The story of the creation of the modern State of Israel is unique. The Jewish people, dispersed in exile for almost 2000 years – and persecuted in almost every generation as strangers and outsiders – return to join the communities of Jews still living in their ancient homeland, the communities who represent the unbroken thread of Jewish tenure in the land.
The returning Jews are not welcomed home. For the Arab people, the existence of Israel is an illegitimate enterprise, characterised by them as a “colonialist-settler state” and fiercely resisted from its inception.
Yet encounters between Jews and Arabs date back to pre-Islamic times. For example, in Spain, where Jews had lived for centuries, the Christian Visigoth kings were harsh and merciless towards them. When the Muslims arrived in the Iberian Peninsula early in the eighth century, they gave the Jews of Spain not only relief from their oppressors but – in the words of Isodore Epstein – “also encouraged among them a culture which in riches and depth is comparable to the best produced by any people at any time”.
The Jews of Muslim Spain – like the Babylonian Jews before them – were able to embark on a great enterprise, namely to define and describe Judaism with a clarity and force otherwise unknown in the history of the Jewish people.
The durable nature of the Jewish-Muslim encounter in Spain, North Africa, Egypt and the lands of the Arab east has been attested to by many scholars and orientalists. Professor Hava Lazarus-Yafe of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, has made the point that the encounter between Jews and Muslims mainly to the long and fruitful encounter between Jewry and the civilisation and culture of the west, in central and Eastern Europe in the 19th century and in the USA in our own day.
An idea of the intellectual fertility which characterised the period of Arab-Jewish cultural interaction during the Middle Ages and its lasting significance for Jewish thought may be gleaned from the fact that, in the mid-1960s, the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot offered its readers what it called ‘The Treasury of Jewish Thought’. This anthology included six major works of Jewish philosophy, all written in Spain between the years 1050 and 1428, and all but one in Arabic. Although it may be somewhat exaggerated to present these works as the ultimate treasury of Jewish thought, they remain the most representative body of philosophical and speculative work from a period justly considered the most fruitful and creative in Jewry’s long history. The Treasury included works by Solomon ibn Gabirol, Bahya ibn Pakuda, Judah Halevi, Maimonides and Joseph Albo.
The theological and philosophical work of Moshe Ben Maimon, (Moses Maimonides or the Rambam), the greatest Hebrew medieval philosopher, is universally acknowledged as representing the crowning achievement of the great epoch of Jewish-Arab symbiosis in the Middle-Ages. After his death, religious philosophical thinking in general, and Jewish philosophy in particular, were reduced to something in the nature of a commentary on his work. His monumental work Moreh Nevukhim (‘The Guide for the Perplexed’) practically closed the circle of philosophical speculations and reflection. The problems posed by Maimonides in this work were taken up again and again by his successors, who like him, sought to establish the unity of religion and philosophy, though not always along the same lines. This process, which continued for three centuries, was entirely dominated by Maimonides and his work. According to Professor Julius Guttmann, Maimonides’ work “not only laid the foundation for subsequent philosophic inquiries, but actually influenced them by its continued vitality and immediate relevance”.
Maimonides’ influence extended beyond Judaism. The founders of Christian Aristotelianism, Albertus Magnus and St Thomas Aquinas, found that he had shown the way to a system of theistic Aristotelianism, and traces of his influence upon Christian philosophy can be followed right into the first centuries of the modern era.
The relationship however has been problematic throughout history. When Jews were perceived as having achieved too comfortable a position in Islamic society, antisemitism would surface, often with devastating results. On 30 December 1066, Joseph HaNagid, the Jewish vizier of Granada, Spain, was crucified by an Arab mob that proceeded to raze the Jewish quarter of the city and slaughter its 5000 inhabitants. Muslim preachers who had angrily objected to what they saw as inordinate Jewish political power incited the riot.
Similarly, in 1465, Arab mobs in Fez slaughtered thousands of Jews, leaving only 11 alive, after a Jewish deputy vizier treated a Muslim woman in “an offensive manner”. The killings touched off a wave of similar massacres throughout Morrocco. And, in the 20th century, Arab leaders have repeatedly made clear their animosity toward Jews and Judaism. For example, on 23 November 1937, Saudi Arabia’s King Ibn Saud told British Colonel HRP Dickson:
“Our hatred for the Jews dates from God’s condemnation of them for their persecution and rejection of Isa (Jesus) and their subsequent rejection of His chosen Prophet.”
“that for a Muslim to kill a Jew, or for him to be killed by a Jew ensures him an immediate entry into Heaven and into the august presence of God Almighty”.
Jews have not been permitted to live in Jordan. Civil Law No. 6, which governed the Jordanian-occupied West Bank, states explicitly: “Any man will be a Jordanian subject if he is not Jewish.” The problem is more widespread than any short article can describe. An example appeared in the Washington Post (8 May 2001) as follows:
“Syrian President Bashar Assad on Saturday, 5 May, 2001 offered a vivid, if vile, demonstration of why he and his government are unworthy of respect or good relations with at the United States or any other democratic country. Greeting Pope John Paul II in Damascus, Mr Assad launched an attack on Jews that may rank as the most ignorant and crude speech delivered before the pope in his two decades of travel around the world. Comparing the suffering of the Palestinians to that of Jesus Christ, Mr Assad said that the Jews ‘tried to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality in which they betrayed Jesus Christ and the same way they tried to betray and kill the Prophet Muhammad.’ With that libel, the Syrian president stained both his country and the Pope …”
In August 2001, the United Nations-hosted World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, held in Durban. The Arab Lawyers’ Union handed conference delegates a cartoon equating the Star of David with the swastika.
Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel wrote as follows in Yediot Aharonot on 5 September 2001:
“The conference in Durban will go down in history as an enterprise of disgrace. Instead of being an important international conference that expresses goodwill, the conference has been turned into a circus of calumny. What is painful is not that the Palestinians and the Arabs voiced their hatred, but the fact that so few delegates had the courage to combat them. It is as if in a strange and frightening moment of collective catharsis, everyone removed their masks and revealed their true faces.”