Muslims and Jews: History Worsens

Burt Siegel

Burt Siegel

Jewish life in the early Islamic world was apparently somewhat positive, especially as compared to Christendom. Jews were living in the Arab world since the Romans conquered Israel in 63 BCE when many Jews left seeking a more inviting place to live.

Some went to Rome where they were often well treated, unlike in Jerusalem, where few challenged Roman authority. More settled in the Arabian Peninsula. The period in Muslim-controlled Spain is often referred to as the Golden Age of Judaism. For the most part, Jews were free of hatred and genocide. But “for the most part” is a relevant phrase.

What transpired in the Spanish city of Granada in 1066 is noteworthy. Jews were prominent and felt welcomed there. They were among the trusted advisers to the Muslim king, and one Jewish scholar became a trusted political and military adviser.

The fact that a Jew held such a high office eventually created resentment among the Arab majority. Soon there were rumors that his successor son planned to let an enemy army capture the city. This was not the first or last time Jews were accused of disloyalty to the nation where they lived.

Poetry was quite revered in Islam at that time, and literature soon became a vehicle for portraying Jews as a threat. One of the popular poems contained the following language:

“Do not consider it a breach of faith to kill them, the breach of faith would be to let them carry on. They have violated our covenant with them, so how can you be held guilty (for attack) against the violators? How can we have any pact when now we are obscure and they are prominent? Now we are humble beside them, as if we were wrong and they were right!”

Soon, a massacre of more than 1,000 Jews took place when a mob stormed the palace where Jews had hoped they would be protected. This was the first of numerous attacks on Jews living in an Islamic nation and is believed to be the first pogrom in Europe.

While Jews were never granted the same rights as Muslims, life was often better than it was for Christians, likely because Christianity sought converts, something Jews avoided.

Of course, scholars often disagree on what the past was truly like. After the Roman destruction of the First Temple, as many as 80,000 Jews left Israel for the Arabian Peninsula. While, in theory, Jews were to be treated without any restrictions, especially regarding religious practices, that was not always so.

The late Bernard Lewis, a highly regarded expert on the Muslim world, felt that the prevailing opinion that Jews were much better treated in Muslim society than in Christian nations was somewhat an exaggeration created to emphasize the sorry treatment by Christians.

But hostility toward Judaism did not start with the advent of Christianity or Islam. Then, God or — more commonly — gods were associated with place. If you lived in Athens, you worshiped a range of Greek gods. If you moved to Rome or Baghdad, you worshipped other gods.

However, most Jews insisted on remaining adherents to their faith and in continuing unique Jewish practice. To the chagrin of many others, the God of the Jews not only remained the supreme being wherever they now resided but there were no images of him.

Everyone else knew what their gods looked like because they had statues bearing his or her likeness. The Jews’ God was invisible and, according to the holy scriptures, no images were allowed nor did the God of the Jews have any specific responsibility.

Others wondered how one could successfully fight an enemy without a God of War? The Greeks and Romans had a great many gods like Apollo, who was the god of healing, music and the protector of children and herdsmen.

Jewish refusal to accept other gods significantly fed the hostility of the local populations. But in each place where Jews lived, they typically acted, dressed and ate differently but, most importantly, worshipped differently from everyone else. The reluctance of Jews to socialize with the local population also created resentment.

Greeks believed that anything other than Greek culture and practice was barbarian and, given that much of the “civilized world” was imbued with Hellenism, antagonism toward Jews spread. It was common for the majority to resent these aliens’ belief that there was no need to adopt the Greek way of life. No doubt this Greco-Roman antagonism eventually permeated much of the rest of the world.

Ancient hostile attitudes, still seem a significant factor in parts of Europe, the Islamic world and, perhaps, even in America. But at the risk being accused of being Islamophobic, I believe it is time that we acknowledge that it is only the Muslim countries that lies about Judaism and calls for the destruction of the only Jewish majority country are commonplace and official governmental rhetoric and policy.

Those who believe that hatred of Israel is the result of the alleged harsh treatment of those called Palestinians are either ignorant of the long history of the troubled interface between Jews and Muslims or simply don’t like Jews and have created a myth to justify their hostility.

As in other regional conflicts, especially where different religions are factors, both sides will cite reasons for antagonism. Those self-proclaimed progressives who side with the Arab perspective claim that Israel has taken land that is not rightfully theirs. If only the Jews would return this territory to those who are the historical possessors of the real estate there would be peace, they claim.

The historical truth is that the cause of the many decades of violence in that part of Muslims is quite simply the very existence of a non-Muslim nation within what they consider their domain.

Yes, the celebrated Abraham Accords have led to several Muslim nations recognizing Israel, but keep in mind that none of these countries had ever been involved in actual military conflict with the Jewish state and not one has had the decency to condemn the recent slaughter of more than 1,000 Jews on a religious holiday and the Sabbath.

Muslim countries thousands of miles away from Israel continue to teach the vilest filth regarding Jews to their children and remain outrageously belligerent when it comes to any reference to a Jewish state.

It is also naive for the disingenuous way well-educated students ignore the long history of murderous riots against Jews in numerous Muslim countries well before the creation of a Jewish state. The claim that this violence is not based to a large degree on hatred of Jews is absurd.

It doesn’t take a great deal of research to find language calling for the killings of Jews in Islamic religious texts. Sermons in mosques throughout the world have all-too-often contained language that clearly called for hatred and violence specifically against Jews.

None of this was created simply due to the establishment of modern Zionism. Like much of the hatred of Jews by other religions, this stemmed from bitter anger with Jews because they rejected entreaties that they accept a new religion. It is well documented that, at first, Mohammad admired Judaism and imitated certain aspects of Jewish worship including some dietary practice.

And while Lewis distinguished between the theological antisemitism that marked Christian hostility and that of Islam, he noted that Muslims are no more forgiving of Jewish rejection of Muhammad as Christians are because we never accepted Jesus as the Messiah.

My grandmother was no scholar, but she did know the Yiddish lyrics to a song called, It’s Hard to Be a Jew.” Sadly, it is too often still true.

Burt Siegel served the Jewish Community Relations Council for more than 30 years, has taught college classes on antisemitism and was engaged by the Israeli Consulate to assist with advocacy for religious and political leadership.


  1. For the 13 centuries before Zionism, Jews had been subject to a political status in Muslim lands specifically designed around issues of honor (to Muslims) and shame (to Jews). Jews were dhimmi, “protected” from Muslim violence by their acceptance of daily public degradation and legal inferiority. Noted Chateaubriand in the 19th century: “Special target of all [Muslim and Christian] contempt, the Jews lower their heads without complaint; they suffer all insults without demanding justice; they let themselves be crushed by blows. … Penetrate the dwellings of these people, you will find them in frightful poverty.”


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