Jews Among the Arabs
A History of Arab Attitudes Toward Jews
Jewish Origin of Islam
The Arab enemies of Israel have claimed for years that prior to the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948 there were always excellent relations between Jews and Muslims in Arab lands. This claim is a myth. Contrary to that myth are the innumerable authoritative works which document the subjugation, oppression and violence directed against Jews in Arab lands since the seventh century.
This does not deny that prior to the conquest of North Africa by the Muslims in the seventh century, the prophet Mohammed (570–632) had close relations with the Jewish tribes of Arabia, from whom he derived the principal tenets and customs of his religion.[i]
Mohammed therefore believed that he could induce the Jews to accept Islam. He had attended synagogue services where he had heard readings from the Jewish Scriptures. He considered himself the last of the Jewish prophets and believed that he was a messenger of God. Mohammed accepted the Hebrew Bible as well as the New Testament and considered himself a direct descendent of Abraham. According to Muslim tradition, the Quran , or readings, was revealed to Mohammed by Allah through the angel Gabriel. The Quran is a book of sayings which Mohammed delivered during his lifetime and which were later collected and edited by Othman, the third Caliph, in the mid-7th century, or about 19 years after the prophet’s death.[ii]
The Quran or Koran is divided into 114 chapters, following a structure similar to the arrangement of the Hebrew Scriptures. Also following the Hebrew pattern is the custom of reading a part of the Koran every Friday, just as the Torah is read every Saturday by the Jews. Islam also asserts the absolute monotheism of the Jews as found in II Samuel 22–23, “There is no God but the Lord,” which becomes “there is no God but Allah” in Islam. Likewise, Islam does not have saints, just as Judaism has no saints as there is no mediator between the individual and his creator. Like Jews, Muslims believe in the immortality of the soul and personal accountability for human actions on earth. Since the Arabian Jews prayed five times a day in Mohammed’s time, he adopted this custom as well. Similarly, a day of prayer was instituted in Islam resembling the Jewish Sabbath, while the fast of Yom Kippur is reflected in the Ramadan fast of the Muslims. Innumerable biblical stories derived directly from the Jewish Torah are also included in the Muslim tradition so that it can be reasonably concluded that Islam owes its very existence to Judaism.[iii]
Nevertheless, the treatment of the Jewish population under Islamic control was not a pleasant one. Yet, unlike Christianity, Judaism did not disappear from Muslim held North Africa. It may well be that the Jewish communities in Arab Muslim lands survived because they had adopted various survival mechanisms while under Christian domination. This was not true of Christians, so that the Muslims succeeded in wiping out Christianity from all of North Africa except for a few Egyptian Christians , leaving only a small number of Jews as virtually the only non-Muslims in all of Islamic territory.
It has been estimated that in the 7th century less than 200,000 Jews lived in the Arab east and another 5000 lived at al-Quatifa. Damascus, Syria at that time had a Jewish population of only about 2500. North Africa at the time of the Arab conquest had about 2 million inhabitants, of whom 1.5 million were Christians and only 20,000 or 1 percent were Jews.[iv]
In the 16th century, under Turkish Muslim rule , the area of the Middle East called the Fertile Crescent by the archaeologist Henry Breasted was 1% Jewish, reaching 2% in the 19th century. In 1996 it was estimated that then about 20,000 Jews remained in Turkey.[v]
Since the Arab conquest of North Africa, the small Jewish minority lived under Muslim rule from the eighth century to the 20th. Likewise, the Jews of the Middle East lived under Turkish Muslim rule for 400 years. Throughout all these years Jews were at all times the victims of persecution and humiliation among the Arabs and Muslims. Professor Bernard Lewis of Princeton University, the foremost scholar concerning the condition of Jews in Muslim lands, wrote in 1968: “the Golden age of equal rights (for Jews) was a myth.”[vi]
Jews in Arab Lands
In 1948, after Israel had declared its independence, 850,000 Jews who had lived in the Arab world at once streamed into the new country. The reasons for this immense migration was centuries old subjugation, oppression, and anti-Jewish violence that made the lives of Jews in most of the Arab countries as miserable as it had been in Christian society. Although Jews and Arabs had gotten along well prior to the seventh century and the development of Islam, the teachings of Mohammed and his followers became catastrophic for the Jews living among them.[vii]
While Mohammed at first hoped that the Jews among whom he lived would accept him and his new religion, he became as virulent a persecutor of Jews in his day as did Martin Luther nine centuries later.
The fact is that the Muslim world's second holiest city, Medina , a Hebrew word for community, was actually first settled by Jewish tribes. Because that Jewish city was successful and wealthy, it attracted numerous Arabs from surrounding areas until they outnumbered the Jews in their own town. Then, when the Arabs attained both superiority in numbers and unity through the new religion of Islam, they attacked the Jews and eliminated them entirely from Yathrib, which was another name for Medina.[viii]
Persecution of Jews began during the lifetime of Mohammed. His anger at the Jews was principally fueled by their refusal to recognize him as a prophet but was further enhanced by their economic superiority. Moreover, the Jews would not accept the new religion preached by Mohammed because it included Jesus and Ishmael as messengers of God.[ix]
the death of Mohammed in 630 C.E., his successor, Omar
, issued a charter consisting of 12 laws under which a non-Muslim or dhimmi was
allowed to live among believers or Muslims.
This charter codified the conditions of life for Jews under Islam and
specified that any Jew who broke these codes forfeited his life. Included in
this charter was a prohibition forbidding Jews to touch the Koran. It also
compelled Jews to wear distinctive clothes, usually dark blue or black, and
further compelled them to wear a yellow piece of cloth as a badge (This yellow
cloth became the inspiration for the yellow star
which the Nazi government of Germany forced upon Jews). Jews
were also prohibited from performing their religious practices in public.
Jews were not allowed to own a horse nor to drink wine in public. The
anti-Jewish laws went so far as to prohibit Jews from letting their grief be
heard by Muslims during or after a Jewish burial.[x]
Both Jews and Christians had to pay a special head tax and a special property tax as protection money to the Muslim government. This tax came from an edict in the Koran: “Fight against those Jews and Christians who believe not in Allah … until they pay the tribute readily, being brought low.”[xi]
At all times Jews faced the danger of entering into a dispute with a Muslim, in which case the Muslim could charge, however falsely, that the Jew had cursed Islam. Jews were not allowed to defend themselves against such an accusation. Instead, a Muslim could murder any Jew with impunity except for the obligation to pay a small amount of money to the family of the slain “infidel “. Even this penalty was most unlikely because the law held the testimony of a Jew or Christian invalid against that of a Muslim. In fact, that penalty could only be demanded under the unlikely condition that two Muslims were willing to testify against a third Muslim for the sake of a Jew.[xii]
These laws and others were enforced upon the Jews in Muslim lands for centuries. In Yemen , for example, Jews were forced to clean the street of animal carcasses and clean the latrines on their Sabbath without pay. In short, in Yemen, Jews were slaves. It was also in Yemen that Jewish women had to wear one white and one black shoe, while in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Iran and Turkey a variety of other chicaneries were used to torment the Jews. In all Muslim countries the greed of the Muslims demanded money, even as physical humiliation accompanied daily Jewish life.[xiii]
The Sultan of Morocco in 1884 forced Jews to work on the Sabbath and other holy days; carry heavy burdens on their backs; clean the latrines; sell merchandise at half price; accept false coinage instead of real currency; hold their beds and furniture at the disposal of government guests and act as beasts of burden for Muslims without pay.[xiv]
Jews living in Arab lands were forced to live in Jewish ghettos or haramellah. These were “close, miserable, and dirty quarters intersected by lanes, many of which are so narrow as hardly to admit two persons passing each other in them.”[xv]
As late as the 19th century a visitor to Cairo, Egypt observed the Jews were “crowded and clustered into houses about to collapse, in dark cellars, narrow alleys and crooked lanes choked with mud and stinking refuse, earning their meager living in dark shops and suffocating workshops, toiling back-to-back, sunscorched and sleepless. Their hard struggle for existence both inside and outside the home is rewarded by a few beans and black bread.”[xvi]
Although there were here and there a few individual Jews who succeeded despite these persecutions, in general Jews were treated in this most brutal manner throughout the Arab world unto the present time. It was only the establishment of Israel which rescued the Jews from Arab lands and gave them for the first time in their history an opportunity to live in decency and freedom.
Jews in Arab lands
were also the target of sporadic mass murders. These murders
were often precipitated by the claim that Jews bake their Passover bread or Matzah
the blood of non-Jewish children and that furthermore Jews drink the blood of
1840 a Christian priest disappeared from Damascus, Syria. The priest was a
Frenchman. Thereupon the Christian
community and the French government claimed that the Jews had murdered the
priest in order to drink his blood and use it for ritual purposes.
The Muslim government of Syria, controlled by the Pasha of Egypt
, tortured numerous Jews so as to get
confessions from them concerning this alleged crime. It was through the intervention of the English Jew Sir Moses
Montefiore and the French Jewish lawyer Adolphe Crėmieux (1796–1880)
that the Jews who survived the torture were finally released.[xvii]
In 1962 the Egyptian Ministry of Education published a book entitled Human Sacrifices in the Talmud which claims that Jews use human sacrifices and make it a religious obligation to drink the blood of non-Jews.[xviii]
In 1964, a professor at the University of Damascus published a pamphlet which stated that mothers must be warned against letting their children out late at night lest the Jews take their blood for the purpose of making matzot for Passover.[xix]
In 1973 a minister in the Egyptian foreign service published a play based on this 1840 blood libel in Damascus, showing gory descriptions in a widely circulated Egyptian weekly. The play was called The Tragedy of Good Father Thomas.[xx]
Additional recitations of this insane blood libel have appeared in the Arab media continuously throughout the 20th century and into the beginning of the 21st century.
In the 1940s, the Mufti of Jerusalem proposed to the Nazi government in Germany that they “settle the question of Jewish elements in Palestine and other Arab countries in accordance with the national and racial interests of the Arabs and along lines similar to those used to solve the Jewish question in Germany and Italy.”[xxi]
The mass murder of six million Jews by Hitler and his cohorts was also defended and justified by numerous Arab writers, including an open letter to Hitler written by Anwar Sadat , the later president of Egypt. That letter was published in 1950 in the hope that Hitler was still alive. Sadat sympathized with Hitler and his cause. Sadat claimed that Hitler was maligned and slandered, for he did no more to the Jews than Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, the Romans, the Byzantines, Titus, Mohammed and the Europeans, all of whom wanted to save the world from “this malignant evil”. This was the same Anwar Sadat who, as president of Egypt, attacked Israel in 1973 and, with the help of President Jimmy Carter, browbeat Israel into relinquishing the Sinai in 1981.[xxii]
Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, published his doctoral dissertation, which he completed at Moscow Oriental College in 1983. This dissertation is called: The Other Side: the Secret Relations between Nazism And The Leadership of the Zionist Movement. This book claims that the number of Jews murdered by the Nazis was far less than 6 million and that the historian Raoul Hilberg estimates the number murdered at 890,000. The truth is that Hilberg, the author of The Destruction of the European Jews, never wrote such a thing. Furthermore, Abbas absolves the Nazi leadership of these murders and claims that the Zionist leadership was to blame for these killings. Abbas argued that the Zionists “offered human beings under any name to raise the number of victims.” According to Abbas, this policy served the Zionist purpose in promoting the immigration of Jews to the Holy Land.[xxiii]
Mansour, a prominent Egyptian writer, wrote that the vicious medieval blood
libel was historical truth. Claiming that Jews have confessed that they killed
children and used their blood, he justified the persecution of Jews on the
grounds that they are all “wild beasts”.[xxiv]
to the Jews in the Koran
Koran, or the readings, is a replica of the Jewish Scriptures.
It also includes some Christian theology and is by and large in no sense
original. It is divided into one
hundred and fourteen chapters called surahs,
imitating the division of the Jewish Torah into parshas. Throughout
the Koran, the Jews are mentioned repeatedly and always in a disparaging and
insulting fashion. There can be
little doubt that the persecution of the Jews in Muslim countries is rooted in
the sacred scriptures of the Muslims and therefore can hardly be eradicated.
is neither necessary nor possible to exhibit here all references to Jews and
Israel found in the Koran. Suffice it to recognize that the Koran discusses Jews
incessantly and that the following are sufficient excerpts to indicate that the
persecution of Jews in Arab/Muslim lands is the direct outgrowth of the
teachings of the Muslim scriptures.
the chapter of the Koran called The
Cow (2:88), we read: “Allah has
cursed them for their unbelief” (Jews and Christians).[xxv]
The Cow (2:98), we discover that “Allah is the enemy of the unbelievers”
and in 2:121 the Koran tells us that “whoever disbelieves in it, these it is
that are the losers.”
Family of Imran
Surah 3. Here we discover that Ibrahim (Abraham) was not a Jew, nor yet a
Christian, but he was an upright man, who had surrendered to Allah, and he was
not one of the idolators (3:67).
Women is the fourth Surah. Here
Jews are once more the targets of Allah’s curses. In 4:46 Jews are accused of
changing words from their context so that “Allah has cursed them for their
disbelief.” In 4:160 Allah says, “Because of the wrongdoing of the Jews We
forbade them good things which were before made lawful unto them….”
the next Surah, The Dinner Table 5:33,
Allah curses the Jews again. “You will cease to discover treachery from all
save a few of them.” In Surah 5:33 things become more bloody. Here we are told
that “The only reward of those who make war upon Allah and His messenger and
strive after corruption in the land will be that they will be killed or
crucified or have their hands and feet on alternate sides cut off or will be
expelled out of the land. Such will be their degradation in the world, and in
the Hereafter theirs will be an awful doom.”
5:41 the Koran tells us this concerning the Jews: “Theirs in the world will be
ignominy and in the Hereafter an awful doom.” Then, 5:51 advises Muslims with
these words: “do not take the Jews and Christians for friends.
They are friends one to another.”
5:59–60 it is revealed that those who don't believe in Islam and, in
particular, people of the Scriptures (meaning Jews and Christians), are cursed
by Allah, who has “turned some to apes and swine” (5:60).
5:64 we read, “and the Jews say: the hand of Allah is tied up! Their hands
shall be shackled and they are cursed for saying so.”
Christians evidently did not fare much better than Jews in the Koran (5:73). Here we discover that those who say that “Allah is the third of three… a painful doom will fall on them who disbelieve.” Then in 5:78 we find that Jews were cursed by David and by Jesus.
6, The Cattle,
refers to Jews only in connection with the Jewish food laws, which have been
partially adopted by Islam. The seventh Surah is called The
Heights, the eighth Surah is called
Spoils of War, the ninth is called Repentance
and the tenth is called Jonah. While all of these Surahs discuss Israel and/or Jews, the comments made
concerning them in these Surahs are relatively benign.
Jews are not mentioned in Surahs 11–15 but we learn in Surah 16 that
Jews were unjust to themselves. Surah 17:4 lets the reader know that Jews behave
insolently. Surah 17 is called “The Children of Israel
have here presented some of the most direct attacks on Jews found in the Koran.
There is much more anti-Jewish material in the Muslim scriptures, both in the
Koran and in other sacred writings.
[i] Bernard Lewis, The Arabs in History, 6thEd., (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) p.31.
[ii] Abraham L. Katsh, “Judaism and Islam”, Journal of Educational Sociology, v. 36, no. 8, (April 1963):400–401.
[iv] Youssef Courbage and Phillipe Fargue, Chrsitians and Jews under Islam, (New York: L.B. Tauris, Publishers, 1997) p.32.
[v] Ibid. p.113.
[vi] Bernard Lewis, “The Pro-Islamic Jews,” Judaism, (Fall 1968) :401.
[vii] Bernard Lewis, The Arabs in Hisotry, 4th Edition, (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1969) pp. 31–32.
[viii] Salo W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, vol 1. (New York: Columbia University Press 1937) p. 308.
[ix] Shmuel Safrai, “The Lands of the Diaspora,” in A History of the Jewish People, Haim H. Ben Sasson Editor,, (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1976) p.380.
[x] Andre Chouraqui, Between East and West: A History of the Jews of North Africa, translated from the French by Michael M. Bernet, (Philadephia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1968)pp. 45–46.
[xi] Ibid. p. 46.
[xii] Hayyim Cohen, The Jews of the Middle East,1860–1972 (New York: Wiley, 1973) pp.1–2.
[xiii] Saul D. Gotein, Jews and Arabs: Contacts through the Ages, (New York: Schocken Books, 1955) p.67
[xiv] Saul Friedman, “The Myth of Arab Toleration,” Midstream, (January 1970)
[xv] Edward W. Lane, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, 1833–1835, (London, New York, Melbourne, 1890) p. 512.
[xvi] Jacob M. Landau, Jews in Nineteenth Century Egypt, (New York: New York University Press, 1969) pp. 30–31.
[xvii] Solomon Grayzel, A History of the Jews, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1947) p.634.
[xviii] Yehoshafat Harkabi, Arab Attitudes to Israel, (New York: Hart Publishing Co., 1972) p.270–271.
[xix] Moshe Maoz, The Iamge of the Jew in Official Arab Literature and Communications Media, (Jerusalem: The Institute of Contemporary Jewry, 1976) p. 21.
[xx] Ibid. pp. 273–274.
[xxi] Lukasz Hirszowicz, The Third Reich and the Arab East, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966)p.22
[xxii] Yehoshafat Hakabi, Arab attitudes etc.p. 276–277.
[xxiii] Rafael Medoff, “PA Prime Minster a Holocaust Denier,” Frontpage Magazine, (February 26, 2003):.3.
[xxiv] Moshe Maoz, The Image of the Jew, p. 22.
[xxv] Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran, (New York: The New American Library of World Literature, 1930)