Ishmael’s house

Unwelcome in Ishmael’s house

Author offers detailed look at long history of Jewish suffering in Muslim societies. In Ishmael’s House chronicles the mainstream of Islam’s history, which has concentrated on keeping Jews as second-class citizens, or dhimmis, even when they were not actively persecuted.

Reviewed by: Bill Rambo, Winnipeg Free Press – PRINT EDITION

Posted: 28/08/2010

In Ishmael’s House

A History of Jews in Muslim Lands

By Martin Gilbert

McClelland & Stewart, 408 pages, $35

The recent uproar about a mosque near 9/11’s Ground Zero has intensified discussion about Islam and democracy. Many have decried the West’s supposedly pervasive mistreatment of Muslims.

For a clear view of how a minority fared in Muslim societies over the last 1,400 years, British historian Martin Gilbert’s harrowing, exhaustively documented history provides much-needed, though specialized, perspective on the persecution and marginalization of the Jews.

Gilbert, who is Jewish, is a fellow of both Oxford University and Hillsdale College in Michigan. He has published more than 80 books, most notably a multi-volume biography of Winston Churchill, and histories of the world wars and the Holocaust.

In Ishmael’s House chronicles the mainstream of Islam’s history, which has concentrated on keeping Jews as second-class citizens, or dhimmis, even when they were not actively persecuted.

Gilbert presents facts and sources somewhat dustily, like the historian he is, but many of his characters and situations emerge as anything but dry.

Before conquering Mecca in AD 630, Muhammad saw the Jews as “one community with the Believers (but they shall have their own religion as Believers have theirs).” In spite of their shared monotheism, Medina’s Jews resisted Muhammad’s overtures.

Two years earlier, Muhammad brutally beseiged and conquered the Khaibar Oasis, where some Jews from Medina had resettled. (Earlier this year, activists supposedly bringing aid to Gaza chanted “Khaibar!” celebrating Islam’s victory over Judaism.)   

Gilbert shows that Khaibar originated Sharia law’s understanding of dhimmitude. Non-Muslims were protected under Islam if they agreed to “a state of subjugation and fealty.”

In the early 700s, Omar Abd al-‘Azziz “laid out rules that were aimed specifically at setting the Muslim and non-Muslim communities clearly apart.” This “Covenant of Omar” has sometimes protected dhimmis, at great cost to their freedom and dignity.

“There could be no building of new synagogues or churches. Dhimmis could not ride horses, but only donkeys,” Gilbert writes, “Further, they could not employ a Muslim. Jews and Christians alike had to wear special hats, cloaks and shoes to mark them out from Muslims. They were even obliged to carry signs on their clothing — or to wear types and colours of clothing — that would indicate they were not Muslims.”

Gilbert copiously elaborates on the experiences of Sephardic Jews in Muslim societies — in North Africa and the Middle East as far as Afghanistan — and ignores more recent Muslim countries such as Pakistan and Indonesia. Often, both good and bad behaviour by individual Muslims followed official attitudes.

Gilbert highlights cases where Muslim officials or individuals attempted to treat Jews fairly and protect them from harm.

Most Westerners know, at least vaguely, the kinds of persecution Jews faced in Christian Europe for most of two millennia. In Ishmael’s House expands that shameful history. It shows Jewish contributions to the achievements of Muslim countries, in spite of degradation and abuse.

Gilbert quotes the Middle Eastern scholar Bernard Lewis, who noted “there is nothing in Islamic history to parallel the Spanish expulsion and Inquisition, the Russian pogroms or the Nazi Holocaust.”

However, Lewis adds that there is nothing “to compare with the progressive emancipation and acceptance accorded to Jews in the democratic West during the last three centuries.”

In the last century, since the rise of Zionism, Muslims committed many of their worst offences against Jewish populations.

In the 1920s, Yemeni ruler Imam Yahya began to seek out Jewish orphans — the fatherless qualified — “so that they should be instructed in the religion of Muhammad in conformity with the teaching of the Quran.” Those shocked at the abuses of Canada’s residential schools should be able to sympathize.

Gilbert demonstrates that Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies had a widespread attraction for Muslims. Hitler had dismissed Arabs as well as Jews as racially inferior, but in 1937 he “prudently suggested omitting his racial ladder theory from the forthcoming Arabic translation of Mein Kampf.”

During the 1947 UN debate on Palestine, the chief Egyptian delegate warned that “the lives of one million Jews in Muslim countries would be jeopardized by Partition,” which “might create anti-Semitism in those countries even more difficult to root out than the anti-Semitism which the Allies tried to eradicate in Germany.”

This irrational prediction came true; after the creation of the state of Israel, most Jews under Muslim rule were desperate to emigrate, and Muslim governments were unwilling to let them go.

Those who equate Israel’s defensive policies with apartheid should examine Gilbert’s description of Syria’s revamped laws of Jewish dhimmitude following the 1967 war.

Canadian Jews like David Matas and Irwin Cotler are working to recoup losses suffered by Jews who succeeded in reaching Israel only by abandoning property outright, or selling at shamefully reduced value.

Almost a million Jews lived in Muslim nations from Muhammad’s time until the present. Now fewer than 50,000 remain subjugated to Islam.

In Ishmael’s House should inspire us all to try to get along without destroying others’ dignity.

Landmark resident Bill Rambo teaches at The Laureate Academy in Winnipeg.

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