How Tolerance and Terror Marked the Evolving Fate of Jews Under Muslim Rule
Last year, a friend and I visited the Jewish cemetery in Fez during a trip to Morocco. The place had the serenity of a shrine, and it was: By our count, no Jew had died in Fez since 1954, mostly because virtually no Jew has lived in Fez since then. By the time of our visit, the onetime community of 16,000 had dwindled to 150, owing primarily to immigration to Israel.
Striding purposefully down the wide lanes separating the aboveground graves was 66-year-old Edmond Gabay, the director of the museum attached to the cemetery. Beneath a dandyish cap, his face was lit with impish brio. After pleasantries, we impolitely asked him exactly what was on our minds: Why was he still there when his family and friends had moved away; why hadn’t he immigrated to Israel or the United States? “Israel? America?” he asked, his eyes growing wide. “There’s no safer place in the world to be a Jew than Morocco!”
Exactly a year after we talked with Gabay, Muslim fundamentalists staged five simultaneous suicide bombings aimed mostly at Jewish targets in Casablanca. I wrote a letter to Edmond asking if he was all right. Then, I asked if he still felt Morocco was the safest place in the world for a Jew.
There has been no reply.
Until the bombings, Morocco was regarded as a model of comparative tolerance in the Muslim world. During World War II, King Mohammed V refused to supply the Nazis with a list of Jewish citizens. More recently, the appointment of a Jewish chief advisor to the Moroccan king served notice that Jews stood on equal footing in the country. The bombings undermined that record. I don’t know if Gabay would revise his view of Morocco, but I know many people in the United States who have given up on his country — and the entire Muslim world. If a pluralistic nation like Morocco — or Turkey, where two synagogues were bombed this month — becomes unsafe for Jews, the possibility of reconciliation elsewhere in the Muslim world begins to seem dubious.
Since September 11, Western pundits and politicians have been squinting mightily to make out the intentions of the inscrutable force of Islam. Is its practice compatible with Western notions of freedom and tolerance? Or does it condemn its faithful to a life of autocracy and prejudice? Are Morocco and Turkey models of tolerance or powder kegs? The answers vary, but the underlying question is inevitably the same: Are Muslims like us, or aren’t they?
It’s the wrong question to ask. A slew of new non-fiction and fiction books dealing with the history of Jews in Muslim countries reveals why.
“Sunlight & Shadow: The Jewish Experience of Islam,” a survey of Jewish life under Muslim rule since the early Middle Ages by the popular historian Lucien Gubbay, makes a persuasive argument for Islam’s capacity for tolerance. In Fatimid Egypt, Gubbay writes, several generations of caliphs contributed funds for the maintenance of the Jewish academy in Jerusalem. Around the same time, Maimonides wrote his famous letter to the Jews of Yemen, disparaging Muhammad, the founder of Islam, in no unequivocal terms — an act for which he received no censure. The position of Samuel ibn Nagrila, the Jewish vizier of Granada, was such that he was able not only to sponsor a great flourishing of Jewish arts and letters in Andalusian Spain, but to compose a critical treatise on the Quran as well. In Ottoman Turkey, Muslim grandees deferred government business and trade until Jewish ministers and merchants could complete their celebration of their holy days.
But Gubbay also shows that these occasions of fortune and liberty were not manifestations of moral principle. The Ottomans — under whose auspices the Jews perhaps reached their apogee as Muslim subjects — respected the rights of the Jewish minority, but the relationship was largely utilitarian. The Ottomans required the skills that Jews possessed, and the Jews were willing to ply the necessary trades without raising doubts about their fidelity, as post-Crusade Christians inevitably did. Ottoman rulers directed their co-religionists to treat Jews well, but this was in order to secure Jewish cooperation, not because of any sense of moral obligation toward Jews as their subjects, much less toward Jews as a people. Though the Turks never systematically persecuted their Jews, even refusing to turn them over to the Nazis during World War II, there existed no unimpeachable guarantee of their security until well into the 19th century, and Jews suffered greatly at the whims of their overlords.
Perhaps unintentionally, what distinguishes Gubbay’s well-meaning survey is its inconclusiveness. The coexistence of Jews and Muslims has frequently been tense, and it has been a model of harmony equally as often. All of this is beside the point. There has always been less distance between tolerance and terror for Jewish subjects of Muslim rule than semantics would seem to suggest. The right question to ask is why.
There is nothing changeless about the relationship of Jews and Muslims. The history of Jewish-Muslim struggle — much like the history of Jewish-Muslim amity — has been a function of shifting circumstances, not polarized, irreconcilable belief systems. As the historian Francis E. Peters argues in his “Islam: A Guide for Jews and Christians,” this has been a political fight from the start. Initially, Muhammad claimed Abraham as a forefather and borrowed heavily from the Jews — respected as fellow monotheists and People of the Book — in establishing the customs of Islam. But this fledgling collaboration did not last. The Jews of Medina greeted Muhammad’s claims of divine revelation with derision, mocking the illiterate merchant with trick questions designed to expose his ignorance of the Old Testament. Muhammad did not respond kindly. First, he renounced much of what he had adopted from the Jews. After that, he methodically and with increasing brutality expelled the Jews from Medina.
But Muhammad’s followers disdained their Jewish subjects for distorting God’s revelations when they were His chosen recipients and for failing to acknowledge the supremacy of the restored message carried by Muhammad — not because they considered Jews an inherently inferior race. As a result, the early Muslims accorded Jews a fair amount of autonomy and religious latitude, permissible as long as they conceded Muslim superiority and submitted to the social restrictions it entailed.
What happened when Jews were thought to have exceeded these boundaries?
In 1574, according to Gubbay, the Ottoman sultan Murad III received the news that a Jewish woman had flaunted an expensive necklace on the streets of Istanbul. His response was to decree the wholesale destruction of the Ottoman Jews (although the command was never carried out). The sultan’s decree was atypical, but in degree rather than kind: It was often such instances of perceived self-aggrandizement by individual Jews — who, for all their advancement, remained infidels — that antagonized the Muslim masses. When Joseph ibn Nagrila, who succeeded his father as vizier of Granada, began to conduct the affairs of his court with what was viewed as undue arrogance, neither his elevated position nor 350 years of virtually uninterrupted Muslim-Jewish harmony in Spain could prevent his murder and a massacre of the Jews of Granada.
Nagrila’s unfortunate fate illuminates patterns of Muslim thought concerning non-Muslims because it hints at the tremendous premium placed on social hierarchies in Islamic culture. The decorum dictated by these hierarchies has been of immeasurable significance to Muslim social life, a thousand years ago and today. When means of economic, political or financial legitimization were not available, or events conspired to disadvantage Muslims, it was such structures that helped preserve ordinary dignity. The Muslim majority turned on the Jews not only when the Jews were perceived to aspire beyond their social station, but also as a means of empowerment. Only 30 years before the Moroccan king refused to betray his Jewish citizens during World War II, the news that the Moroccan government had acquiesced to a French protectorate produced such discontent in the Moroccan army that 60 Jews were killed in Fez. After the British subdued pro-Axis Iraq in 1941, in the words of the new survey “The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times,” “demobilized soldiers and tribesmen vented their frustration by attacking the Jewish community.”
Dignity is a universal aspiration, of course, but its interpretations are as many; in the West, dignity implies the protection of one’s inalienable rights to a life free from physical threat and ideological persecution. In the Muslim world, it has also implied a superiority over practitioners of other faiths. This attitude has its origins in the Quran’s contradictory dicta on unbelievers, particularly Jews.
The Quran is a notoriously elliptical document, frequently unspecific and abstract, its pronouncements unclarified by antecedents. Among its paradoxes is its position on Jews. The early suras, revealed to Muhammad at Mecca, seem to preach a live-and-let-live message of harmony: “Those who profess Judaism… shall have their reward with their Lord; there shall be no fear in them, neither shall they grieve.” And yet, historians contend that these verses are less a reflection of Muhammad’s benevolent disposition toward Jews than of his tenuous position as he struggled to persuade the Meccan unbelievers to accept his gospel. By the time of Muhammad’s passage to Medina, where he was able to convert a significant portion of the population and where he was infamously rejected by the Jews, the Quran shows a notable hardening in its attitude toward Jews: They are described as a people who did “mischief on earth,” and Muslims are counseled to “fight against those who do not believe in God or in the Last Day… [even] those who have been given the Book, until they pay the poll-tax from their hand and are humiliated.”
The holy book regularly invokes the mandate to humiliate unbelievers. As Bernard Lewis notes in “The Jews of Islam,” the Quran has a special term for the status assigned to infidels: dhull or dhilla, humiliation or abasement, as in: “[The Children of Israel] were consigned to humiliation and wretchedness; they brought the wrath of God upon themselves, and this because they used to deny God’s signs and kill His Prophets unjustly and because they disobeyed and were transgressors.” The non-Muslim subjects of the Muslim empire were meant to experience their otherness primarily as a mark of shame manifested in humiliating social restrictions. The chief instrument of this idea was the dhimma, the legal contract that governed the status of unbelievers. Fitfully and leniently applied, it guaranteed their autonomy and freedom of worship — and often secured a more enviable existence than that of ostensibly “free” Muslim subjects, whom a poll tax could not exempt from military service. But it also restricted Jewish behavior: Jews could not learn classical Arabic; they were forbidden to erect new synagogues, build houses higher than those of Muslims or overtake a Muslim in the street; Jews were required to hang their heads and remain silent if insulted by a Muslim and forced to ride an ass in place of a horse.
All this explains why, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Dar al-Islam (the Abode of Islam) experienced the scientific, military and economic leaps made by the Dar al-Harb (the Abode of War, or lands unvanquished by Islam) as, above all, an epic humiliation. As Lewis has it, it was inconceivable to the Ottoman Turks who were on the receiving end of this diminishing reality that infidels unbound to the word of Allah could advance so rapidly and absolutely. To have been overtaken in the science of astronomy by a Dane was, in theory, tantamount to being overtaken in the street by a Jewish blacksmith: an impossibility. The resistance of the late Ottomans to the possibility of Western superiority severely restricted their ability to learn its lessons. What could you learn from an infidel? More to the point, what could you allow yourself to?
To the Muslims of the Middle East, today’s incarnation of the West’s — and, more specifically, the Jews’ — designs to disarm and humiliate them, today’s flaunted necklace, is the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In 2000, after Yasser Arafat rejected Ehud Barak’s proposed peace plan, there were groans of incredulity and dismay. What few noticed was an official statement by the Palestinian delegation posted on its Web site that explained its decision. To be sure, it started with a protest against the unadvertised territorial machinations of the Israelis: more than 90% of the West Bank for the Palestinians, but that crucial remainder included Israeli security roads running the latitudinal length of the West Bank, effectively separating it into cantons. But the statement went on to complain that it was Israeli high-handedness that sabotaged the talks: “However, what decisively undermined Palestinian support for the peace process was the way Israel presented its proposals…. Prime Minister Barak publicly and repeatedly threatened Palestinians that his ‘offer’ would be Israel’s best and final offer…. Palestinians felt that they had been betrayed by Israel….” The condescension of the Israelis, who congratulated themselves on an uncompelled gesture of generosity to political and cultural inferiors, was more than the Palestinian delegation could tolerate.
So how can these half-brothers find reconciliation at last? How can the Muslim world recover its dignity? I found an answer in a little novel about the Muslim world’s struggle against its own ancient precepts called “Abou and the Angel Cohen,” by a former professor named Claude Campbell. What it lacks in literary flair — and it lacks a great deal — it compensates for with its portrait of the crippling culture of conformity that governs the social universe of the Palestinians. In a society where the rule of law is viewed as the pitiful recourse of those not fortunate enough to have received a divine one, where compromise is the province of the weak, Campbell suggests, any willingness to accommodate Israel is seen as an admission of self-hatred. Until the Palestinians learn to disentangle their notion of self from their quite real humiliation at the hands of the Zionists, no peace will be possible. And until the Israeli government acknowledges that the Zionists perpetrated great abuses in their settlement and establishment of the State of Israel and accepts that not all compromise is a concession to terror, no progress can be made.
In an increasingly rationalist modern world, the notion of dignity is a frustratingly unquantifiable factor, which usually means that only literature retains the power to convey its bitter loss: “Other people are now living in the house,” writes the Syrian novelist Myriam Antaki in “Verses of Forgiveness,” her book about the Palestinian son of a Zionist father. “They do not understand the hardy petals on the patio, the well that’s dry in summer, the evening butterflies, white at night. They do not know the story of your street and they never hear the voices that resemble all the other voices but that, for you, speak words by which to live and love.” And yet, this grave loss, this utter humiliation, does not sanctify the pulverization of men, women and children with bombs of nails and explosives.
In “Wedding Song,” her memoir of growing up Jewish in Iran, Farideh Goldin recounts a story passed on by her grandmother: “Mr. Ghavam [the governor of the state of Farsi] visited a Jewish merchant’s home to buy jewelry for his daughter’s wedding. The wife of the jeweler showed her appreciation by burning toman bills in the samovar to warm up the water for tea. Ghavam’s wife was incensed; a Jew had shamed them by her show of wealth. These low-lives thought themselves richer than the governor of the state of Farsi.” In retribution, Ghavam orders the looting of the Jewish community.
“I still needed to believe in the goodness of the people living side by side with us,” Goldin writes several pages later. Perhaps this isn’t the right idea. The Muslims are neither good nor bad, and neither are the Jews. It seems we cannot live in love, but if we can understand why we have lived in hate, perhaps one day we can live in peace.