The atrocities Hamas committed on October 7, 2023, and subsequent worldwide support for the genocidal “judenrein-from-the-river-to-the-sea” ideology revealed the prevalence of widespread anti-Semitism. Terrorism has a worldwide reach. The Israel-Hamas war affects international markets and geopolitics. Anyone on the planet, Jewish or not, might suffer from anti-Semitism. It is important, therefore, to understand anti-Semitism.
This essay rejects supernatural or genetic explanations for anti-Semitism. Jews are not a different species of human being. Humans are more alike than different. Children born black or white, Muslim or Jewish, offer the same potential.
Both anti-Semites and philo-Semites repeat the same formulaic phrases: “Jews are the most persecuted minority,” and “Anti-Semitism is the world’s oldest hatred.” Anti-Semites like these phrases. There must be something wrong with Jews, they insist, since Jews are hated everywhere. My friend Alex, a philo-Semite, repeats these phrases as well. He sees them as proof of a unique and romantic quality to Jewishness. The pharaohs of ancient Egypt, the seventeenth-century Ukrainian leader Bogdan Chmielnicki, and Hamas are all identical because they all killed Jews. I disagree. The pharaohs, seventeenth-century Ukrainians, and Hamas are not magical reincarnations of each other. They had different motivations, methods, and goals. No supernatural thread connects them. To understand them, one must understand their particular historical context, not presumed supernatural curses.
Anti-Semitism isn’t the world’s oldest hatred, nor is it the hatred with the highest body count. Misogyny has a longer history and has claimed more victims. The caste system in India “has existed in some form for at least 3000 years.” Recent estimates are that there are 200 million Dalits, aka untouchables. The suffering Dalits have endured is unspeakable.
Westerners, living in a world strongly affected by Christendom, associate anti-Semitism with Christianity. The standard approach is to blame Christianity, the religion, and to ignore historical context. If discussing anti-Semitism among Muslims, the standard position is to argue that historical context, rather than religion, caused the anti-Semitism. This essay argues for a reverse of these approaches.
These approaches distort reality. When Christianity is understood as inherently anti-Semitic, Christians, even those who support Israel, are assessed as inescapably anti-Semitic. Anthony Weiner is a former congressman who currently broadcasts via WABC. In October, 2023, he made a comment that shocked me. I requested clarification. Did he really say that “Christians support Israel because they want all the Jews to be in one spot so that God can kill them all more easily”? Weiner did not respond with a yes or a no, but with a link to a Washington Post article.
In the “Christianity is anti-Semitic” worldview, Christians who are not anti-Semitic are understood to be “modernized.” In this view, the more Christian you are, the more anti-Semitic you are, and the more “modern” or “secular” you are, the less anti-Semitic you are. Data does not support this assumption. In Russell Middleton’s peer-reviewed publication, “Do Christian Beliefs Cause anti-Semitism?” Middleton concluded that “Religious orthodoxy was uncorrelated with anti-Semitism” and that “the well-springs of anti-Semitism today” may be “largely secular.” A 2019 Gallup poll suggested that those who attend church regularly are more likely to be sympathetic to Israel. “Highly religious Americans continue to be much more sympathetic toward Israel than those who are less religious.” Worldwide anti-Semitic protests in autumn, 2023, are not populated by visibly Christian protestors. Rather, these protesters appear to be more Woke than Christian.
This distortion of Christians and Christianity matters. Some start from this false assumption and go on to apply a distorted lens to Islam. That distorted conclusion goes like this, “Christians were anti-Semitic when they were devout, but as they modernized they became less anti-Semitic.” We can’t assume that anything like this process will change the hearts and minds of Muslims. “Modern” Muslims might turn out to be just as anti-Semitic as “old-fashioned” Muslims.
This essay will argue that to understand anti-Semitism among Christians, one must factor in historical context. To understand anti-Semitism among Muslims, more attention must be paid to religion.
Anti-Semitism is one of many tribal prejudices found around the world and throughout history. Humans form tribes in order to increase our ability to gain resources, both material and immaterial. Membership in a successful human tribe means not just that individual members will be better fed, but also that they will benefit from immaterial goods like peace and security, and a sense of meaning and purpose. Successful tribal membership may offer the balm to cope with life’s greatest challenge: the inevitability of death. One’s group identity, if not an individual identity, can be understood to be immortal. Even a shiftless or lazy American can live better than a hard working striver in a poor African country. The shiftless American benefits not because of his own effort. He rides on the accomplishments of the Founding Fathers, capitalism, a cultural matrix, and American servicemen and women. Immaterial, as well as material resources can be shared. Even a low-achieving Jewish person can feel pride given his connection to Einstein.
In forming tribes, we are like our closest living relatives, chimpanzees. Chimpanzee troops have been observed, for example in the Gombe Chimpanzee War, massacring another troop. To increase access to resources, chimpanzees may beat to death every member of an opposing tribe.
Tribe members emphasize their tribal loyalty and adherence to tribal values. Politicians wear navy blue suits, white shirts, red ties, and an American flag lapel pin. Young people struggling to find a place to fit in, generation after generation, invent uniforms and rituals signaling tribe membership. Poodle skirts, bell bottom jeans, grunge, neologisms like “cis” and “trans” etc, have signaled successive generations’ membership in their tribe of choice.
Tribal membership is fluid. Individuals decide that membership in group Y offers more benefits than membership in group X and move over to group X. A black man enslaved in the American South could not suddenly change to a white identity, but those who could pass for white often chose to do so. Today there are benefits to be gained for a white person passing for black, and numerous whites, especially in academia, have been exposed as white people passing as non-white in order to gain benefits.
Tribal membership can be ephemeral. Few adults cling to any idea of themselves as girl scouts or members of a given little league team, even though that membership meant a great deal at one point in their lives. History is littered with abandoned identities. I identify as “Polish” but my ancestors might have identified as “tutejszy,” that is, “from here.” The Paleo-Eskimo people vanished so thoroughly that they didn’t even leave a name for themselves. Rather they are called “Paleo-Eskimo,” after the group that completely replaced them. There are no thriving communities of the Hittite, Harappan, Anasazi, or Moriori tribes.
Jews are not unusual in that they are members of a distinct group. We all are. Jews are also not unusual in that they have been subjected to atrocities from members of competing groups. There are features, though, that set Jews apart.
Jews are unusual in that an idea of Jewish identity has existed since ancient times. The patriarch Abraham is dated to 1800 BC. Abraham’s historicity is debated. If one accepts Abraham’s actual existence and traditional dates, one can argue that Jews can trace their identity back almost 4,000 years. Abraham aside, there is concrete evidence of the ancientness of Jewish identity. The 3,200 year old Merneptah Stele mentions Jews. The ancient book of Leviticus outlines behaviors we associate with Jews today. In 1997, Karl Skorecki argued for Y-chromosomal Aaron, a genetic marker going back to the brother of Moses, over 3,000 years ago.
Leviticus 19:27 says “you shall not round the corners of your head,” and the Hasidic men I pass regularly at the Paterson Falls, over 2,000 years after this rule was written down, have distinctive haircuts that mark them. Numbers 15:37-39 says, “You are to make tassels on the corners of your garments … You will see these tassels and you will remember all the commands of the Lord, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by chasing after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes.” A fragment from the book of Numbers goes back 2,600 years. Hasidic men I see in present day Paterson display these fringes described in the book of Numbers.
When I pass Hasidic Jews in Paterson, I feel their vulnerability. Why do Hasids publicly identify as an often hated minority even in a high-crime environment? Their choices strengthen their connection to God and to their fellow Jews. Their choices are visible advertisements for Judaism, a belief system that blesses all, Jews and non-Jews alike. See Psalm 67; Genesis 12: 2-3; Isaiah 42:6; Zechariah 8:23; Isaiah 2:2-3. These Jews defy the Holocaust. Nazism attempted to erase Jews; these Jews are not just alive, they keep alive Yiddish, a language the Holocaust attempted to silence. In short, Hasids, in their choice of dress, a choice of dress that all too often results in anti-Semitic assaults, exhibit exceptional courage and dedication to their peaceful spiritual goals.
On Thursday, November 5, I was walking on a garbage-strewn Paterson street. I was near a makeshift memorial, consisting of empty liquor bottles and prayer candles, commemorating a young man who was recently shot to death. I have walked this street hundreds of times. I had never before seen another white person on this street. On Thursday, I did.
Imagine the fault lines. Residents’ cars, if residents had cars, might cost a few thousand dollars. This brand-new SUV cost ten times that. I was in New Jersey; the license plate read “New York.” The two Hasids standing beside the expensive car were white. Other than me, every passer-by was non-white.
I was so curious, I approached and asked, “What are you doing in Paterson?” The men explained to me that they were here on business. One man said that he likes Paterson because he can make money here.
There are multiple fault lines in this encounter. Blacks in Paterson are poor. When they see Jewish businessmen, they may feel their exclusion from resources Hasids share with other Jews. One might conclude that these blacks would best respond to that sense of exclusion by improving their own affiliations with others and their own access to resources. There are, though, cultural barriers militating against their success. Black men in this neighborhood do not emerge till past noon. They spend nights hanging out, smoking marijuana, playing loud rap from car stereos, and dealing drugs. In this, they are “keeping it real.” Ambitious young blacks who follow the law, avoid drugs, excel at school, and are go-getters at the workplace are condemned by their peers for “acting white.” “The ghetto mentality is … like quicksand, once you are in it; it’s hard to get out,” observes black journalist James E. Causey. Keeping it real, Causey explains, is the opposite of acting white.
In addition to these fault lines, there is another immaterial one. Many blacks feel a sense of competition with Jews over commodified suffering. They resent attention the Holocaust receives, and they insist that slavery was worse. This resentment over an alleged “stolen” suffering championship reinforces a conspiracy theory. Jews, this conspiracy theory insists, stole Jewish identity from Blacks, who are the real main characters of the Bible. In 2019, a black man who believed in this conspiracy theory murdered Jews in a terror attack in Jersey City.
Jews, observant or not, will always be distinct because their ancestors were the authors of one of the most influential books ever written, the Bible. Both the Old and New Testaments were written by Jews, with the possible, but not certain, exception of Luke, who may or may not have been Jewish. (Scientists have genetically analyzed the DNA of a corpse thought to be Luke’s. The Bible says that Luke was born in Syria; available DNA evidence supports that origin for the purported Luke skeleton.)
The Bible’s unique status is immediately apparent to anyone reading any other ancient culture’s scripture. The Ancient Greeks produced peerless plays and tales. Ancient India produced probing explorations of life’s big questions. Neither of these exceptionally articulate civilizations even begins to approach the Bible for depth, breadth, and worldwide influence. Had I never received any religious training at all, the comparison between the Bible and any other culture’s spiritual literature would be enough for me to consider the existence of God and God’s choice of the Jews as his people. A tiny group of scrappy and beleaguered desert herders produced the Psalms; the commandments; archetypal characters and struggles; minimalist sketches – like that of the contest between Cain and Abel – that confound and inspire for thousands of years; the soaring rhetoric of the disquisition between Job and God himself, as they debate the nature of suffering; and a salvation narrative powerful enough to reach international hearts, hurts, and hopes. When you compare these to what other cultures at the same level were producing, you cannot help but notice a vast gulf in quality, coherence, and meaning. The mere existence of the Bible is something close to a miracle.
Exactly because the Bible is so influential, people have been warring against it for thousands of years. There’s a reason that people in communist and Muslim countries have been imprisoned, tortured, and even killed for mere ownership of a Bible. Ideas can be as powerful as military hardware. The ideas in the Bible threaten the tyrant, the bully, and the egotist and changed the world.
Pagan gods like Mars, Dionysus, and Venus sanctified human appetites for war, domination, drunkenness, and lust. Pagan values championed the rich, powerful, young, healthy, and beautiful, and okayed sacrifice of the weak, poor, and the foreign. Roman Pagans could invoke their deities at the orgy or at grisly gladiatorial spectacles. Spartans habitually murdered helots and their own children; Spartan gods approved. The Jewish God, in contrast, was the advocate of the outcast, of the poor, of widows and orphans. The Jewish God reminded believers to discipline their appetites. To many, the Jewish God was a buzz kill. Humanity was happy until the Jews came along and ruined everything with all that talk about one God, sin, and guilt, according to the neo-Pagan worldview.
Tribes depend on numbers for strength. Other tribes have devoted energy to recruiting. Ancient Rome arrived, conquered, and assimilated foreign peoples. The Roman army came to be only about 20% from the Italian peninsula. Other soldiers were from previously conquered territory. Islam is even more ruthless than ancient Rome in its voracious quest for flesh, territory, and power. Previously conquered peoples became slaves, and then invaders. Muslim Arabs conquered the Berbers of North Africa. Tariq ibn Ziyad was a Berber and possibly a slave. He lead the Muslim Conquest into Spain. Islam relied heavily on slave armies, gobbling up conquered peoples and turning their sons into shock troops to claim more territory, and more bodies, for Islam.
Jews are about 0.2 of world population. Jewish identity is traditionally understood as descendent from Abraham, and being born of a Jewish mother. This understanding of Jewish identity is reflected in Jewish genes. Jews today remain related. Ashkenazi Jews, according to one study, are thirtieth cousins or closer. Not just Ashkenazi Jews are related. “Jews worldwide share genetic ties,” Alla Katsnelson reported in a 2010 Nature publication.
We can see factors that make Jewish identity perilous: Jews are identifiable, Jews are associated with a powerful but contested book, the Bible, and Jews are small in number. There are more factors that contribute to the perilous nature of Jewish identity.
Sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem used to be an essential part of Jewish identity. That changed in 70 AD when Rome destroyed the temple and Jerusalem. Romans killed, enslaved, dispossessed and exiled Jews. In 2012, Zvi Eckstein and Maristella Botticini published The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, 70-1492. Previously, the authors argue, Jews had been like most people throughout most of history. They made their living from the land in agriculture and animal husbandry. After 70 AD, Jews could no longer sacrifice at the temple. Jews had to find a new way to keep Judaism alive.
In this new paradigm, Jews would remain Jews by funding the writing of Torah scrolls, and by teaching sons to read, write, and study Torah. Most people through most of history have not been able to read and write. Jews, therefore, came to have an almost magical skill. Jews were employed for their newly cultivated skills in literacy and numeracy. Only a small number of literate men were needed in any given location in the ancient world, and usually only better-off people could afford to hire a literate and numerate employee. For these reasons, Jews began to disperse and Jews began to be associated with their wealthier, more powerful employers. Given that Jews in various locales shared their own languages – from Aramaic to Yiddish – Jews could keep in touch with other Jews throughout their diaspora. Botticini and Eckstein write, “Almost all Jews entered urban occupations despite no restrictions prohibiting them from remaining in agriculture. This occupational selection remained their distinctive mark thereafter.”
Jews’ new role was a mixed blessing. Jews were, again, a distinct identity, and a relatively small group, now associated with the powerful, but not themselves as powerful as their patrons, and they were also associated with professions that most people did not practice. Most people in the ancient and medieval world were farmers and herders. Jews were urban, educated, working in markets, banking, medicine, management, and minting money. There are fault lines between farmers and merchants, between the formally educated and those lacking formal education, between the rulers and the ruled, between rural areas and urban ones, and between people practicing agriculture and a barter economy and people using money. All those tensions arose between non-Jews and Jews.
In 1973, Edna Bonacich, the daughter of a rabbi, offered an outline of middleman minority theory. Middleman minority theory isn’t the complete explanation for anti-Semitism, but it is helpful in many settings. Middleman minority populations are concentrated in urban, skilled, and mercantile professions. They are not constrained by the surrounding culture’s taboos that impede business progress for those rooted in their communities. Rooted peasants, like my black neighbors who “keep it real,” often do not strive to excel; rather, they aim for equal status with others in their community. Think of the “tall poppy syndrome.” Working hard would not advance the status of many such people; they were trapped by serfdom, slavery, sharecropping, or other conditions that relegated them to dying at the same status they were born into. Middleman minorities have at least a ritual tie to another territory, and, if only in a mythic sense, experience themselves as “sojourners.” The sojourner mindset impedes the forming of intimate bonds with members of what Bonacich calls the “host” society. Bonds are formed with other members of the middleman group, even those geographically distant.
Groups other than Jews have performed middleman minority functions. Chinese have been middleman minorities in Asia; Koreans have been middleman minorities in American inner cities – think of the “Rooftop Koreans” meme. Armenians were middleman minorities in the Ottoman Empire; Indians and Lebanese in Africa; Japanese in Peru; Tamils in Sri Lanka. As Thomas Sowell, Amy Chua, and others have pointed out, where a distinct ethnic group has played the role of the middleman minority, tensions have arisen, and atrocities often follow. Muslim Turks committed a genocide against Christian Armenians. Muslim Indonesians committed hideous rapes of Chinese women in 1998. Indians were expelled from Uganda in Africa. In 1983, during “Black July,” Sinhalese pogromists tortured, raped, and murdered thousands of Tamils, and triggered a civil war.
Humans kill and commit atrocities against their neighbors. Jews, for the reasons mentioned above, have a long history, and have lived in diaspora since the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. Jews, over millennia, have had many neighbors, and therefore, there was a chance for tension between Jews and members of other groups. Jews have faced prejudice in many different countries because Jews’ unique job skills, after the literacy revolution, sent them to many different countries, and located them in the middle – that is, in fault lines between demographics. Jews are not uniquely evil; Jews are not supernaturally destined to be persecuted.
Instead of citing historical contexts that can help elucidate otherwise incomprehensible violence and hate, the knee-jerk position has been to blame Christianity. On November 3, 2023, influential journalist Fareed Zakaria appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher. Zakaria attended Yale and Harvard. He has worked for CNN, TIME, Newsweek, and Foreign Affairs. Zakaria is an influential man.
Maher asked, “What do you make of this gut-wrenching level of anti-Semitism? It was like a volcano that blew. I don’t know where this comes from … among young people who hated Trump because he [allegedly] wouldn’t condemn the people with the tiki torches. You are the ones with the tiki torches now!”
Zakaria responded, “It comes out of Christian ideas about Jews.”
Zakaria is the son of an Islamic theologian. He knows that he is lying.
In 2019, Bari Weiss published How to Fight Anti-Semitism. Weiss hits Christianity hard, and inaccurately. And she is very careful not to be too hard on Islam. See my review of this book here. A Facebook friend, a prize-winning poet, was asked how to understand Hamas atrocities. He blamed priests and nuns.
Nazism is a separate topic. Nazism was its own ideology, hostile to Christianity, and springing from very different roots. I make that argument here. But what about the Rhineland massacres, the Spanish Inquisition, Bogdan Chmielnicki, pogroms? These atrocities were committed by Christians.
Christians who committed atrocities against Jews acted directly against their founder, their scripture, and their most authoritative teachers. Jesus was a Jew, living in Israel, citing Jewish scripture, speaking a Jewish language, participating in Jewish ritual life, tracing his lineage back to King David. Jesus’ apostles were Jews. New Testament authors, possibly, but not certainly excluding Luke, were Jews. Jesus never tortured or killed anyone. He endured torture and death without resistance, out of love for humanity. Jesus taught love. Jesus identified Jews as God’s chosen and the people who would produce the Messiah. Jesus said, “Salvation is from the Jews.” Paul taught that God’s promises to the Jews are irrevocable. Christians of all denominations accept the full authority of the Old Testament; rejection of the Old Testament is heretical.
The New Testament contains a minority of lines that are harshly critical of Jews. These hair-raising words were written by Jews writing as part of a Jewish tradition. Matthew and John, both certainly Jewish authors, contain the most problematic verses. Luke, whose identity is in debate, is not a source of anti-Jewish material. The Old Testament contains similar verses of equal ferocity criticizing Jews. Conversely, as mentioned above, the New Testament contains verses extolling Jews. In any case, there is no command for Christians to commit violence against Jews. It’s undeniable, though, that anti-Semitic Christians have exploited New Testament verses to foment hatred of Jews.
On the other hand, popes and other officials repeatedly condemned mistreatment of Jews. See Sicut Judaeis and other similar preceding and subsequent papal decrees. See also “Bishops and Jews in the Middle Ages” by Norman Roth. Roth describes philo- and anti-Semitic clergy and disproves an image of uniformly negative interactions. The mid-sixteenth century Council of Trent denounced the popular concept of deicide, that is, the idea that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. We, the council insisted, are responsible. “We” includes all Christians, and all people. Pope Pius XI said that, spiritually, Christians are all Semites. Pope John Paul II said “The Jewish religion is not extrinsic to us, but in a certain way is intrinsic to our own religion. With Judaism, therefore, we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion … you are our elder brothers.”
Exactly because there is no command or precedent in the New Testament for Christians to persecute Jews, understanding the position of Jews living among Christians requires reference to historical context. In some places, at some times, persecution was intense. In other places, at other times, relations were non-violent, conducive to Jewish flourishing, or even mutually affectionate.
By some estimates 80% of American Jews have ancestry in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which, at its largest, extended from Estonia to Romania, and into today’s Russia. Author Paul Berman depicted life for Jews in “darkest Poland” as comparable to life for blacks in the American South. Berman’s image, of Polish Jews as comparable to black slaves, is both widespread and false. Salo Baron, “the greatest Jewish historian of the 20th century,” criticized such views as the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history.”
Rafael Scharf was born and grew up in interwar Poland. He asked, “If it was so bad, then why was it so good?” What Scharf meant by “so good” is encapsulated in a quote from historian Joseph Adler. In interwar Poland, “Jews who formed ten percent of the population constituted thirty percent of the country’s university students, forty-nine percent of all lawyers, forty-six percent of the physicians, as well as fifty-nine percent of the nation’s population engaged in commerce, and twenty-one percent in industry … Judaic studies would flourish … in 1937 alone the Jewish community of Poland published some two hundred fifty periodicals and over seven hundred books.”
In contrast, in the early twentieth century, the majority of Poles were poor farmers whose ancestors, in the previous century, had been serfs. In eastern Poland, literacy rates were as low as forty percent. When Booker T. Washington visited Poland, he observed, “Wherever in Poland money changes hands a Jew is always there to take charge of it. In fact, it seemed to me that the Jew in Poland was almost like the money he handled, a sort of medium of exchange.” One can see numerous fault lines between Polish Jews and Polish Catholics.
Christians and Jews have interacted for 2,000 years. One can’t, in a brief article, fully describe 2,000 years of interaction in several different cultures, countries, and political systems. One theory – the middleman minority theory – no matter how useful that theory may be, can’t explain every fault line between Jews and Christians. This much is clear. Some, not all Christians, including church officials and lay Christians, have, at times and in places, disseminated anti-Semitic hatred, and falsely insisted that that hatred was Christian. Christians have oppressed, persecuted and murdered Jews. At other times and in other places, other Christians, clergy and lay, have had mutually beneficial interactions with Jews. Throughout history there have been Christians who, at the risk of their own lives, have championed and protected Jews against deadly violence. They cited genuine Christian beliefs in that work. Every member of the Ulma family was murdered by Nazis for the help they offered Jews. The Ulmas offered that help because of the authentic Christian teaching found in the parable of the Good Samaritan (see here). In spite of the worst conditions in Nazi-occupied Europe, Catholic Poland produced more “righteous” saviors of Jews than any other country. Those righteous included priests and nuns.
When the world conflates Christianity with anti-Semitism, it doesn’t do so out of love for Jews. It does so out of hatred for Christianity. Anti-Semitism and Christophobia walk hand in hand along the same demonic path. Reference to historical context would not excuse atrocities committed by Christians against Jews; there is no excuse. But reference to historical context would deepen understanding of anti-Semitism, and all hatred, and clarify understandings of Christianity per se. This essay strongly recommends reference to historical context when discussing Christian anti-Semitism.
When we discuss events like October 7, and the wider phenomenon of Muslim anti-Semitism, it is conventional to reverse the approach taken in reference to Christian anti-Semitism. Christianity itself is made to be responsible for hate. Historical context is ignored. Regarding Islam, historical context is to blame for anti-Semitism. Islam itself is white-washed as a “tolerant” “religion of peace.”
The white-washing of Islam has a history. In Islam in History, Bernard Lewis wrote that even when Islam was at its most tolerant “the golden age of equal rights was a myth … invented by Jews in 19th-century Europe as a reproach to Christians – and taken up by Muslims in our own time as a reproach to Jews … if tolerance means the absence of discrimination, then Islam never was or claimed to be tolerant, but on the contrary insisted on the privileged superiority of the true believer in this world as well as the next.”
People familiar with the Rhineland Massacres are not generally familiar with the 1033 Fez Massacre, when Muslims massacred an estimated 6,000 Jews, took Jewish women as sex slaves, and stole Jewish property. Jews were again massacred in Fez in 1438 and 1465. In 1066, Muslims crucified a Jew in Granada, and massacred the city’s Jewish population. In 1941, Muslims in Baghdad massacred Jews. In 1817 in Morocco, Sol Hachuel, a 17-year-old Jewish girl and a renowned beauty, was beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam. In nineteenth century Morocco, Jews were required to walk barefoot when outside the ghetto. In the ninth century, Muslims forced Jews and Christians to wear identifying badges – donkeys for Jews, pigs for Christians. Periodic decrees, stretching across centuries, in Muslim North Africa and the Middle East ordered the destruction of synagogues. Also periodically Jews were ordered to convert to Islam or be killed. In 1909, a British observer wrote, “The attitude of the Muslims toward the Christians and the Jews is that of a master towards slaves, whom he treats with a certain lordly tolerance so long as they keep their place. Any sign of pretension to equality is promptly repressed.” These facts are not adduced to prove that it was all bad all the time for Jews under Islam. I mention them because they complicate powerful propaganda whitewashing Islam as “tolerant” and “peaceful.”
This essay cannot provide, and is not trying to provide, an exhaustive history of life for Jews in the Muslim world. Rather, this essay is meant to address those who have succumbed to popular romanticization of Islam as “tolerant” and “peaceful,” and who emphasize historical context of Muslim anti-Semitism, and ignore the Islamic substrate of that anti-Semitism.
Many factors thoroughly differentiate Islam from Christianity. The Quran is not comparable to the Bible. The Bible has roughly 800,000 words, written by perhaps forty authors over the course of over a thousand years. The genre of Biblical books changes from allegory to poetry to erotica to reportage. The Quran is about 80,000 words. The Quran is a tenth of the size of the Bible. It is replete with repeated material; if all those repetitions were removed, it would be 40% of its current size. The Quran’s brevity offers many fewer opportunities for varying interpretations of previous statements. The Quran states in its first chapter that Jews earn God’s anger and Christians have gone astray from God. Nothing elsewhere in the Quran softens or disagrees with that pronouncement, one that pious Muslims are required to repeat seventeen times daily.
Jews and Christians have been debating the Bible for thousands of years. These debates are a necessary part of community and are ongoing. Debate is modeled by Biblical characters like Abraham, Jacob, and Mary. The Bible is regularly translated anew, as language changes. The Quran, in contrast, is perfect and eternal. Translations are not allowed. To say that anyone created the Quran is punishable by death. Muslims insist that no changes have ever been made to the Quran, though this claim is patently false. The Muslim’s job is not to question the Quran. The Muslim’s job is to submit, unquestioningly, to the Quran.
The Quran forbids Muslims from taking Jews and Christians as friends (5:51). Jews and Christians are the worst of creatures (98:6). Jews are the worst enemies of Muslims (5:82). Allah turned Jews into apes and pigs (5:60). Allah cursed the Jews with humiliation and poverty (2:61). The Quran orders that those non-Muslims who are allowed to live – so that they can enrich Muslims with their tax dollars – must be ritualistically and perpetually “humiliated.” This humiliation applies to Christians and Jews. And of course the Quran quite clearly recommends eternal warfare, torture and death for non-Muslims (5:33).
Muhammad, whose historicity is disputed, is the putative founder of Islam. Muslims understand Muhammad to be al-Insan al-Kamil, the perfect human, worthy of emulation. Muhammad declared himself a prophet of the same line as Jewish and Christian figures. He declared this though he was an Arab Pagan, and not Jewish, he lived in the Arabian peninsula, not in Israel, he did not know the Bible, and he did not descend from David. Muhammad, according to his legendary biography, craved affirmation from Jews, but Jews saw through him. Whereas Christians accept the Jewish Bible as authoritative and from God, Muslims reject and indeed calumniate the Bible. Ownership of a Bible in a Muslim country can lead to imprisonment, torture, and death.
Muhammad committed a genocide of a Jewish tribe, the Banu Qurayzah. Muhammad ordered the torture with fire of a captured Jew, Kenana al-Rabi. Muhammad took as his sex slave this tortured and murdered Jew’s wife. Muhammad had also killed the father and brother of Safiyah bint Huyayy. Muhammad ordered the expulsion of Christians and Jews from the Arabian peninsula. Zaynab bint al-Harith, a Jewish woman, poisoned Muhammad. When asked why, she replied, “You killed my father, my uncle and my husband. There is nothing left you have not done to my people.” In some versions, Muhammad eventually died of this poisoning.
Hadiths are the collected sayings of Muhammad. Hadiths reaffirm Islam’s eternal warfare against non-Muslims. Muhammad declares, “I have been ordered (by Allah) to fight against the people until they testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah.” Hadiths also report that Allah will take sins from Muslims and use them to torture Christians and Jews in order to relieve Muslims. Muslims will be saved from Hell when Allah places a Jew or Christian in the place of the Muslim. According to another hadith, “The last hour would not come unless the Muslims will fight against the Jews and the Muslims would kill them until the Jews would hide themselves behind a stone or a tree and a stone or a tree would say: Muslim, or the servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me; come and kill him; but the tree gharqad would not say, for it is the tree of the Jews.” Muslims take this hadith so literally that they think that Israelis are planting gharqad trees for self-protection. In another hadith (Muslim 2997a 7496) Muhammad said that some mice or rats are actually human Jews in mouse form. One can differentiate between real mice and Jewish mice by inviting them to drink camel’s milk. The Jewish mice will decline. Next, the Muslim must invite the Jewish mice to drink sheep’s or goat’s milk. That, they will drink.
Hamas describes itself, not as a political entity, but as a religious one. Hamas speaks of Israel in Islamic terms, as a “waqf,” that is territory once inhabited by Muslims and that, therefore, according to Islam, must never again be allowed to be anything but part of Dar al-Islam. “Palestine is an Islamic Waqf consecrated for future Moslem generations until Judgement Day” reads the Hamas covenant.
Islam, not historic context, creates and perpetuates violent hostility between Muslims and non-Muslims, especially Jews. Focus on any increase or decrease in settlements or any other political question will not end conflict. Applying distorted paradigms and wrong assumptions about Christians or Christianity to Muslims and Islam is a deadly mistake.
Danusha Goska is the author of God Through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.