WASHINGTON, June 4, 2014 — An ad featured on 20 public buses in Washington, D.C., proclaims: “Islamic Jew-Hatred: It’s In The Quran.” Also featured is a picture of Hitler shaking the hands of Hajj Amin El-Husseini, the World War II era mufti of Jerusalem.
The ad, which will soon be on buses in other cities, calls for an end to all U.S. aid to Muslim countries to “stop racism.”
The group responsible for this ad is called The American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) and is run by Pamela Geller. It has been identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit organization that tracks hate groups. Geller was banned from entering Britain to attend a far-right rally last year.
Geller and her group misread the history of relations between Jews and Muslims almost completely, purposely confusing the dispute between Israel and Palestinians at the present time with an ancient enmity between Jews and Muslims, which is a-historic.
In fact, while Jews suffered pogroms and persecution in medieval Christian Europe, they lived and thrived peacefully in Muslim countries.
When Jews were expelled from Christian Spain in 1492, they were welcomed into the Ottoman Empire by its Muslim rulers. Indeed, some of the most peaceful and creative eras in Jewish history took place in the Muslim world.
From the 10th to the 14th centuries, Jews flourished in Islamic countries: in Spain, Persia, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. While the Jewish communities in Christian Europe were being oppressed, Jews in these Muslim countries enjoyed freedom and security.
This does not mean that there were no problems for Jews in Muslim societies. As “dhimmi” or “protected” citizens, Jews and Christians were, from the age of 9 and without exception, expected to pay a yearly poll tax. And there were occasional periods when the dhimmi were persecuted. Still, compared with their treatment in Europe, life for Jews in the Muslim world was largely peaceful.
In her book, “The Ornament of the World,” Professor Maria Rosa Menocal of Yale University explores the history of Jews under Muslim rule in Spain. “Throughout most of the invigorated peninsula, Arabic was adopted as the ultimate in classiness and distinction by the communities of the other two faiths.
“The new Islamic polity not only allowed Jews and Christians to survive but, following the Qur’anic mandate, by and large protected them and both the Jewish and Christian communities in al-Andalus became thoroughly Arabized within relatively few years of Abd-al-Rahman’s arrival in Cordoba … In principle, all Islamic polities were (and are) required by.
“Qur’anic injunctions … to tolerate Christians and Jews living in their midst. But beyond that fundamental prescribed posture, al-Andalus was, from these beginnings the site of memorable and distinctive interfaith relations. Here the Jewish community rose from the ashes of an abysmal existence under the Visigoths to the point that the emir who proclaimed himself caliph in the 10th century had a Jew as foreign minister.”
Living in the heart of the Arab world, Jews first served their apprenticeship in the sciences with Islamic intellectual masters and, in time, became their collaborators in developing the general culture of the region. A striking example of this breadth of interest was Maimonides (Rabbi Moses Ben Maimonides, 1135-1204), a native of Cordoba. What chiefly characterized Jewish thought in this period was its search for unity — the attempt to reconcile faith with reason, theology and philosophy, the acceptance of authority with freedom of inquiry. In Arab countries in the Near East and North Africa, where there existed this free intermingling of cultures, there blossomed a rich and unique Jewish intellectuality in Arabic.
In Spain under the Christian Visigoths, Jews were often beaten and executed. Throughout the 7th century, they were subjected to ruinous taxes and often were forced to convert to Christianity. With the Moslem invasion of Spain in 711, Jews participated in Moslem success. They were called upon to garrison captured cities behind Arab armies. This occurred in Cordoba, Grenada, Toledo and Seville.
Later Arab geographers referred to Grenada, as well as Lucena and Tarragona, as “Jewish cities.”
Cordoba became the leading center of Jewish culture in the world. During the reign of the Ummayid caliph Abd al-Rahman III (912-61), his Jewish doctor, Hisdai ib Shaprut, brought Jewish philosophers, scholars, poets and scientists to the city. Many compared the rapport the Jewish community established with the liberal caliphs to the age of Cyrus.
In her book, “The Jews of Spain,” Jane S. Gerber writes that, “Judaism flourished in an unusual, indeed unique, environment as one component of the medieval Iberian scene that included Muslims and Christians. It was precisely because of this interaction that special sparks and creative energies were generated. In all of medieval Europe, only in Spain were Jews not the sole minority in a homogeneous Christian state. Consequently, Jews experienced two overlords on one soil as Iberia remained home to all three faiths from 711 to 1492 … A Jewish culture that did not adapt to new waves of thought would have become frozen in an ancient mold. To a large extent, then, the story of Jewish history is the story of creative cultural adaptation, and nowhere was this process more thoroughgoing than in Spain.”
After their expulsion from Spain, Gerber notes, Jews were welcomed into the Ottoman Empire. “In the 15th and 16th centuries … it was the Ottoman Empire, then at the zenith of her power, that alone afforded exiles a place where ‘their weary feet could find rest’ … Her sultans, Bayezid II, Mehmet II, Suleiman the Magnificent, were dynamic, far-sighted rulers who were delighted to receive the talented outcasts of Europe … Bayezid II, responding to the expulsions from Spain, reportedly exclaimed, ‘You call Ferdinand a wise king, who impoverishes his country and enriches our own.’ He not only welcomed Sephardic exiles but ordered his provincial government to assist the wanderers by opening the borders. Indeed, the refugees would find the Ottoman state to be powerful, generous and tolerant.”
Also largely unknown is the role Moslems played in assisting Jews during the Nazi-occupation of North Africa and in Nazi-occupied Europe. Part of this story is told in the book “Among The Righteous” by Robert Satloff. In Algeria, when the French Vichy regime stripped citizenship from Jews, one of the main sources of support for Algerian Jews came from the Muslim religious establishment.
“Here,” states Satloff, “the shining star was Abdel amid Ben Badis, leader of Algeria’s Isla (Reform) Party, Ben Badis was an immensely devout man with a modest, open, tolerant view of the world; among his many achievements was the founding of the Algerian League of Muslims and Jews. Regrettably, he died in spring 1940, before he could lend his personal strength and charisma to the Muslim response to Vichy’s coming to power.”
During the Vichy era that mantle was worn by Saykj Taleb el-Okbi. Like Ben Badis he was a reformist leader who cultivated close ties with the leading Jews of Algeria. El Okbi showed his mettle in early 1942, reports Satloff, “When he heard rumors that leaders of a French pro-Fascist group … were prodding Muslim troops to launch a pogrom against the Jews of Algiers, el-Okbi did all he could to prevent it, including a formal prohibition of Muslims from attacking Jews.”
In Tunisia, Prime Minister Mohamed Chenik, with longstanding ties to the Jewish community, regularly warned Jewish leaders of German plans, helped Jews avoid arrest orders, intervened to prevent deportations, and even hid individual Jews so they could evade a German dragnet. Even members of the royal court hid Jews who had escaped from German labor camps.
It was not only in North Africa that Moslems saved Jews. The head of the most important Muslim institution in Europe, the Great Mosque of Paris, was Si Kaddour Benghabrit. According to Albert Assouline, a North African Jew captive in a German prison camp, he, along with an Algerian named Yassa Rabah, escaped together from the camp and stealthily traversed the countryside across the French-German border heading for Paris. Once in Paris, they made their way to the mosque where the two found refuge. Assouline reported that the mosque provided sanctuary and sustenance to many Jews hiding from the Vichy and German troops.
A 1983 article in Almanach due Combattant, a French veterans’ magazine, reported that more than 1,732 Jews and resistance fighters found refuge in the mosque’s underground caverns. Many Jews were provided with certificates of Muslim identity. In Satloff’s view, “Assouline’s stunning story described the mosque as a virtual Grand Central Station for the Underground Railroad of Jews in France.”
Books have been filled with the history of cordial relations between Moslems and Jews over the centuries, books Pamela Geller and those who finance her hate-filled ads have never read. The current impasse between Israel and the Palestinians is a political dispute. To transform it into a conflict with Islam is to distort and misread history.
For Jews, who have been the victims of so much religious persecution, to demonize Islam is sad indeed. It provides men and women of good will, however, with an opportunity to learn the real history of relations between Muslims and Jews, which is far more hopeful and positive than is widely known.