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Outsiders twice over

In Ishmael’s House: a history of Jews in Muslim lands Martin Gilbert

YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 448PP, £25 ■Tablet Bookshop price £22.50

importance for the history of Christianity. The contrast between Jewish experiences under Islam and under Christianity has aroused great interest, and Muslim rule is generally seen as milder, in many ways preferable for the Jews, until Jewish emancipation after 1800. In Islam, both Jews and Christians possessed the special status of “Peoples of the Book”, with the right to worship and to administer their affairs, subject to payment of a poll tax; since most lands under Islamic rule contained both Jews and Christians, their fate and treatment were intimately connected. The status of the Peoples of the Book was well described by the venerable historian of the Islamic world, Bernard Lewis: they were second-class citizens, but citizens. That was what distinguished Jews under Muslim rule from Jews under Christian rule. Until emancipation, Jews in Christian Europe were not generally seen as part of the fabric of society, but as outsiders: society was by definition the corpus Christi, and the only way Jews could enter it was by conversion. Martin Gilbert’s new book does not linger over these comparisons; he seems barely aware that other minorities than Jews lived under Muslim rule. Indeed, the non-Muslims were not minorities but majorities in the early centuries of Islam, and Persia and Spain took several centuries to become predominantly Muslim. In North Africa, there were Jewish and Christian Berber tribes, and attempts to convert them were spasmodic. One tribe is said to have opportunistically converted to Islam 12 times, whenever an Arab army swept past, before reverting to whatever its old faith had been. In reality, the Muslims were not very keen to see all these peoples quickly accept Islam, for the taxes they paid supported Arab armies, while the Arabs looked down on fellow-Muslims of other races. Alongside hostile stories of Muhammad’s battles against the Jews of Arabia, there were injunctions to treat Jews and Christians as worshippers of the One True God, whereas in medieval Europe the idea that Jews worshipped the same God was increasingly discounted. In Islamic Spain, the Muslims often felt greater affinity with Jews than with Christians, given the closeness between Jewish and Muslim ideas of God, similar dietary laws, circumcision and regular daily prayer without priestly intercession. The image of the Jew in the literature of medieval Islam was far less sinister than in medieval

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he experience of the Jews under Muslim rule is a topic that has great

The Albaicin, the Jewish ghetto, seen from the windows of the Moorish palace of the Alhambra in Granada, in southern Spain

Christendom: the Jew was the fall guy in comic tales – Jewish stupidity was taken for granted, since the Jews had failed to recognise the qualities of Muhammad. Unfortunately, Gilbert reveals little of this

story, galloping through the fundamental early centuries of Islam at a cracking speed, though he is almost unhorsed by a series of extraordinary errors of fact (the medieval traveller Jacob of Ancona is a figment of the modern imagination). Gilbert is not much interested in Salonika, Smyrna and other great centres of Jewish life under Ottoman rule. He does not explain the dynamics of Jewish-Muslim coexistence over so many centuries. His book is a catalogue of mistreatments, often harrowing. That these abuses occurred indicates how much the fate of the Jews depended upon the goodwill of arbitrary, sometimes psychotic, rulers. And sometimes rulers were sympathetic but the mob was not. The Jews suffered alongside Copts, Armenians, Greeks and members of breakaway Muslim sects. Sometimes whole communities were victimised, sometimes just their elites. There are fundamental aspects of this story that are totally omitted from this book. Gilbert’s real interest lies in the period when Zionism came to clash with Arab aspirations in the Middle East. He shows that the decline in Jewish-Muslim relations stemmed from a variety of sources: the influence of Nazism as well as Arab nationalism left the Jews of Iraq, Iran and Egypt on the margins, and their position was rendered more difficult because they had been conspicuously successful in business and public life, thanks to beneficent Muslim kings who shared with them a taste for European manners. Even without Zionism, to which many were cool, their position was proving fragile. In Egypt, these Westernised Jews held foreign passports, making them a target twice over when Nasser expelled Jews and Europeans at the time of the Suez crisis. Mob violence against them, often with tacit approval from above, and against much poorer Jews in countries such as Libya and Yemen, increased greatly with the emergence of Israel, and Gilbert estimates the number of

Jews who left the Muslim world, whether for Israel or elsewhere, at 850,000 – a larger number than the Palestinian refugees who fled in 1948. Yet it is a story full of paradoxes. Arab governments connived at the departure of the Jews for Israel; on the one hand they wanted to clear their lands of most Jews, on the other they proclaimed their support for an all-Arab Palestine. Hypocrisy flourished alongside hysteria. It is a neglected story of trials and triumphs; but Gilbert has done his readers a disservice by telling it so superficially and incompletely. David Abulafia

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