particularly Palestinian spokesmen, is that Zionism is the root of all evil. Islam, runs the argument, is of its nature hospitable to and respectful of other faiths. Judaism is no exception; on the contrary, Islam has always had a special regard for Jews as “people of the Book,” has given them shelter from oppression in other lands, and has accorded them peace, freedom, and the opportunity for material and spiritual self-expression. Witness the prosperity and cultural flowering of Jewish communities in Muslim lands during the Middle Ages: the Gaonate at Sura and Pumbedita in Iraq from the 7th to the 11th century, the Jewish “golden age” under the Caliphate of Cordova in the 10th and 11th centuries.1
The tolerance of Islam for Judaism, according to this thesis, was especially marked by comparison with Christianity. The Byzantines of the 6th and 7th centuries, the Visigoths in pre-Muslim Spain, the massacring armies of Crusaders on their way to redeem the Holy Land—these were only some of the more notorious agents of anti-Jewish persecution, oppression, and violence in medieval Europe. Supporters of this thesis often point to Benjamin of Tudela, the famous Jewish traveler of the end of the 12th century, who was forcibly struck by the contrast between the Jewish condition in the Christian capital of Constantinople and the Muslim capital of Baghdad. In the one the Jews had been expelled from the city and confined to their own quarter, where they lived in a state of oppression:
This state is very severely felt by them and the hatred against them is enhanced by the practice of the tanners, who pour out their filthy water in the streets and even before the very doors of the Jews, who being thus defiled, become objects of hatred to the Greeks. Their yoke is very severely felt by the Jews, both good and bad they are exposed to being beaten in the streets and must submit to all sorts of bad treatment, but the Jews are rich, good, benevolent, and religious men, who bear the misfortunes of the exile with humility.
In Baghdad, by contrast, the Caliph was “extremely kind toward the Jews, many of his officers being of that Nation”; and Benjamin could not get over the respect due the Prince of the Captivity, the descendant of David, from Muslims, Jews, or members of any other faith: he rode a horse and was preceded by a crier; he was saluted as he passed; all were required to rise in his presence.2
The thesis of Muslim tolerance (in contrast to Christian anti-Semitism) cites these medieval instances of harmony as only the highlights of a millennial experience of fraternal coexistence. It argues that, save for episodes of fanaticism and persecution linked to sectarian excesses, the Arabs have always been good to their Jews and the Jews have been happy in Arab lands. From this analysis is drawn the inference that if only Zionism and Israel could be destroyed and an Arab Palestine restored, Muslims, Christians, and Jews would once again be able to live side by side in equality and respect, this time in a new secular, democratic state.
The other thesis is very similar, though more general in its import, so that in a way it subsumes the first. It was advanced by the late Arnold Toynbee, then Director of Studies in the Royal Institute of International Affairs, and has been seconded with some modifications by Elie Kedourie, professor of political science and history in the London School of Economics and the scion of an old Jewish family of Baghdad.3 Toynbee and Kedourie contend that the source of evil in the Middle East, the serpent in the Garden, has been the alien import of nationalism, with Toynbee excoriating Zionism as a particularly unjustified and pernicious form of this Western malady.
These references to past history are not simply an idle exercise in scholarly interpretation. They are, as the recent debate on the anti-Zionism resolution in the United Nations shows, the weapons of political warfare. Thus the Jordanian ambassador, contrasting European guilt for persecution of the Jews with the good conscience of the Arabs: “There was no situation similar to this in the East, particularly with the civilization where for centuries the majority of Jews lived happily and productively and to which they contributed in every way, namely, the Arab civilization.”4 And Mr. Al-Sayegh of Kuwait, stressing Muslim hospitality to Jews and reverence for Judaism, charged Zionism with destroying a harmonious relationship: “It was only when the Zionists came, and instead of the Jews saying, ‘I should like to live with you,’ the Zionists came saying, ‘I want to live in your place.’ It was only when the Zionists came that our hospitality turned into hostility for the Zionist. . . .”5 To which that veteran of the UN wars, Jamil M. Baroody of Saudi Arabia, added that Zionism was not the work of “our Jews.” “It was the European Jews who started this movement”—those Khazars “whose forebears came from the northern tier of Asia” and now claim Palestine as their own. “If this is not tantamount to racism and discrimination, what is?”6
These compliments to Judaism and to some Jews at least are not the language Arabs ordinarily use to one another on these matters; but they sound good and plausible to many Western ears.7 Why? For the best of reasons: people are tired and afraid of the conflict in the Middle East and want to believe that whatever has gone wrong can be easily set right. Only get rid of the Zionists, say the Arabs, and the good will that is natural to the region will return.
Yet when all is said and done, there are no shortcuts, no magic formulas, and we shall not have peace faster and easier for ignorance of the obstacles. What indeed are the facts of the Jewish or non-Muslim condition under Islam before the advent of modern nationalism? Specifically: what was the condition of Palestine, and of the Jews there, before the immigration of secular Zionists toward the end of the last century?
In 1895 the well-known French writer Pierre Loti visited the Holy Land and wrote of his experience:
I traveled through sad Galilee in the spring, and I found it silent under an immense shroud of flowers. The showers of April were still falling, and it was no more than a desert of grasses, a world of light grains, taking on a new life to the song of countless birds.
The natural fertility of the valley of Esdraelon contrasted, he noted, with the melancholy decay of the works of man. The typical Arab village was a small huddle of dwellings protected by hedges of cactus from Bedouin incursions. Lying about and giving these “human nests the aspect of animal dens,” were the fetid carcasses of horses or camels, rotting by day, food for jackals by night. Afula, the chief market town of the valley, was “sown with detritus,” a charnel house. Of the area around Mount Gilboa, where Saul and Jonathan died in combat with the Philistines, Loti noted the return to wilderness:
Here as elsewhere, as everywhere in Palestine, city and palaces have returned to the dust; also disappeared, the forests which once covered the heights of Gilboa; everything has been changed into a melancholy desert of brush and grass, where only the vines of Naboth have left a trace.
The same of the plain of Gennesareth, “admirably cultivated in the time of Jesus”:
. . . the road from Jerusalem to Damascus went through there, bringing a continual traffic of troops and caravans; later on, the historian Josephus speaks of it as a sort of enchanted garden, where, thanks to this exceptional heat of low places, rare trees and flowers grew; but there also nothing is left: a small desert covered with almost impenetrable brush and rose bushes. . . .
The same of ancient Tiberias, once a center of administration, a popular watering place, an active fishing port:
Not a road to lead to this Tiberias; everywhere the carpet of grass grows tranquilly right up to the foot of the walls. Not a ship along these dead quais, nor for that matter, on the surface of its little closed sea; oh! the sleep of these old towns of the East, immobilized in places without access, with the silence and the desert extending right up to their gates!8
What Loti calls in one place “this melancholy of abandonment, which weighs on all the Holy Land,” is a theme that recurs repeatedly in the travel accounts of the 19th century. As a result of centuries of Turkish neglect and misrule, following on the earlier ravages of successive conquerors, the land had been given over to sand, marsh, the anopheles mosquito, clan feuds, and Bedouin marauders. A population of several millions had shrunk to less than one-tenth that number—perhaps a quarter of a million around 1800, and 300,000 at mid-century. In 1874 the Reverend Samuel Manning remarked with pain on the desolation of the coastal plain—that Plain of Sharon, “the exquisite fertility and beauty of which made it to the Hebrew mind a symbol of prosperity.”
As we rode across the plain, bright with the vivid green of early spring, and plucked handfuls of the innumerable flowers—cyclamens, anemones, roses, lilies, tulips, and a score of others—which gemmed the turf or grew “unprofitably gay” amongst the corn, we could enter into the feeling of Hebrew poets and prophets as they exulted in “the glory of Sharon.” But where were the inhabitants? This fertile plain, which might support an immense population, is almost a solitude. Two or three wretched hamlets, mere clusters of mud huts, are the sole representatives of the numerous and thriving cities which once occupied it. Here and there was a solitary Arab breaking up the clods with a plough which remains unchanged in form from the earliest ages. These were the only signs of life we could discover. Day by day we were to learn afresh the lesson now forced upon us, that the denunciations of ancient prophecy have been fulfilled to the very letter—“the land is left void and desolate and without inhabitants.”9
As might be expected, the economy was unproductive; exchange, rudimentary; communications, poor; travel, slow and hazardous. Mark Twain (in 1867) made the trip from Jerusalem down to Ramleh and the sea via the Bab-el-Wad, today the site of a four-lane divided highway:
We followed a narrow bridle-path which traveled the bed of the mountain gorges, and when we could we got out of the way of the long trains of laden camels and asses, and when we could not we suffered the misery of being mashed up against a perpendicular wall of rock and having our legs bruised by the passing freight. . . . One horse had a heavy fall on the slippery rocks, and the others had narrow escapes. However, this was as good a road as we had found in Palestine, and possibly even the best, so there was not much grumbling.10
Similar testimony was offered by other European travelers. A French visitor described Jaffa as it was toward the end of the 19th century:
The city offers in general the most distressing appearance. The narrow, smoky streets, overhung by the houses on either side, are connected by black, viscous, half-collapsing stone staircases. Rotten rags dry on the ogival balconies.
Such streets are nothing but vaulted passages, blocked up with garbage and filth, and resemble nothing more than sewers put to another use. Everywhere life seems immobile, stagnant, wounded at its very source. The pretty Moorish houses that one saw from afar turn out to be no more than crumbling hovels, open to every breeze, sketches of houses destined to remain forever unfinished, which offer indeed those empty, shadowy recesses, that dilapidated bareness characteristic of buildings in the course of construction.11
Even deader was Haifa, the greatest natural port in the area. A town of about 6,000, its commerce was just about at a standstill: “From time to time one loads on a little wheat, a few bales of cotton, and a few hectoliters of sesame.” For Brother Liévin de Hamme, author of the standard French-language guide to the Holy Land in the last third of the 19th century, Haifa was simply a point of passage on the way to Acre: “This city, which has nothing remarkable about it, can be crossed in five minutes.”12
So the Land lay sterile, and even a century of growing contacts with the West did not suffice to remedy the evils of two millennia. Many of those who saw it and wondered at the contrast with the fertility and populousness of old could not help but reflect on the meaning of this decay. Christian visitors in particular saw in it the hand of God: the fulfillment of ancient prophecy, as Manning put it; or, as Catholics preferred, the visitation of dread judgment on the Jews:
Besides, is there any reason to be surprised that a fertile land had become sterile after so much devastation? Jerusalem has been taken and sacked seventeen times; millions of men have been slaughtered within its walls, and this massacre still goes on, so to speak; no other city has suffered such a fate. This punishment, so long and almost supernatural, declares a crime without parallel, one that no chastisement can expiate. In this country fallen prey to fire and the sword, the abandoned fields have lost the fertility they once drew from the seat of man; the water sources have been buried under rock slides; the soil of the hills, no longer fixed by the efforts of vine growers, has washed down into the valley, and the hills, once covered with woods of sycamore, are now bald and arid.13
This was the general opinion, the conventional wisdom of a still believing world: that the Holy Land, Terra Sancta, was holy because it was cursed and cursed because it was holy; and that it bore witness by its sterility and devastation to the unpardonable, inexpiable crime of deicide.
Among the population in the Palestine of the 19th century religious differences were extremely important.13a The individual person was not so much a Turkish subject as the member of a religious community. Personal status, dignity, and civil and political rights were largely a function of this affiliation. Each group affirmed itself by opposition to others and by heaping scorn on those deemed inferior.
At the top of the ladder were the Arab Muslims, who formed the great majority of the population. Most of them lived in the hills of Samaria and Judea, or in the highlands of the Galilee—the areas least exposed to malaria. They cultivated a little grain, moved their flocks of sheep and goats from one hungry pasture to the next, picked olives and figs from those trees that could be protected from Turkish or Bedouin cupidity. Here and there among the hills were fertile valleys: that of Dotan (around Jenin) where Joseph went to seek his brothers and was sold into slavery; or the plain south of Nablus, given over to grain cultivation. These were lands that could nourish a large population, but in the Palestine of the Ottoman period, all crops were precarious until actually brought in. Aside from the natural risks of cultivation, Bedouin raiders made it a point to descend when the corn stood high on the stalk, either to seize the grain or ransom it.
Just below the Muslims in status was the Arab Christian minority, which lived for the most part in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth, the three cities most closely associated with the life of Jesus. Their religious life focused around the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where every corner and pillar was a prize of sectarian combat. The Greek Orthodox, the Russians, the Maronites, the Roman Catholics, the Copts, the Ethiopians—these and others vied for positions of advantage, objects of sanctity, and moments of worship, particularly on those major festivals where there was not enough time or space for all. The Ottoman authorities presided over these intrigues and combats with some pleasure and amusement, and every Easter Sunday was the happy occasion for the imposition of Muslim authority and order on the undignified infidel. In the words of Isabel Burton, the wife of Richard Burton (British consul in Damascus in 1869): “. . . all the numerous Christian sects hate one another, and fight amongst themselves (to the intense amusement of the Muslims, who on great fete days flog them into order in and out of church, like a pack of hounds). . . .”14
Finally, and at the bottom, there were the Jews. At least some Jews had always lived in Palestine, even in those periods when conquerors had sought to kill them off or clear them out. We are told that there were even some Jewish village communities that had tenaciously maintained themselves in unbroken continuity for thousands of years.15 For the most part, however, the Jews had survived in Palestine by shifting their residence at the dictates of their overlords, accommodating themselves to the tolerances of the successive rulers of the land. They clung as much as possible to holy places like Jerusalem and Hebron, but if life there was too difficult, they moved elsewhere within the country, always returning to their shrines at the first opportunity.
The Jewish community in Palestine was significantly different from the rest of the population. It was older, being composed in disproportionate parts of pious graybeards come to spend their declining years in prayer and lamentation. It was almost entirely urban, for only in towns and cities could the men gather and study the sacred books. It was wretchedly poor, for the study of sacred books is more productive of spiritual than material reward. Besides, the Jews found it almost impossible to earn money in this inhospitable environment: James Finn, British consul in Jerusalem in the 1840’s and 50’s, writes that the Christians hated them so, they would not deal with them; while the Muslims had their own craftsmen, and when they had recourse on occasion to the special skill or knowledge of a Jewish workman, they often held back payment in the knowledge that the Jew would be afraid to press his claim. Finn found the Jewish artisans pathetically eager to work for the British colony and “able to do for us Europeans such work as the Oriental mechanics did not understand”; but there were limits to European custom, and for the most part, the Jews had to live by taking in one another’s ragged washing. It wasn’t much. As Finn put it: “There was no employment whatever to be had, excepting an occasional bit of work for some carpenter, glazier, tailor, etc., and the hundreds of willing Jewish artisans were obliged to exist in compulsory idleness, and chronic starvation.”16
Indeed, the community could not have survived had it not been for the pennies and groschen and kopecks collected from Jews all over the world, who saw in such charity the next best thing to a personal sojourn in the Land: if they could not go, they would help those who did go, to live and pray for the salvation of all Israel. Meanwhile the Jews in the Holy Land had their own charitable obligations; poverty is no excuse. So they created their own charity money—little pieces of tin that could be exchanged for a spoonful of tea or a pinch of tobacco—and the poor gave these to those who were even poorer than themselves.
All of this was scarcely enough to keep skin and bones together. The Jews lived on the edge of starvation, and periodic famine found them more exposed than those who had a stronger economic base. Finn tells about the dearth of 1854: the Muslim peasants could draw to some extent on stocks; the Christians were assisted by the great Latin, Greek, and Armenian convents; the Jews had nothing, and desperation forced them to beg even in the interior of the British church, “to the amazement of the clergy officiating.”17
As poor, then, as Jews were in the shtetlach of Eastern Europe or the mellahs of North Africa, the Jews of Jerusalem were poorer. Their quarter was “by a long shot the most somber and unhealthful part of the whole city”—a labyrinth of narrow, filthy alleys and dark, fetid hovels. It was here that the city shambles was located—the place of slaughter—where wild dogs and rats fought battle over the foul, bloody mess of rotting carrion, a source of noxious odors and a breeding place for disease. The location was no accident. The Arabs found the shambles there when they captured the city in the 7th century; they also found the rock on top of Mount Moriah, the old site of the Temple, covered with tons of garbage, laboriously hauled up and dumped there by way of insult and desecration. The Arabs cleared the rock and built the beautiful mosque that we now know as the Dome of the Rock or Mosque of Omar. But the shambles was maintained, a lasting plague to the Jews of Jerusalem.
The Jews were the largest group in the city. Father Bourassé, writing in the late 1850’s, gives their number as 7,000 out of a total of over 15,000 (5,000 Muslims, 2,500 Christians); Consul Finn gives it as about 10,000 in the period 1853-56.18 So tightly were they crammed, however, into their overcrowded quarters, that (Bourassé notes) “if the population of the city were equally dense in the other quarters, it would be at least one hundred thousand.” Their bodies reflected their housing and circumstances. Young and old, they were bent from their postures of prayer and study; their curly forelocks hung low along sunken, hectic cheeks; they walked with a shuffling, cringing step that told of blows received and blows expected. No one could mistake the difference between oppressor and oppressed—“between those poor creatures and the Arabs who jostled them in these crowded alleys, and who are such upstanding athletic men, with clear brown skins, clean-cut features, and heads turbaned majestically. They stride along with a spring in every step.”19
To the Christian visitors, the physical appearance of the Jews of Jerusalem was at once a source of fright and of profound religious and psychic corroboration. Thus Loti:
On entering this heart of Jewry, my impression is above all one of shock, of unease, almost of terror. Nowhere had I ever seen such an exaggeration of the type of our old-clothes dealers, rag merchants, and fellmongers; nowhere, such pointed noses, so long and so pale. Each case brings a new small stir of surprise and disgust, when one of these old backs, bent over in its wrapping of velvet and fur, half turns and a new pair of eyes gives me a furtive sidelong glance from between hanging forelocks and from behind the inevitable spectacles. In truth, that leaves an indelible stigma, to have crucified Jesus; maybe one had to come here to realize it, but it is indisputable: there is a sign inscribed on these brows, a seal of opprobrium that marks the whole race. . . .20
There were rules: Jews had to pass Muslims on their left side, because that was the side of Satan. They had to yield the right of way, step off the pavement to let the Arab go by, above all make sure not to touch him in passing, because this could provoke a violent response. In the same way, anything that reminded the Muslim of the presence of alternative religions, any demonstration of alternative forms of worship, had to be avoided so synagogues were placed in humble, hidden places, and the sounds of Jewish prayer carefully muted.21
Meanwhile, for all their poverty, the Jews were more heavily taxed than their Christian neighbors. All non-Muslims had to pay a poll tax, as tribute and as the price of exemption from military service. But the Jews of the Holy Land also paid, both as a community and as individuals, a host of extortionate charges to local officials, Arab notables, and Arab neighbors—whatever could be squeezed from a very dry stone. In Jerusalem, for example, they paid £300 a year to the effendi whose house adjoined the Western Wall—what non-Jews contemptuously called the “wailing wall” or “wailing place”—for permission to pray there; £100 a year to the villagers of Siloam (just outside the city), not to disturb or profane the graves on the side of the Mount of Olives; £50 a year to the Ta’amra Arabs not to injure the Tomb of Rachel on the road to Bethlehem; and about £10 to Sheik Abu Gosh not to molest Jewish travelers on the road to Jerusalem, though he was already paid by the Turkish government to maintain order on that road. And just as European rulers supported state workshops and privileged factories by obliging their Jews to purchase those wares that did not find a market (the Schutzjuden of Berlin could fill their shelves with the monkeys that they had to take from the Royal Porcelain Factory), so Arab merchants in Jersualem dumped their unsold wares on the Jewish neighbors and billed them; it was a brave Jew who would send them back or deny purchase.22
There was nothing unique about all this: this was a society in which office was a property rather than a function, in which power was meant to be used for personal advantage, and in which everyone was expected to pay something even for the absence of trouble. Bribery (bakshish) was general; extortion, commonplace. The difficulty for the Jews was that they were the weakest, so that they were every man’s prey.23
Nowhere was this vulnerability more heavily penalized than in the harmless but symbolically crucial sphere of religious observance. Some of this is apparent from the bribes paid to insure the simple right to pray in peace or rest in peace. It also showed in the Muslim takeover of important shrines and places of worship (a commonplace feature of the Arab conquests of the 7th century and maintained subsequently, even to the present day), combined with the systematic exclusion of non-Muslim worshipers.24
Thus the Muslims built a mosque on the reputed site of the cave of Machpelah at Hebron, the double chamber that Abraham had bought as a resting place from Ephron the Hittite and that he and Sarah and Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Leah lie buried in—the three patriarchs and three of the four matriarchs of Israel. For the Arabs too venerate these holy men and women of old, especially Abraham, father of Ishmael and hence their patriarch as well. Once the mosque was built, of course, the shrine was closed to all non-Muslims, who were permitted to ascend the steps to the entrance only so far as the eighth from the bottom. As a consolation for their exclusion, however, they were permitted for a fee to put their fingers or petitions into two or three holes-in-the-wall that presumably opened onto the cave itself; and for years thousands of Jewish pilgrims availed themselves of this small opportunity to commune with their forefathers. When Isabel Burton visited Hebron, she observed some of these petitioners and inquired about the practice. Her Arab guide informed her “with a grim smile” that all the “hapless Hebrews” were touching was the conduit for the water for washing the sanctuary, which surely made no difference to the efficacy of their prayers.25
Far more important, of course, than the cave of Machpelah as a center of Jewish worship and sacred shrine was the Western Wall in Jerusalem. This high wall, consisting for the most part of huge, roughly hewn stones, was part of the base of the vast platform on which the great Temple had once stood and where now stood in its stead two mosques, the Dome of the Rock (or Mosque of Omar) and El Aqsa. The whole platform area was and is sacred to the Muslims who believe that it was from the rock at the top of Mount Moriah, the same rock to which Abraham brought Isaac for sacrifice, that Muhammad ascended to heaven. It was and is equally sacred to Orthodox Jews—so much so, that even today they will not walk on it, for fear of inadvertently treading on the spot where once stood the Holy of Holies, into which only the High Priest might go. Then as now they prayed and wept below, though crowded then by encroaching Arab houses into a narrow alley, waiting their turn to touch the stones or leave a petition in a crevice, reciting the aching Lamentations of Jeremiah:
Jerusalem remembered in the days of her affliction and of her miseries all her pleasant things that she had in the days of old, when her people fell into the hand of the enemy, and none did help her: the adversaries saw her, and did mock at her sabbaths. [I, 7.]
And mock they did. The Sabbath eve and festival service at the Wall were a must for tourists, come to see the touching but reassuring spectacle of these miserable creatures crying their hearts out under the scornful eyes of those who thereby knew that they had supplanted them in God’s divine grace—Judaea perdita, the wandering Jew, the guilty, stricken children of the deicide people. Nor were they always content with looking: Elizabeth Butler tells us of “a party of Christian (?) [her question mark] European trippers (I will not define the nationality)” who “charged with their donkeys along the line of those preoccupied figures standing praying with their faces buried in their Testaments or pressed against the stones of the great wall, and knocked them over.”26
The Wall also drew the spite and malice of the resident Arabs, who took every opportunity to harass the hapless worshipers, scattering broken glass through the alleys leading to the Wall, dumping their garbage and sewage against it, fouling it with urine and feces.27 Here again is Loti:
In the alleys leading to the Wall, blocked up with dead dogs, dead cats, filth of all kinds, I encounter a crowd heading the same way for the purpose of mocking—a whole Neapolitan pilgrimage escorted by monks, men and women wearing the red cross, like these noisy hordes back home heading for Lourdes.
Along with this profane flood, I arrive at the foot of the Wall. Old velvet robes, gray old forelocks, old hands raised to curse [sic!], they are there, as expected, the elders of Israel, who soon will be nourishing the grass in the valley of Jehosaphat; less numerous than the previous time, however, and less calm as well in chanting the lamentations of their prophet. There before us, before our invasion, there is already a band of Arab children, there to torment them: little ones disguised as animals, as dogs, under burlap sacks, coming up on all fours with wild laughs to bark at their feet. On that occasion these Jews did rouse me to profound pity, in spite of everything [quand même]. . . .
On an earlier occasion, Loti had not allowed himself to be moved: “One could almost cry with them—if they weren’t Jews [his emphasis], and if one did not feel one’s heart strangely chilled by all their abject faces.”28
Although the condition of the Jews was the worst, some of the rules applied to them, it should be noted, were no different from those applied to all infidels in all Muslim lands. All of them were dhimmi (protégés), second-class subjects excluded from armed service, owing tribute, and liable to a variety of disabilities and servitudes designed to express and signal their political, social, and moral inferiority. These were enforced with varying degrees of rigor in different times and places and on different groups. Thus the growing power of the West in the Muslim world was bound to affect in the first place the status of Christians and alter their relations to their Muslim neighbors; and indeed the history of Muslim-Christian relations in the Ottoman Empire in the course of the 19th century was one of sporadic explosions of wrath by the Muslim majority in response to Christian pretensions to equality and self-assertion.
The climax of this clash between the claims of equality and the habits of domination and contempt came after the Crimean War, when the Ottoman government, obliged by British and French military support and fearful of alienating it, issued a decree (the Hatti-i Hümayün of February 1856) affirming the equal rights of “the Christian communities and other non-Muslim subjects.” To this the Muslim population of Syria and Palestine reacted with angry outrage.
The explosion came in 1860, triggered by a combination of political and economic pressures that the Muslim and Druse communities saw as part of a general subversion of the world they had grown up in. The times were out of joint: “Confronted by the menace of the present and the insecurity of the future, Islam, in order to preserve a conception of existence, regrouped consciences and passions.”29 This last phrase is an abstract euphemism of a kind that comes easier perhaps in French than in other languages. Thousands of Christians—men, women, and children—were killed in the Lebanon and Syria; many women were raped or abducted; and numerous Christians were forced to adopt Islam. Property damage was extensive, and even European consulates were not spared. Only the intervention of the Ottoman authorities and the appearance of European naval vessels off the coast prevented similar massacres in Jerusalem, Beirut, Acre, Haifa, and Jaffa. It was these events that brought a French expeditionary force to Syria and compelled the Ottoman government to grant a special, semi-autonomous status to the Lebanon, with its large Christian population.30
If the great religious clashes of the day opposed Christians and Muslims, it was not because other minorities lacked for grievances or opportunities; on the contrary. But it was only the Christians who were strong enough to challenge the status quo. The Jews “usually refrained from behaving insolently toward Muslims; they continued to carry on their life more as a second-class minority than as an equal community.”31
In sum, the situation of the Jews in the pre-Zionist Holy Land (and in Islamic lands in general) was comparable to that of the blacks in the post-Reconstruction American South.32 That may seem a far-fetched analogy to those who prefer to be selective in their compassion and do not want the consensual sympathy for the blacks to be appropriated on behalf of a cause they see as controversial. Besides, there is that one significant difference between Jew and black: the Jew could (in theory at least), and sometimes had to, save himself by apostasy;33 whereas the black cannot shed his skin.
Yet even allowing for this difference, the analogy is justified by the facts.34 The Jews of Palestine were designated as inferior (in law as well as custom), segregated by appearance and residence, subject to discrimination and abuse, and liable to sporadic and not infrequent violence. Lynching—that is, group assault—was not a common occurrence; but it happened often enough, and then with impunity, to constitute an immanent, imminent menace.
The response of the Jews to this was for the most part the traditional, almost instinctive one of emphasizing their helplessness and throwing themselves on the mercy of their neighbors. They learned to keep their place: any deviation from humility might be construed as outrageous presumption and serve as a pretext for punishment. The only alternative was to seek protection, either from some powerful Arab or, better yet, from one of the foreign consulates. This was not a course open to many, though their numbers increased over the century. In this, the Jews were following the example of the more advantageously connected Christian community.35
The most helpful of these foreign agencies in Palestine was the British consulate, which would not sell its favors. Finn was especially zealous on behalf of the Jewish community, in large part because he got to know it so well (he actually learned to speak Hebrew and Yiddish)—to the point of drawing a reprimand from his superiors on one occasion. The cause of equality was not an easy one. Finn describes how hard it was to persuade non-Muslims to protest against the use of opprobrious names; or to obtain justice before tribunals composed wholly or in their majority of Muslims; or to encourage victimized Jews to press charges against Muslim neighbors who threatened reprisals.
It was distressing to behold the timidity which long ages of repression had engendered. Many times a poor Jew would come for redress against a native, and when he had substantiated his case, and it had been brought by the consulate before the Turkish authorities, he would, in mere terror of future possible vengeance, withdraw from the prosecution, and even deny that any harm had been done him; or if that was too manifest, declare that he could not identify the criminal, or that the witnesses could not be produced. Still, even then, the bare fact that some notice had been taken had a deterrent effect upon the criminals who had hitherto regarded the defenseless Jews as their special prey.36
What are the implications of this record of largely forgotten or blinked oppression? The first is that a major revision of the historical orthodoxy is in order. The condition of Jews under Islam was far better than in Christendom, but it was incompatible with human dignity. To be sure, some places and times were better than others: there were good rulers as well as bad, protectors as well as tyrants—just as there were always some Jews able or enterprising enough to surmount their handicaps and make their fortunes in trade, the professions, or state service. But these better times and these individual successes do not alter the moral and historical significance of protected, tolerated status. All improvement, for the group or the individual, was necessarily precarious because of the combination of civil and spiritual inferiority with political helplessness.37
Nationalism was not, as Toynbee would have it, an alien import into the Ottoman Empire: neither Greeks nor Armenians needed lessons on the subject in view of their own national histories. Nor did trouble start, as Arafat would have it, with the Zionists; it was among the Christian communities of the empire that civil rights, and then independence movements—starting in the Balkans, then moving eastward to Asia Minor and the Fertile Crescent—were introduced. Nor was nationalism the forbidden fruit that put an end to a state of grace in a Muslim garden of Eden. For one thing, the garden was no paradise; for another, the fruit was of the tree of knowledge, rather than of presumption. Suddenly the dhimmi infidels knew they were naked and inferior, and they were ashamed; and the Muslims resented their new look and new walk.
Would the Jews have followed the same path? One cannot say for sure. They were far behind the Christians, and centuries of training led them to take cover when Christians and Muslims clashed in the middle of the century. Soon after that, the question was moot: the Zionists came from Europe, Jewish nationalists, most of them secularized and distinguishable from the Jews already in Palestine by dress, manners, speech, and beliefs.
But if the experience of the other minority groups in the area is any indicator, the Jews of Palestine would have eventually produced their own secular Zionism, even without the aliyot from Europe. They had the heritage of religious Zionism to build on; they were increasingly conscious of their disabilities; stronger contacts with and support from the West were fostering self-assertion; and, most important, Arab resistance to these pretensions, fostered by the contemporary stirrings of Arab nationalism, would have reinforced Jewish aspirations. “Our Jews,” says Baroody, would not have behaved this way if they hadn’t been corrupted by those Khazars from the north. But are Jews that different from other victims?38
The second implication is also historical: the subordination of Jew to Muslim in the Arab world was the worst possible basis for the coexistence of the two groups in an age of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. The aspiration of Jews (and other minorities in Islam) to the first two made the third impossible. From the beginning Muslim nationalisms—Turkish or Arab—had no “give” on these issues because their conception of the world and themselves made no allowance for sharing the high and noble attribute of sovereignty with dhimmi peoples.39 Since dominion was reserved to the faithful, those many non-Muslim peoples inhabiting an area that has always been a mosaic of nations and religions were expected to submit, get out, or be crushed. Hence a history of massacres: the Chiotes and Armenians by the Turks, the so-called Assyrians (Nestorian Christians) by the Iraqis, the black animists of the Upper Nile by the Sudanese.
In Palestine the Arab reaction to Zionism was shaped from the start by cognitive dissonance. The Jews had always been seen as “children of death (doom)”—hapless, helpless victims. The Zionists did not fit that image, but the Arabs long refused to adjust their perception to the reality. Some still refuse, which is one reason why Arabs prefer to see Israel as the creature of some outside power: it makes everything more understandable. And when Arabs insist that Israel can never be accepted in the area so long as it is Western, they are calling in effect for its suicide: in their frame of reference, a non-Western Israel, a Middle Eastern Israel, is a contradiction in terms.
The third implication of the historical record concerns the widely publicized program of the Palestine Liberation Organization for the liquidation of Israel and the establishment of a “democratic, secular state” of Palestine, in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims will be able to live side by side in harmony—as of yore. This is not the place to analyze this design, which envisages the departure of most of the Jews presently living in Israel under still unspecified circumstances. Suffice it to say here that it has found much favor in Western eyes because it seems to accord so well with our own notions of the good society. Yet everything we learn from the historical record would lead to doubts about the feasibility (let alone the sincerity) of the proposition. No Arab society has ever established such a state in the past, and none of the Arab states of today, for all the progress of modern secular notions, is built on these principles. The one country that moved in this direction, Lebanon, is today an object lesson in the limits of co-determination in an exclusivist Middle East.
It is the tragedy of Jewish religious and national aspirations that they should have as their focus a land in the middle of a great sea of peoples whose own history, self-image, and self-fulfillment leave no room for the self-fulfillment and self-determination of others. It is this as much as anything that has made the Arab-Jewish conflict so special in its absolutism, its fierceness, its resistance to compromise. Germans and French reconciled themselves after World War II; Germans and Russians likewise; even Germans and Jews. What counts is not so much the sense of wrong as attitudes: the adversaries must be ready to accept each other as equal, hence legitimately entitled to sovereignty. There has been much talk of Israeli reluctance to recognize the Palestinians. It is indeed a tenacious sentiment, but one linked essentially to political and military considerations, hence negotiable. But the converse refusal—the Arab (Palestinian) rejection of the legitimacy of Israel—has deeper roots. It will, the historical record suggests, be slower to change, and then only in obedience to unavoidable reality.
1 For Arab and Jewish statements of this thesis in the context of what has since become a classic exchange of views and polemic on the Middle East conflict, see Rachad Hamzaoui, “Les relations judéo-arabes au Moyen Age,” and Nissim Rejwan, “La grande époque de la coexistence judéo-arabe,” in Le conflit israélo-arabe (special number of Les temps modernes, Vol. XXII, No. 253 bis ), pp. 345-58, 823-42.
2 Benjamin of Tudela, Itinerary, trans. and ed. by Adolf Asher (London and Berlin, 1840), pp. 55-56, 94-104.
3 For Toynbee, see A Study of History (10 vols.; London, 1934-54), VIII, 190-91; for Kedourie, see The Chatham House Version and Other Middle Eastern Studies (Praeger, 1970), pp. 315-316. Kedourie, however, agrees with Toynbee on little else. See his cogent and perceptive critique, “Arnold J. Toynbee: History as Paradox,” Encounter, May 1974, pp. 57-66.
4 Sherif Abdul-Hamid Sharaf in the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly, October 16-17, 1975. Compare the comments of Mr. Qureshi of Pakistan in the General Assembly on November 10, with special reference to the flowering of Jewish scholarship in Muslim countries in the Middle Ages. United Nations General Assembly, Provisional Record of the 2,400th Meeting . . . 10 November 1975, sect. 171.
5 Ibid., sect. 122.
6 Ibid., sects. 197, 207. This discrimination between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews on the basis of alleged racial differences is today an article of the Arab political creed; so that Qaddafi, for example, can envisage the expulsion of the European Jews from the area as aliens and the re-dispersion of the Oriental Jews (Jewish Arabs) throughout the Arab world.
7 For only one aspect of Arab attitudes toward Jews and Judaism—Muslim theologians speaking to Muslim audiences—see D. F. Green, ed., Arab Theologians on Jews and Israel: Extracts from the Proceedings of the Fourth Conference of the Academy of Islamic Research (Geneva: Editions de l’Avenir, 1971). There is also a wealth of material in Yehoshafat Harkabi, Arab Attitudes toward Israel (Hart, 1972).
8 Loti, La Galilée (Paris, 1895), pp. iii, 37-38, 39-40, 41, 85-86, 69.
9 Reverend Samuel Manning, Those Holy Fields (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1874), pp. 14-17.
10 Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, Ch. xxix.
11 Jules Hoche, Le pays des croisades (Paris, n.d.), p. 10. As bad as the town was, it had beautiful, fragrant orange orchards in its southern and eastern suburbs.
12 Guide indicateur, Vol. III, pp. 163, 190.
13 François René de Chateaubriand, Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem et de Jérusalem à Paris (4th ed., 2 vols.; Paris, 1822), II, pp. 275-276.
13a Cf. Bernard Lewis, “The Return of Islam,” COMMENTARY, January 1976.
14 Isabel Burton, The Inner Life of Syria (2d ed., 2 vols.; London, 1870), Vol. II, p. 185. Emile Delmas, Egypte et Palestine (Paris, 1896), p. 336, reports one man dead in the previous year’s fighting.
15 On one of these communities, see Laurence Oliphant, Haifa or Life in Modern Palestine (2d ed.; Edinburgh and London, 1887), pp. 108 ff.
16 James Finn, Stirring Times (2 vols.; London, 1878). Vol. II, p. 63.
17 Ibid., Vol. I, pp. 438-42.
18 Abbé J. J. Bourassé, La Terre-Sainte: Voyage dans l’Arabie pétrée, la Judée, la Samarie, la Galilée et la Syrie (TOUR, 1860), p. 112; Finn, Stirring Times, Vol. I, p. 101.
19 Elizabeth Butler, Letters from the Holy Land (London, 1906), p. 17.
20 Pierre Loti, Jérusalem (Paris, 1895), p. 126.
21 These constraints also prevailed in Christian lands before the modern period, with its revolutionary notion of freedom of religion. Everywhere that Jews were permitted to live, for example, they were prohibited from building synagogues higher than the houses around; and the more discreet the site, the safer.
22 Finn, Stirring Times, Vol. I, pp. 118-19.
23 This general Hobbesian condition of brutish abuse and exploitation is sometimes advanced in mitigation of the oppression of minority groups—as though one man’s trouble were justification for inflicting trouble on another and weaker. Cf. the comments of Professor Stuart Schaar in a discussion of the condition of Moroccan Jews: “What Professor [S. D.] Goitein calls the ‘interminable history of cruel suffering’ in reference to the Jewish population of Morocco is grossly exaggerated and would apply to most people in the society—especially during periods of social breakdown—who did not have the means to achieve power or influence the powerful.” Proceedings of the Seminar on Muslim-Jewish Relations in North Africa . . . May 19, 1974, Princeton, New Jersey (World Jewish Congress, 1975), p. 31. I have never been able to follow this argument.
24 It is only a few years since the newly installed Qaddafi government of Libya seized the Roman Catholic cathedral in Tripoli, converted it to a mosque, and replaced the Christian image on the altar with a portrait of President Nasser.
25 Burton, Inner Life of Syria, Vol. II, pp. 185-86.
26 Letters from the Holy Land, p. 80.
27 On the broken glass, Jérome and Jean Tharaud, L’an prochain à Jèrusalem (Paris, 1924), p. 207. (The Tharaud brothers were a remarkable case of the repulsion-attraction syndrome; they were anti-Semites with an irresistible fascination for all things Jewish and a talent for abusing the confidence of their victims.) On British efforts to halt fouling of the Wall, Storrs, Orientations, pp. 407-8, 466.
28 Jèrusalem, pp. 183-84,128. For another example of childhood training in contempt and persecution, see the account of a game played during Lent by Arab-Christian children in Jaffa called “Burn the Jews.” Michaud and Poujoulat, Correspondence d’Orient, 1830-1831 (Brussels, 1841), VI, pp. 73-74.
29 Dominique Chevallier, La société du Mont Liban à l’époque de la Révolution industrielle en Europe (Paris: P. Geuthner, 1971), p. 268.
30 The best sources for all of this are Moshe Ma’oz, Ottoman Reform in Syria and Palestine 1840-1861 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1968), chs. xvi and xvii, and Chevallier, La societé du Mont Liban, Book VI.
31 Ma’oz, Ottoman Reform, p. 209.
32 There is even a study of the Jewish condition comparable to John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me: in 1888 Charles de Foucauld, an ex-officer in the French army, disguised himself as a Jew in order to visit those areas of Morocco that were closed to Christians. Foucauld, unlike Griffin, undertook his trip with little or no sympathy for his adopted co-religionists; which only gives force to his report of their oppression and misery. Charles de Foucauld, Reconnaissance au Maroc (Paris, 1939).
33 Though the path from conversion (very easy in Islam) to full acceptance was often long: all societies defined by religious belief have ways of protecting themselves against easy entrants, especially forced group entrants. Converts often find themselves in a kind of purgatory between two worlds, sometimes for many generations (compare the Dönme in Turkey and the “New Christians” in Spain). The Moroccans say, “Don’t trust a Jew if he becomes a Muslim, even if he remains so for forty years.” And the Algerians say, “The Jew is a Jew, even after forty generations.” Norman A. Stillman, “Muslims and Jews in Morocco: Perceptions, Images, Stereotypes,” Proceedings of the Seminar on Muslim-Jewish Relations, p. 13.
34 Clifford Geertz rejects this analogy—what he calls the majority-minority kind of model—for North African Jewry because relations of particular Jews with Muslims were highly individualistic rather than conditioned by membership in the group. But such individuation of relationship has always characterized the treatment of minorities, however oppressive. Even in Nazi Germany powerful men had their Jewish protégés. Such personal and particular relationships go far to account for the differences in perception of condition that characterize all minority groups; on one level, that is where Uncle Toms come from. In his comments on this issue, Professor Geertz does not offer an alternative model. Ibid, pp. 32-33.
35 Cf. Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1798-1939 (London: Oxford, 1962), p. 40.
36 Finn, Stirring Times, Vol. I, p. 127.
37 See on this point the perceptive analysis of William Shaler, American consul in Algiers in the 1820’s. Sketches of Algiers, Political, Historical, and Civil (Boston, 1826), pp. 66-67.
38 This is the argument of Albert Memmi, Jews and Arabs (Chicago: J. Philip O’Hara, 1975), who contends that the Sephardic Jews of North Africa did not need lessons in Zionism from the Ashkenazim of Eastern Europe.
39 As Gil Carl AlRoy puts it: “Since the Koran denies Jews a claim to dominion and they are held everywhere naturally submissive to alien protectors, the thought of the Jews as rulers suggests cosmic disorder, explaining the common resort among Arabs to Jewish statehood as ‘abnormal,’ ‘unnatural,’ ‘artificial,’ and in similar terms.” “The Arab Myth of Zionism,” Patterns of Prejudice, Vol. IV, No. 6 (Nov.-Dec. 1970), p. 7. See also his “Patterns of Hostility,” in AlRoy, ed., Attitudes toward Jewish Statehood in the Arab World (American Academic Association for Peace in the Middle East, 1971).