Thursday, September 30, 2010

Martin Gilbert's "In Ishmael's House"

This is a very fact-packed review of 1400 years of Jews living in Muslim lands. It is eye-opening in its incredible historical detail of oppression of Jews by Muslims. The tales of atrocities come one after another in a never-ending succession. It is depressing. But it is important to know. This book is well worth reading, especially in today's world. We need more knowledge of the long history of Muslim behaviour to better understand words and actions today.

I had to stop from time to time as I read tragedy after tragedy and tell myself that this is like "knowing" a foreign city by listening to that city's local news. All you get is a daily stream of crimes. You "learn" only the worst possible from that stream of "news". Fortunately, Martin Gilbert does stop from time to time to point out that there were periods of relatively decent treatment of the Jews and he does go to pains to point out the occasions on which Muslims put themselves at danger to hide or protect Jews. But the incessant tales of misdeeds hammers home the point that deep in the Muslim religion is a mindset toward others, Jews in particular, but other religions that is deeply hostile.

To give you a taste of the factual content of this book, here is a bit from the latter chapters talking about the oppression and expulsion of Jews from Muslim lands after Israeli independence:
In Syria, following the 1967 defeat of the Syrian forces and the loss of the Golan Heights to Israel, new regulations were imposed on the country's 3,500 Jews. These new laws harked back to a much earlier time when the Covenant of Omar could be burdensome in the extreme. There were twelve laws in all. The first: 'The Jewish right to emigrate is completely forbidden. This applies even to Jews in Syria who hold foreign passports.' The second: 'Jews are forbidden to move more than three kilometres from their place of residence. Those wishing to travel further must apply for a special permit.' The third: 'Identiy cards issued to Jews are stamped in red with the word Mussawi (Jew).'

The fourth and fifth laws, respectively: 'Jews are normally subject to a 10 p.m. curfew' and 'Jews are allowed six years elementary schooling only.' The remaining laws, in sequence: 'Jewish houses in the town of Kamishli are to be marked in red'; 'Jews are barred from jobs in the public service, public institutions and banks'; 'Government officials and military personnel are forbidden to buy in Jewish shops'; 'Foreigners may not visit the Jewish quarters unescorted by a government official'; 'Jews are forbidden to own radios or telephones, or to maintain postal contact with the outside world'; and 'No telephones may be installed in Jewish homes.' The twelfth and final regulation: 'The property and possessions of deceased Jews are confiscated by the government. Their heirs must then pay for its use. If they cannot, it will be handed over to the Palestinian Arabs.'
From a review in The Economist, this will give you a bit of a feel for the book:
FROM 624 to 628AD, several Jewish clans in the Arabian peninsula joined forces with an Arab tribe, the Quraysh, to make war on a renegade Qurayshi named Muhammad who had had the chutzpah to claim he was a prophet of God. They lost. Piqued at the Jews for rejecting a creed that—with its dietary laws, ritual circumcision and daily prayers towards (at first) Jerusalem—was so closely modelled on their own, the Prophet Muhammad decreed that they, along with Christians, would henceforth be considered dhimmiyeen under Islam; “protected” as fellow monotheists, but subject to a heavy tax and various other indignities.


Sir Martin is no Islamophobe, and his is a solid and balanced, if unexciting, chronicle of both ups and downs in Jewish fortunes. But it is nothing more. Although he gives a clear-eyed account of the conflict that prompted Muhammad to impose dhimma status on the Jews, he offers virtually no political or social context for the actions of any Muslim leader thereafter. This makes for a monotonous and ahistorical narrative: under more tolerant caliphs the Jews prospered, yet still suffered isolated attacks; under crueller ones they were oppressed, yet individual Muslims still performed acts of kindness, and so on for 12 centuries. Moreover, Christians and other dhimmiyeen are absent from the tale, so there is no sense of whether Jews were being singled out.

Things improve a little in the 20th century, the second half of the book. Here Sir Martin, best known as Winston Churchill’s official biographer, is on home turf, and he writes about the obvious effects of world wars, colonialism and the rise of Israel on the decline of Jewish-Muslim relations. There are some gripping moments in the eyewitness accounts of anti-Jewish riots in Cairo or Baghdad, but here again he remains largely silent on Muslim thinking and perceptions.
This book isn't the way to "learn" history in any grand sense. This book is too much down in the trenches with historical anecdote, too much down in the details. But it makes a very readable story. I think this bit from a review on the blog Planetary Movement pretty well sums up my feelings about this book:
Jewish life under Muslim rule naturally invites comparison with that under Christian rule. Here Gilbert quotes with approval the eminent Jewish scholar Bernard Lewis, who concluded that the situation of the Jews living under Muslim rulers was “never as bad as in Christendom at its worst, nor ever as good as in Christendom at its best”. Lewis observes that “there is nothing in Islamic history to parallel the Spanish expulsion and Inquisition, the Russian pogroms, or the Nazi Holocaust”. But he goes on to point out that there is nothing in the history of the Jews under Islam “to compare with the progressive emancipation and acceptance accorded to the Jews in the democratic West during the last three centuries”.

Gilbert is an anecdotal historian, not an analytical one. He has produced a lively chronicle of the Jews in Muslim countries from Morocco to Afghanistan. He has rich materials at his disposal and he is attentive to the human voices of individuals. But his account is both highly selective and narrowly focused on the Jews. What is missing is the wider political, social and economic context to enable the reader to place the Jewish minority in each Muslim country within its proper historical perspective.

Some examples of Muslim openness, tolerance and courage are given by Gilbert. The bulk of the book, however, consists of examples of Muslim hatred, hostility and cruelty towards the Jews.
The book opens with incredible tales of how Mohammed tricked and lured various Jewish communities to their downfall. His typical treatment was to kill all the men and enslave all the children and women. Mohammed himself took the woman Rayhana and killed her husband when he destroyed the Jewish Qurayzah tribe in Medina. This was just the first of many "eye openers" for me as I read this book. Here's a "holy man" who slaughters and takes the victims wife as his own while selling off as slaves those he didn't outright kill. Not the acts one would expect from a religion that claims "merciful Allah" as its God.

The stories of century after century of violence and mistreatment are depressing. The Muslim rule was oppressive and geared toward forcing conversion of the Jews. Even when forced conversions were blatantly immoral, that didn't stop the Muslims. And, of course, they had the rule that once you were "converted" to go back on your conversion was apostasy and they killed you, so over the centuries the Jewish communities (and all others) in the conquered Muslim lands were slowly reduced to overwhelming Muslim majorities.

Here is one small example of the pogroms that went on despite the claim that all "peoples of the Book" were to be protected by Muslims:
That evening [early 1948 in Morocco], in the nearby town of Djerada, thirty-nine Jews were killed and thirty seriously injured, out of a total Jewish population of one hundred.
I pick on the above only because of the scale of the killing: 39% of the community! And this was just after the European holocaust in which six million Jews were killed by the madmen racists, the Nazis.

This snippet deals with how Jews trapped in Muslim lands after Israeli independence were treated:
The Moroccan Government took a hard line towards the departure of Moroccan Jews for Israel. Moulay Ahmed Alaoui, the Minister of Information, described Jewish emigration as a 'betrayal and desertion' of Morocco. In addition, he declared: 'It was unjust that Moroccans should take the place of Palestinian Arabs in Israel, and that is why we stop the Jews leaving.' Echoes of Nazism could also be heard. In March 1961, when a cinema in Cassablanca screened a dramatised version of Mein Kampf, the audience applauded when an actor in the film exclaimed: 'We must exterminate the Jews.

The public mood in Morocco remained ugly. In March 1961, after a group of Moroccan Jews carrying forged passports were stopped by the police as they approached the border with the Spanish enclave of Melilla, the Istiklal Party's newspaper, al-Alam, stated that 'any Jew attempting to emigrate to Isreal deserves the death penalty.' This harsh suggestion was ignored, but the fact that it had been made raised yet more fears among the Jews who wanted to leave Morocco.
The crazy thing is that of all the Muslim lands, Morocco still retains a Jewish community and had good relations with Israel despite its terrible treatment of its Jews.

Here is another, more depressing story:
In 1834 another event occurred that shocked the western Jewish world: the public execution of a seventeen-year-old Jewish woman Sol Hachuel ... in the Moroccan city of Tangier. The tragedy began when Sol befriended a Musliim woman who had ambitions to convert her to Islam -- a particularly meritorious act under the code of Islamic law then prevalent in Morocco. Whe n the woman's efforts failed, she denounced Sol to the Muslim authorities, claiming that the girl had indeed been converted, but had returned to Judaism.

Sol was brought before the Sultan's representative, the Basha (Governor) of Tangier, Arbi Esudio, and accused of having agreed to be converted to Islam. Sol declared: 'You have been deceived, Sir ... I never pronunounced such words: she proposed it to me, but I did not consent.' She then told the Governor, in Ladino, in words that became her epitaph: Hebrea naci y Hebrea quero morir -- ' A Jewess I was born, a Jewess I wish to die.' The Governor responded by offering Sol silk and gold if she agreed even then to convert to Islam. He then threatened her with punishment for apostasy: 'I will have you torn piece-meal by wild beasts. You shall not see the light of day, you shall perish of hunger, and experience the rigour of my vengeance and indignation, in having provoked the anger of the Prophet.'

Sol, unflinching, replied 'I will give my limbs to be torn piece-meal by wild beasts; I will renounce forever the light of day, I will perish of hunger, and when all the evils of life are accumulated on me by your orders, I will smile at your indignation, and the anger of the Prophet: since neither he nor you have been able to overcome a weak female! It is clear that Heaven is not too auspicious to making proselytes to your faith.'

The Governor was indignant at Sol's reference to Mohammed -- 'you have profaned the name I revere,' he told her -- and sent her to prison, where she was held with an iron collar around her neck, and chains on her hands and feet. Her parents appealed to the Spanish Consul in Tangier, but his considerable efforts to have her set free were unsuccessful. Sold was then sent to Fez, for the Sultan to decide her fate. Her parents were made to pay a substantial sum for the cost of the journey, and threatened with five hundred lashes if they could not find the money. Fortunately for them, the Spanish Consul paid the charge.

In Fez, the Sultan appointed the Cadi -- a senior Koranic judge -- to determine Sol's punishment. The Cadi summoned the Jewish sages of Fez, who urged him to spare Sol's life. The Cadi replied that unless she agreed to convert to Islam she would be beheaded -- and the Jewish community punished. Despite efforts by the sages to persuade her to convert in order to save her life and their community. Sol refused conversion and was found guilty. She was condemned to be executed in the main marketplace in Fez. The Cadi stated that the cost of the execution would have to be borne by her father.

A large crowd of local Muslims gathered to watch the execution, crying out as she was brought through the streets: 'Here comes she wou blasphemed the Prophet -- death! Death! to the the impious wretch! At the scaffold, Sol was permitted to wash her hands and say the Shema prayer, 'Hear! O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is one...' Then one of the executioners cut her with his scimitar and, in the hope of persuading her to convert to Islam -- apparently on the Sultan's orders -- declared, 'There is yet time to become Mohametan, and save your life! On seeing her blood she turned to him with the words, 'Do not make me linger -- behead me at once -- for dying as I do, innocent of any crime, the God of Abraham will avenge my death!' She was then beheaded.

The Fez Jewish community had to pay to have Sol Hachuel's corpse, her head and the bloodstained earth given to them for Jewish burial in the Jewish cemetery. She was buried next to one of the great sages of Moroccan Jewry and declared a martyr. Her story was told and retold all over the world as the tragedy of a Jew entrapped by Islamic enmity towards the infidel.
The above story is depressing because it is repeated in many variations through this book. Stories of one religious community oppressing another. Both claiming to worship "one God" and claiming that their God is "merciful" and "just" while carrying out heinous crimes in the name of religion.

The reason why religious toleration is so important is to separate the powers of state from the hands of religious leaders and religious fanatics. History, and this history by Gilbert in particular, is replete with fanatics claiming a higher "truth" in order to kill others. The only way to have a civil society is to demand that all religions respect other religions and jealously guard the use of force in the hands of a secular government, a government dedicated to guarding all citizens of a multi-ethic, multi-racial, multi-religious nation.

What terrifies me is that the Christian fundamentalists in the US seem completely unaware of the horrors of European history with its religious wars, with the use of state power again the weak and vulnerable in the name of some idiotic religious dogma.

One final thought on historical religions. When they are too close to the present, like the Mormons, then the story of their founding become obviously difficult to swallow as credible by an outsider. The Muslim religion is on the edge of history. The details preserved are pretty scary. This is a "warrior cult" that uses the language of a "merciful God" support a bloodbath of conquest and long centuries of oppression of local peoples. What I don't understand is how modern religions can have fundamentalists declaring that the quaint details of their origins are "literally true". Mohammed comes across as deceitful and violent. I don't understand why there isn't a reformation of this religion to toss out the ugly details of the actual historical roots and focus on the noble ideas within the religion. So long as people are not able to draw a line between a violent and oppressive past and a claim to a wondrous, just, and merciful present, I can't trust them. I want to see more reformation inside Islam.

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