Review: Ishmael’s House had its genesis in Canada

by Irwin Block

Sir Martin Gilbert is a most prolific historian with more than 50 books to his credit, an established and popular writer whose work is crafted for and marketed to the general reader.

Ishmael’s House, A History of Jews in Muslim Lands (McLelland & Stewart, 424 p., $35) has a Canadian angle in its genesis, since the idea, Gilbert says, came from the late Izzy Asper and research supported by the Asper Family Foundation in Winnipeg.

Published in 2010, it is topical because the fate of 850,000 Jews who were forced or felt compelled to leave Arab and Muslim lands is often forgotten in discussions of the estimated 725,000 Arabs who became refugees as a result of Israel’s creation in 1948.

One tragedy does not justify another, but there is a direct relationship, in time if not in cause and effect, and if there is to be a final settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute, the issue of the Jewish refugees, most of whom came to settle in Israel, cannot be ignored.

The wandering Jews were better off under Muslim rule than under Christian suzerainty. This was best exemplified in what became known as the Golden Era, where Jews for the most part thrived in Spain until, with Jewish financial support, Isabella and Ferdinand achieved final victory over the remaining Muslim rulers in Granada in 1492. She then ordered the expulsion of Jews who refused to convert to Christianity.

As critics have pointed out, the most balanced portrayal remains Jews of Islam (1984) by Bernard Lewis, but for a survey of their plight, country by country, Gilbert’s book is must reading.

For example, there were 120,000 Jews living in Iraq prior to the Second World War and they flourished, with 24 synagogues in Baghdad, the 1,400-year-old Great Synagogue dating back to 100 years before Islam. Since 629, when Mohammed had defeated his Jewish infidel enemies, Jews were subjected to dhimmi status, a state of subjugation and fealty, usually including the payment of a substantial jizya poll tax. It was described then by Caliph al-Amior as not merely a source of income, but a means of discrimination and humiliation, Gilbert reports.

Jews’ second-class status continued in the 20th century. Iraqi-born Mordechai Ben Porat remembered that “A Moslem’s right to harass a Jew was taken for granted. It would not have occurred to the victim to react or report the matter to the police.” Iraqi-born Yitzhak Bezalel remembers that pious Jews would not wear leather on the Day of Atonement and that “Arab hooligans, who knew that on this day Jews would walk barefoot, would spread broken glass on the streets, and many Jews would come to the synagogue with bloody feet.”

The upsurge in Zionist fervour after the war sparked anti-Jewish riots in Egypt, since for the Muslim world, Palestine was considered an Arab country and “part of the Muslim patrimony” in which Jews could live only as a subject people. In Tripoli Jews were tortured and killed, including 40 of the 120 Jews of Zanzur, their bodies burned.

In Yemen, Jews were forbidden to work in agriculture, write in Arabic or have firearms. Yemeni Jews could make shoes for Muslims, but were not allowed to wear them.

The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 sparked pogroms in Baghdad, Tripoli, Cairo and Tangier, replete with the revival of the ancient bogus accusation that Jews use the blood of Muslims for their rituals. The Suez crisis of 1956 and the Six Day War of 1967 exacerbated anti-Jewish hatred and sparked the departure of most Jews who remained.

In 1968, I visited the Jewish Quarter in Marrakech, where coppersmiths could be seen at work, a look of sadness on their faces. One Berber friend, realizing I was Jewish, told me in French: “It’s not very nice what you have done to the Arabs.”

This book gives a complete overview of Jewish-Muslim relations from the time of Mohammed. Reading it is essential to understanding why Israel is having such difficulty in establishing its legitimacy with the Arab and Muslim world and obtaining a complete understanding of its importance as a place of refuge.

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