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Monday, 3 September 2007
Re: What Should It Be Called?
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Some clarification in light of Hugh's comments on my use of ‘Antisemitism.’ Robert Wistrich, has emphasized the problematic nature of the term ‘antisemitism’, derived from a group of cognate ‘Semitic’ (i.e., stemming from the Biblical Shem, one of Noah’s three sons) languages—Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Ethiopic—and applied, inappropriately, to a pseudo-scientific racial designation by the German journalist Wilhelm Marr, in the 1870s. Regardless, for the past century, as Wistrich notes,

 

…the illogical term ‘antisemitism’…[w]hich never really meant hatred of ‘Semites’ (for example, Arabs [emphasis added]) at all, but rather hatred of Jews, has come to be accepted in general usage as denoting all forms of hostility towards Jews and Judaism throughout history. [emphasis added]

 

Moreover, in the specific context of the Arab Muslim world during the high Middle Ages (circa 950-1250 C.E.), S.D. Goitein’ s seminal analyses of the Geniza documentary record employed the term antisemitism,

 

…in order to differentiate animosity against Jews from the discrimination practiced by Islam against non-Muslims in general. Our scrutiny of the Geniza material has proved the existence of ‘antisemitism’ in the time and the area considered here…

           

Goitein cites as concrete proof of his assertion that a unique strain of Islamic Jew hatred was extant at this time (i.e., up to a millennium ago)—exploding the common assumption of its absence—the fact that letters from the Cairo Geniza  material,

 

…have a special word for it and, most significantly, one not found in the Bible or in Talmudic literature (nor registered in any Hebrew dictionary), but one much used and obviously coined in the Geniza period. It is sin’ūth, “hatred”, a Jew-baiter being called sōnē, “a hater”.

 

Incidents of such Muslim Jew hatred documented by Goitein in the Geniza come from northern Syria (Salamiyya and al-Mar‘arra), Morocco (Fez), and Egypt (Alexandria), with references to the latter being particularly frequent.

 

Also your claim about the powerlessness of the Jews did not in any way spare them from theologically-inspired Jew hatred by the Muslim masses. A remarkable essay by the polymath Arabic writer al-Jahiz (d. 869), composed in the mid-9th century illustrates the anti-Jewish attitudes prevalent within an important early Islamic society. Al-Jahiz’s essay—an anti-Christian polemic believed to have been commissioned by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mutawakkil (d. 861), who inaugurated a literary campaign against the Christians—explores the reasons why the Muslim masses prefer the Christians to the Jews. This empirical preference (although decried by the author) is acknowledged by al-Jahiz from the outset:

 

I shall begin to enumerate the causes which made the Christians more liked by the masses than the Magians [Zoroastrians], and made men consider them more sincere than the Jews, more endeared, less treacherous, less unbelieving, and less deserving of punishment. For all this there are manifold and evident causes.

 

Al-Jahiz offers two primary explanations for this abiding hostility of the Muslim rank and file towards the Jews. First was the “rancorous” relationship between the early Muslim community, exiles from Mecca, relocated among Jewish neighbors in Medina.

 

When the [Muslim] Emigrants [from Mecca] became the neighbors of the Jews [in Medina]…the Jews began to envy the Muslims the blessings of their new faith, 63 and the union which resulted after dissension. They proceeded to undermine the belief of our [i.e., the Muslim] masses, and to lead them astray. They aided our enemies and those envious of us. From mere misleading speech and stinging words they plunged into an open declaration of enmity, so that the Muslims mobilized their forces, exerting themselves morally and materially to banish the Jews and destroy them. Their strife became long-drawn and widespread, so that it worked itself up into a rage, and created yet greater animosity and more intensified rancor. The Christians, however, because of their remoteness from Mecca and Medina, did not have to put up with religious controversies, and did not have occasion to stir up trouble, and be involved in war. That was the first cause of our dislike of the Jews, and our partiality toward the Christians.

 

However, al-Jahiz then identifies as “the most potent cause” of this particular animus towards the Jews, Qur’an 5:82, and its interpretation by the contemporary (i.e., mid-9th century) Muslim masses. It is also worth noting that al-Jahiz (described as a “skeptic”, who harbored “indifferent views toward religion in general”) included these sociological observations which reveal the interface between Islamic religious and indigenous ethnic/racial discriminatory attitudes towards Jews expressed a millennium before any secular Western European antisemitic ideologies would be exported to the Muslim Near East:

 

Our people [the Muslims] observing thus the occupations of the Jews and the Christians concluded that the religion of the Jews must compare unfavorably as do their professions, and that their unbelief must be the foulest of all, since they are the filthiest of all nations. Why the Christians, ugly as they are, are physically less repulsive than the Jews may be explained by the fact that the Jews, by not intermarrying, have intensified the offensiveness of their features. Exotic elements have not mingled with them; neither have males of alien races had intercourse with their women, nor have their men cohabited with females of a foreign stock. The Jewish race therefore has been denied high mental qualities, sound physique, and superior lactation. The same results obtain when horses, camels, donkeys, and pigeons are inbred.           

 

Al-Jahiz’s contention that the Muslims harbored greater enmity towards the Jews than the Christians is supported by the independent observations of another Arab author active during the beginning of the 9th century in Iraq, the Sufi theologian al-Harith al-Muhasibi (d. 857). He maintained that because the Jews stubbornly denied Muhammad’s truth, they were “…in the eyes of the Muslims worse than the Christians.”

 

One thousand years later, E.W. Lane’s testimony on the difference between the attitude of Egyptian Muslims toward the Jews and the Christians again highlights the influence of Qur’an 5:82:

 

They [the Jews] are held in the utmost contempt and abhorrence by the Muslims in general, and they are said to bear a more inveterate hatred than any other people to the Muslims and the Muslim religion. It is said, in the Koran [quoting 5:82] “Thou shalt surely find the most violent all men to those who have believed to be the Jews…”

 

Lane further notes,

 

It is a common saying among the Muslims in this country, “Such one hates me with the hate of the Jews.” We cannot wonder, then, that the Jews are detested far more than are the Christians. Not long ago, they used often to be jostled in the streets of Cairo, and sometimes beaten for merely passing on the right hand of a Muslim. At present, they are less oppressed: but still they scarcely ever dare to utter a word of abuse when reviled or beaten unjustly by the meanest Arab or Turk; for many a Jew has been put to death upon a false and malicious accusation of uttering disrespectful words against the Koran or the Prophet. It is common to hear an Arab abuse his jaded ass, and, after applying to him various opprobrious epithets, end by calling the beast a Jew.

 

The essay on contemporary Turkish Antisemitism also includes this important discussion from a pioneering study published by Bat Ye’or (in Hebrew only, and translated for my forthcoming “The Legacy of Jihad”):

 

Bat Ye'or published a remarkably foresighted 1973 analysis (first translated into English here) of the Islamic Antisemitism resurgent in her native Egypt, and being packaged for dissemination throughout the Muslim world. The primary, core Antisemitic motifs were Islamic, derived from Islam's foundational texts, on to which European, especially Nazi elements were grafted.

 

The pejorative characteristics of Jews as they are described in Muslim religious texts are applied to modern Jews.  Anti-Judaism and anti-Zionism are equivalent-due to the inferior status of Jews in Islam, and because divine will dooms Jews to wandering and misery, the Jewish state appears to Muslims as an unbearable affront and a sin against Allah. Therefore it must be destroyed by Jihad. Here the Pan-Arab and anti-Western theses that consider Israel as an advanced instrument of the West in the Islamic world, come to reinforce religious anti-Judaism. The religious and political fuse in a purely Islamic context onto which are grafted foreign elements. If, on the doctrinal level, Nazi influence is secondary to the Islamic base, the technique with which the Antisemitic material has been reworked, and the political purposes being pursued, present striking similarities with Hitler's Germany. [emphasis added]

 

That anti-Jewish opinions have been widely spread in Arab nationalist circles since the 1930s is not in doubt. But their confirmation at [Al] Azhar [University] by the most important authorities of Islam enabled them to be definitively imposed, with the cachet of infallible authenticity, upon illiterate masses that were strongly attached to religious traditions. [emphasis added]

 

[Former Turkish Prime Minister] Erbakan's recent statements are vivid evidence of the fulminant Antisemitism his popular movement has imbued, including amongst Turkey's current ruling elites, who never criticize such pronouncements by their mentor. This bigoted discourse resonates among the masses, illustrating graphically the same phenomenon described so presciently 34 years ago by Bat Ye'or in Egypt: sequentially grafting on to a learned foundation of Antisemitic motifs from Islam's core texts, modern secular Western European elements, especially those associated with Nazism. 

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Posted on 09/03/2007 4:44 PM by Andrew Bostom
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