Jewish Affairs

Jews Under Islam

The 1,400-year history of Jews living under the banner of Islam has been extremely checkered, marked as it has been by periods of acceptance and discrimination.

Reflecting on the status of Jews in Muslim domains, the historian Bernard Lewis adopted a balanced approach, saying it had never been as “bad as in Christendom at its worst, nor ever as good as in Christendom at its best.”

Taking his cue from Lewis’ assessment, the British historian Martin Gilbert writes, “From the time of [the prophet] Mohammed until today, Jews have often found greater opportunities, respect and recognition under Islam than under Christianity. They have also been subjected to the worst excesses of hostility, hatred and persecution.”

In his 82nd book, In Ishmael’s House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands (McClelland & Stewart), the amazingly prolific Gilbert carefully examines the relationship between Jews and Muslims over 14 centuries, painting a rich and nuanced portrait of Jewish communities in Muslims domains from medieval Spain to contemporary Iran.

A Jewish Ottoman official at the turn of the 19th century
A Jewish Ottoman official, late 19th century

The Arabian peninsula, the cradle of Islam, was home to Jews long before the birth of Mohammed. Throughout this huge land mass, Jewish craftsmen and farmers thrived.

Mohammed, having incorporated some Jewish traditions and customs, assumed he would easily win over Jews to his prophetic vision. But when they balked, he grew bitter, with the result that Islam treated Jews and non-Muslims as dhimmis, or inferiors. Under the eighth century Covenant of Omar, Omar Abd al-Azziz, the Umayyad caliph, formally codified the rules of dhimmitude, designed to keep Jews and Christians in their place.

In exchange for such benefits as personal security, property rights, religious freedom and communal autonomy, Jews were forced to pay a jizya tax and adhere to a series of strict regulations.

Jews in the more enlightened Ottoman Empire fared considerably better, but as Gilbert points out, they remained under “the shadow of dhimmi status” for centuries

Dhimmis were encouraged to become Muslims. One such convert, Yaqub ibn-Killis, a 10th century merchant, supplied the funds for the establishment of Al-Azzar University in Cairo, one of the most important centres of learning in the Islamic world. Facing a massacre, the Persian Jews of Meshad converted en masse to Islam in 1839.

Frequently, the treatment meted out to dhimmis depended on the whim of authorities.

The vizier of the 11th century Berber kingdom of Granada, Samuel ibn Nagrela, led a Muslim army into battle. Maimonides, the most eminent Jewish scholar of the Middle Ages, enjoyed the friendship and respect of Muslims.

The Mamluks, who ruled Egypt from 1250 to 1516, enforced dhimmi regulations with vigour, imposing distinctive dress codes on Jews and forbidding them to serve as public officials. The Ottoman sultan, Abdul Mejid, ended dhimmi subservience in 1856.

Being at the mercy of Islamic rulers, Jews experienced ups and downs. Gilbert examines these swings of the pendulum in meticulous fashion.

The Shiite clergy in Persia decreed dhimmis to be unclean, an edict that became the cornerstone of Muslim relations with Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians. In the 19th century, the Persian Jews of Hamadan were subjected to a series of onerous regulations. They were eventually relaxed and Jews enjoyed equality under the law. But in present-day Iran, Jews cannot become army officers, and if a member of a Jewish family converts to Islam, he or she can inherit the entire family’s property, Gilbert claims.

Morocco serves as another example of the mercurial treatment meted out to Jews by Muslims. With the advent of French colonial rule in 1912, Muslim mobs in Fez went on a rampage, murdering more than 60 Jews in the Jewish quarter. “More Jews were killed in the pogrom in Fez than in the Kishinev pogrom in Russia nine years earlier,” observes Gilbert.

There is no doubt that the Arab-Israeli conflict heightened tensions. When spasms of violence broke out in Morocco, Mohammed V, the sultan, protected his Jewish subjects, but warned them to distance themselves from Zionism and Israel.

Jews in Egypt prospered in the first four decades of the 20th century. Elie Mosseri, a businessman, was a major shareholder of the Mena House Hotel, where Israeli and Egyptian officials met shortly after Anwar Sadat’s historic trip to Jerusalem in 1977. Joseph Cattaui was a member of the delegation that negotiated Egypt’s independence from Britain in the 1930s.

With the outbreak of the first Arab-Israeli war, Jews were the objects of violence and were compelled to emigrate, a pattern that manifested itself all over the Arab world.

Blood flowed even prior to Israel’s declaration of statehood in 1948.

The United Nations Palestine partition plan, passed on Nov. 29, 1947, touched off riots in both Yemen and Syria. In Aden, 82 Jews were murdered, while in Aleppo, all 18 synagogues were destroyed. One hundred and twenty nine Jews were killed in Libya as anti-Zionist feelings flared in 1945. But amid the bloodshed, Libyan Arabs risked their lives to save Jews. Israel’s victory in the 1948 war intensified Arab anger and resentment, and Gilbert cites examples.

In Iraq, pro-Nazi army officers orchestrated a pogrom in Baghdad in 1941, resulting in the deaths of  numerous Jews, the removal of Jewish civil servants from their posts and the marginalization of the Jewish community. By the end of 1951, 113,000 Jews had legally emigrated and 20,000 had left illegally, leaving only 6,00 Jews in the country. With the Baathist seizure of power in the 1960s, their lives grew immeasurably worse.

Jews in Egypt did not fare well either. In protest over the presence of British troops in the Suez Canal zone, European residents of Cairo were attacked in 1952. In the process, many Jewish businesses were vandalized. According to Gilbert, the Muslim Brotherhood instigated the attacks.

The fall of the Egyptian monarchy ushered in a brief period of calm. But a clumsy and ill-conceived Mossad operation in Cairo in 1954, designed to drive a wedge between Egypt and the United States, jeopardized the position of Egyptian Jews. The 1956 Suez War, as well as the 1967 Six Day War, led to still more dire consequences.

Events took a similar turn in Syria, one of Israel’s bitterest enemies. Oppressed Syrian Jews had to wait until the early 1990s to gain official permission to emigrate.

Jews in neighbouring Lebanon eventually felt the heat, too. By the end of the Six Day War, only 1,800 Jews remained in Lebanon. During the Lebanese civil war, which erupted in 1975 and lasted about 15 years, still more Jews departed. Less than 150 Jews remain in Lebanon today.

All told, 850,000 Jews have been displaced from Arab countries since Israel’s emergence as a sovereign state. Their departure has added value to Israel and countries like Canada and France, but left a gaping hole in the Arab world.