Jews in Muslim Eyes
with the support of Mehnaz M. Afridi
Director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center, Manhattan College
The representation of the Jew in the Arab-Islamic world from colonialism to World War II: deconstructing antisemitism
Speaking about Muslim-Jewish relations today is challenging. Relations between the two religious groups are tense and problematic: in the Middle East, as well as in Europe the shadow of the Shoah and the Israel-Palestine conflict interfere with the creation of a mutual understanding between the two groups.
The Muslim world has demonstrated various degrees of antisemitism on multiple occasions during the past century. In the first decade of the 21st century, Iranian president Ahmadinejad repeatedly denied the historicity of the Shoah and warned against a Jewish-Israeli plot to rule the world. Before him, in the 1990s, the leaders of Hamas cited the fabricated book The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as an authoritative text and in the 1970s, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia distributed copies of that same text to foreign guests. The book is the milestone text of antisemitic hatred promoting the idea of a Jewish plan for global domination.
Yet relations between the two religions have not always been so challenging: Golden Ages once existed between the Jewish and Muslim communities. Take the example of, medieval Spain and Turkey.
In Europe the Shoah has been studied and analysed thoroughly, mainly after 1970s
Traditionally, however, the status of non-Muslims living under Islamic rule was regulated by the dhimma contract: Jews and Christians, among others non-Muslims, acquired the status of dhimmi, meaning ‘protected people’. The dhimmi could profess his or her own religion but had certain restrictions in society, such as a lower social status, as well as a particular tax, the jiziya.
Though relations between the two communities had never been completely relaxed, Jews had nevertheless known security and wealth in Muslim lands, particularly during period of economic growth and stability. General political and economic destabilization can be named as primary causes for a deteriorated relationship between Muslims and Jews.
The 19th century marked the end of the Muslim world as it existed historically. The decline of Arab-Islamic rule coincided with the growth and the increased power of the Western Christian world. With colonialism arrived a whole new set of ideas in the Middle East that critically destabilized the society.
The major change brought by new colonial rulers was in many cases the abolition of the dhimma system, causing deep destabilization in the relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. Christian and Jewish former dhimmis sought the protection of European powers to improve their own situation, with many managing to acquire higher status in society. Some colonials were motivated to come to the aid of native Jews via romantic ideology: philo-semitism.
On the other hand, Europeans also instilled into Muslims negative feelings towards Jews. During the colonial era, Europeans exported to Muslim lands a set of antisemitic elements that would later influence and characterize the relations between Muslim and Jewish communities.
Some of the traits of European antisemitism started to permeate Muslim lands when Christian-rooted antisemitism found fertile ground in the local Muslim population who had witnessed the status of the Jews improve upon the arrival of European powers.
The spread of European antisemitism within Muslim lands is exemplified by the arrival of the myth of the blood libel.
The Damascus Affair: Rabbi preparing his defence from the Talmud, a capuchin distant in the doorway.
Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1800-1882), oli on canvas, 1851.
The blood libel was a fabrication propagated during the Christian Middle Ages. According to this myth, Jews sacrificed a Christian child at Passover to obtain blood for unleavened bread. Previously unknown in Middle Eastern Muslim communities, the superstition emerged in the 1840s during the Damascus affair.
In Damascus in 1840 a Capuchin friar disappeared together with his Muslim servant. The Capuchin community started to spread the rumor that the friar and his servant were ritually murdered by the Jews for their blood at Passover. As a result, thirteen Jews were arrested and subsequently liberated when they were cleared of the crime. However, rumors continued to circulate that they were released for political reasons or because of bribery.
If the libel of blood can make some theological sense in Christianity, it is harder to define it within an Islamic context. If the base of the Christian religion is the murder of Jesus, the innocent son of God, who sacrificed himself to save mankind, no such deicide can be found at the core of Islamic doctrine, making the blood libel theologically alien in that context.
Another notorious element of European antisemitism that entered the Islamic world was the fabricated text called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Printed for the first time in Russia in 1903, the book traveled Europe and in the 1920s a first edition appeared in Arabic. The motifs of the book are still to be found in the antisemitic rhetoric of Middle Eastern leaders and politicians: the political and economic conspiracy, the interference of Jews in the media and the alleged masonry devoted to disrupt the world as it is.
Such ideas, along with the spread of nationalism, the emergence of the Zionist movement, and socio-economic destabilization caused by colonization, Muslim communities in North Africa and the Middle East became ripe for absorbing antisemitic Nazi propaganda, which exacerbated the tension between Muslims and Jews.
Soldiers of the 13th Division of the SS “Handschar” read the handbook Islam and Judaism.
Summer 1943, Southern France.
German Federal Archives, accession number Bild 101III-Mielke-036-23.
The Nazi propaganda machine aimed to depict Germany as a patron and liberator of Islam. This policy to promote an alliance between Nazi Germany and the Muslim world first targeted the Muslim populations of North Africa and the Near East, then soon after in the Balkans and the Soviet Union.
Even if Hitler and Nazi high-ranking officials showed an appreciation or fascination for Islam as a religion, the most obvious obstacle of this policy was Nazi racism itself.
Disregarding the fact that Hitler’s Mein Kampf postulated the racial inferiority of non-European peoples, German officials were more pragmatic: as early as 1935, Goebbel’s Propaganda Ministry instructed the term anti-Jewish be used instead of anti-semitic.
This was to avoid offending Arab sensibilities; as Walter Groß, head of the Nazi Office of Racial Politics, wrote to Iraqi collaborator Rashid Ali al-Kilani, Jews had to be “strictly distinguished” from the peoples of the Middle East. He also added that the Nazi government “recognizes Arabs as members of a high-grade race, which looks back on a glorious and heroic history”. What the Nazi regime wanted to underline here was that their fight was against Jews, and not all Semites.
Nazi Germany began a mobilization campaign targeting Muslims, who were declared as being the only viable force against such common enemies as “the Bolsheviks, England, and America, who were all constantly driven by the Jew”, as Himmler described. Many Muslims joined the German army simply due to opportunism and out of a mirage of better life conditions, however many were also driven by Nazi ideology.
The “final solution” was brought by the Nazis to Muslim lands, too. Under the collaborationist government of Vichy, Arabs were aware of the presence of concentration, slave labor, and military camps. Also Muslims themselves experienced the reality of concentration camps: in French North Africa, Muslim prisoners were tortured and persecuted alongside their Jewish fellow-interns, and with even more cruelty if they were nationalists. From what we know of survivor accounts, officials tried to exploit the differences between Muslims and Jews in order to create distress in the prisoners.
Despite the fact that part of the Muslim population colluded with the Vichy government, there are also examples of Muslims helping Jews, inside and outside of internment camps. However, the majority of the population stood by in apathy, similar to European citizens in Germany, France, Italy and Poland.
Denial and relativization of the Shoah is just one aspect of today’s antisemitism in the Middle East
Even if Muslim countries were aware of concentration camps and anti-Jewish sentiment during World War II, little to no public discourse or analysis of the topic emerged in the Arab world following the war. In Europe the Shoah has been studied and analysed thoroughly, mainly after the 1970s.
This is mainly due to the emergence of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The creation of Israel has been linked to the Shoah: the state of Israel is depicted as a result of the persecution of Jews in Europe. With the geo-political conflict being cast increasingly in religious terms, anti-Jewish propaganda continues to thrive, fueled by the same misconceptions and rhetoric that permeated Muslim lands from the colonial era onward.
Denial and relativization of the Shoah is just one aspect of today’s antisemitism in the Middle East. Anti-Israeli propaganda today is similar to the anti-Jewish propaganda of the 1940s that ruled the newspapers in Europe. The Jew is depicted as a conspirator, secretly plotting against the Muslim world and obscurely interfering with world politics.
The fact that the Shoah and Jewish persecution are missing in history books within Arab-Islamic lands demonstrates popular misconceptions in society. Discourse concerning antisemitism among Muslims is confined to academia, with little being done in practice to discourage mischievous propaganda in popular culture or in politics.
The problems afflicting the Middle East today and Palestinian- Israeli relations are far more complicated than this however, and cannot be solved simply by studying the Shoah or the origins of antisemitism. The situation is further complicated by Zionism, the Israeli colonies, the separation wall and general anti-Muslim discourse within Israel.
When Zionism was born in Europe during the last decades of the 19th century, its nature was political since it was influenced by nationalist movements shaping the Old Continent. Theodor Herzl conceived “the Jewish question” as a problem requiring an international response: the creation of a Jewish state for the Jewish people. Even though the end product, the Jewish state of Isreal, was the result of secular nationalism, with time, Zionists have emphasized to a larger and larger degree the religious importance of the state, not least in order to appeal to a larger, non-Zionist religious community for political and monetary support. In turn, Palestinians have increasingly emphasized the Islamic connections to the Holy City, once again to gain the support of a wider religious and political community.
Islam is not intrinsically antisemitic
The merge of political and religious spheres also has created a more global conflict, resulting in deep polarization and a general sense of distrust and hatred, currently found embedded in the two religious groups. This, once again, offers fertile ground for the development of antisemitic discourse among Muslims worldwide.
What emerges from a historical perspective is that Islam is not intrinsically antisemitic, and that the roots of today’s antisemitism are found within Europe’s influence on Muslim lands from the 19th century onwards. Such antisemitic sentiment has been sharpened by current Israeli politics and the role of Zionism within the state of Israel. For this reason, it is undeniable that acknowledgement of antisemitism’s origins in Arab countries is necessary in order to positively affect relations between Muslims and Jews in today’s world, on both sides.
Mehnaz M. Afridi, Shoah through Muslim Eyes, Academic Studies Press, Boston 2017.
Ivan Davidson Kalmar and Derek J. Penslar, Orientalism and the Jews, Brandeis University Press, Boston 2005.
Reuven Firestone, “Muslim-Jewish Relations”, Oxford Research Encyclopaedias, published online Jan 2016.
Yaron Freedman, “Shoah in the Arab world”, Ynetnews.com, published online April 2012.
David Motadel, Islam and Nazi Germany’s War, The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge MA 2014.