Thursday, January 14, 2010

Secular tolerance for Arab and Muslim intolerence.

Matthew M. Hausman*

Former Israeli Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef recently took a public flogging for allegedly describing Islam as “ugly,” specifically with respect to its laws concerning marriage and divorce. The liberal blogosphere had a field day, calling the Rabbi a bigot and labeling his comments hate speech. But the bloggers provided no contextual counterbalance, such as a critical discussion of the defamation of Jews and Judaism that occurs routinely in the Arab press or the historical discrimination of Jews in Muslim society. Nor do they ever.
Although these folks cry themselves hoarse concerning their right to free speech whenever challenged for their demonstrably biased reporting on Israel – or for lambasting comments such as those by Rabbi Yosef – they are silent whenever the subject is Arab or Muslim incitement or intolerance.

The story about Rabbi Yosef was reported on an Egyptian news website, which not surprisingly found his comments to be inflammatory. However, such expressions of moral outrage are curiously inconsistent with the Egyptian media’s routine publication of antisemitic content worthy of Der Stuermer. Egyptian media outlets commonly depict Jews as racially-distinctive, hook-nosed caricatures, report as fact a multitude of mythical Jewish conspiracies, exploit the antisemitic imagery of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and provide a forum for devotees of the blood libel. The government-sponsored newspapers Al-Ahram and al-Goumhuriyya regularly run articles and cartoons in the classic antisemitic tradition, as do other sources throughout the Arab world. The media rogues’ gallery includes most major press outlets, including:

• Al Jazeera, which broadcasts the rants of clerics who quote Quran and Hadith in calling for the destruction of Israel and the extermination of the Jews.
• Al-Arab al-Yaum, a Jordanian daily that has published such offensive articles as “Killing Children According to Jewish Faith,” (March 8, 2008), which reported that Jews kill Gentile children and use their blood for religious rituals. The Damascus Blood Libel is clearly considered historical fact.

• SANA, the Syrian Arab News Agency, which has run stories calling the Holocaust a Zionist myth and describing Jewish or Zionist plots to colonize the Mideast.

• Al-Riyadh, the Saudi daily, which has printed articles reporting the blood libel as historical fact. As reported by MEMRI, for example, the newspaper in 2002 published an article in which the commentator expounded on the holiday of Purim, stating among other things that:

During this holiday , the Jew must prepare very special pastries, the filling of which is not only costly and rare –– it cannot be found at all on the local and international markets . . .

For this holiday, the victim must be a mature adolescent who is, of course, a non-Jew – that is, a Christian or a Muslim. His blood is taken and dried into granules. The cleric blends these granules into the pastry dough; they can also be saved for the next holiday. In contrast, for the Passover slaughtering, about which I intend to write one of these days, the blood of Christian and Muslim children under the age of 10 must be used, and the cleric can mix the blood before or after dehydration. MEMRI, Special Dispatch No. 354, citing Al Riyadh, March 10, 2002.

Arab and other foreign media outlets have often disseminated stories about supposed Jewish plots for world domination, schemes to control financial institutions, and conspiracies to manipulate the media. Other popular themes have included “scholarly” claims of intrinsic religious corruption within Judaism, or pseudo-scientific reports suggesting that the Temple never stood in Jerusalem or that the Jews did not originate in ancient Israel, but rather were descended from non-indigenous peoples who usurped a country – Palestine – that never existed.

The mainstream media in the United States is quick to denounce any perceived affronts to Arab or Islamic culture, and just as quick to condemn any alleged expressions of Jewish or Israeli chauvinism. But the media is reluctant to criticize antisemitic expressions from Arab or Muslim sources, draw any connection between Islamism and terrorism, acknowledge the history of Arab expansion and colonialism, or discuss the supremacist implications of jihad – even as it openly plays out in Europe. Rather, liberal pundits often wax dreamily poetic when discussing the so-called “golden age of Islam” or the myth of Islamic tolerance. Moreover, they tend to rationalize any antisemitic or anti-Western expressions in the Arab world as reactions to Israeli intransigence or American colonialism.

In reality, there was no real sense of tolerance for “infidels” in the Arab-Muslim world. Historically, Jews in Arab lands were relegated to the status of dhimmi who often lived in ghettos, were endowed with few if any substantive rights, and were subject to the whim and whimsy of their hostile neighbors. Although many in the West believe that Jewish life was more tolerable through the ages in the Islamic lands, the general treatment of Jews there was in fact not much different than in Christian Europe, and sometimes was even worse.

During the early Islamic period, for example, Jews were required to wear distinctive badges or metal seals around their necks, and starting in the 9th Century the Caliphate in Baghdad required Jews to wear the yellow badge – a practice that was later adopted in Christian Europe during the Middle Ages. Starting in the year 1005, the Jews of Egypt were required to wear bells on their garments, and in Medieval Baghdad they were often physically branded. In many Arab countries Jews were required to live in ghettos and were not permitted to use the same public bath houses as Muslims. At various times throughout Islamic history, Jews of the Mideast and North Africa were subjected to pogroms, massacres and forced conversions just as they were in Europe.
Despite the fantasy of the “Golden Age of Spain” when Jews were supposedly free, equal and prosperous, Iberian Jewry often fared little better in Muslim Spain than in Christian Europe. The reality was famously evidenced by the experience of Maimonides. Despicable though the anti-Jewish policies of the Catholic Church may have been, the Rambam and his family were exiled from their native Cordoba not because of Christian persecution, but because the conquering Almohads gave the Jewish community the choice of conversion to Islam or death.

This is not to downplay the severity of historical European antisemitism, which found expression in, among other things, the anti-Jewish legislation of the Fourth Lateran Council, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Spanish Expulsion, the Chelmnitzky massacres, the Pogroms and the Holocaust. However, for those who might use the Holocaust as a measuring stick to say that hatred of Jews was worse in Europe than in the Muslim world, one could argue that it was only the expression that was more severe, not the doctrinal hatred itself. And in this regard, one must consider Arab-Muslim complicity with the Nazis, particularly where, as in Bosnia, Muslim Waffen-SS Hanjar units recruited by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem assisted in exterminating Bosnian Jews. Moreover, in his testimony at Nuremberg, Dieter Wisliceny, Eichmann’s deputy and Hauptsturmfuhrer of Slovakia and Hungary, reportedly described the Mufti was an advisor to Eichmann and “one of the initiators of the systematic extermination of European Jewry.”

In light of this history, any censure of Rabbi Yosef, who was born into dhimmitude in Iraq, can have no frame of reference absent a critical analysis of the traditionally precarious existence of Jews in the Islamic world. Those who wish to criticize Rabbi Yosef, or any other Sephardim or Mizrachim who lived in Muslim society, must first understand how the historical treatment of Jews under Islam molded their collective psyche. And when critical neophytes analyze the history, they must look beyond the revisionist myth of religious tolerance and instead focus on the harsh realities of jihad, dhimmitude, and the pervasive cultural denigration of the Jews and Judaism.

Interestingly, Western Jews who buy into the myth of benevolent tolerance are generally secular liberals and typically not of Sephardic, Mizrachi or Yemeni ancestry. If they were, they would be more likely to know – either from their own experiences or those of their parents and grandparents – what Jewish life was really like in Arab lands. And the stark realities of that life preceded the current geopolitical tumult of the Mideast by centuries. Indeed, Maimonides in his Epistle to Yemen in the 12th Century addressed the issue of Arab intolerance and persecution at a time when the Jews of Yemen were subjected to gross abuse and unspeakable violations. This dark chapter in Arab-Jewish relations clearly predated the Arab-Israeli conflict, and certainly attenuates the assumptions of those who claim that Arab-Muslim hostility today stems solely from Israeli aggression and is not endemic to that society.

Moreover, those familiar with the Quran know that the blueprint for dealing with Jews and Judaism is anything but benevolent, involving as it does the seminal account of the slaughter of the Jews of Yathrib (al-Medina). And the eschatology reflected in the Hadith speaks of the extermination of the Jews at the end of days. Against this backdrop, the experience of the Jews in Islamic society and Arab lands was typically perilous and often marked by social and economic repression, institutional indignities, and general discrimination.

This reality is ignored by secular liberals, and also by cultural naifs who believe that interfaith dialogue will bring about greater understanding. However, the doctrinal differences between Judaism and Islam are vast. Theologically, Judaism incorporates the belief system of the Jewish People, and the concept of “peoplehood” implicates an identity combining ethnic and nationalistic components as well as religious ones. The Jewish religion is particular to the Jewish People and, consequently, it has no conversionary mission or imperative to impose its beliefs on other peoples. In contrast, Islam is a conversionary ideology that is in a perpetual state of conflict with those whom it considers infidels. And in the absence of something akin to the Reformation in Europe, it is questionable whether any amount of dialogue will bring about the philosophical change necessary to foster compatibility with western ideals or Jewish values.

The western media’s refusal to acknowledge the theological divide is puzzling given its seeming preoccupation with denigrating traditional religious beliefs in its own cultural backyard. Mainstream journalists routinely lampoon conservative Christians as ignorant and bigoted, and often depict observant Jews as fanatical, right-wing zealots. Yet, they are reluctant to apply the term “jihadist” to Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter with ties to al-Qaeda, to identify as an Islamist terrorist Umar Abdulmutallab, the attempted Detroit plane bomber, or to examine the doctrinal underpinnings of the acts of either.

The press instead takes its cue from President Obama, who refers to such terrorists as “extremists” so as to distance them from both the religious inspiration for their actions and their status as heroes amongst many within their faith community. Not surprisingly, the typical news analysis tends to ignore the religious motivations for their acts of terror, and instead focuses on “personal disaffection” or “loneliness” as mitigating factors. The media’s consistent refusal to acknowledge and condemn what is clearly religious-based terrorism leaves one to wonder whether its worldview is shaped by any affinity for western democratic values at all, or by a dogmatic political correctness that has become a dysfunctional secular religion.
While one may certainly disagree with Rabbi Yosef’s remarks, one cannot deny the history that may well inform his viewpoint.

Traditional Arab society never treated Jews with respect or tolerance as those concepts are understood in the West. Although Jews may be considered “People of the Book,” they are still considered infidels who occupy a dubious position within Islamic society. An objective review of the history shows that Arab-Muslim antipathy for Jews did not spontaneously arise in 1948 with the modern rebirth of Israel – any more than German antisemitism was created by the Nazis. And unless the Arab-Muslim world can change the way it regards Jews, and acknowledge their historic connection to and presence in the Land of Israel, there can never be true peace or acceptance, only a cold, Balkanized status quo.

Thank you to Ted Belman-posted on his blog-Jan 14, 2009

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