For Israelis, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan has been accompanied by a wave of terror attacks. Although not a requisite theological element in Islam, the synthesis of Muslim religious fervor with anti-Israel and antisemitic violence is sadly nothing new.
Back in the early 1930s the Islamic revivalist preacher Izz ad-Din al-Qassam led hundreds of guerrillas who attacked Jewish targets across Mandatory Palestine. Upon his death in 1935, Qassam was immediately declared a martyr. Decades later, Hamas named its military wing and its self-produced short-range rockets after him.
Better known from that period was Amin al-Husseini who reached the pinnacle of the Palestinian national movement by exploiting his clerical authority as Jerusalem’s grand mufti. Husseini’s mix of religious and nationalist militancy led him to reject any compromise with the Jews, with neither partition nor binational solutions being acceptable.
In advancing his goals Husseini found common cause with Nazi Germany. It wasn’t just that he aligned himself with the Mandatory power’s Axis enemy, but Husseini wholeheartedly embraced Hitler’s “final solution.” From Berlin, he broadcast Nazi propaganda to the Middle East, simultaneously recruiting Bosnian Muslims to the Waffen-SS. He died in Beirut in 1974, but Husseini’s brand of antisemitism lives on.
Hamas’s combination of fundamentalism, ultra-nationalism and antisemitism can be seen as a contemporary expression of this legacy. The self-proclaimed Islamic resistance holds that “there is no solution for the Palestinian question except through jihad,” and that it is the obligation of every Muslim to participate in a holy war where all Jews are legitimate targets. Echoing recognizable tropes, Hamas endorses theories of Jewish malevolence, Jewish mendacity and Jewish conspiracy.
Regrettably, this sort of bigotry is found today in the Palestinian Authority, at varying levels of intensity across the greater Sunni Muslim world, and in Shia Islam where it is actively propagated by the Iranian regime and its proxy Hezbollah. Muslim communities across the West are also not immune.
It has been suggested that this Muslim antisemitism is an aberration, the exception to centuries of peaceful Jewish-Muslim coexistence, and that this contemporary animosity stems from the modern clash between Arab nationalism and Zionism.
In this view, it was the birth and growth of the Jewish national movement that energized Islamic enmity, fueling events like the Farhud pogrom in Bagdad in 1941 where some 180 Jews were killed, and the violence across Libya in 1945, where a further 140 Jews were murdered.
Moreover, the post-World War II near-total exodus of the Islamic world’s one million Jewish inhabitants, involving the destruction of indigenous Jewish communities whose presence in the Middle East predated Islam, is explained not by the antisemitism disseminated by Husseini and his ilk, but by the Arab world’s failed attempt to destroy the Jewish state at birth in 1948-49.
THOSE WHO celebrate pre-Zionist Jewish-Muslim harmony point to Spain in the Middle Ages, where Muslim control facilitated a Jewish “golden age” of intellectual, cultural and economic vitality. This is contrasted with the parallel reality in Christian Europe, where the omnipresent charge of deicide demanded constant retribution – manifesting itself ferociously during the Crusades with the mass slaughter of European Jewish communities, and the massacre, expulsion and Inquisition that followed the Reconquista, the reestablishment of Christian rule in Spain.
But just as it is important not to understate Christian antisemitism, it is crucial not to overplay Muslim tolerance. Middle East historian Bernard Lewis suggested distinguishing between two concepts: persecution and discrimination.
In reference to the former, Lewis wrote that “classic Islamic society was indeed tolerant of both its Jewish and Christian subjects – more tolerant perhaps in Spain than in the East, and in either incomparably more tolerant than was medieval Christendom.”
Yet when it came to discrimination, “Islam never was or claimed to be tolerant, but on the contrary, insisted on the privileged superiority of the true believer.”
While acknowledging that antisemitic violence in the Islamic world was less pronounced than in Christian Europe, it is incorrect to portray an idyllic picture of Jewish-Muslim relations. Jews under Islam were classified as dhimmis, and although their lives and property were ostensibly safeguarded, that protection necessitated a subordinate status – an inbuilt social, political and legal inferiority.
Many of today’s anti-Zionists will be surprised to learn that discrimination of Jews under Islamic rule was recorded by none other than Karl Marx. Writing in 1854, some half-century prior to the rise of political Zionism, Marx described the situation of Jerusalem’s Jews under Ottoman rule: “Nothing equals the misery and the suffering of the Jews of Jerusalem, inhabiting the most filthy quarter of the town… [They are] the constant objects of oppression and intolerance…”
In the decades following Marx’s article, the situation of Jews in the Middle East improved with the lessening of historic dhimmi discrimination. But as this process was inspired by liberal European ideas, it brought with it an anti-Jewish backlash, heightening the association of the indigenous Jew with the hated foreigner.
Paradoxically, many Muslims who rejected western influence still eagerly embraced European antisemitic tropes, including the blood libel, most famously in Damascus in 1840, and the global Jewish conspiracy, evident in numerous Arabic editions of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Undoubtedly the birth and development of Zionism contributed to Islamic hostility, building upon long-standing prejudicial attitudes. For while traditional Islam was willing to tolerate Jews whose status was safely inferior, Jewish aspirations for national self-determination and equality among the nations ran counter to centuries of established Islamic teaching.
While serving as Israel’s ambassador in London I experienced my first Ramadan breaking-the-fast iftar meal. Jewish-Muslim coexistence groups promote joint iftar events, but generally the subject of Israel is politely left at the doorstep, it being understood that a discussion of the Jewish state could negatively impact the desired ambiance. Yet, the Israeli embassy also hosted an annual iftar meal, attended by a small group of remarkable Muslims willing to engage.
Recent developments provide some optimism as to the trajectory of Jewish-Muslim relations. The Abraham Accords’ breakthroughs are significant and include a state-to-state interfaith and intercultural dialogue designed to enhance understanding. And in Israel, MK Mansour Abbas is breaking stereotypes, demonstrating that political Islam doesn’t have to be the Muslim Brotherhood’s unbridled hostility.
Genuine Muslim-Jewish coexistence is neither simple nor impossible, requiring the expansion of Islam’s commitment to tolerance to include an appreciation of the Jews’ desire not to revert to their former subservient status.
The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is a senior visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. Follow him at @MarkRegev on Twitter.