Islamic Anti-Semitism

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Islamic Anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism became in the late twentieth century an integral part of Islamic and, particularly, Arab cultural discourse. Like other modern intellectual and political movements, such as nationalism, socialism, and fascism, anti-Semitism is a European import of fairly recent vintage into the Muslim world.

Traditional Islamic Attitudes

As in the case of Christianity, fundamental Islamic attitudes toward Jews and Judaism go back to the historical circumstances surrounding the founding of the new faith and are sanctioned by scripture and tradition. Jews figure into traditional Islam's theological worldview, and Jews lived as a subject population under Muslim rule, sometimes under better, sometimes under worse conditions. However, because Islam did not begin as a sect within Judaism or claim to be verus Israel (or the "true" Israel), as did Christianity, the Koran and later theological writings (with the exception of the Sira, or canonical biography of the Prophet Muhammad) do not exhibit anything comparable to the overwhelming preoccupation with the Jews that one finds in the New Testament, patristic literature, and later Christian theological writings.

Traditional Islamic thought had its own store of negative stereotypes of Jews. According to the Koran (Sura 2:61), "wretchedness and baseness were stamped upon them, and they were visited with wrath from Allah." The Koran, exegetical, and hagiographic literature brand the Jews of Medina as having been the principal opponents of the Prophet along with the idolaters and as a treacherous lot. But they were also people who had received a genuine divine revelation, like the Christians and Zoroastrians, and like the latter deserved tolerance as long as they accepted the status of humble tributary dhimmis ("protected peoples"). Though the image of Jews was on the whole even more negative and condescending than that of Christians, they shared the same legal status within the traditional Islamic social system, and throughout most of the fourteen hundred years of Islamic history were rarely singled out for greater discrimination than other non-Muslims. The relatively rare instances of specifically anti-Jewish violence often occurred when a Jew was perceived to have egregiously transgressed the boundaries of proper conduct by rising too high in the bureaucracy. Anti-Jewish rioting only became a more frequent phenomenon in the twentieth century in the Arab parts of the Muslim world with the anti-Jewish sentiments generated by Zionism and European colonialism.

Introduction of European Anti-Semitic Ideas
in the Nineteenth Century

Modern anti-Semitic ideas made their first appearance in the Middle East among the Arabic-speaking Christians of Syria, who maintained commercial, educational, and cultural ties with the European nations making ever stronger inroads into the region during the nineteenth century. French merchants and missionaries seem to have played a principal role in this process. The classic European notion of the blood libel gained widespread circulation in the Levant after the notorious Damascus Affair of 1840 when the French consul, Count Benoît Ulysse de Ratti-Menton, accused the Damascene Jewish community of having kidnapped and murdered a Capuchin friar for the Passover ritual. The case became an international cause célèbre, and for several months Ratti-Menton received support from the local Muslim authorities. The memory of the Damascus Affair was preserved by local Christians, but for a long time thereafter, anti-Semitic ideas, whether of the medieval or modern, post-Enlightenment varieties, made little or no headway among the vast majority of Arab and non-Arab Muslims. Anti-Semitic articles appeared occasionally in the late-nineteenth-century Syrian and Egyptian Arabic press in which Christians were prominent. Arabic anti-Semitic books and pamphlets also made their appearance at this time. Again, these were mainly by Christian authors and were frequently translations or adaptations of European works such as August Rohling's The Talmudic Jew, which was published in Egypt in 1899 under the title al-Kanz al-Marsud fi Qawàid al-Talmud (The guarded treasure of the principles of the Talmud). These early works laid the foundations for a very extensive literature in the twentieth century when the attitudes of the Muslim majority toward Jews became radically altered. Rohling's The Talmudic Jew has enjoyed enduring popularity in Arabic, has been reprinted a number of times, and has inspired numerous other books, as for example, Muhammad abri's al-Talmud: Shari'at al-Yahud (The Talmud: The religious law of the Jews).

Evolution of Islamic Anti-Semitism
in the Twentieth Century

The Axis gained widespread sympathy in the Islamic world during the 1930s and 1940s because they were the enemies of the Western colonial powers and Western democratic values. Turkish, Arab, and Iranian nationalists admired German militarism. Nazi and Fascist propaganda helped familiarize educated Muslims with the vocabulary of modern anti-Semitism. Mein Kampf appeared in an Arabic translation in 1935 with its anti-Arab statements expunged. However, most of the Arabic literature that imitates Nazi Jew-baiting tracts dates from the postwar period.

No work has had a more profound impact upon modern Muslim anti-Semitism than the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, written in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century for the tsarist secret police and allegedly the secret minutes of a Jewish conspiracy for world domination. Although it was already being cited by Arab nationalists in Iraq and Palestine in the early 1920s, the complete text first appeared in Cairo in 1925 as Mu'amarat al-yahudiyya 'ala'l-Shu'ub (The Jewish conspiracy against the nations), translated by Antun Yamin, a Lebanese Maronite. This was the first of a long line of Arabic editions and translations, and the book has been a continual bestseller throughout the entire Arab and Muslim world. The Protocols have been quoted, praised, and recommended by politicians, academics, and religious leaders. The principal idea of the Protocols about an international Zionist-Jewish conspiracy is repeated in everything from television series to religious literature and has become a fundamental tenet of the Islamic fundamentalist worldview, both Sunni and Shiite. Ayatollah Khomeini, for example, writes in his Vilayet-i Faqih: Hokumati Islami (1971; The trusteeship of the jurisconsult: Islamic governance) that the true aim of the Jews "is to establish a world Jewish government." This and other notions from the Protocols may be found in the writings of Moroccan Islamist Sheikh Abdessalam Yassine, the Tunisian theologian Rached Ghannouchi, and in the publications of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hizbollah, al-Jama'a al-Islamiyya, and Al Qaeda.

Contemporary Islamists cite proof texts from the Koran and hadith to corroborate the Protocols. The widely disseminated writings of the Egyptian philosopher Sayyid Qub probably played an influential role in the spread of this harmonization of the Protocols and Islamic traditional texts.

The numerous humiliating defeats of Arab armies at the hands of tiny Israel, the strong relationship between the Jewish State and the United States, and the general social, technological, and political weakness of the Islamic world as a whole, despite the great oil wealth of some Islamic nations, have all contributed to the credence given by many Muslims to the notion of the invisible hand of a Zionist-Jewish cabal as depicted in the Protocols.

Though less a general belief among contemporary Muslims than the Jewish conspiracy for world domination, the blood libel has come to have wide circulation in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, especially in the Arab world. Even ostensibly scholarly treatments of Judaism such as 'Ala 'Abd al-Wahid Wafi's al-Yahudiyya wa'l-Yahud (1970; Judaism and the Jews) and Hasan Zaza in his al-Fikr al-Dini al-Isra'ili: Atwaruhu wa Madhahibuhu (1971; Israelite religious thought: Its phases and schools) present the blood libel as fact. Zaza devotes a learned discussion to the blood libel observing that such a practice is forbidden by Jewish law, but then notes that the accusation has followed the Jews throughout history, that people often act contrarily to their religious teachings, and finally cites the confessions of one of the accused murderers in the Damascus Affair as proof of the veracity of charge. Blood libel stories appear from time to time in the mainstream Arabic press as both features and news items. Syrian defense minister Mustafa Tlas has written one of the best selling books promoting the blood libel, Fatir Sahyun (The matzah of Zion). The book went into eight editions between 1983 and 2002, with the last alone selling over twenty thousand copies. As with the conspiracy of the Protocols, blood libel stories have been featured in Arabic television dramatizations during the nights of Ramadan in 2003.

See also Anti-Semitism: Overview ; Fundamentalism ; Jihad ; Law, Islamic .


Kepel, Gilles. Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and Pharoah. Translated by Jon Rothschild. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985.

Lewis, Bernard, Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice. New York and London: Norton, 1986.

Stillman, Norman A. "Antisemitism in the Contemporary Arab World." In Antisemitism in the Contemporary World, edited by Michael Curtis. Boulder, Colo., and London: Westview Press, 1986.

. The Jews of Arab Lands: A History and Source Book. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1979.

. The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1991.

Norman A. Stillman

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Islamic Anti-Semitism

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Islamic Anti-Semitism