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Modern Myths of Muslim



In my 1994 book, Under Crescent and Cross, I used a comparative method-

ology to establish a paradigm that explains why Jews in the medieval Muslim

world experienced so much less violence than their brethren, the Ashkenazi

Jews of Latin Europe, and why, by extension, Arabic-speaking Jewry was so

much more comfortably embedded than their European brethren in the

1 The paradigm also explains why the Jews of the Muslim

world lacked a historical memory of persecution akin to the doleful chroni-

cles of Christian persecution and Jewish martyrdom, as well as mournful

surrounding culture.

liturgical poems, that carried the lachrymose memory of Ashkenazi Jews

down to modern times.

Under Crescent and Cross appeared during the heady, optimistic days

following the Oslo Accords. The many translations of the book into European

and Middle Eastern languages since then suggest that the ideas developed in

the book and the approach it takes still have relevance.2 Today, however, the

ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, the rise of Islamist anti-

Jewish terrorism, and the abiding presence of anti-Semitic writings and

iconography in the Muslim world have cast a gloomy pall over post-Oslo

hopes for a speedy and just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and

rendered the discussion of Muslim anti-Semitism even more important than

in the past.

In my book I stuck largely to the historiographical and historical issues in

Muslim-Jewish relations, some of which are summarized below. I dealt with

anti-Semitism inter alia, contrasting its appearance in medieval Christian

Europe with its absence in medieval Islam. In this essay I extend my thinking

to the contemporary scene. In doing this I am in full agreement with what my

German colleague Gudrl1n Kraemer wrote recently, as guest editor of an issue

of the academic joii


i Die Welt des lslams3 devoted to Islamic anti-

Scmidsni. Shc wrill'H: "ISlpediilists can hardly remain silent when others,

fl'I~(lIlllltly 011 the h;i~is iil Si';\111 inforinniioii nnd liinit(~d insight, engagc force

i I I IVIl\ 1\ ~ II, ¡, I , I I I', N

fully in the pu blic deba te, forgi ng ¡ 11iagl!S and erc:ui IlI.pili'n'lil y PC'~ ihill IweoDlc

the more difficult to critique the more solidly entl'l!il(Jwd they ;\I'~ Îii the public

mind. The debate is still largely a western one; for obvious reasons ii: resonates

strongly within Germany."

Israelis and diaspora Jews first became aware of Muslim anti-Semitism

thanks to Yehoshafat Harkabi's 1968 book, Arab Attitudes towards Israel,

published in both English and Hebrew. Muslim anti-Semitism in Europe is of

more recent vintage. The survey of the rise in anti-Semitism in Europe

following 9/11 by the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and

Xenophobia revealed that Muslims were more prominent than any other

single group in propagating this hatred, contradicting the expected findings

that it was fringe fanatics like the skinheads who were the main culprits.4 A

study by the German Ministry of the Interior published in 2007 came to a

similar conclusion about Muslim anti-Semitism in Germany.

The data about Muslim anti-Semitism in Europe, like the better known

anti-Semitism in the contemporary Islamic world, are shocking in themselves,

but they raise the question, whence this

Jew-hatred? Where does it come from?

Many modern myths swirl around this volatile issue. Is this anti-Semitism

something new, incited initially by Zionism and more recently by the policies

and actions of Israel in the Middle East, particularly as applied to the

Palestinians? Many Europeans believe this to be the case, recognizing a similar

motivation underlying the "new anti-Semitism" of the European left, which

is in part a protest against the State of Israel and its policies since the occu-

pation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. Others, European and American

Jews and Israelis, for whom the findings of the EU commission were less

surprising, believe that the new Muslim anti-Semitism is nothing new at alL.

In their view it is part of an age-old Jew-hatred ingrained in the religion of

Islam and traceable to the Qur'an itself.

Muslims, for their part, have always denied that anti-Semitism is a Muslim

phenomenon. In a well-known refrain, they claim that Muslims oppose

Zionism and the State of Israel, not Jews, with whom they have always lived

in harmony. In this they have found support in the old Jewish myth about an

"interfaith utopia" in medieval Islam. That myth has its antecedents in the

16th century among Jews expelled from Catholic Spain in 1492, who found

refuge in the far more tolerant Muslim Ottoman Empire. It is better known

from the writings of the first generations of Jewish historians in Europe in the

19th century, who used it for their own political purposes, to vent their frus-

tration at European Christians for failing to live up to the promise of

Emancipation. These historians looked longingly to Islamic Spain as a

"Golden Age" of Jewish-Muslim coexistence, a kind of interfaith utopia,

marked by flowering cultural achievements and acceptance as equals into the

highest social, professional, and political ranks of Arab society - the very

achievements they had hoped to realize in 19th-century Europe.

There is more thana large kernel of truth in this characterization of

Muslim-Jewish relations in medieval Spain, and it even applies to other parts

Miii/i'l' MVll.l,~ iil N1I1,~//l11 1111// SI'IIiI/I,~III, I I L

ill till Islullii wodd us welL. l.ts 1l1ythk quiiliiy lies iii die fact thai: ii: glosses

i IV\' the inferior ¡ega i a Ill! religious i;tai:us of the Jews n uti i:he occasional acts

III oppression and even YioIence,

In the 20th and 21st century context, Arabs and other Muslims have

C'iiploited the old Jewish myth of the interfaith utopia in order to blame the

,11'WS and Zionism for destroying the traditional harmony between the two

iwoples. Some Arabs, particularly Palestinian Arabs, have gone so far as to

~Ilggest that Israelis give up their State and return to living under the benev-

olent protection of Islam, in a version of the "one-state solution."

In response, there has been a Jewish backlash, what I have called a

"counter-myth.,,5 It asserts that Islam has persecuted Jews from its origins and

that anti-Semitism is endemic in the Islamic religion. This counter-myth is

propagated mainly by popular writers, journalists, and blog-masters, as well

as a few bona fide scholars, who have fanned the flames of fear of Islam, in

Israel, in the United States, and in Europe, by distorting the past as one long

era of unmitigated Jewish (and Christian) suffering since the rise of Islam in

the 7th century.6

The counter-myth parallels a similar conviction among some Arab Jews

(Jews from Arab countries) in Israel and elsewhere. Seeking to find their place

in a predominantly European Jewish world scarred by centuries of Christian

persecutions culminating in the Holocaust, they claim that IsIam has indeed

persecuted Jews from its origins. By implication, they have a"past of misery

like the Ashkenazim, including dislocation from their ancient homelands, and

are thus eligible for a larger piece of the Zionist pie than the mostly Ashkenazic

founding fathers of Israel have granted them.

Historians, for their part, are similarly divided on the issue. On one side

we have the "harmony" school, continuing the myth promulgated by the

Central European Jewish historians of the 19th century, which understands

Jewish-Muslim relations in the past as a kind of "interfaith utopia." Hence

the new Muslim anti-Semitism must be "new." Others, representing the

"conflict" school, see contemporary Muslim hatred of the Jews as simply a

continuation of an unending Arab and non-Arab Muslim hatred of the Jews

from time immemorial, corresponding to the counter-myth that I have

described above.

It is, of course, dangerous to indulge in sweeping judgments about the

sources of Muslim attitudes towards Jews and Israel today. The picture is far

too complex and the circumstances in which manifestations of hatred rear

their head in the Muslim world far too encumbered by political issues and

international affairs to lead to faciIe conclusions about the past. The efforts

of certain Islamophobic writers to prove from history that Muslim jihadists

are about to take over of the world - an ironic inversion of the classic anti-

Semitic calumny about the Jews reiterated disturbingly in recent speeches by

Iranian President Ahmadinejad - are, to my mind, a distortion of the past and

incendiary. The most extravagant recent book on this subject is Eurabia, by

the prolific counter-myth writer Bat Ye'or, a book based on years of publishing

1'1 I MAIU" It, UnlliN

about Islamic persecution of non.Musliinsin past tÎlne.'1 SIlt l'lllblVOI'S to

"expose" what she thinks is an invidious European plot to conspire with Arab

countries in an anti-American, anti-Israel, and anti-Semitic campaign, which

will, in the end, backfire by reducing Europe to what she calls by the

misleading term "dhimmitude." This servile state of sufferance and suffering

under Islamic dominion will reproduce on an international plane the

subservient condition of persecuted Jews and Christians in the medieval

Islamic world. Bat Ye'or is the guru of many of the Islamophobic blog-

masters, who scan the media carefully, watching for signs of Muslim

anti-Semitism, and publish them widely on the Internet.

The Islamophobic obsession is spread widely today in Europe and in Israel,

and, most recently, in the United States, as a reaction to the tragic events of

9/1 i. It even insinuated itself into the recent US presidential election, when

rumors flew of Barack Obama being a secret Muslim and a terrorist sympa-

thizer. Like Islamophobia, the question of Muslim anti-Semitism, needs to be

addressed dispassionately because, together, they have become a force behind

thinking about policy issues in the Israeli-Palestinian arena.

In presenting my own views, I should first define what I mean by anti-

Semitism because of the fuzziness that prevails in contemporary discussions

of anti-Semitism in Islam. This fuzziness emanates especially from represen-

tatives of the counter-myth school, for whom every nasty expression about

Jews in the Qur'an, the Hadith and other Arabic literature and every instance

of harsh treatment or violence experienced by Jews in the past is deemed anti-

Semitic. But this is decidedly not anti-Semitism. It is, rather, the typical, though

nonetheless unsavory, loathing for the "other" found in most societies, even

today, a disdain that, in the Middle Ages, was shared by all three western

monotheistic religions in relation to pagans as well as to rival monotheist

:laimants to divine exclusivity and the right to dominate society.8

The proper definition of anti-Semitism, which is shared by most students

)f the subject, is a religiously-based complex of irrational, mythical, and

;tereotypical beliefs about the diabolical, malevolent, and all-powerful Jew,

nfused, in its modern, secular form, with racism and the belief that there is a

fewish conspiracy against mankind. Defined this way, I can say with a great

leal of confidence, in agreement with other seasoned scholars, that such anti-

ìemitism did not exist "under the crescent" in the medieval Muslim world.

n fact, during the formative and early centuries of Islam, the classical period,

rom the seventh to the 12th or 13th century, Jews enjoyed rather good rela-

ions most of the time with their Muslim neighbors, judged in comparison

vith the plight of their brethren living "under the cross" in Christian Europe.

lut this relative harmony - relative to the problematic and sometimes disas-

rous experience of Jews living in medieval Christian lands, where

nti-Semitism was born - had less to do with some abstract Islamic tolerance,

s we in the West have understood it since John Locke, than with the religious,

~gal, economic, and social realities of Jewish-Muslim interaction in the

;fiddle Ages.

Mflili'/' My/In. ii( Mii,~lìii l\"tiSI'II¡/I.~1i i '~!1

Fii:st of cd I, howevcr, let us not make thc mistake of thinking that Jews lived

in the Middle Ages as the equals of Muslims. Equality among monotheistic

religions was unknown. The fact that Jews (and Christians) were discrimi-

nated against must be understood in the context of its time, when tolerance

among the three western monotheistic faiths was not regarded as a virtue, but

a weakness, and no one practiced it in the modern sense of the term. If

anything, it was a virtue to be intolerant, since God himself had rejected one

religion in favor of another and it was the duty of followers of the replace-

ment religion to subordinate, if not persecute, those who had forfeited their

claim to the truth.

Jews (and Christians) in the Islamic world were second class subjects, at

best. They were classed along with other religious minorities as unbelievers

who did not recognize the prophethood of Muhammad and the truth of the

Qur'an. But, this kind of unbelief was not as threatening to Islam as Jewish

unbelief was to Christians, for unbelief in Christianity means rejection of Jesus

as Messiah and as God, a greater affront to the dominant faith than Jewish

unbelief was to Islam because it challenged the entire theological basis of the

Christian religion.

In addition to the payment of an 'annual poll tax, restrictions on Christians

and Jews were many, though in practice, with the exception of the poll tax,

they were often ignored by non-Muslims and Muslim rulers alike. In theory,

they were not to build new houses of worship, were required to wear distinc-

tive marks on their clothing, to avoid Muslim honorific titles, to refrain from

selling foods forbidden to Muslims in Muslim quarters, to avoid seeking

service in Muslim government, and so forth. Most of these discriminatory

rules are attributed to the second Caliph 'Umar ibn al-Khattab (634-644) in

the famous "pact" bearing his name.9 They were originally intended not so

much to exclude Jews and Christians from society as they were meant to rein-

force the hierarchical distinction - characteristic of medieval monotheistic

societies in general- between Muslims and non-Muslims within a single social

10 Non-Muslims, however, occupied a definite rank in Islamic society-


a low rank, but a rank nevertheless. Most of the time, they managed to co-

exist more or less harmoniously with the higher-ranking dominant Muslim

group because both sides recognized and accepted the place of the other -

whether superior or inferior - and this facilitated interaction with a minimum

of conflict. In such an environment, lacking the theological reasons to hate

the Jews that animated irrational Christian Judeophobia in the Middle Ages,

anti-Semitism properly understood did not emerge.

The flip side of the discriminatory regulations imposed upon Jews, and I

should add Christians, is that, as respected "People of the Book," they enjoyed

the status of a "protected people," ahl al-dhimma or dhimmis in Arabic, who

were entitled to security of life and property, freedom from forced conversion,

communal autonomy, and equality in the marketplace, in return for paying

the annual poll tax and recognizing the superiority of Islam.

We may choose to employ the noun "dhimmitude," the term Bat Ye'or has

3 Ô I MAUi( 1(, CtlllliJ~

madc fal1ous.l: But wc necd to keep in mind that thc terni cllJimlia çoiinotes

protection (its meaning in Arabic) and that it guarantccd communal

autonomy, relatively free practice of religion, and equal economic opportu-

nity, as much as it signified inferior legal status.

For all its religious exclusivity and hostility towards the Jews, expressed in

the Qur'an and in other Islamic literature, Islam contains a nucleus of

pluralism that gave the Jews in Muslim lands greater security than Jews had

in Christian Europe. For other important reasons, too, Jews in the Islamic

orbit were spared the damaging stigma of anti-Semitism suffered by Jews in

Europe. They were, for one thing, indigenous to the Near East - not immi-

grants, as in many parts of the Christian West - and largely indistinguishable

physically from their Arab-Muslim neighbors (the very reason for the dress

regulations in the Pact of 'Umar). Moreover, Jews were one of two and in some

place three non-Muslim minority religions, which diffused hostility towards

the "other." The restrictive laws were frequently honored in the breach, espe-

cially during the first six Islamic centuries and to a certain extent even

afterwards, when a general decline set in in the Muslim world, affecting

Muslims as well as non-Muslims, Jews and Christians alike.

As documents from everyday life found in the Cairo Geniza abundantly

attest - and these are one category of primary source material that Bat Ye'or

and her ilk totally ignore, for obvious reasons - in the earlier, classical period

they prospered as merchants, physicians, retailers, craftsmen, even agricul-

turalists. They formed partnerships with Muslims and felt comfortable

adjudicating economic issues, even matters of personal and family status,

before Muslim religious judges. Good business relations in the market place

helped foster good relations between Jews and Muslims in other arenas of life

and forged bonds across confessional


The contrast with the Christian West is revealing. Although for a few cen-

turies in the early Middle Ages (up to the 11th century) Jews enjoyed a more

or less secure place in the natural hierarchical order of Christian society as

well as substantial economic rights, a combination of factors led to the

expulsion of most of western Jewry by the end of the 15th century. These

factors include the loss of the pluralism that had marked the Germanic,

"barbarian" early Middle Ages. The spread of Christianity to the masses by

the 11th century was accompanied by a panoply of negative theological

views of the Jews. Especially with the Christian "discovery" of the Talmud

in the 12th century, the old doctrine of St. Augustine that Jews _ Biblical

Jews - must be allowed to live in Christian society as witnesses to the tri-

umph of Christianity eroded, and missionizing among the Jews increased. In

addition, the commercial revolution of the 11 th-13th centuries relegated

Jews in most places in northern Europe to a few, despised economic activi-

ties like money lending. The advent of rationalism in Latin Europe in the

12th century fostered a belief that the Jews were, like the animals, bereft of

human, rational character. Enmity came, too, from the mistaken association

of the Jews with the Muslim enemy encountcred during the Cnisacles.

Muder! Myths of Muslim Anti-Semitism I 37

Finally, the gradual political unification of European countries, especially

England, France, and Spain, left the Jew even a more vulnerable outsider


than in the past.

In the Muslim world, by way of contrast, Jews retained for centuries their

substantial security as well as their recognized place in the social order. They

did so as long as they acknowledged, at least by their behavior in public, the

superiority of Islam and Muslims and acceded to Islamic rule. This meant

adhering to the prescribed restrictions of Islamic law and restraining from the

temptation to serve in government offices, where they might incur enmity by

occupying positions of superiority over Muslims. To be sure, there were peri-

odic outbursts of violence, though, like the infamous persecution under the

so-called "mad" Egyptian Caliph aI-Hakim at the beginning of the 11th

century and that of the Almohads in North Africa and Muslim Spain in the

12th, they were almost always directed against dhimmis as a category -

meaning Jews and Christians - and not against Jews per se. These excesses

occurred when the dhimmis were seen to be violating the terms of the dhimma

arrangement and not behaving with humility - such was the case in the infa-

mous massacre of the Jewish community of Granada, Spain, in 1066,

following the assassination of a "haughty" Jewish vizier ("haughty" is the

words describing him in a 12th-century Jewish source, Serer ha-Qabbalah,

"The Book of Tradition"). The violence seems to have been inspired by a viru-

lent anti-Jewish poem about the evils wrought by the high-handed Jewish

vizier. This episode, exceptional as it was in its targeting the Jews per se, is

regularly cited by counter-myth revisionists as a sign of Islamic anti-Semitism.

In reality, it represents an extreme instance where Muslims retaliated against

dhimmis because they had exceeded the accepted norms of the hierocratic

Muslim-dhimmi relationship by exercising power over Muslims - this is

indeed the theme of that poem.

Oppression of non-Muslims often occurred when Islam as a polity came

under attack from the outside, as happened from the late 11th century on

during the Crusades (the Crusade against the Muslims in the Holy Land and

the Crusade to reconquer Spain from the Muslims) and during the Mongol

invasions of the 13th century. Jews were, however, rarely forced to convert to

Islam (the Qur'an forbids compulsion in religion) and, with two major excep-

tions proving the rule, they were not expelled from Muslim lands. One

expulsion took place in the Hijaz, the holy sanctuary of Arabia that includes

Mecca and Medina, shortly after the death of the Prophet, and the other, in

Yemen in the 17th century. After three years in exile in a remote desert region

on the Red Sea, during which great numbers died from exposure, the remnant

of dislocated Jews were readmitted to the city of San'a' and confined to a

"ghetto." Though, unlike in Europe, they were not permanently expelled from

the country, perceptions are as important as reality, and Yemenite Jews still

remember the "exile of M,a wza" as a terrible event. Yemen continued to be a

spccial cascin MLlsUin~Jewisli rclations, with demeaning treatment of the

Jews fight down LO Inodt'l'U i:incs, Thc fact that Jcws constitutcd thc only


significant non-Muslim religion in Yemen made them especially vulnerable.

Without any other non-Muslim population on the scene to help diffuse

Muslim hostility, Jews alone felt the full brunt of oppression when it occurred.

The prominence of strict Shi'ite rulers in Yemen's history is often cited as

another reason for Jewish suffering. The ongoing debate whether all of the

Arabian Peninsula was subject to the Prophet's dictum, "there should not be

two religions in the Hijaz," led to atypical coercion, usually indirect, to

encourage Jews to convert to Islam.13

In general, the later Middle Ages saw an increasingly harsh enforcement

of the dhimma regulations. Jewish fortunes declined as part of general polit-

ical, economic, and cultural setbacks in the surrounding society. In Morocco,

as in Yemen, moreover, Jews constituted the only dhimmi group, for only

Jews, not Christians, returned to their former religion after the Almohade

persecutions in the mid-12th century.

Shi'ite Islam pursued harsher policies than Sunni Islam towards dhimmis,

and this was particularly true in Iran in the later Middle Ages. Beginning in

the late 16th century with the establishment of Shi'ism as the official religion

of the Iran under the Safavids, things became especially difficult for Jews,

owing, in part to the religious doctrine of impurity, najãsa, mentioned in the

Qur'an (9:28) but applied in pre-Safavid times to both Christians and Jews.l4

It became focused more commonly on the Jews in Shi'i Iran, where pre-Islamic

Zoroastrian notions of purity and impurity enhanced the polemical signifi-

cance of the Qur'anic concept and contributed to a harsher attitude toward

the Jews. The more looming centrality of messianism in Shi'i than in Sunni

Islam might also have been a factor.

Again, to understand the relatively decent Jewish-Muslim relations during

most of the early and high Islamic Middle Ages, one needs to contrast them

with Jewish-Christian relations in Europe. In Christian society hostility was

focused on one, "evil" non-Christian group, the Jews, paving the way for

what was to become - beginning in the 12th century - irrational anti-

Semitism, understood in the way I defined it at the beginning of this paper.

This belief, classifying all Jews as Satanic enemies of society, did not exist in

the medieval Muslim world, even in the later Middle Ages, when, from about

the 13th century on, Jewish fortunes declined as part of general political,

economic, and cultural setbacks in the surrounding society.


If, as I and many other scholars contend, modern views of a primeval, anti-

Semitic Islam are a myth, why have Muslim-Jewish relations deteriorated to

such an extreme in recent times and why is anti-Semitism so widespread in

the Islamic world today? There are, of course, many complex and interrelated

reasons. The first is colonialism, which disrupted traditional Muslim society

and engendered resentment against those Jcws who ¡lit'llified with thc

European colonizers and thc "civilizing mission" thill' St,t'llIt'd 10 Ill I'll path

Modern Myths of Muslim Anti-Semitism I 39

to modernization and an improved way of life. This drove a wedge between

Arab Jews and Arab Muslims, who resisted colonialism. Another is nation-

alism, influenced by European secular nationalism and imported into the

Middle East in the 19th century, where it undermined some of the pluralism

and relative tolerance that marked Muslim society in earlier centuries and

pitted Arab against Jew as rival claimants to the same land. Yet another cause

is the emergence of Islamist movements, responding to the birth-pangs of

modernization imposed by European foreigners. We need to remember,

however, that the early Islamist movements were inner-directed, striving to

reform latitudinarian and secularizing trends of westernizing and modern-

izing Arab regimes.

Deterioration in Jewish-Muslim relations accelerated in the first part of

the 20th century with Arab belief that the new political Zionism was simply

another form of European colonialism robbing them of their right to self-

determination in a modern State. At the same time and on the other side,

relations were eroded by Jewish fear that Ara b and Muslim hostility, and more

recently, suicide terrorism against civilians, could lead to something akin to

another Holocaust. All of these factors have dramatically degraded

Muslim-Jewish relations. On a larger canvas, we should recognize in the

background of Arab resistance to western modernization and to western

Jewish "incursion" in Arab lands the fact, often mentioned, that the Islamic

world never experienced an Enlightenment or a modern scientific revolution

challenging the old ways and opening the door to critical, transformational

change, to liberal republican forms of governance, and to acceptance of Jews

as fully tolerated citizens of a secular society.

All this has, finally, erupted in a frenzied and irrational new Muslim anti-

Semitism which is not, however, indigenous to Islam, nor is it rooted in

theology, as has historically been the case in the Christian world, though it is

as frightening to Jews as if it were. Muslims first came into contact with

European-style anti-Semitism in the Ottoman period, when the Islamic world

IS It took off later, in the 19th century

absorbed new Christian populations.

during the colonial period, when Europe missionaries, doubtless out of zeal

to promote Christianity at the expense of any other option, fostered western-

style anti-Semitic Jew-hatred in the Middle East. This propaganda supported

Arab-Christian aspirations for a nondenominational, pan-Arab nationalism,

a secular Arab world in which Christians would enjoy full equality with

Muslims. Many must have felt that anti-Semitism, deflecting Muslim enmity

away from themselves and onto a, to them, familiar enemy, would advance

the nationalist cause in which they played such a prominent role. The

outbreak of blood libels in the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century is sugges- tive in this regard.

The flames of the new Arab/Muslim anti-Semitism were fanned in the

1940s by Nazi propagandists currying favor with Arab leaders as part of their

strategy to rule the world and destroy the Jews,16 and ultimately by the estab-

lishment of till Smi'l of' i.~I';lt'l. As for the Islamist movements, they themselves

'I \I i M 1\ It K It,. C LII

ii N

did not turn outward towards Zionism uU.d ISl'd Iilllil rrLliivdy late) in the

1970s, folJowing thc débâclc of thc Six Day Wai; thi' Hgyptìaii peacc trcaty

with Israel, and the Khomeni revolution in Iran. Only elWll did thcy begin to

place Zionism and Israel firmly at the forefront of their radical mission, accen-

tuating anti-Semitic propaganda that was only latent or secondary in

importance in the earlier phase of their reformism.17 The most recent and

current flare-up of Muslim anti-Semitism, enmeshed with anti-Zionism,

followed the eruption of the second intifada (the al-Aqsa intifada) in late 2000

and the events of September 11,2001.18

In its present form, the new Muslim anti-Semitism, with its Arabic idiom

and references to the Qur'an and other medieval Islamic texts, seems old,

though, in fact, it represents an Islamized version of its Christian roots.19 This

Islamization has not been easy to achieve because classical Arabic literature,

including the Qur'an - for all its nasty references to Jews and Christians _ is

relatively free of the kinds of racist, irrational statements and beliefs about the

Jews that inform western anti-Semitism.

Remarkably, but not surprising to my mind, when the opportunity was

presented in medieval times to exploit Islamic sources to encourage and justify

violence against the Jews, the opportunity was not taken up. I can illustrate

this with a story.2D It is a tale not related in the Qur'an, but rather, in the

manner of Jewish midrash, in the post-Qur'anic traditions, elaborating the

skeletal saga of scriptural narrative. It relates that Muhammad and one of his

close companions were poisoned by a beautiful Jewish captive woman named

Zaynab, who belonged to a Jewish tribe recently defeated in battle with the

Muslims at the Arabian oasis of Khaybar. Miraculously warned by the voice

of the morsel of lamb that it had been poisoned, the Prophet spit it out, while

one of his companions swallowed it and promptly expired. Confronted by the

Prophet, Zaynab confessed openly to the act. According to one version, the

Prophet had Zaynab executed; according to another, he let her off after she

explained that she was only acting in recompense for the wrong that the

Prophet had done to her people, a logic that was acceptable in the mores of

Arab society.21

Four years later, lying on his death bed, the Prophet came to the conclu-

sion (again, according to some versions) that his illness was a residual effect

of Zaynab's poisonous meaL. So, in effect, according to this Muslim tradition,

Muhammad was killed by a Jew, or rather, a Jewess. This story has in recent

times gained currency among those on the Islamic side, who wish to prove

malevolence and conspiracy on the part of the Jews, and on the Jewish side

by those who, citing the version in which Muhammad orders Zaynab's death,

wish to prove that Islam is inherently and violently anti-Jewish.22 Here we

have, then, a perfect example of the contemporary abuse of "history" by both

sides, in the service of conflicting political agendas.

The tale of Zaynab had a different purpose from the one imputed to it by

modern-day (mis)readers. Zaynab's act, the story explains, was meant as a

challenge to the Prophet to prove he was indeed the messenger of God and,

M rull'l'/1 Myth,,- ILL M 1l8!Î1i 1\ Illi,Sl'mitil:li I IJ I

in somc cirdes, to po1'ray him tiS a iiulItyl.)23 not to dcmonstrate the evil of

the Jcwish pcoplc and ccrtainly not to demonstrate the malevolence of the

Prophet. Moreover - and this is equally important - the story had hardly

any affect on Muslim-Jewish relations in the Middle Ages. This contrasts

stunningly with the story in the Gospels that the Jews killed Christ, a

libelous accusation that forms one of the foundational motifs of Christian

anti-Semitism from earliest times. The difference lies partly in the fact that

the killing of Jesus was tantamount to the killing of God, whereas

Muhammad was a Prophet, and not a divine being. But, had medieval

Muslims sought a rationale for persecuting and even annihilating the Jews,

the Zaynab story could have served the purpose - but nowhere did it do


I believe it is precisely because classical Islamic sources have so little that

can be construed as anti-Semitic that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are

so popular in the Muslim world today and occupied a central place in the anti-

Semitism of Sayyid Qutb, one of the greatest thinkers of 20th-century Islamic

radicalism. The Protocols, a blatantly anti-Semitic Russian-Christian forgery,

itself a myth, was published in 1903. It recounts the tale of a treacherous

Jewish and Masonic conspiracy to take over the world. The book has been

translated into Arabic many times, beginning with - notably - an Arab-

Christian translation from the French in the 1920s, and even played a central

role in the notorious 41-part television series in Egypt a few ye;rs ago (2002).

It also finds expression in the infamous Charter of the Islamist Hamas party.

I submit, however, that it is precisely the near absence of similar texts in clas-

sical Arabic literature that makes the "Protocols," a text taken from European

anti-Semitic writings, so prominent in modern Muslim Jew-hatred. Indeed,

the work must seem to many Muslims almost Islamic because it echoes themes

in the Qur'an and elsewhere of Jewish treachery and malevolence towards

Muhammad and his biblical prophetic predecessors, among the most

authentic and time-honored themes in the arsenal of medieval Muslim anti-

Jewish polemic. The "Protocols" seem all the more credible in the light of the

political, economic and military successes of the modern State of IsraeL. The

blending of classical European anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in the Arabic

"Protocols" is evident in much of contemporary Muslim anti-Semitism,

whether it be in literature, the print and televised media, etched in cartoons,

or preached from the pulpits of mosques.

Other themes, taken from original Islamic sources but interpreted more

severely than they are meant their original context have come to the fore.

There is, for instance, the dehumanizing calumny in the Qur'an, calling the

Jews "apes and pigs," a folkloristic motif present in and apparently borrowed

from other, non-Islamic cultures, and coming very close to the irrational

beliefs of Christian anti-Semitism.25 The apes and pigs theme is applied in

Qur'anic commentary to Christians as well, reducing it from a specifically

anti-Jewish libel to one aimed at non-Muslims in general.

The indictment is based on three verses in the Qur'an proclaiming that the

'i / I MAIU\ 1(,, t:nlll':N

Jcws, OJ. in onc case, thc Pcople of the Book as 11 wlwk, Wt'l',' turned by God

into apes and pigs as punishment for their sins:

And ye know of those of you who broke the Sabbath, how We said unto


Be ye apes, despised and hated! (Sura 2:65)

ShaH I teH thee of a worse (case) than theirs for retribution with Allah?

(Worse is the case of him) whom Allah hath cursed, him on whom His

wrath hath fallen and of whose sort Allah hath turned some to apes and

swine, and who serveth idols. Such are in worse plight and further astray

from the plain road. (Sura 5:60, teferring to the People of the Book).

So when they took pride in that which they had been forbidden, We said

Unto them: Be ye apes despised and loathed! (Sura 7:166, referring to the

Sabbath breakers).

The language of the verses does not actually suggest that the Jews are

innately inhuman, only that they were transformed into animals for their

misdeeds. In an eschatological context in post-Qur'anic sources it is Muslim

sinners and heretics, adversely infected by imitation of Jewish and Christian

ways, who will be turned by God into apes and pigs, a warning and a threat

aimed at shoring up Islamic identity.26 This recalls the famous homilies of the

early Christian preacher St. John Chrysostom of Antioch in the 4th century

against Christian "judaizers" who imitated Jewish practices, a tactic aimed at

strengthening an independent Christian identity.27

On rare occasions in the Middle Ages the apes-pigs theme in the Qur'an

reared its head, urging repression, even violence, against the Jews, notoriously

by the Spanish-Arabic poet, who used this theme in his poem inciting the

"pogrom" against the Jews of Granada in 1066.28 But it never enjoyed the

centrality as an anti-Jewish polemic that it has been given today. Taken out of

its original context in the Qur'an and recast in an irrational, racial mold, it is

regularly preached today from mosque pulpits, in Hamas publications and on the Internet, and has entered popular Muslim consciousness in the form of an

irrational belief that contemporary Jews are the descendants, or brothers, of

apes and pigs.

Much bandied about in the Muslim world, and regularly cited on the

Jewish side as evidence of age-old Islamic anti-Semitism, is a Hadith about the

Prophet, that, like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is enshrined in the

Hamas Charter and is propagated by Islamists as a warrant to kill Jews. It

announces that the "hour" of the Day of Judgment will not come until the

Muslims fight the Jews and kill them, whereupon the rock and tree will say:

"Oh Muslim, oh servant of Allah, a Jew hides behind me, come and kill him,'

except for the Gharqad tree, which is the tree of the Jews." This tradition is

but one of many miraculous portents of the end-time and the only one that

mentions violence against the Jews.29 It seems to have had little relevance in

Muslim-Jewish relations until modern times, when it can be heard in anti-

Miidi'/'ll Myths 0/ Mu.~'lill IIl1li,Sl.lIilisli I '1:;

,lewish Pl'Ol1011llCements fi:m the pulpits of mosques and in Islamist


'To be sure, it makes little difference to Jews that the anti-Semitic themes

of Islam today, whether in the Middle East or in Europe, had little or no

importance in Muslim-Jewish relations in the past. They are salient today and

frightening to a people that has suffered from Christian as well as western

secular anti-Semitism and its horrendous consequences in the 20th century.

What is important to understand, however, is that ascribing these ideas to the

legacy of classical Islam is yet another myth.

Muslim anti-Semitism has also provoked a reverse phenomenon. On the

one hand, we see the rise of frenzied anti-Islamic feeling in fringe circles in

Europe. The most well-known is probably the Dutch MP Geert Wilders, who

plays to fears accompanying Muslim immigration to the Netherlands with his

outspoken, incendiary, Islamophobic pronouncements and a notorious video

on the Internet called "Fitna," which pits Qur'anic verses, taken out of

context, against grim scenes of Muslim terrorist acts in Europe and elsewhere.

We also see a growing Israeli and diaspora-Jewish prejudice that looks down

upon Arabs and Muslims in invidious, stereotypical, even irrational ways.

This is accompanied by amnesia on'the part of many Jews from Arab lands,

who no longer remember the friendships with Muslims that Arab Jews knew

in the "old country." They no longer recall the substantial e~emption from

Muslim violence that the Jews of the Islamic world enjoyed in most places

until the events of the 20th century. And they have forgotten that until the

20th century, in some cases right up until the 1940s, many in the Arabic-

speaking Jewish middle class were deeply embedded in Arab society and

culture, much like their ancestors in the medieval world, who wholeheartedly

embraced Arabic and the Islamic culture of philosophy, science, medicine,

scriptural study, legal concepts, and poetry in what was, if not an interfaith

utopia, an era of wide-ranging co-existence. The contemporary Arab Jewish

collective memory of centuries of suffering and anti-Semitism is yet one more

myth in the panoply of myths that surround contemporary realities.

One positive sign in all this is the growing literature of nostalgia by Jews

from Arab lands living in Israel and elsewhere. The description of the relative

comfort and integrated, if ambivalent, relations with Muslim neighbors and

friends in the lands of emigration right down into the middle decades of the

20th century, belies the narrative of Islamic persecution and expulsion

promoted by so many Jews from Islamic lands, a theme that has taken on

renewed salience among Jews in general as a counterweight to Palestinian

claims for reparations for damages done by Israel to Arabs over the past six



What then of the future? There are at least two ways of looking at this. In

one, the optimistic view, the proverbial "good news," we would say that,


precisely because anti-Semitism of the western, Christian variety is not native

to Islam; precisely because it is not part of most classical Islamic texts - once

there is a just and peaceful solution to the conflict, with two states, Israel and

Palestine, living side-by-side, both viable and coexisting in relative peace, let

alone economically interdependent, then the "new" Muslim anti-Semitism

might eventually fade away or at least lose its appeal to the majority of

Muslims. This is because it is not deeply rooted in Islam and is largely fueled

today by the conflict itself.

A pessimistic assessment, the "bad news," would be that, even after a peace

treaty has been signed and Palestine has become a viable state, Muslim anti-

Semitism - and I would add, Israeli anti-Muslimism - won't evaporate very

quickly, because, after 40 years of Israeli occupation and oppression, on the

one hand, and, on the other hand, years of militant Arab resistance and

terrorism directed at Israeli civilians (not to speak of Jews in Europe), the

mutual hatred has become so firmly entrenched that it will be very diffcult

to uproot. To this should be added that, even absent the conflict, anti-

Semitism serves and may continue to serve other purposes in Islamic countries

like Egypt. It constitutes a veiled protest by the political opposition against

the peace treaty and normalization, and may continue in many Arab regimes

as a diversion from domestic problems that cannot easily be solved.

There is, of course, a third possibility, the absence of agreement on the

Palestinian-Israeli issue altogether, which, I believe, is the very worst-case

scenario. Its consequences for the future of Muslim anti-Semitism would be

made irrelevant by developments that would, I believe, be terrible for the prin-

cipals, as for the world at large.

Let us hope that the good news will prevaiL.


Published in Hebrew in the Israeli journal Politika 19 (Spring 2009), 121-140. This

English version contains a few minor changes.

1 Under Crescent and Cross: The jews in the Middle Ages (Princeton, 1994; new

edition with a new Introduction and Afterword, 2008). The present essay is a

revised and much expanded version of the Op-Ed essay, "The New Muslim Anti-

Semitism," which I published in The jerusalem Post, January 3, 2008. That essay

was reprinted in India in the Hindustan Times. I delivered a lecture on this topic

at the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University

and also at AI-Quds University in East Jerusalem in July 2008 and am grateful for

the comments I received. The main ideas presented in this essay are consistent with

views expressed by many scholars, for instance, Moshe Ma'oz in his short

pamphlet, "The Image of the Jew in Official Arab Literature and Communications

Media," published in 1976 by the Institute of Contemporary Jcwry of the Hebrew

University; Bernard Lewis; Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice, new cdition with ncw Afterword (New York, 1999); and nt/ici's. A good

reccnt rcvicw of thc subject can hc foiind in thc 1111110l:H'd hihliiigi':iphicnl CHSllY

ciiitlcd "TIll Clinlk'nl\i' of A'iSI','isiIlH and (Jiid('i'sl:iiidìii~ Ar,i1I/I,liliiiii Anil"

Modern Myths of Muslim Anti-Semitism I 45

Semitism," by Dr. Esther Webman of Tel Aviv University, not yet published (l

thank Dr. Webman for allowing me to read her manuscript). What I bring in the

present essay that is new is (1) the perspective of a historian of Jewish-Muslim

relations in the Middle Ages, founded on several decades of researching and

teaching the subject, the main results of which can be found in my above-

mentioned book, and (2) some thoughts about several favorite themes in modern

Muslim anti-Semitism.

2 Turkish translation, Hac ve Hilal Altindar: Ortacagda Yahudiler (1997); Hebrew,

Be-tzel ha-sahar veha-tzlav, 2001; German, Unter Kreuz und Halbmond: Die

juden im Mittelalter, 2005; Arabic, Bayn al-hilal wa'l-salib: wad' al-yahud fi al-

qurun al-wusta, 2007; French, Sous Ie Croissant et sous la Croix: les Juifs au

Moyen Age, 2008; Spanish and Romanian forthcoming, 2009.

3 Vol. 46,3 (2006).

4 The report was suppressed until interested parties got a hold of it and made it

public. It was widely suspected that the EU had been reluctant to publish the

results for fear of antagonizing the growing Muslim population in European


5 I first articulated this in print in my

,article "Islam and the Jews: Myth, Counter-

Myth, History," The jerusalem Quarterly, no. 38 (1986), 125-137, which was

reprinted several times: in The Solomon Goldman Lectures, Vol. 5, ed. Byron L.

Sherwin and Michael Carasick (Chicago, 1990), 20-32; in Jew~ and Muslims:

Communities in the Precolonial Middle East, ed. Shlomo Deshen and Walter P.

Zenner (London: Macmillan 1996), 50-63; in Hebrew in Zmanim: A Historical

Quarterly (Tel Aviv University), vol. 9, no. 36 (Winter, 1990), 52-61; and again

in Hebrew, in a revised and expanded version, in Muslim Writers on Jews and

Judaism: The jews among their Muslim Neighbours, ed. Hava Lazarus-Yafeh

(Jerusalem, 1996),21-36. I followed the 1986 article up with one entitled "The

Neo-Lachrymose Conception of Jewish-Arab History" in Tikkun (May/June

1991), 55-60. These were later incorporated into Under Crescent and Cross,

Chapter One.

6 A recently published compendium of articles and primary sources on The Legacy

of Islamic Anti-Semitism: From Sacred Texts to Solemn History (Amherst, NY,

2008), by the blog-master, Andrew Bostom, collects in convenient form a large

amount of material illustrating what the author considers to be evidence of Islamic

anti-Semitism from earliest times - differing from the interpretation of the present

writer and other specialists on the medieval Islamic period. Bostom's virulent

response to my jerusalem Post Op-Ed can be read at http://www.andrewbostom.

org/blog/2008/0 1/19/tendentious-marc-cohen-ok -ba t-ye %e2 % 80 % 990r-not-ok/

Along the same lines, another "counter-myth" collection, by another blog-master,

is Robert Spencer, ed., The Myth of Islamic Tolerance: How Islamic Law Treats

Non-Muslims (Amherst, NY, 2005).

7 Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis (Madison, NJ, 2005). Most of Bat Ye'or's books

have been translated into Hebrew and some into Russian; most of them were

written originally in French.

8 See, for instancc, Lewis, Semites and Anti-Semites and more recently, "The New

Anti-Scmitism," The American Scholar 75 (Winter, 2006), 25-36.

9 Arnon¡. many stlidi,:s, such as those of Tritton and Fattal, see Mark R. Cohen,

"What was tlw dli'll,ICt: iif 'ITiiiil'? A I,itcrary-llìsrorical Study," Jerusalem Studies

¡II II I'il/lit 111tils/,lilill (11)')1)), I (I() ,~,1'1, nnd thc nl'ticlc by Norli r:itccl in the next

'i (1 I MAliK It. i;Olll!,N

.1 I am in agi.'ccnicnt here wich AJbl'Ct:hc Noch in hi~ iiiipon:iiii ,~iiidy, originally in

German, entitled "Problems of Differentiation betwccn MUNHms and Non-

Muslims: Re-reading the 'Ordinances of 'Vmar' (AI-Shuruc al-'lll111I'iyya)" in the

English translation in Robert Hoyland, ed., Muslims and Others in Early Islamic

Society (Aldershot, Hants: Burlington, VT. 2004). See also Cohen, Under Crescent

and Cross, Chapters Four and Six.

11 Apart from her many books see her concise starement from Midstream magazine

in 1997, reprinted in Robert Spencer, The Myth of Islamic Toleration: How

Islamic Law Treats Non-Muslims (Amherst, MA, 2005), 147-157, a book that

well represents the current Islamophobic trend. See also above note 6.

12 These observations are based on studies by such distinguished scholars as Anna

Sapir Abulafia, Robert Chazan, Jeremy Cohen, William Chester Jordan, and

Kenneth Stow,

13 Yosef Tobi, "Conversion to Islam among Yemenite Jews under Zaidi Rule: The

Position of Zaidi Law, the Imam, and Muslim Society" (Hebrew), Pe'amim 42

(1990),105-126. (Hebrew translation of the title is: Hitaslemut be-qerev yehudei

teiman tahat ha-shilton ha-zaydi: emdot ha-halakha ha-zaydit ha-shilton ha-

imami veha-hevra ha-muslemitJ

14 I benefited from discussions on these points with Iranian scholar Dr. Katajun

Amirpur, who is currently studying Iranian attitudes towards the Jews in the

Middle Ages.

15 Lewis, Semites and Anti-Semites, 132.

16 See Matthias Kuentzel, Jihad and Jew-hatred: Islamism, Nazism and the Roots of

9/11, tr. Colin Meade (New York, 2007). Kuentzel puts too much emphasis on

the role of the Nazis in precipitating (he would say) modern Arab anti-Semitism,

without acknowledging the longue durée of the phenomenon, reaching back to

the 19th century, with antecedents in the Ottoman period.

17 Emmanuel Sivan, "Islamic Fundamentalism, Anti-Semitism, and Anti-Zionism,"

in Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism in the Contemporary World, ed. Robert S.

Wistrich (Houndsmill, 1990), 74-84.

18 Esther Webman, "Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism, and Criticism of Israel: The Arab

Perspective," Tel Aviver Jahrbuch für Geschichte 33 (2005), 306-329.

19 Michael Kiefer, "Islamischer, Islamistischer odeI' Islamisierter Anti -Semitismus,"

Die Welt des Islams 46 (2006), 277-306; Lewis, Semites and Anti-Semites, 267

(in the Afterword).

20 Mentioned also in Ronald L. NettleI', "Islamic Archetypes of the Jews: Then and

Now," in Wistrich, ed., Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism in the Contemporary

World, 65-67; and elsewhere (see below).

21 For versions of the story see http://www.answering-islam.orglSilas/mo_death.htm.

See also Reuven Firestone, An Introduction to Islam for Jews (Philadelphia,


~2 From the Muslim side see http://www.seerah.netiseerahiarchives/000185.html

and tch?v=ZLOC2QvqIlo&feature=related. From

the Jewish side, see http://www.andrewbostom.orglindex. php?option=com_

content&task=view &id=67 &Itemid=2 8

~3 Etan Kolberg, "The Image of the Prophet Muhammad as a shahid" (Hebrew) in

'Iyyunim ba-islam ha-qadum: devarim she-ne'emru be-yom 'iyyun likhvod Meir

J. Kister bi-mlot 10 tishim shana (Studies in Early Islam: Papers Honouring Meir

Mud/'m .MyllJ.~ ii( Mlislim !\litÎ,.Semilism I tj,l

.I. Kiscei: on hiN Ninetiech Birchday), (.el'isalem: 'rhe Israel Academy of Sciences

and Humanitics, 2005), 45-71.

24 Jacob Lassner, "The Origins of Muslim Attitudes Towards the Jews and Judaism,"

Judaism 39 (1990),494-496, makes the same point, but he adds, regarding the

role this story played in fashioning Muslim perceptions of the Jews: "Whether or

not one believes the

of Muhammad's relations with the Jews. Recalcitrant tribesmen who opposed him

and supposedly supported his enemies, the Jews received what they justly deserved

after crossing his path. Subordination, expulsion, even extermination, the unusual

and extreme punishment meted out to Zaynab's kin, the Banu Qurayzah (in

Medina, whose male members were executed by the Muslims for collaboration

the story needs to be seen within the larger context

with the Meccan enemy), was the correct price for what was perceived as bad faith

and political treachery."

25 Ilse Lichrenstaedter, "And Become Ye Accursed Apes, " Jerusalem Studies in

Arabic and Islam, 14 (1991), 153-175.

26 Uri Rubin, "Apes, Pigs and the Islamic Identity," Israel Oriental Studies 17 (1997)

89-105. The apes-pigs threat is used today by Muslim preachers to discourage

their congregants from transgressing, for instance, by listening to musical instru-

ments. See

27 See Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross, 20.

28 Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross, 165-166.

29 Another portent: "The Prophet said: The Hour will not be esrablished till a man

passes by a grave of somebody and says, Would that I were in his place."

30 This Hadith, as well as the one in the previous note and many others, is found in

medieval canonical collections like Bukhari. It is mentioned in the important, long

article in French by the Arabist and scholar of medieval Jewish philosophy,

Georges Vajda, "Juifs et musulmans selon Ie hadit," Journal asiatique 229 (1937),

57-127. This article is conveniently translated for the first time into English in

Bostom's above-mentioned book (note 6) and heavily relied upon him in his long


31 One example from among many of this literature of nostalgia are the memoirs of

the Israeli-Iraqi scholar of Arabic literature, Sasson Somekh, Baghdad, Etmol (Tel

Aviv, 2003) and in English, Baghdad Yesterday: The Making of an Arab Jew

(Jerusalem, 2007).