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The Myth of Arab Innocence

[Elliott A. Green/History News Network]

Summary ... Muslims have always declared that they have been tolerant towards Jews. However, history has proven otherwise. Islam has demonstrated systemic, juridical oppression, exploitation, and humiliation of Jews, ranking them at the bottom of the social barrel in the Islamic domain.

The myth of Arab innocence throughout history —particularly concerning Jews— has long haunted British and American writing about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Professors Walt and Mearsheimer put it as follows in their anti-Israel tract:

...in the Christian West... Jews suffered greatly from the despicable legacy of Anti-Semitism... But ... the creation of Israel involved additional crimes against a largely innocent third party: the Palestinians [sic].

This article seeks to disprove that false claim and demonstrate instead the systemic, juridical oppression, exploitation, and humiliation of non-Muslims —including Jews—in Islamic society. Further, whereas it used to be commonly believed that Islam was benign toward Jews, the article shows that Jews were at the bottom of the social barrel in the Islamic domain generally—although conditions varied with time and place. Moreover, this was true in Jerusalem specifically. Indeed, the famous Jewish philosopher Maimonides believed that Jews were worse treated under Islam than in Christendom. He was in a position to compare conditions in both zones because he conducted correspondence with Jews in far flung places.

In the empires resulting from the Arab and Muslim conquests, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians—and later, Hindus and others— were subjects far inferior in law to Muslims as a class. Tolerated non-Muslims, called dhimmis, were required to pay annual tribute, jizya, for the privilege of living another year. This is grounded in Qur'an 9:29 and remains part of Islamic law to this day, although formally abolished in the Ottoman Empire in 1855. Islamic law still views dhimmis as an occupied population to be "brought low" (9:29 & 2:61). The rules of dhimmi status, dhimma, also provide that dhimmis should not bear arms, that their garments must differ from Muslim garments, that they show deference to Muslims, such as dismounting when encountering a Muslim on the road. Since a horse is a noble animal, a dhimmi must not ride one. Further, a dhimmi's testimony in court is worth half of a Muslim's, etc.

The Danish traveler, Karsten Niebuhr, visiting Egypt in 1761-1762, described dhimmis dismounting in humiliation from donkeys when encountering horse-mounted Muslims on the street. Niebuhr visited Egypt four decades before Napoleon, which is significant because Edward Said argued that similar reports made after Napoleon's Egyptian expedition were invalid since tainted with imperialism.

Moshe Gil found in the Cairo Genizah, a medieval archive of Jewish writings, accounts of impoverishment and suffering caused to Jews in Israel by collection of the jizya and other taxes:

...if you saw who paid all those moneys you would have been astonished and lamented over them and say of them: Could such a large 'onesh [punitive tax, exaction] have come from those poor people?

Jacob Barna'i examined ledgers of the Jerusalem Jewish community in the late eighteenth century. He found a situation strikingly similar to that found by Gil for the pre-Crusades period. Besides jizya, Jews paid unofficial taxes, fees, exactions, mandatory bribes, etc. The rapacious were not only Ottoman officials but local Muslim notables and strong men. Of course, Christian dhimmis too could be oppressed this way. Jews differed by being low man on the Islamic totem pole. Israeli historian Moshe Sharon argues:

...the fact that the Qur'an singled them [Jews] out as the enemies of the Muslims... institutionalized their inferior status in comparison to the Christians.

The Arab writer Al-Jahiz explained this by the political resistance of the Jews in Medina to Muhammad. The Hamas takes inspiration for its Judeophobia from early Islam, citing the hadith fable about Judgment Day in its charter (Article 7):

...the Muslims will fight the Jews who will hide behind rocks and trees. The rocks and trees will cry out: O Muslim! A Jew is hiding behind me. Come kill him...

Francesco Gabrieli, the Italian historian of Islam, wrote:

...the name "Yahudi" [Jew] acquired on Muslim lips the same odor of hostile scorn for the Jews that the term "Jew" had in the Western world, more hostile and scornful than that of the epithet "Nasrani" [Christian].

This judgment is supported by a British envoy sent to the Levant in the 1830s. John Bowring reported Muslim resentment of improved treatment for dhimmis there by their ruler Muhammad Ali of Egypt:

The Mussulmans deeply deplore the loss of that sort of superiority which they all & individually exercised over ... the other sects... a Mussulman... believes ... that a Christian —and still more a Jew— is an inferior being to himself.

This pecking order was confirmed by a nineteenth century Turk objecting to equalizing measures in the Ottoman Empire (quoted by Bernard Lewis):

... whereas in former times... the communities were ranked... the Muslims first, then the Greeks, then the Armenians, then the Jews, now all... were... on the same level. Some Greeks objected... saying: "The government has put us together with the Jews. We were content with the supremacy of Islam."

The above quotes demonstrate that the Jews were generally at the bottom of Arab-Muslim society. It thus stands to reason that this was true of Jerusalem too. Yet this should and can be demonstrated by sources.

In the late Mamluk period (ca. 1500), the chief Roman Catholic official in Jerusalem, Francesco Suriano, hated Muslims, but appreciated how they treated Jews:

I wish you to know how these dogs of Jews are trampled upon, beaten, and ill-treated, as they deserve... They live in this country in such subjection that words cannot describe it... in Jerusalem where they committed the sin for which they are dispersed throughout the world [the crucifixion-EAG], they are by God more punished and afflicted than in any other part of the world. And over a long time I have witnessed that.

Some 300 years later, in Ottoman Jerusalem, the French writer Chateaubriand found the Jews still on the bottom. A Greek monk, Neophytos, described the situation until the 1830s. Illustrating Muhammad Ali of Egypt's magnanimity toward dhimmis, he writes that it extended even to Jews. They formerly "did not even dare to change a tile on" their synagogue roof, yet "now received a permit to build."

Next comes a surprise witness, none other than Karl Marx:

Nothing equals the misery and suffering of the Jews at Jerusalem... the constant objects of Mussulman oppression and intolerance, insulted by the Greeks, persecuted by the Latins." [New York Tribune, 15 April 1854]

To be sure, Marx was never in Jerusalem. But his report in Horace Greeley's Tribune is mainly taken from a book by the French diplomat and historian, Cesar Famin, who served in the Ottoman Empire and had access to French diplomats, churchmen, and foreign ministry records.

If these accounts seem tedious, let's skip over the late Ottoman period, when conditions for dhimmis generally improved, to British rule when Arab pogroms against Jews resumed, with British acquiescence or encouragement. The 1929 massacre and "ethnic cleansing" of the ancient Hebron community (68 Jews murdered, hundreds removed) left special bitterness among Jews in Israel and abroad.

This was followed by participation of the chief Palestinian [sic] Arab leader, the British-appointed mufti of Jerusalem, Amin el-Husseini, in the Holocaust from his base in Berlin. To be sure, the Allies did not prosecute him at Nuremberg for genocide collaboration, although Yugoslavia wanted him tried for war crimes by his followers there.

The Walt-Mearsheimer view of Arabs generally and Palestinian Arabs specifically as "largely innocent" is blatantly false. Further, there is no longer an excuse for ignorance on the matters covered above. There are document collections covering Jews under Islam by Norman Stillman, Bat Ye'or, and Andrew Bostom, plus abundant books and articles. Moreover, there are works on Arab nationalist Nazi collaboration, Husseini's particularly, by Hirszowicz, Schechtman, Carpi, El-Peleg, etc. Yet the myth seems so deeply rooted among the press, academics, and State Department circles, that it is unlikely to dissipate any time soon if ever.

[ Published: December 4, 2008 ]



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