False Memory: Misusing History in the Arab-Israeli Conflict

One of the most interesting aspects of Arab-Israeli conflict polemics is the way in which its participants frequently invoke medieval and early modern Jewish-Muslim history for their respective ideological purposes. Pro-Israel pundits argue that the degrading history of Jews living … Read More

By / August 1, 2007

One of the most interesting aspects of Arab-Israeli conflict polemics is the way in which its participants frequently invoke medieval and early modern Jewish-Muslim history for their respective ideological purposes. Pro-Israel pundits argue that the degrading history of Jews living under Muslim rule proves that Jews and Muslims are engaged in an eternal struggle that both predates and transcends the coming of Zionism, while pro-Arab writers argue that the “Golden Age” of the Jewish-Muslim experience in Spain – the period between the 8th and 13th centuries when Jews successfully participated in the cultural, spiritual, social, and economic spheres of the dominant Muslim society – demonstrates that the two peoples’ potential for peaceful coexistence has been stymied by the emergence of Zionism.

The polemical use of Jewish-Muslim history dates back to 19th-century Jewish scholarship. The scholars of Wissenschaft des Judentums (the Science of Judaism) – the likes of which included Abraham Geiger, Moritz Steinschneider, Salamon Munk, and Heinrich Graetz – were among the first figures to research and develop the historiography of the interaction between the two peoples, centering on the contributions that the Jews made in poetry, philosophy, philology, and rabbinic commentary.

A Stick to Beat the Neighbors From the very beginning, as historians Bernard Lewis and Mark Cohen have argued, Jewish attraction to and emphasis on the Golden Age was motivated by political considerations as much as by pure scholarship. Frustrated with the protracted process of emancipation, yet mindful of the debate over the "Jewish question," 19th-century Jewish scholars were drawn to the model of the Golden Age for several reasons. First, it served as an historical precedent that "proved" that Jews could successfully assimilate into and participate in an enlightened society. Second, the paradigm of the Golden Age under Islam, in contrast to the Dark Ages under Christianity, implicitly suggested that Christian society was in debt to the Jews for centuries of oppression. Finally, it showed that the Christians were also in debt to the Jews (and Muslims) for preserving and eventually disseminating the classical intellectual heritage during Europe’s Dark Ages. In short, as Bernard Lewis has put it, the Jewish scholars who first initiated the history of the heyday of Jewish-Muslim coexistence "used it as a stick with which to beat their Christian neighbors."

The scholarship of the Golden Age narrative continued to develop well into the 20th century. However, with the beginning of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and especially after 1967’s Six Day War, the narrative was appropriated by anti-Israeli writers. The new rendition of the account of Jewish-Muslim history stressed the following: Jews and Muslims had lived in peace and harmony for centuries, Islam tolerating her Jewish subjects, and that the Jews had embraced this tolerance and acculturated to Muslim society. Yet with the coming of Zionism, the accord that had existed for centuries between the two faiths was shattered. The unjust usurpation of Muslim land, in addition to the displacement of the indigenous population of Palestine, led to the end of the tradition of tolerance and coexistence, creating disharmony and strife in its place.

The use of the Golden Age narrative by pro-Arab writers was designed to shed light on the origins and nature of the conflict in Palestine/Israel. An early example of this perspective comes from the speeches of Ahmad Shukairy, original chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. In his testimony before the United Nations Special Political Committee of the General Assembly in 1963, Shukairy said the following about the treatment of Jews by Arabs in Palestine throughout the ages:

The question of a Jew or non-Jew was never an issue in our national life. Native Jews were simply Palestinians, just as the Muslims or Christians in the country. As in all Arab countries, the Jews were never a problem. In Palestine, they lived in amity, peace and prosperity. It is a fact of history that, when Jews were persecuted, massacred, elsewhere, they found a hospitable refuge in the Arab world, and Palestine was included. Beginning in the Middle Ages, Palestine became a secure haven for many religious Jews; the country received them with open arms. There was no idea of establishing a State, no idea of expelling the indigenous people, seizing their towns and villages and robbing their properties. So it was that a hearty welcome was extended to the Jews in keeping with Arab chivalry and keeping with Arab hospitality. These are the facts of history which no one can deny and which no one can ignore.

Shukairy’s testimony before the UNSPC highlights some key ideas in the adoption of Golden Age narrative by anti-Israeli writers. First, Jews are presented as "simply Palestinians," equal citizens living in peace and harmony in a Muslim society. There is no mention of any discrimination or persecution. Second, the Arab world served as a safe haven when the Jews were persecuted "elsewhere." In other words, when the Jews were persecuted by non-Muslims (i.e. Christians), the Arab world fulfilled the function of the Zionist state. Implicitly, Shukairy is stating that the Jews ought to act with much more gratitude and respect since they were taken care of by Arab Muslims during their time of need. Third, Jews were treated in a hospitable fashion because they came in the name of peace and not with aim of "expelling the indigenous population." Conversely, this implies that if Jews were to end their aggression against the Palestinians, relations between the two groups would return to normal.

A more recent example of the way in which anti-Israeli writers have appropriated the Golden Age narrative comes from the pen of imam Sadullah Khan, the Executive Director of Religious Affairs at the Islamic Center in Irvine, California. In his 2006 sermon commemorating the fifty-eight year of the Nakba (the 1948 expulsion of over 750,000 Palestinians from their homes in what is now Israel), Khan explains that contrary to popular perceptions, the historical tension between the Zionists and the Palestinians had nothing to do with Islam. He writes:

Since the holy Prophet Muhammad’s coming into contact with members of the Jewish faith in Madinah, tolerance, kindness and co-operation were the principles that permeated his attitude and approach towards them. Together with followers of the Christian faith, Jews are honorably considered as "People of the Book"; with whom we share a special heritage through the Prophets we jointly hold dear. Numerous verses in the holy Qur’an emphasize the Muslim duty of dealing with People of the Book with the highest degree of respect and etiquette.

Khan then turns to the model of Andalusian Spain as proof that Islamic tolerance towards the Jews was implemented in practice as well. "It is a fact of history that when the Jews were being persecuted in Europe during the Middle Ages, they found peace, harmony, and acceptance among the Muslim people in Spain. In fact, this was the era of Jewish history that they themselves refer to as the “Golden Age.”

Finally, recognizing that there were indeed times of violence and persecution, Khan explains that they were caused by “breaking of agreements, treachery or in recent decades, the illegitimate occupation of Palestine by a Zionist Imperialist force under the guise of religion.”

The last line is telling. Speaking to the fundamental use of utopian narrative, it illustrates that the greatest obstacle to peaceful co-existence between Jews and Muslims has always been Zionism. As with Shukairy, the lesson here is clear: A return to the Golden Age is possible only when Jews accept an Islamic state or a bi-national solution.

Second-Class Citizens In response, pro-Israeli writers have created a counter-narrative. They point out that contrary to the rosy portrait depicted by 19th-century Jewish historians and by 20th-century Arab and pro-Arab writers, Jewish-Muslim history was marred by periods of intolerance and oppression. Using examples such as Muhammad’s expulsion and massacre of the Jewish tribes of Medina, anti-Jewish passages in the Koran, the status of Jews as second-class citizens, and the eruptions of mass violence against the Jews, this alternative narrative attempted to demolish the notion that Jews and Muslims ever coexisted in peace and harmony through the ages. According to this perspective – which Mark Cohen has called “the neo-lachrymose” conception of Jewish-Arab history – from the beginning Islam had discriminated against her Jewish subjects both in theory and in practice, and as a result the Jews of Islam had lived a precarious and insecure existence.

Through this alternative narrative pro-Israeli writers hoped to offset the Arab appropriation of the Golden Age model by putting forth the argument that contemporary Jewish-Muslim relations are not a by-product of Zionism, but rather, of intractable cultural and religious forces. In other words, the goal of this reconstructed account of Jewish-Muslim history is to establish a continuation between Muslim persecutions of Jews throughout the centuries and the Arab-Israeli conflict. This point is made clear in a pamphlet published in 1975 by the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries (WOJAC) entitled "The Case of the Jews from Arab Countries: A Neglected Issue:"


Arab oppression of Jews is not…a post-1948 phenomenon. It is rooted in Islam and has been an inescapable characteristic of the relations between Muslims and Jews since Muhammad’s time. Twentieth-century Arab persecution of Jews is only a continuation and intensification of this centuries-long tradition, in which the socially and religiously inferior Jew bore the brunt of the Muslim masses’ contempt and the Muslim government’s arbitrary policies and financial troubles.

The passage above brings to our attention another use of the counter-narrative. Namely, in the battle over the refugee question, pro-Israeli scholars have argued that, given the ill-treatment of Jews in Arab lands throughout the centuries and the fact that over half a million Jews living in Arab lands fled after the creation of Israel in order to escape persecution, it is only fair that Arab states accept an exchange of population – Palestinian refugees for Jewish refugees.

Alan Dershowitz makes a related assertion, arguing that Arabs bear responsibility for their mistreatment of Jews and other minorities throughout history. Dershowitz writes:

The Arab and Muslim nations were completely responsible for the second-class (or worse) status their religions and political leaders had imposed on their Jewish minorities over the centuries. The myth of benign treatment by the Arab and Muslim world of their Jewish minorities has been shattered by modern scholarship. The Jews were victims of an apartheid-like system…In addition to the legal and theological discrimination – the requirement to wear distinctive clothing, not to own self-defense weapons, and to pay a special tax – they were subject to periodic pogroms and blood libels, such as in Damascus in 1840.

For Dershowitz, the wrongs committed by Muslim states, in addition to those committed by Christian states, give the Jewish people the right to settle and live as a free nation in Israel. "If rights come from wrongs," he argues "…then the wrongs imposed on Jewish minority residents of Muslim and Christian states demonstrated to the world that the Jewish people had the right to self-determination in a place in which the Jews were a majority."

Which Past to Remember Considering the Golden Age narrative and its counterpart, it becomes obvious that each perspective offers a distorted take on the history of the Jewish-Muslim experience. Both pro- and anti-Israeli forces claim to be speaking of the same history, yet each side draws a completely different conclusion about what actually took place. According to one argument, Jewish-Muslim history recounts a time of harmony, coexistence, and cultural interchange, while the other contends that this same period was one of humiliation, discrimination, and oppression. Somewhere in between these respective ideological claims lies a history that still needs to be properly understood independent of the desire to political repurpose the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Pro-Arab pundits must take into account that, notwithstanding all the benefits that Islam brought forth to the Jews, by today’s moral and legal standards the Jews of Islam lived as second-class citizens. They were subjected to unique taxes such as the poll tax and the land tax, while civil law imposed prohibitions that marked them as different from and inferior to their Muslim counterparts. Jews were prevented from striking Muslims, bearing arms, building or repairing houses of worship, proselytizing, and were forced to wear distinctive clothing. In addition, they experienced bouts of persecution and violence. Any writer who addresses the topic of Jewish-Muslim history without taking these issues into consideration is being negligent.

Pro-Israeli writers need to acknowledge that, in spite of their unequal status, the Jews living in Muslim societies – both in medieval and early modern times – were members of well-integrated communities. The degree to which Jews were culturally, linguistically, socially, and economically assimilated in Muslim societies is proof in and of itself that Jewish-Muslim history cannot be characterized solely in terms of discrimination and persecution. Legally, while the dhimmi (the non-Muslim citizen of an Islamic state) was subject to many prohibitions, in exchange he received freedom of religious worship, freedom of self-government, freedom of movement and settlement throughout the empire (with the exception of Mecca and Medina), freedom of occupation, and protection by the law. Again, in view of these facts, we cannot characterize Jewish-Muslim history solely in terms of intolerance.

Finally, theologically, while many quotes from the Koran and the Hadith suggest that Jews were viewed as spiritually inferior to Muslims, there are also many passages from the sacred texts of Islam that contradict this viewpoint. For example, Sura II 62 states:

Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they be grieved.

The Koran is a complex and contradictory text, and one cannot simply extract from it a single truncated quote, extrapolating the essence of Islamic theological attitude (not to mention practice!) towards Jews over the centuries.

A “balanced” approach to history forces us to be similarly careful in linking the past to the present, because when we acknowledge history’s complexity, it makes it that much more difficult to use it for partisan political purposes. Thus, taking both the "good news" and the "bad news" of Jewish-Muslim history into consideration, it becomes much harder to exploit the story of this relationship in order to argue either that Islamic civilization is wholly at fault, or that Zionism is the sole cause of Muslim anti-Semitism and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Cognizance of this complex history will also help us address what needs to changed in order for coexistence actually to flourish. The history of convivencia, or coexistence, teaches us that while some history is worth repeating, we can only ignore the dark side of Jewish-Muslim coexistence at our own peril. It is precisely in recognizing and coming to terms with periods of violence, hatred, and degradation that we can begin to address some of the fundamental problems in the way in which Jews and Muslims approach each other today.

Contemporary Jewish-Muslim relations are the products of various, complex factors that cannot be reduced to a single, essential explanation. Yet when we claim that Zionism or Muslim anti-Semitism is the sole source of animosity between the two people, we reduce the Arab-Israeli conflict to a primary and weak causal description. This is as important as understanding the etiology of a disease is a key to finding its cure. A balanced approach may function as a buffer to a simple and misleading analysis. As we have seen, when it comes to Jewish-Muslim history, the question becomes which past we choose to remember.

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