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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.

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    1. Barry Meridian


      Arabs Fly Nazi Flag near Hevron
      Residents of Gush Etzion astounded to see Nazi flag flying near the mosque of Beit Omar.
      Gil Ronen

      Hundreds of residents of Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem, were astounded Monday morning to see an oversized Nazi flag flying next to a mosque in the Arab town of Beit Omar.

      The residents notified the IDF.

      A resident, Uri Arnon, told the Tazpit News Agency: “I felt we were going back 75 years, losing our hold on the land. The Arabs no longer feel the need to hide their murderous tendencies, announcing out loud that they wish to annihilate us.”

      An IDF spokesman said that the flag was hung on an electrical line, and that they were waiting to professionals to come and remove it.

      Reply to Comment
      • Rafael

        From the same website:


        “Businessman: Europe Preparing Holocaust for Muslims”

        “Well-known religious businessman Moti Zisser predicted Saturday evening that Europe will unleash a second Holocaust – but this time, the victims will be Muslims, not Jews.”

        Now scroll down to find the mostly glowing reactions of the Israeli posters.

        It’s interesting that right-wing Zionists, who always see they’ll have a sad expression on their faces every time (and God knows how many times there were) they discuss the Holocaust, are the first to flirt with eliminationist, Holocaust-like imagery when discussing Arabs and Muslims.

        Reply to Comment
      • Taj

        I see countless people of Jewish origin that shamelessly announce their will to anihilate the Arabs every day. So save us this bullcrap and stop being so naive. Racist ignorant people exist on both sides.

        Reply to Comment
      • Taj

        Not to mention the racist graffiti tags everywhere “Mavet la aravem” which means “death to arabs”. It’s everywhere in Israel. I dare you to find one bus station that does not have that graffiti tagged all over it.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Michael W.

      Ever hear Salafists (and other Muslims) chant “Khyber Khyber ya yahud …”?

      Reply to Comment
      • Taj

        Ever hear Israelis chant “mavet la aravim” ? I don’t see the difference. As i said before; Ignorant racists exist on both sides. Stop trying to be the ultimate victim.

        Reply to Comment
    3. XYZ

      Maimonides, who lived his entire life under Muslim rule, stated that the Arabs/Muslims were the most implacable enemies the Jewish people ever faced.
      While it is true that there were fewer out and out massacres of Jews by the Muslims and more periods of relative tolerance during the Middle Ages than in Christian Europe, this was because the Jews were stuck in dhimmi status. The Arabs/Muslims were somewhat less oppressive and violent to Jews AS LONG AS they were viewed as weak, submissive and cowardly (due to Jewish abhorrence of bloodshed) and money could be obtained from them by way of the dhimmi jiyza tax or out and out extortion. When the Jews attained a measure of wealth or power, Arab/Muslim hostility increased. Thus, when the Jews finally achieved national self-determination, this was viewed as abhorrent and completely unacceptable.
      It is important to remember that the first big massacre of Jews in Europe in the Middle Ages was NOT in the Christian Crusades at the end of the 11th century, but earlier in Cordoba, in supposedly “tolerant” Muslim Spain.
      Certainly, there were tolerant Muslim rulers who were good to the Jews, but they were usually considered bad rulers by their Muslim population who couldn’t understand why the dhimmis were being favored.

      Reply to Comment
      • Gearoid

        This entire post betrays such a level of historical illiteracy I’m not sure where to start.

        You’re using the language of contemporary Islamophobes, not that of scholars. You don’t seem to understand anything on the topic actually, other than the “scare” words given to you by those Islamophobes.

        I particularly love that you mention the jizya like it is some ridiculous abomination. Yet Muslims paid the zakat, and the jizya made you immune to military conscription. Do you also have an issue with scutage? Or just taxes in general?

        Honestly, spin your anti-Muslim propaganda on some far-right site. That you would respond to a historian with such tripe is insulting and pathetic.

        Your Jewish supremacist attitudes are showing.

        Reply to Comment
        • Leen

          Also just wanted to add to your post that women, children, the old, the sick, disabled, and the religious were exempt from the jizya and were afforded state protection against foreign invasion. The jizya was a way to exempt able-bodied men from joining the military and at the same time guarantee military protection from foreign invasion.

          Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Zakat was a charitable contribution to be paid by rich Muslims as a religious obligation. Jizya is a tax imposed on all infidels regardless of income/wealth meant explicitly to demean and oppress them according to Sharia. This is a common thread in the treatment of Jews and other dhimmis in Islamic countries – to oppress them, demean them, put them into an inferior position, insult their religion, and occasionally riot and massacre them when they “forget their place”.

          That you come here and throw around charges of ignorance would be laughable if it wasn’t so saddening after reading the kind of illiterate tripe you are spouting. Which Islamic scholars did you read – Esposito? Cole? You know.. The ones that think Islam is the greatest thing since Communism and who were until recently of the impression that the best historical analogy of Islamic fundamentalism was the Protestant reformation and the Arab Spring was about to open the doors to liberal democracy throughout the Arab world. Find some new books to read because the ones you have been fed are all crock and turn you into someone completely incapable of making sense of the world.

          Reply to Comment
      • tod

        Strange then that when Rambam was obliged to leave Spain he chose to go to Cairo – Saladin – and not in Europe

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          No, it isn’t strange. If in one place your odds of getting killed by crusaders are 1/10 and in the other your odds of getting beat up by overzealous Muslims is 1/10 and in both countries you have to live as some kind of tolerated pest, then you probably choose the latter.

          Reply to Comment
      • David T.

        “The end of the dhimma contract

        … On February 18, 1856, the Hatt-i Humayan edict was issued, building upon the 1839 edict. …. It again proclaimed the principle of equality between Muslims and non-Muslims, and produced many specific reforms to this end. For example, the jizya tax was abolished and non-Muslims were allowed to join the army”

        Reply to Comment
    4. Richard Witty

      It is reasonable, progressive, to demand that anti-semitism cease from the planet.

      There is no excuse for it in any form, in any rationalization.

      Reply to Comment
    5. XYZ

      Leen and Gearoid-
      Israel exempts Arabs/Muslims from compulsory military service. Therefore, can I conclude that, in the name of religious balance, you would support Israel slapping a special tax on its Muslim citizens?

      Where did I say the Christians were better?

      BOTH Christians and Muslims in the Middle Ages despised the Jews to a greater or lesser degree because we refused to adopt their “obvoiusly true religion”. Sure, there were tolerant rulers among both groups but humiliation and persecution were all too common in BOTH societies. I am not claiming that Islam was worse than Christianity of the time, but it is nonsense to claim, as we hear today that Islam was a really a super-“tolerant” religion as compared to Christianity. This is burned into our Jewish memories and this is why we will never agree to live as a powerless minority in a non-Jewish society ever again.

      Reply to Comment
      • Leen

        ‘Israel exempts Arabs/Muslims from compulsory military service. Therefore, can I conclude that, in the name of religious balance, you would support Israel slapping a special tax on its Muslim citizens?’

        Well us non-Jewish citizens/residents pay National Insurance which includes defense, so we are pretty much paying our own version of jizya.

        However, I will say this, I am not 100% it was to stop military conscription, I do know for sure it was for military protection against foreign invasion.

        Even so, I am not supportive of military conscription. I don’t support the current military conscription of 18 year old Israelis, so i am probably not going to support the extension to Arabs and Haredi, either.

        Reply to Comment
        • XYZ

          Now you have me totally confused. First you claim there was nothing discriminatory about the jizya tax because it supposedly exempted the dhimmis from military service (did those societies indeed have full compulsory conscription?) which was fair compensation for such deferment. Then you complain that the non-Jews of Israel have to, in your words, pay a “jizya” for national defense, which they don’t want, seeing the foreign threats to Israel as being benevolent for Israel’s non-citizens (the Israeli tax is NOT discriminatory, Jews pay it just the same). But, you could say the same about the dhimmis in the Muslim states of the past who might very well have felt that the foreign invaders were good for them and they would want them to win, so why should they have to pay for the the local army opposing them? It works both ways!

          Reply to Comment
    6. XYZ

      It is interesting how “progressives” dismiss people’s real historical memories with claims that “really, Jews had it good in the Arab countries but they were ‘brainwashed’ by the Zionists who planted terrible memories in their brains that never really existed”. I have a friend who was born in Iraq and he told of the constant feeling of insecurity and outright fear there was, never knowing when the next pogrom might break out. Baghdad had no-go zones for Jews where if one entered by mistake, he could be beaten up. But, Left-wing professors write learned treatises claiming this isn’t true. Strange.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Ben

      I would strongly recommend the book “From Empathy to Denial” by Meir Litvak and Esther Webman, a comprehensive account of Arab reactions to the Holocaust from the 1940s to the present day. The title reveals the ultimate trajectory, but one of the main themes in the book is that anti-Semitism in the Arab and Muslim world bears a strong imprint of traditional European anti-Semitism and not necessarily part of an eternal hatred. I look forward to reading th book quoted here.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Kolumn9

      This is a pretty ridiculous argument you are making. It basically states that because the Christians in Europe were absolutely atrocious to the Jews in their countries the Jews have nothing to complain about after being treated in Muslim countries as third-class non-citizens subject to occasional massacre, persecution, oppression and other forms of subjugation and this means that there must have been no anti-Semitism in the Islamic world. Brilliant!

      Reply to Comment
    9. Amit

      The problem with Mark Cohen is that he makes accurate research but not as accurate conclusions. He collects the data, but when the time comes to make conclusions he ignores much of it.
      Throughout the Middle East history, there were numerous massacres against Jews by Muslims. Even if we would limit our talk here only for the “Goldan Age” era, there are many examples to mention: For example Samuel HaNagid is widely remembered as a symbol of “Goldan Age”, What is not remembered as much is the fact that his son was murdered by a Muslim mob in an antisemetic riot and together with him all of the great Jewish community of Granada – thousends of people – was massacred, according to Muslim sources. A Muslim poet of the time, Abu Ishaq, wrote: “Do not consider it a breach of faith to kill them, the breach of faith would be to let them carry on”.
      Another figure of the supposed “goldan age” is, of course, the Maimonides. In his time the Al-Mohad dynasty took power and massacred thousends of Jews; many had to face the choice of conversion to Islam or death. In the same time the same happened in Yeman, and hence the Maimonides wrote a letter known as Igeret teyman, where he said “No nation has been more hostile and abusive of us than the one of the ishmaelites”. Excuse me for the anachronism, but if the Maimonides could have seen Cohen’s claim that Muslim anti-semitism is modern he wouldn’t know if to cry or laugh.

      The basic idea underlining Cohen’s thesis is problematic. He claims that Muslims treated Jews better than Europeans. This argument is false for a number of reasons. A. It is not relevent; persecutions are not something relative. B. it is not true; European persecution of Jews – not including the exceptional events of the holocaust – was very similar to Muslim persecution of Jews. The every day life of Jews in both societies can be characterized as that of a marginalized, discriminated and quite isolated group, and in both societies Jews were in risk of being massacred every time a fanatic ruler came to power or in times of instability.

      Jews, like virtually any minority in every society throughout history, had it bad under Muslim rule. Muslims of course want to believe diffrently, but that’s not different than how Israelis claim that Arab Israelis are treated great and they have it perfect in here. Every hegmonic majority group wants to believe it treats its minorities good. History shows differently.

      Reply to Comment

      I received notice that I have been banned from the Huffington Post. I checked my postings; they do not include inappropriate language as others do . If any thing I may have commented too often. Your reporter did a story on me when I was president of Rabbis for Romney. I enjoy the discussions and postings on your site and would appreciate an explanation. The only thing I can think of is that I posted against the Holocaust Claims Conference AND Muslims touring Auschwitz. If the Muslims complained, there was no foul language and as a child of Holocaust survivors I can speak out against extremist Muslims who are against Israel and America . I do not want those extremists praying for my dead siblings and other relatives at Auschwitz. It was the Mufti of Jerusalem who was in charge of an SS division for the Nazis. Is there anything here that would warrant my being banned. Please have the courtesy to email me.

      Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg

      Reply to Comment
    11. Yaron

      It boils down to: ‘Ok, Muslims hate Jews, but something can be done about it, because in their heart, Muslims are good.’
      For this reason, Jews are expected to be kind to Muslims. Nothing is being expected from Muslims: not changing their hateful expressions in the press, not their hate speech in mosques, not teaching their children to hate Jews, etc. So, basically, Jews end up being kind to people that still hate them… Where’s the deal?

      Reply to Comment
    12. Andy

      Anti -Semitism in contemporary Muslim society comes from Arab Land being stolen everyday so that people like Maria Sharapova can rediscover their ancient heritage through their luxury pads. Anti-Semitism is wrong but I guess these daily evictions are hardly going to stop it.

      Reply to Comment
    13. northern man

      How can Semitic Muslims bee antisemites. It is not logical. Do they hate themselves?

      Reply to Comment
      • David

        @Northern Man, have you recently changed your name from Neanderthal Man? This argument of equivalence between Jews and Muslims because of similar semitic backgrounds is totally and utterly ridiculous and should be dispelled once and for all.

        Reply to Comment
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