Friday, August 14, 2009

The forgotten oppression of Jews under Islam and in The Land of Israel. Part I


by Elliott A. Green


1st part of 2

Jews and Zionists are generally and deplorably unaware of conditions for Jews in the Land of Israel after the Arab Conquest [634-640 CE]. Many believe that Arab-Muslim rule was benign for the Jews, not merely compared with conditions in Christian lands. Further, many used to believe even a few decades ago that the conflict with the Arabs over the Land of Israel was strictly a matter of competing nationalisms. However, since the relatively unsuccessful 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York by jihad fanatics, the informed public in the West has become more aware of the powerful Muslim religious dimension in Arab politics.

This understanding has been reinforced by the Hamas' rise among Palestinian Arabs. The Hamas is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its charter is clearly a Judeophobic document, drawing on medieval Judeophobic Muslim sources. It is not merely anti-Israel. Article 7 of the Hamas charter repeats the medieval Muslim fable about the Jews at the End of Days, which I summarize:

At Judgement Day, the Muslims will fight the Jews who will hide behind rocks and trees. The rocks and trees will cry out: O Muslim, a Jew is hiding behind me. Come kill him.


This article aims to first sketch the status of non-Muslims — called dhimmis — in Islamic society, trying to define the nature of Muslim tolerance. Then we will cite an account by a medieval Jew of the Jews' condition in medieval Islamic society. We will also give a famous medieval Jew's opinion comparing the Jews' status in Islam with that in Christendom. Lastly, we will show that within the context of dhimmitude, of dhimmi status, which Jews shared with Christians and other non-Muslims, the Jews were in fact at the bottom of the social barrel, low man on Arab-Islamic society's totem pole, and in Jerusalem as elsewhere.

Books, articles and document collections by Bat Ye'or, Norman Stillman and others, have done much since the early 1970s to demonstrate the nature of the dhimmi status, the dhimma, for the intelligent reading public, and have highlighted the position of the Jews under Islam. In addition, recent decades have seen a broad stream of information about Islam become more available to the general educated public, although Muslim apologetics have flourished as well, perhaps even more so. Christians, Jews (including Samaritans), and Zoroastrians were subject to the dhimma in Middle Eastern countries, and this status was later extended to Hindus farther east.

Tolerated non-Muslims in lands conquered by Islam — dhimmis — were required to pay tribute, the jizya, either personally or through their religious-ethnic community. The grounds for this in Islamic law are found in the Quran [sura 9:29i]. The jizya can be considered a license to live for another year until the time comes for the next payment. Qur'an 9:29 and 2:61 also require that non-Muslims, specifically Jews and Christians, People of the Book, are to be "brought low," that is, humiliated. Islamic society developed and refined these rules of dhimma over the centuries. These regulations stipulated that dhimmis could not bear arms. Their garments must differ from Muslim garments. They had to always show respect and deference for Muslims, such as dismounting from their donkeys when encountering a Muslim on the road. A dhimmi's testimony in court was worth half of a Muslim's testimony. This list is incomplete and, of course, the body of rules varied somewhat with time and place. Further, when Muslim states were weak, not all of the rules could be enforced. For instance, dhimmi mountaineers could often ignore many of the humiliations as long as they stayed away from Muslim cities. It is significant that the dhimmis' status tended to worsen over time as their proportion of the population decreased.

Here's an illustration of one of the dhimma humiliations as viewed by the Danish traveler, Carsten Niebuhr (1761-1762):

In Cairo, no Christian and no Jew can show himself mounted on a horse. They only ride donkeys and must get off as soon as they encounter an Egyptian, even the least important. The Egyptians never go about except on a horse, preceded by an insolent servant who, armed with a big club, warns the man on the donkey to show the obligatory marks of respect for his master, by crying out: "Infidel, get off! . . ."[2]

'Niebuhr visited Egypt almost four decades before Napoleon, which is significant, because the late Edward Said argued that similar reports made after Napoleon's Egyptian expedition were invalid since they were tainted with imperialism.

Moshe Gil found accounts — in the Cairo Geniza documents — of Jews in Jerusalem being squeezed to collect the jizya and other taxes in the pre-Crusades period. Here's one:[3]

. . . and the living man was made a guarantor for the dead, and he who stayed — for the one who ran away; afterwards they had to pay an additional tax. And if you saw who paid all those moneys you would have been startled, and lamented over them and say of them: Could such a large 'onesh [here meaning an irregular punitive tax or exaction] have come from those poor people?

Jacob Barna'i found records of the Jerusalem Jewish community for the late 18th century revealing a startlingly similar situation to that before the Crusades found by Gil. Not only did Jews pay jizya to the Ottoman state but a series of unofficial fees, taxes, exactions and mandatory bribes to local Muslim notables and strong men.[4]

Now, contrary to what many Jews and other people have believed, conditions in Muslim lands were often worse for Jews than in Christendom. At least this was the opinion of the great Jewish philosopher, Maimonides (1135-1204), who fled Spain due to persecution by a fanatical Muslim sect and ended up as a Jewish leader in Egypt and physician to the famous Sultan Saladin. He wrote in his famous Letter to Yemen:[5]

[as punishment] God has hurled us into the midst of this people, the Arabs, who have persecuted us severely, and passed baneful and discriminatory legislation against us... Never did a nation molest, degrade, debase, and hate us as much as they.

Maimonides was in correspondence with far flung Jews, from Europe to India, and knew of the conditions in the various places. Here he means that Islamic society treated Jews worse as a rule than did Christian society. The next question is whether Jewish and Christian dhimmis were equal in their inferiority in Islamic society, and if not, which were in the superior position.

Moshe Sharon, a respected Israeli historian of Islam, argues that the fact that the Qur'an singled them [Jews] out as the enemies of the Muslims in many ways institutionalized their inferior status in comparison to the Christians.[6]

The 9th century Muslim writer al-Jahiz claimed: "...the hearts of the Muslims are hardened toward the Jews but inclined toward the Christians."[7] He pointed out that "in his time the Christians were both socially and economically better off than the Jews."[8] He explained this by the political resistance of the Jews of Medina to Muhammad. Carlo Panella concluded: "The Jews were in the last place on the social scale..." in Muslim society.[9]

The Italian historian of Islam, Francesco Gabrieli, wrote that

"the name 'Yahudi' [=Jew] acquired on Muslim lips the same odor of hostile scorn for the Jews that the term 'Jew' had in the Western world, more hostile and scornful than that of the epithet 'Nasrani' [= Christian]."[10] het 'Nasrani' [= Christian]."[10]

Like al-Jahiz, Gabrieli and Panella explain this by the Muslim memory of the Medina Jews' political resistance to Muhammad.

This Jewish social inferiority is confirmed not only by the medieval Baghdadi Arab al-Jahiz but by a Turk quoted by Bernard Lewis. This 19th century Turk referred to some Greek Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman Empire who regretted the Ottoman equalizing reforms of the mid-19th century. This shows that Ottoman Christians considered their status superior to that of the Jews.

"... whereas in former times, in the Ottoman state, the communities were ranked, with the Muslims first, then the Greeks [Greek Orthodox], then the Armenians, then the Jews, now all of them were put on the same level. Some Greeks objected to this, saying: "The government has put us together with the Jews. We were content with the supremacy of Islam."[11]

A British envoy confirmed this ranking. Dr John Bowring was in Lebanon and SyriaIsrael's neighborhood — in the 1830s, shortly before the first of these Ottoman reforms (1839). Muhammad Ali of Egypt, who had wrested rule over the Levant from the Ottoman state at that time, had already introduced greater equality between Muslims and dhimmis in his domains. Bowring noted:

The Mussulmans. . . deeply deplore the loss of that sort of superiority which they all & individually exercised over & against the other sects. . . a Mussulman. . . believes and maintains that a Christian — & still more a Jew — is an inferior being to himself.[12] [emph. added]

And although the Jews' situation did improve somewhat under Muhammad Ali's rule in the Levant,

The condition of the Jews forms, perhaps, an exception [to the general improvement of non-Muslims] & cannot be said to have improved comparatively with that of the other Sects[13]

The above quotes and authorities sufficiently demonstrate that in general the Jews were at the bottom of the barrel in Arab-Muslim society. It would logically follow that Jews were also at the bottom of the barrel in Jerusalem under Muslim rule. Nevertheless, this should and can be demonstrated by sources.

Towards the end of Mamluk rule — which lasted from the Mongol withdrawal in 1260 to the Ottoman conquest in 1517 — a monk named Francesco Suriano lived in the Franciscan monastery in Jerusalem for some twenty-five years on and off. For six years he was Custos Terrae Sanctae or Guardian of the Holy Land for his order. That is, he was the highest ranking Western Christian official in the Land of Israel, charged by the pope with overseeing Roman Catholic interests in the Christian holy places and Church affairs in the country, and with helping Catholic pilgrims. He did not like Muslims but he did appreciate how they treated Jews. He described how they treated Jews in Jerusalem as follows:

"I wish you to know how these dogs of Jews are trampled upon, beaten and ill-treated, as they deserve, by every infidel nation, and this is the just decree of God. They live in this country in such subjection that words cannot describe it. . . there in Jerusalem, where they committed the sin for which they are dispersed throughout the world [i.e., the Crucifixion], they are by God more punished and afflicted than in any other part of the world. And over a long time I have witnessed that . . . No infidel [= Muslim] would touch with his hand a Jew lest he be contaminated but when they wish to beat them, they take off their shoes with which they strike them on the mustaches; the greatest wrong and insult to a man is to call him a Jew. And it is a right notable thing that the Moslems do not accept a Jew into their creed unless he first become a Christian. . . And if they were not subsidised by the Jews of Christendom, the Jews who live in Judea would die like dogs of hunger."[14]

The Ottoman Empire seems to have improved the Jews' status in Jerusalem, although this was done against the resistance of local Muslims. Nevertheless, "The Jewish community... paid the jizya at rates somewhat higher than the [Greek] Orthodox."[15]

About 300 years after Suriano, Chateaubriand, the great French writer, found the Jews still on the bottom of the social barrel. He visited Jerusalem in 1806, and later wrote:


Nothing can prevent them from turning their gaze towards Zion. When one sees the Jews dispersed throughout the world,... one is probably surprised, but, to be struck by supernatural astonishment, it is necessary to find them in Jerusalem.. . to see these legitimate owners of Judea, slaves and strangers in their own land. One must see them under all oppressions, awaiting a king who is to redeem them.[16] [emph. added]

Yet, not all Christians living in Jerusalem were eager to hate Jews. Neophytos was a Greek Orthodox monk belonging to the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher, which governed Orthodox church affairs in Jerusalem. A Cypriot native who lived in Jerusalem for many years, he showed a certain sympathy or pity for the Jews, not excessive to be sure. Neophytos had lived through persecution and threats against his own community during the Greek revolt against the empire, when the Greek Orthodox in Jerusalem paid large sums — including golden religious objects — to the local Muslim-Arab notables in order not to suffer massacre in revenge for the Greek rebellion of the 1820s. Describing Muhammad Ali's relative magnanimity towards the dhimmi communities after he had crushed an Ottoman-backed Muslim revolt against him in Israel (1834), Neophytos remarks that this magnanimity extended even to Jews. Under Ottoman rule, he points out, they dare not even ask permission to repair their synagogues:

"As we are on the question of repairs, we must say something about the Jewish Synagogue. One year ago only, seeing the liberal dispositions of Mehemet Ali Pasha [Muhammad Ali] and Ibrahim Pasha [his son, general, and deputy], they dared to speak about their Synagogue. They asked that their House of Prayer, being in a ruinous condition and in danger of falling in, might be repaired. So, those who did not even dare to change a tile on the roof of the Synagogue at one time, now received a permit and a decree to build."[17] [emph. added]

Neophytos' words: "those who did not even dare," imply the inferiority of the Jews even to the Christians. This shows the depth of Jewish degradation in the Jewish holy city of Jerusalem.

The next witness about the Jews' lowly status in the city is none other than Karl Marx, a surprise witness to be sure. In his report in the New York Daily Tribune (15 April 1854) on the origins of the Crimean War, Marx describes conditions in Jerusalem, where religious rivalries focussed on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher served the Powers as pretexts for the war:

"The Mussulmans, forming about a fourth part of the whole, and consisting of Turks, Arabs, and Moors, are, of course, the masters in every respect, as they are in no way affected by the weakness of their Government at Constantinople. . . "Nothing equals the misery and the suffering of the Jews at Jerusalem, inhabiting the most filthy quarter of the town, called hareth-el-yahoud, in the quarter of dirt, between the Zion and the Moriah, where their synagogues are situated — the constant objects of Mussulman oppression and intolerance, insulted by the Greeks, persecuted by the Latins . . . "[18] [emph. added]

Note that Jews were humiliated by the Christians in the city, as well as by Muslims. To be sure, Marx was never in Jerusalem. His report of the date above is almost wholly quoted or paraphrased from a book by the French diplomat and historian, Cesar Famin. Famin may have visited Jerusalem, but if not, he was no doubt very well informed about conditions in the Holy City from fellow French diplomats, foreign ministry records, French churchmen, and travelers. He had been stationed in Yassi (Jassy), Rumania, then part of the Ottoman Empire, where he could get some idea of the status of Jews and Christians in an Islamic state. Famin's book, published in 1853, specified an absolute Jewish majority in Jerusalem's population, and Marx reproduced his population breakdown for the city.[19]

We will stop our examples with Gerardy Santine, a Frenchman who lived in Jerusalem for three years in the 1850s, and with Felix Bovet, a French-speaking Swiss Protestant minister who visited the city in 1858. Santine stressed the sense of fear and intimidation felt by the native Jews.

...the sons of Israel are here the object of the antipathy and disdain of the other communities... obsequious, excessively fearful... They excite rather than disarm the hostile sentiments of the Christians, happy to take revenge, by annoying them [the Jews], for their own voluntary degradation towards the Muslims... the Jews who take shelter under the flags of a European consul, those are almost men."[20]

Bovet wrote that "the Jews are still, to this day, the most miserable part of the population of the Holy City."[21] Bovet quotes a French convert to Islam, who wrote: "the Jerusalem Jew only half lives, scarcely daring to breathe."[22]

We have shown above 1) the state of oppression, humiliation, and economic exploitation, dhimmitude, of Jews and Christians in traditional Arab-Muslim society, 2) the Jews' worse status under Arab-Islam than elsewhere (according to Maimonides), and 3) the Jews' inferior status even to Christian dhimmis in Arab-Muslim society in general and in Jerusalem in particular.


Elliott A. Green

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.



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