Sir Martin Gilbert comes to his work, In Ishmael’s House (A History of Jews in Muslims Lands), after a distinguished career as an historian of Winston Churchill, modern Europe and Judaism. He dedicates the book to the world’s Jews and Muslims in hopes they might renew in the 21st century “the mutual tolerance, respect and partnership that marked many periods in their history.”
That sentiment suffuses a volume describing both sun and shadow in the 1,400-year history of these two monotheisms. The tragic episodes began when the Jewish tribes around Medina would not accept Muhammad’s message. Conflict ensued, culminating in the slaughter of the Jews of Khaibar (a word that has become a rallying cry — “Remember Khaibar” — among Muslim extremists today).
The stage was now set for dhimmitude, the condition of Jews (and Christians at times) as a protected but subservient minority in Muslim lands. From Khaibar to the Islam of the Muslim empires in Baghdad and Spain, there were several periods during which Jews attained positions of leadership. In 988, the Jew Yaqub ibn Killis, an economic and political adviser to Egypt’s ruler, established al-Azhar, the Muslim world’s most distinguished university. In Granada in mid-11th century, Samuel ibn Negrala was vizier and led a Muslim army into battle against the kingdom of Seville. But tragedy followed: Samuel was assassinated in 1066 along with his son, Joseph, who was planning to establish a Jewish principality in Almeira. A massacre of 5,000 Granadan Jews followed.
Jews fared better in the Ottoman Empire. When former Christian cities became Muslim — most notably Constantinople — the weight of Christian persecution was lifted. Sultan Mehmet II encouraged Jews to settle there, and by 1478, ten per cent of the city, now renamed Istanbul, was Jewish.
Gilbert’s description of the modern era is even more engaging, as he describes how World War I brought the end of the Ottoman world and the British takeover of Palestine. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 was the first legitimization of a Jewish national home in that region and was followed in 1922 by British colonial secretary Churchill’s statement that Jews were in Palestine “of right and not on sufferance.” But with few exceptions the Arab world was adamantly opposed to such a homecoming. The Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, was a vicious opponent who incited the 1929 anti-Jewish riots in Palestine and would later conspire with Hitler in attempting to crush Zionism. By contrast, there were numerous instances during World War II where courageous North African Muslims protected their Jewish neighbors. In German-occupied Tunisia in 1942, Muslim ruler Muhammad al-Munsif decreed that Tunisian Jews were to be protected by his officials on pain of death.
The founding of Israel in 1948 resulted in seismic changes for the Jews in Arab and Muslim lands: by the early 1970s some 850,000 of these Jews had been forced from their homelands bereft of property and all but a suitcase of belongings. In1948, for example, there were about 150,000 Jews in the ancient and still vibrant Iraqi community. Today there are some 400. The same sad story was repeated in country after country, with Iran under the shah, the first Muslim leader to recognize Israel, the lone exception.
Today, despite the expulsions and humiliations, Jews still live in ten Muslim lands, 50,000 in all. The 2,000-strong Jewish community of Morocco has distinguished itself by public service. In Bahrain in 2008, Ms. Houda Nonoo became the country’s ambassador to the U.S. — the first Jew in history to hold this post in a Muslim land.
Gilbert’s book is a magnificent and poignant chronicle of Jewish life in Ishmael’s house. It is enhanced by maps and by photos of a lost Sephardic world. It can be read with great benefit even if one does so selectively, for example, by reading the post-Zionism chapters.
Benjamin J. Hubbard is professor emeritus of Jewish studies and comparative religion at Cal State Fullerton.