Dispelling modern myths of Muslim anti-Semitism

An academic chapter about the history of Muslim relations with Jews provides a refreshing rejoinder to the tired assumption that Muslim society and culture are fundamentally anti-Semitic. In this post, I am hosting a short comment by the author, explaining his argument.

By Mark R. Cohen

On one of my many trips to Israel, in January 2012, words spoken at the celebration of the founding of the PLO in Ramallah were disseminated far and wide via the Internet by Palestine Media Watch, shocking many in and outside of the country. Introducing the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, one of the officials referred to the “enemy” (Israel) as “apes and pigs,” quoting a famous verse from the Qur’an according to which God, through His prophet Muhammad, censures the “Sabbath breakers” for violating (Jewish) law and condemns them to be transformed into “apes and pigs.” In his own speech, the Mufti quoted an equally famous Islamic hadith: “’The Hour (of Divine Judgment and Resurrection) will not come until you fight the Jews. The Jews will hide behind rocks or trees. Then the rocks or trees will call out: ‘Oh Muslim, Oh servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him; except for the Gharqad tree, which is the friend of the Jews.’ Therefore it is no wonder that you see Gharqad trees surrounding the Israeli settlements and colonies.” This hadith, with its anti-Semitic overtones, is famously quoted in the Hamas “Platform” as license to kill Jews.

Anti-Semitism in the contemporary Muslim world is real. It pervades the media in the very countries that are most inimical to Israel. It appears in political speeches, in cartoons, in the press and on Middle Eastern radio and television. It resonates all too familiarly with the anti-Semitism that fueled the Holocaust.

For a people who have suffered the consequences of anti-Semitism since the Christian Middle Ages, culminating in the Nazi Holocaust, such expressions of anti-Jewish hatred in the Muslim world, side-by-side with Islam’s version of Holocaust denial, militates against hopes for rapprochement, political or otherwise, with Israel’s Arab neighbors and strengthens politicians’ resolve to resist statehood for the Palestinians.

Where does contemporary Muslim anti-Semitism come from? Does it stem from the Qur’an and other foundational Islamic texts? Is it endemic to Islam? Is it therefore ineradicable? Many, especially Jews, and especially Israeli Jews, believe this to be true.

Or is this anti-Semitism new, originating in Western (Christian) Jew-hatred that arrived in the Middle East on the heels of colonialism, and later became clothed in Islamic garb? And, if so, has this Muslim anti-Semitism somehow been enflamed by the rise of Zionism and the conflict with Israel?

The claim that Jews lived under Muslim rule in the past much as they had under Christendom — in a state of abject misery, relentlessly humiliated and even persecuted — does not stand up to scrutiny. In an essay for a volume edited by Israeli Middle East expert Moshe Ma’oz, entitled Muslim Attitudes to Jews and Israel: The Ambivalences of Rejection, Antagonism, Tolerance and Cooperation (Sussex University Press, 2010), I refute that approach. Building on the arguments in my book, Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages (also published in Hebrew with the title, Be-tzel ha-sahar veha-tzlav (Zmora/Bitan-Dvir, 2001), this essay “Modern Myths of Muslim Anti-Semitism,” from  the Ma’oz volume (linked here with the permission of the publisher, or in Hebrew), explains the relatively decent relations between Muslims and Jews under Islamic rule, and attributes modern Muslim anti-Semitism to just that: modernity, rather than inherent features of Islam.

Mark R. Cohen is the Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East at Princeton University.