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How Jews Came to Live Under Arab Rule

Jews' presence in what are now Arab lands long predates Islam and the Arab conquest of the Middle East. Jews first arrived in ancient Babylonia in 586 B.C.E. as captives of Nebuchadnezzar's conquest of the Kingdom of Judea, in which he destroyed the first Jewish Temple. The exile community of Babylonia (later to become Iraq) became the center of world Jewry, the site of the two great academies of Jewish learning at Sura and Pumbeditha. These academies produced the Babylonian Talmud, which forms the core of Judaism as it is practiced today. After his conquest of Babylonia some 50 years later, King Cyrus of Persia allowed Jews to return to Palestine to rebuild their sacked kingdom. However, significant Jewish communities remained in Babylonia, Persia, and throughout the Middle East, maintaining an unbroken Jewish presence for 2,500 years until the establishment of the State of Israel (Schleifer, 2003; Stillman, 1979).

By the time of Muhammad's birth, Jews had lived in the Arabian peninsula for centuries and were assimilated into Arab society, but still seen as a separate group. Arab society was organized into tribes, and the Jewish community also comprised three dominant tribes, which had formed alliances with different warring Arab tribes. Some of these Arab tribes welcomed Muhammad to Medina in the hope that he would arbitrate their disputes, and Muslim sources attribute their readiness to accept Islamic monotheism to their familiarity with Jewish monotheism (Stillman, 1979).

However, once Arabs began to follow Muhammad, their alliances with Jews - a group that would not accept the prophet - became strained. When Muhammad finally gained political power, he quickly moved against those who had rejected him. He ordered the weakest of the three Jewish tribes, the Banu Qaynuqa, to leave Arabia, sparing their lives only at the behest of the Arab tribe they were once allied with, and confiscating their property. After a military setback, Muhammad exiled the second tribe, the Banu l-Nadir, which was later massacred by Muslim forces and their property confiscated. Although the third tribe, the Banu Qurayza, tried to surrender, and their former Arab allies pleaded for mercy for them, Muhammad condemned the men to death and the women to slavery, calling it Allah's decision. The mass slaughter that ensued solidified Muhammad's strength as a leader (Stillman, 1979; Ye'Or, 1985).

To avoid massacre, the Jews remaining in Khaybar agreed to pay protection money in return for personal safety, setting a legal precedent for the treatment of Jews and other non-Muslims in Muslim lands: they could remain in safety as long as they remained subordinate and paid tribute to the Muslim community. This eventually became codified as a writ of protection (dhimma) and the minority religions bound by this agreement became known as dhimmis (Stillman, 1979; Ye'Or, 1985). (The relationship of Islam to its dhimmis will be explored in more depth in a later section.)

The new Muslim leadership expelled the remaining Jews in Arabia soon after Muhammad's death, when their money and labor were no longer needed. However, the Jewish community of Babylonia remained prominent, having gradually spread to surrounding areas both before and later during the Arab conquest, led by the geonim who were recognized as international authorities on Jewish law equal to the geonim of Palestine. By the end of the tenth century Jewish communities existed in almost every major city in Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa (Stillman, 1979).

The high point of Jewish life in Arab lands occurred between 900 and 1200 C.E., with the flourishing of the Islamic empire. Whenever the surrounding Muslim society did well, non-Muslims shared in the prosperity and were treated better, even allowed to participate in government and public life. When times were hard, minority religions were more oppressed and excluded. After the ninth century, political and civil disorder in what is now Iraq caused the Jewish community there to decline, with intellectuals moving west toward the more stable lands of the Mediterranean. Thus, the Jewish communities of North Africa and Moorish Spain moved into prominence. Tunisia first became a major center of religious scholarship, followed by Egypt. The Jewish community reached its zenith in Moorish Spain, with the achievements of Maimonides, the physician, scholar, and philosopher, and poets such as Hasday ibn Shaprut, Judah Halevi, Solomon ibn Gabirol, and Samuel HaNagid. This period was referred to as the "Golden Age" for its flowering of Jewish poetry and culture, but Muslims, who saw their own poetry as their greatest cultural heritage, regarded Jewish accomplishments as an affront. In 1066 the poet Abu Ishaq of Elvira wrote a poem that captured this growing resentment, proclaiming that Jews had violated their subordinate status and assuring Muslims that it would not be a sin to attack them. He called for the overthrow of Samuel HaNagid's son Joseph, who had succeeded him as a leader of the Jewish community. Later that year, a mob assassinated Joseph and crucified him on the city's gate, then razed the Jewish quarter of Granada and massacred its inhabitants. The remaining Jews were caught between growing pressures from warring Christian and Muslim forces (Lewis 1984; Stillman, 1979).

This "Golden Age" came to an end in the late twelfth century, with the capture of Islamic Spain by the Almohads, a fanatic Berber sect from Morocco, who forced Jews and Christians to convert to Islam and who drove many Jews into Christian Spain or the Middle East. There followed a long period of increasing religious rigidity in the Arab world, with growing oppression of Jews and other religious minorities.

The Ottoman conquest in the sixteenth century brought some relief to Jews in Arab lands, as they were initially welcomed into civil society and their talents appreciated. The Jewish population of Palestine grew to approximately 10,000 at this time. Jews in Arab provinces lived for a time in prosperity and relative security, though this declined when central Ottoman control of these provinces weakened and Islamic conservatism grew (Stillman, 1979).

European colonization at the turn of the nineteenth century caused dramatic changes in the Middle East. In 1838, the British established their first consulate in Jerusalem, partly to bring protection to the Jews living under Ottoman rule. This inspired the reform-minded Turkish foreign minister to gradually improve the status of non-Muslims. In 1860, a group of liberal French Jews in Paris founded the Alliance Israelite Universelle, an organization dedicated to improving the educational, social, and economic conditions of Jews, primarily in Arab lands. The Alliance schools throughout the Middle East were instrumental in bringing European education and values to the Jewish communities. The Crémieux Decree, passed in 1870, went further, granting French citizenship to Jews living in the French colony of Algeria. The dhimmi minorities had always maintained commercial ties with European economic interests, more so than Muslims who were resistant to interaction with European culture and languages. By the late nineteenth century, Muslims regarded the European presence as an intrusion, but Jews and Christians embraced westernization as a counterbalance to traditional Islamic norms that had insured their inferior status. The net effect of these changes was to increase tensions between Muslims and the minorities living in their countries.

Although Muslims resented Jews for their Western ties and economic success, it was Arab Christians at this time who promoted the worst European anti-Semitic rhetoric such as the blood libel, which they learned from French missionaries. In the notorious Damascus Affair of 1840, local Christians supported by the French Consul accused Jews of murdering a missing Italian friar and his servant to obtain Christian blood for Passover. These accusations spread, but were not picked up extensively by Muslims until the rise of Arab nationalism, particularly in opposition to the Zionist movement, in the twentieth century (Stillman, 1979, 1991). (go back)(continue)

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