The silver lining

Sir Martin Gilbert has dedicated his new book to the wary hope that the world’s Jews and Muslims ‘may renew tolerance, respect, partnership that marked history.’

Sir Martin Gilbert 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Sir Martin Gilbert 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
“Jews, remember Khaibar, The army of Muhammad is coming back to defeat you!”
That was the Arabic cry uttered by Amrozi bin Nurhasin, one of the October 2002 Bali bombers, when he entered a courtroom in Indonesia for sentencing the following year, having being found guilty of causing the deaths of more than 200 people (none of them Jewish) in the country’s worst terror attack. And it is with a retelling of that defiant courtroom incident that the renowned British historian Sir Martin Gilbert chose to open a recent lecture in Jerusalem on the history of Jews in Muslim lands. Yet his recent book on the subject, In Ishmael’s House, A History of Jews in Muslim Lands, is dedicated to the hope that the world’s 13 million Jews and 1.3 billion Muslims “may renew in the 21st century the mutual, tolerance, respect and partnership that marked many periods in their history.”
The paradox between the cited Islamist intransigence and Gilbert’s wary hopefulness is perhaps at first surprising. But as Gilbert unveils a troubled history that swings between periods of prosperity and of pain and persecution – one in which the state of the Jews under Islam was, in the words of Gilbert’s fellow British-Jewish historian Bernard Lewis, “never as bad as in Christendom at its worst, nor ever as good as in Christendom at its best” – it becomes more comprehensible.
Gilbert, 74, has authored more than 80 books, including the official biography of Winston Churchill, and is currently at work on a history of the Jews of Britain from the 11th century to the present.
The starting point for Gilbert in his work on the Jews in Muslim lands comes some 1,375 years before Amrozi’s Bali court outburst, back to when Muhammad’s army defeated the Jews of Khaibar.
The resonance of Khaibar, says Gilbert, is echoed to this day. The importance of the battle, he explains, was not merely that the Jews had been defeated – as this was neither the first nor the final battle that Muhammad fought with the Jews in the Arabian peninsula. It stands out, rather, because following the battle, certain conditions were imposed upon the defeated Jewish tribes which were to become the basis of what would be called the dhimmi status for Jews and Christians, and in India eventually of Hindus under Muslim rule.
The Jews of Khaibar, Gilbert notes, were allowed to tend what remained of their date palms, and they were granted permission to continue to practice their faith. But in return for their being allowed to remain in peace they were required to give up 50 percent of their harvest to the Muslims and the land itself would belong to the local Muslim communities. The central repressive aspect of the dhimmi condition, he explains, was the jizya poll tax, and this was clearly understood in Muslim tradition to have begun with the Jews of Khaibar.
In an e-mail exchange with Gilbert that took place after his return to London, where he has been engaged in the Chilicot Inquiry into the Iraq War, I asked him why he had chosen to begin his talk with the case of the Bali bomber and whether he saw Jewish- Muslim relations as eternally marked by that initial encounter and by the shadow of dhimmitude.
Gilbert referred me to the dedication to his book, saying that it was one of optimism. He added that “although the ‘mark’ of dhimmitude is clearly there today in many Muslim minds, I cannot believe that anything like that is necessarily eternal – if people can be found on both sides willing to work to moderate and erase it.”
Asked how the concept of dhimmitude projects on the ability of the Arab nations to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, Gilbert goes back to the Emir Feisal, the son of the grand sharif of Mecca, and later the king of Iraq, who in 1919 signed an agreement with Chaim Weizmann “welcoming the Jews to their national home in Palestine.”
Feisal would also write to the American Zionist leader Felix Frankfurter stating: “We Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement... We will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home.”
“Feisal,” says Gilbert, “could become a model for Arab nations to follow his lead. He was, after all, the ultimate Arab patriot and nationalist. His attitude to Zionism was modern and pragmatic, not linked to an ancient concept of second-class citizenship.”
BUT IF there is one figure who, for Gilbert, perhaps sums up the vagaries of the Jewish experience under Muslim rule, it is Maimonides, the great philosopher and physician of the Middle Ages.
First of all, Gilbert explains, Maimonides fled ferocious persecution of the Jews by the Almohads in Spain, where his teacher had been among those butchered. Then, after finding sanctuary in Fez in Morocco, he was forced to convert to Islam under an obligation enforced shortly after his arrival on all Jews. Later he was arrested by the Muslim authorities on a charge of relapsing into Judaism, an accusation he would only escape when a Muslim friend attested to his good Muslim character.
Maimonides, Gilbert continues, then managed to leave Fez and make his way to Egypt, where he became the leader of the Jewish community, highly regarded by the local Muslim authorities to whom he became a leading adviser on both medical and ethical questions.
Yet, Gilbert relates, in a letter to the oppressed Jews of Yemen, who had asked for his advice on how to deal with the threat of persecution and forced conversion, Maimonides wrote: “No nation has ever done more harm to Israel than Ishmael. None has matched it in debating and humiliating us. None has been able to reduce us as they have.”
Maimonides, says Gilbert, understood what the extremes of persecution could be, yet he was able himself to lead his Jewish community to a time of considerable prosperity and acceptance by the local Muslim rulers.
Explaining the experience of Maimonides, Gilbert says: “One of the themes that emerges from my work and that of many scholars is that there always were Muslim rulers who were tolerant and more than tolerant of the Jews and understood what the Jews could contribute to their societies. But any ruler who cared to fall back on the tenets of Islam could simply end that tolerance overnight.”
GILBERT PRESENTS what can only be described as a shocking litany of horrors endured by Jews in Muslim lands, yet when asked how that history resonates for relations between Israel and Arab countries and how he would respond to criticism that his work overly focuses on that aspect, he replies that he also shows the long periods of “cooperation and calm, when Jews and Muslims found common cause and mutual and beneficial respect.”
Responding to a question put by a member of the audience on what can be learned about the future of Arab-Jewish relations – whether it is the history of persecution or the history of tolerance and cooperation that will prevail – Gilbert quotes Churchill: “The future, though imminent, is obscure.”
He concludes his history by expressing a hope that it will “promote a better understanding of the past, and help to make possible a future that emulates only the best aspects of the past.”
Is he optimistic that in the foreseeable future, given the current climate, that can be the case? “The current climate can surely change, hopefully in the foreseeable future. One can but hope – and pray,” he replies. “Both Jews and Muslims must try to set aside any instinct to racism and rejection of each other as suitable partners that sometimes clouds discourse, and work for a common platform – and a common cause: the well-being of mankind, of which both are an integral part.”