Can Jews live in harmony with Muslims

Jews and Muslims in Islamic Countries : A very unstable coexistence

Anyone who has visited a synagogue in Morocco will know the following: If you knock on the door of the often inconspicuous buildings that blend in with the old towns, a man opens the door and for a few dirhams he shows you the complex. The story he tells is mostly the same: once Muslims, Christians and Jews lived peacefully together in Morocco. Because, it is emphasized, Islam respects the other two groups. Most Jews, however, have miraculously emigrated - to the USA, Canada, France and Israel. When asked why, the answer is a shrug, or a vague reference to the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

This narrative suppresses a lot: the reasons for the disappearance of the Jewish community from Morocco and the other Islamic countries in North Africa and the Near and Middle East, as well as the circumstances of the coexistence between Jews, Muslims (and Christians) before the beginning of the Exodus - 1948.

Exodus after the first war

The founding year of Israel - 1948 - marked the beginning of an exodus in which around 900,000 Jews left their homes, two thirds of whom sought refuge in Israel and the remaining 300,000 in other parts of the world. They fled discrimination and increasingly overt violence. Most of those who had belongings were expropriated. The number exceeds that of Arab refugees as a result of the Arabs' first war against Israel. While the fate of these people is well known and is also used in international politics as a lever against Israel, that of the Jews in the Arab diaspora is seldom heard of. That may be because Israel integrated them (sometimes more badly than right, but that's a different story), while the Arabs, later called Palestinians, have to live in refugee camps in their host countries to this day. But it is also due to the lack of interest of the public, not least in European societies.

It is thanks to two small publishers that there are now two books in German that not only dispel the myths about the alleged Islamic-Jewish harmony, but also describe the tremendous exodus and the violence that triggered it. Hentrich & Hentrich, who calls itself “a publishing house for Jewish culture and contemporary history”, published a compact text by the French-Moroccan historian Georges Bensoussan. The publishing house ça ira, operated by the left-wing communist “Initiative Socialist Forum”, is responsible for the translation of the comprehensive study by the Belgian historian Nathan Weinstock.

Islam and the "scriptural religions"

The history of the Jews who lived in the Maghreb, the Levant, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and the Arabian Peninsula can be divided into two parts - despite all the differences that are inherent in the nature of the matter given the size of the treated area Divide sections: the premodern period and the period from around the 19th century. While the regional differences in antiquity and the Middle Ages in terms of size, position and treatment of the Jewish minorities are quite large, a process of standardization begins with the rise of modernity. At the same time, this brings about the transformation and radicalization of anti-Semitism throughout the world, which ultimately leads to the exodus.

What is commonly seen as the respect of Islam for the other religions of the scriptures is in truth a complex relationship between protection and humiliation. Which side prevailed was heavily dependent on the respective rulers. Weinstock explores the effects of “dhimmi” status chapter by chapter. Dhimmis are all those who live as non-Muslims in an Islamic country but belong to a monotheistic religion. In addition to the Jews, this also affected the various Christian denominations. Dhimmis were allowed to keep their religion but had to pay a special tax.

"Dhimmis" with the yellow star

This "Djizya" was also a sign of their submission. Because the Islamic rulers and their "orthodox" subjects never left a doubt: the dhimmis were subject. The Jews were exposed to harassment and humiliation to varying degrees, against which they were not allowed to defend themselves. Sometimes it was ordered that they had to be recognizable in public - for example by wearing a yellow piece of cloth on their clothing.

However, that does not mean that a Jewish upper class did not develop. She traded and was well networked, some even made it to high offices at the courts of Muslim rulers. All Jews were dependent on their favor. However, when the Muslim population raged against their Jewish neighbors in times of crisis, the ruler did not always keep his promise of protection.

The advance of the major European powers upset the situation. The equality of the Jews enforced, for example in the course of the reforms in the Ottoman Empire, represented an enormous opportunity for them. However, the Muslims disliked the fact that those who were considered "dogs" for centuries should now have the same rights as themselves. With Freud one can speak of a narcissistic insult that should break out in violence.

Christian hatred of Jews was added

As Jews and modernity were brought into connection in this way, an anti-Semitic topos emerged that also became powerful in Europe. At the same time, the Europeans brought in their hatred of Jews. The legend of ritual murder, which has been widespread in the Christian world for centuries, according to which Jews killed members of other religions in order to use their blood for religious purposes, soon spread throughout the Islamic world.

The result was an explosive mix that only had to be attached to the fuse. The emergence of Zionism and the beginning of Jewish immigration to Palestine created further tensions. National Socialist propaganda found many enthusiastic supporters in the Islamic world. In this respect, the defeat of Germany in 1945 only incited the anger of many Muslims. Serious pogroms increased in the 1940s, for example in Baghdad in 1941 or in Damascus in 1949.

In this context, Bensoussan refers a popular story to the realm of myth: that of the Moroccan King Mohammed V, who is said to have protected the Jews of his empire under the control of the Vichy regime as sultan during World War II. It is true, however, that the Sultan signed all of Vichy's decrees, ordered expulsions and applied the Jewish Statute - without a word of protest.

Does decolonization mean anti-Semitic?

Decolonization completely shattered the fragile coexistence. It is true that many Jews, especially from the educated upper class, were initially part of the nationalist movements that wanted to liberate their countries from the rule of the European powers. However, they soon found that they were viewed by many as more of a part of the problem. The increasing Islamization of the national movements had its effect. When independence was achieved, the Jews lost all their previous protection.

The right to leave the country had to be fought for in many places, but once achieved there was no stopping it. Almost all Jews left their homeland within three decades. Centuries-old communities disappeared. Only in Tunisia and Morocco were there still noteworthy congregations with a total of around 4500 members at the beginning of the 21st century. Everywhere else there are only a few old people left, if at all.

Bensoussan's writing requires prior knowledge, which may be due to the fact that it was written for a French audience. In addition, her erratic style sometimes bothers. Weinstock's book is an excellent addition, which reads fluently thanks to its systematics and stringency. Both books together illuminate a chapter in history that Europe must finally perceive.

Georges Bensoussan: The Jews of the Arab World. The forbidden question. Translated from the French by Jürgen Schröder. Verlag Hentrich & Hentrich, Berlin / Vienna 2019. 192 pp., € 19.90. - Nathan Weinstock: The broken thread. How the Arab world lost its Jews. 1947-1967. Translated from the French by Joel Naber. Verlag ça ira, Freiburg 2019. 480 pp., 23 €.

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