By David Scott Milton
It’s been said so often it’s become commonplace, Santayana’s apothegm: those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. And no where has the past been so scrupulously avoided than in present talk about Israel and the Palestinians. The past is the elephant in the room, its importance in direct proportion to how we avoid it. This avoidance is so widespread that it almost seems a conspiracy of the present against the past. No one seems to know how the world arrived at where it is.
Let’s take the past by the hand and coax it from shadow, parade it before us, look at it clearly, without sentimentality or hypocrisy. How have Palestinian and Jew reached this desperate place? The near past is rich enough, but we must go beyond that, we must plunge to the heart of hate. Mystical, tribal, religious, fanatical, such ferocity is rooted deep, deep. To comprehend the fury that exists between Arab and Jew we must go to the roots.
We must examine, simply, without dogma or deception, in the most precise ways, the relationship between Jews, Muslims, and Christians—and we must go way back to do this-- or we will understand nothing. There’s a crystal clarity that links three of the world’s major religions, a relationship that transcends borders and armies and occupation and the knot of political problems that seem so intractable today. Yes, they are intractable, but for reasons far different, deeper, yet clearer, purer than what we believe them to be.
A caveat here: I look at religion with a skeptic’s eye. The more I read in the world’s religions, the more convinced I become of how essentially human they are. Sacred aspiration seems to me to be human yearning, shot through with occasional blindness and arrogance. Religions are poetic, moving, wise; they can also be angry, ferocious, dogmatic, and murderous. Once you enter the dimensions of religious prophecy and vision, eschatological rant and messianic certitude, whether you’re Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, James Jones, or those people eager to ride the Hale-Bopp comet, you’re open to murderous or suicidal action in the name of God.
It begins with the Jews. There is something ironic and deeply tragic in the destiny of the Jews. They had the ill fortune to be “God’s chosen people,” the people of the Bible who brought monotheism to the world. Ah, what a burden, what a curse!
Like the emperor parading in his birthday suit, the fate of Jews cries out for comment. The fate of the Jews has been bound with hate, inextricably bound and theologically induced, hate of the deepest, most elemental sort, exhibited by both Christians and Muslims and inherent in their theologies. There is no getting around it. In the relationship between the world’s great religions, it is at the heart of everything.
One would think to be chosen of God is to rule the world. Uneasy rests that crown, however. The Jewish world before the New Testament, the world as Christ emerged, was one of superstition, messianic yearning, eschatological hysteria: behind every stone and bush was a Jew filled with messianic delusion, crazed prophets intent on upgrading God’s ukase. Simon Magus, John the Baptist, Bar Kokba, the Essenes, the Zealots, the Christians. Not good enough God, the Father.
He needs a Son. And when the Son was rejected by the larger Jewish community, he was offered to the wide, wide gentile world and soon like poor relatives who have been snubbed by the family, the new gang, the Christians, turned on the parents with a fury unequaled in history’s tragic dirge.
The old idea of God, the sole God, God the Father, made the newcomers uneasy because they knew the Hebrew God was the original. Like a screenwriter called in to rewrite a film, they expropriated the material of the early writer; evidence of first authorship was either removed, fuzzied up or tinkered with; that original draft was shown to be so flawed without the emendations that as a document on its own it was not only worthless, but blasphemous. In addition, since it couldn’t be erased, the new theology was backdated so that it conformed to the old theology. Thus in a tortuous litany of begats King David is the progenitor of Joshua who becomes the Messiah because the first draft, the Old Testament, says that’s how it has to be. Who was the extraordinary genealogist who kept the books for a thousand years from David to Jesus?
Similarly, Ibn Ishaq, the great seventh century Arabic historian, begins his monumental biography of Mohammad, with a long scroll of “Mohammad’s pure descent from Adam”, unreeling the requisite antecedents: “Muhammad was the son of Abdullah, born of Adul’-Muttalib (whose name was Shayba), born of Hashim (whose name was ‘Amr), born of ‘Abdu Manaf (whose name was al-Mughira)” down to Qaynan, Yanish, Shith, and finally, Adam. Fortunately, it takes only a half page to get to Muhammad from the first man. We must assume God did some elegant genealogical editing for his Messenger.
Of course when you usurp someone’s position, you are wronging him or her and you loathe them and try to eradicate them. The whole bloody history of the Jews, Christianity, and Islam, if it is a testament to anything, it is a testament to this.
After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the stain of the Jewish Diaspora spread through the Mediterranean, then Europe. The Jews had been an enterprising people for much of their history; they were now scattered around the known world. Others remained in Palestine and the surrounding lands, Syria, Babylon, Mesopotamia. There were Jewish towns throughout the near Orient, Jewish tribes. The Jews were the wealthiest strata of these oasis communities, merchants, artisans, and intellectuals. Known as the People of the Book, they were held in awe by the illiterate Bedouin who worshipped a phalanx of pagan deities. The Jews maintained their religion, the one God, Jehovah.
In the Arabian Peninsula there were thriving Jewish communities, none more so than at Yathrib, a desert oasis on a major caravan route. Founded by Jews in 135 AD, it was an important center of trade and agriculture. The Jews of the peninsula were distinguished from the Arabs by their religion, their learning, and their wealth. And their hair! The Jews wore it in ringlets, the Arabs parted it.
Like Arabs, they were organized into tribes. They had Arabic names, wrote in Arabic: some of the most glorious literature from that era was composed by Jews. They were successful farmers who had introduced the date palm and irrigation into the desert. They were smiths, working in gold and silver, fashioning swords and knives. (To this day, the Yemenite Jews are celebrated for their work with metals.) They had a thriving weapons business. They were wealthy and powerful and envied.
To the north of Yathrib, (which the Jews called “the city”-- in Aramaic Medinta, Arabic, al-Medina) was the settlement of Khaibar, another Jewish oasis, also plump with wealth, the richest Jewish settlement on the peninsula.
A generation before Mohammad was born, farther south, in Yemen a Jewish King, Yusuf As’ar, ruled. The Arabs called him Dhu Nuwas, “the man with the hanging locks”, after the manner the Jews wore their hair. Startlingly handsome, he had come to power by slaying the former king who had held him in homosexual slavery.
The Byzantine Christians had treated the Jews abominably. In retaliation, Dhu Nuwas slaughtered them by the thousands. Byzantium mounted an invasion force from Abyssinia and the Jewish King was resoundingly defeated. Legend has it that Dhu Nuwas, in shame, drowned himself by galloping on horseback into the sea.
Two hundred miles to the southeast from Yathrib, was Mecca. In was here in 570 that Mohammad was born to an upper class family that had fallen on hard times. His mother and father died young and an uncle, Abu Talib, a merchant who often led caravans to and from Syria and Mesopotamia, raised him.
Mecca was a trading center, on the main road between Palestine and Yemen. The roads from the Red Sea intersected here, linking Ethiopia to the Persian Gulf. It was a pagan city devoted to the cult of Hubal. In a valley, by the well of Zamzam, stood a square building known as the Kaba, Arabic for “cube.” The cornerstone of the Kaba was an idol, Hubal, carved out of red chalcedony. The Arabs of the near Orient worshipped stone and each collection of tribes had its stone idol. Surrounding the Kaba were three hundred and sixty idols. Bedouin and merchants came from all over the Arabian Peninsula to worship in this sacred valley. Indeed, the major industry of the area was tending the Kaba and the Shrine of Hubal.
As far as we know Mohammad never did learn to read and write, but he was a bright, energetic, quick-thinking, practical child, though given to depression and strange fits which some scholars have likened to epilepsy. Working for his uncle, he became a camel driver and traveled extensively across Arabia into Syria and Mesopotamia. On his travels he picked up odd chunks of knowledge, stories and legends, jumbled and contradictory which nevertheless affected him deeply.
He knew from the Jews and Christians Old and New Testament stories, but since he was illiterate and could not read them in their biblical elaborations, much of what he understood was inaccurate. Indeed, to the end of his life Mohammad did not distinguish between the sister of Moses (Miriam) and the mother of Jesus. He mixed Biblical stories with the desert superstitions, charms to ward off evil, incantations to conjure up jinns and angels.
As a young man, he found employment as a camel driver for caravans operated by a rich widow, Khadija bint Khuwaylid. These caravans made their way to Syria and back, bringing Byzantine goods to the market in Mecca. Mohammad soon managed all of the caravans for the widow and eventually married her. He was twenty-five. She was forty.
Mohammad’s marriage to Khadija was the turning point in his life. She was an excellent wife and Mohammad was immediately elevated to a position of wealth and importance. Always spiritually inclined, Mohammad saw in the abrupt change in his fortunes, a greater power’s hand. For years this power had been speaking to him.
The Arabs at that time had myriad gods: Allah, the Divine One, was one of the chief gods, creator of the universe: When you swore an oath, you swore it to Allah. He had three daughters, Al-Lat, goddess of the morning star, Al-‘Uzza, the Sun goddess, and Manat, goddess of fate, who held the thread of life at knife’s edge.
The world was spirit obsessed; everywhere were idols and soothsayers and jinns of good and evil. Through his fragmented knowledge of Christianity and Judaism, Mohammad grew to believe in one God, Allah, who would unite all men and elevate the lives of the Bedouin, shatter the Arabian idolatry, raise up these backward desert people to the level of Jew and Christian.
The Arabs at the time looked on the Jews and Christians as rare and exalted beings, sustained by powerful religions, arcane knowledge that they kept in sacred books sent from heaven, miracles, prophets. They knew the secrets of Allah, how to pray to Him, fast for Him, reach Him. The Arabs, since they did not know these secrets, were isolated from Allah and ignorant and impoverished because of it. They must learn from the People of the Book.
Mohammad felt a unique destiny. While he recognized Abraham and Moses and Jesus as great prophets, he came to believe that he was God’s last and greatest prophet, his special messenger. Didn’t Allah’s voice, through the Angel Gabriel, proclaim to him, “Your Lord … found you poor and enriched you?” He had come out of his trance with God’s message inscribed in his heart! “Have you thought on Al-Lat and Al-‘Uzza, and on Manat …? The unbelievers follow but vain conjectures and the whims of their own souls, although the guidance of their Lord has long since come to them….Recite in the name of the Lord who created man from clots of blood. Recite!”
Possessed, Muhammad preached to all who would listen to him. Allah was the one God. He had been the God of the Jews and the Christians, but now Muhammad was his Messenger and Allah’s word would go forth to the whole world. It would be the last word. It would affect all that came before and all yet to come. It overwrote everything, the past and the future.
Jesus had said, “No man cometh unto the Father but by me.” God, through his Messenger, proclaimed that this was wrong. You now and forevermore would come to God through Mohammad.
Mohammad had little success. His wife believed in him, but few others. Still he persisted. Others came to him, outcasts, crazy men, slaves. He was beginning to annoy the keepers of the idols in Mecca, the wealthy and powerful, the very men whose caravans he had led years before. Now he was undercutting their credibility.
The number of his disciples grew until he had over a hundred. He was most effective with the young. Like many cults, his movement attracted a number of children. Arab society was centered on the family and the tribe. Mohammad insisted that his followers put the Messenger of God before family and tribe, an idea unheard of in that time and place. Their parents, some of the leading families of Mecca, despised him as a man who was not only ruining their idol business, but stealing their offspring as well.
He refined his message, simplified it. Submit to the will of Allah, pray, fast, give alms. Prayer would bring you halfway to God, fasting to His palace door. Alms would pay your way in.
His fortunes turned sour. His wife and uncle died within days of each other. He immediately took another wife and not long after made plans to take yet another: he was betrothed to Aisha, the six-year old daughter of Abu Bakr, his most loyal follower. When she was nine, they were married. Eventually, the Messenger of God had thirteen wives. Aisha would remain his favorite.
His obstinacy in asserting that he was God’s last prophet offended even those close to him. His uncle, before his death, refused to accept Mohammad’s teachings. His neighbors ridiculed and mocked him. He came to believe that Mecca was doomed. It would be destroyed in some fiery, horrible cataclysm. He became convinced that his murder was being plotted.
The tribe of Quraysh controlled Mecca. Indeed, Mohammad’s family, members of the Hashim clan, belonged to the Quraysh. Nevertheless, they had had enough of him and his hectoring, his condescension, his reckless assaults on the Kaba, and they prepared to attack him and his followers.
In July of the year 622, a group of Mohammad’s followers set out for Medina. This is considered by Muslims to be the turning point for Islam: the religion dates itself from July of that year, when Mohammad and his followers started their trek to Medina. (The word “hegira”, Arabic, hijra, means “emigration”, not flight, as is commonly believed.)
Mohammad had some support there and visions of even greater acceptance. Medina was essentially a Jewish city and he had come to believe that the Jews would welcome him, if not as a messiah, then certainly as a great prophet. In the ferocious summer heat, his followers, made their way in small groups to Medina. The trip, which followed a circuitous route to avoid Quraysh fighters, took ten days. Mohammad was the last to leave. In the month of September, 622, with the Quraysh moving in on him, he fled with Abu Bakr, on camelback to Medina.
After the death of his wife and his attacks on the ruling families of Mecca, Mohammad’s financial fortunes waned. In Medina, he and his followers found themselves in desperate straits, living virtually from hand to mouth. They became laborers, barely above slaves, working for the wealthiest segment of the society, usually Jews who were successful farmers, artisans, entrepreneurs.
Mohammad immediately sought to convert them to his new religion, which at that time had been influenced by Judaism and was quite close to it in practice and theology. He accepted the miracles and prophets of the Old Testament. He considered that he and his Arab followers, through Ishmael, were also, like the Jews, descended from Abraham. He and his followers wore their hair in ringlets like the Jews, bowed in prayer to Jerusalem, and even fasted on the Jewish Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement. The fledgling Muslims were encouraged to follow at least some of the Jewish dietary laws and they were permitted to inter-marry with Jewish partners.
He made little progress. Instead, he was ostracized and ridiculed by the Jewish community. His Biblical learning was spotty and erratic and filled with Arabic legend and stories, spirits, jinns, necromancers. He picked up a few crazed Jewish outcasts. That was about it.
Things grew increasingly difficult. He and his followers, verging on starvation, were forced to beg alms. He went to the wealthy Jews and Christians of Yathrib. He told them that he was God, Allah’s, prophet, He attempted to get money. Yes, they would give him and his bizarre sect money, but they expected interest on these loans.
In desperation, he took up the sword. He and his followers set about attacking the caravans that passed through Yathrib. Allah had given him permission. He was God’s last prophet! The world must come to believe in him and his message.
Thus began Mohammad’s resolve to conquer by the sword. It is a resolve, an attitude and belief that has never wholly left Islam.
Rajeb (our November) of 623 was significant in Mohammad’s new religion for two reasons: the Prophet had sent a raiding party to attack a Meccan caravan during Rajeb, an unheard of breach. (For generations, by common consent, caravans could pass unhindered through the Arabian Peninsula during sacred months. Rajeb was such a month.) Of more consequence, a Meccan member of the caravan was killed. This act marked the first time Muslims had killed.
Mohammad was upset, but not for long. In a revelation, God spoke, absolving him: “You are obliged to fight, much as you dislike it... They ask you about the sacred month. Say: ‘To fight in this month is a grave offense, but to prevent men from the path of God…is far more grave in His sight. Idolatry is a greater sin than killing.” (Verses 216 and 217 of the surah, “The Cow.”)
In the Arabian Peninsula of this era, poets had great influence. They were the social commentators of their day. Invective poetry was a high art and the poets of Mecca and Medina turned on Mohammad. Ibn Ishaq tells us of the ferocity of the attacks on the Prophet and how he dealt with them. Two Arabic poets of Medina, a woman, Asma bint Marwin and an old man, Abu Afak, were particularly offensive. Abu attacked Mohammad and his followers for trying to impose a rigid and foreign morality on their tribes. The woman heaped vituperation and obscenity on those who bowed before the force of the Muslims. She referred to them as “fucked men” for having obeyed Mohammad, a stranger among them. He never forgave Abu Afak or Asma bint Marwin.
He also turned on the Jews for having rejected his teachings. No longer would his followers bow to Jerusalem or fast on the Day of Atonement. The Jews let their hair flow free in ringlets and Mohammad’s followers had done the same, but now they reverted to the Arabic tribal custom of parting the hair in the middle and binding it. He cursed Asma bint Marwin and asked if no one would rid him of her. That night, surrounded by her children, she was slaughtered in her bed. A few weeks later, Mohammad again cried out if someone would not rid him of the poet Abu Afak. He, too, was slain in his sleep.
In Mecca, the poet, Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf, whose mother was Jewish, had recited poems attacking Mohammad. The Prophet sent out word among his followers that he was to be done away with. When told the poet was particularly elusive, Mohammad instructed the assassins to employ any ruse to get him. They pretended to be disaffected followers of the Prophet and lured Ka’b from his bed, killed him, and brought his head to Mohammad.
Mohammad could bear much. He could not abide ridicule. Assassination followed assassination. In his fury, The Messenger of God told his followers, “Kill any Jew you come upon!” According to Ibn Ishaq his face was black with rage. Shortly after, one of his followers slaughtered a Jewish merchant for whom he had worked. The killer’s brother rebuked him and the killer, Muhaiyisa ibn Masood, announced that had the Messenger of God ordered him to kill his own brother he would have cut off his head in an instant.
Till the time of Mohammad, family and tribal ties had been the strongest bonds in the Arab society. The Messenger of God destroyed these ties and placed Islam and his calling above all of that. In a frenzy of religious fervor Muslims now found it a duty to slaughter all those-- Jews, Christians, idolators-- who opposed The Messenger of God.
The Apostle vented his disappointment and fury on the, Banu Qaynuqa, the weakest of the Jewish clans. He attacked them and was about to put the whole clan to the sword when one of his group, a converted Jew by the name of Abdullah and a great favorite of the Prophet, prevailed upon him to show them mercy. He forced them into exile. They were among the wealthiest families in Medina, gold and silversmiths and he confiscated all of their goods, an immense fortune.
His ferocity against the Jews continued unabated. Through the Koran, he took all that was particular to Judaism and turned it against the Jews. God’s voice declared: “When We made a convenant with (the Jews) We raised the Mount above them and said, ‘Enter the gates in adoration. Do not break the Sabbath.’ We took from them a solemn covenant. But they broke their covenant, denied the revelations of God, and killed the prophets unjustly. They said, ‘Our hearts are sealed.’
“It is God who has sealed their hearts, on account of their unbelief. They have no faith, except a few of them.
“They denied the truth and uttered a monstrous falsehood against Mary. They declared, ‘We have put to death the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, the apostle of God.’ They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but they were deceived by magic that they did.’…
“Because of their iniquity, We forbade the Jews wholesome things which were formerly allowed them; because time after time they have debarred others from the path of God; because they practice usury—although they were forbidden it—and cheat others of their possessions. Woeful punishments have We prepared for those that disbelieve…”
Allah, through the angel Gabriel spoke to Mohammad. One of the longest chapters in the Koran is the sura, The Cow. It seethes with invective against the Jews.
Over the next years, Mohammad diligently persecuted the despised Jews. In the process he took their land and their wealth. A group of the most prominent families in desperation made common cause with the most powerful families in Mecca to drive Mohammad and his followers from Yathrib, now called El Medina. Under the leadership of Abu Sufyan, a highly intelligent Meccan of the ruling Quaraysh tribe, a coalition was formed between the Jews, the Meccans, and a horde of desert clans. Altogether an army of ten thousand men and six hundred horses and camels set out to attack Mohammad at Medina.
Mohammad, however, had grown increasingly strong. Through the wealth and lands he had confiscated from the Jews and a policy of assassinating his enemies, he had become a formidable presence in Medina. Though his force of three thousand was clearly outmanned, he controlled the defenses of the city. Even one Jewish tribe that had remained there, the Qurayza, supported him.
The larger army charged and retreated and feinted and played unsuccessfully at an attack. At last the desert tribes grew weary and left the battle scene. Next the Quaraysh and the Jews withdrew, the Arabs to Mecca, the Jews north to Kaibar.
Now Mohammad turned his attention to the Quarayza in Medina. Even though they had supported him, he felt he could not trust them. According to the eighth century Islamic scholar, al-Waqidi, while preparing to root them out, Mohammad declared: “The Jews lie…”
He lulled them into believing that, though he was convinced their support of him was insincere, he would deal kindly with them. They left the safety of their fortified camps and laid down their arms. Their sentence, Mohammad decreed, came down from Allah: a great ditch was dug in the market place at Medina; the men were beheaded, nearly a thousand of them, the women and children sold into slavery. All their land and wealth was confiscated.
Next he negotiated with the Quraysh of Mecca. He insisted he be referred to as the Messenger of Allah. The Quaraysh refused and Mohammad, to the dismay of his followers, backed down. But he had achieved what he had wanted: the alliance between the Jews of Kaibar and the Meccans was destroyed.
Now he could go after the Jews, their great date plantations, their enormous wealth. The Jews of Kaibar were really a loose coalition of tribes that only grudgingly cooperated with each other. He defeated them easily. Instead of slaughtering these Jews, as he had his allies, the Quarayza, he carried out only token killings while appropriating all of their extraordinary wealth. When the other Jewish tribes of the region saw this, they, too, capitulate.
Since the death of his wife, Mohammad, appears to be have contracted a malady not unknown in our era, the mid-life crisis, which he resolved not only by ginning up his Prophetdom, but by acquiring an array of wives and concubines. Allah, in the Koran, encouraged him in this: “If you fear you cannot treat female orphans with fairness, you may marry other women who seem good to you: two, three, or four of them, or any slave girl you may own.” I’ve mentioned Abu Bakr’s, daughter the six-year-old, A’isha. And there were others, including several Jewesses taken as concubines: the widow of one of the men slaughtered at Medina; another, a Kaibar seventeen-year-old, of exquisite beauty. Her husband had displeased Mohammad and been dispatched to the nether world, Gahenna. Both women, naturally, were converted to Islam.
It would seem the Prophet was only enjoying the portent of Paradise, for hadn’t Allah in the Koranic surah “The Merciful” promised His adherents, “bashful virgins whom neither man no jinnee will have touched before.” Sheltered in their tents, amid gardens of fruit trees, date-palm and pomegranate, watered by flowing springs, these virgins as fair as corals and rubies, chaste, lovely, dark-eyed, on couches lined with thick brocade, green cushions and fine carpets, recline there “for those who fear the majesty of their Lord.”… A woman whose husband has been beheaded isn’t necessarily a virgin, but then the aftermath of battle is not quite Paradise either.
The Jews of Medina had been wiped out. Kaibar was destroyed and its wealth confiscated.
The Jews were now a subjugated people. Islam, as Christianity before it, had grown out of Judaism and the Old Testament, and now it turned on its procreator with catastrophic vengeance.
The decline of the Chosen People is too dolorous to enumerate here. As Islam spread by the sword throughout the Near East, then into the Mediterranean, throughout the north of Africa, Jewish fortune waned calamitously. At times through the Middle Ages, in Spain and elsewhere, segments of Mohammadism were relatively benign toward the Jews. But the Christians, in reaction to the rise of Islam, were on the march now. And they had their biblical injunctions to justify the wiping out of the progenitor religion. Matthew and John, both Jews who had become Christians, turned on their siblings in classic Jewish self-hate. None of the gospels are as ferocious in their condemnation of the Jews as Matthew and John. In Matthew 27, after giving up Jesus for crucifixion, the Jews call out, “His blood be on us and on our children!” Ah, yes, no equivocation there! And then there was John 8 and Jesus calling to the Jews who would not follow him, “Ye are of your father the devil and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning and abode not in the truth…”
How many millions of Jews burned for those words?
I will not retell all the calamities that befell the Jews from the rise of Islam and Christianity to the fall of the Ottoman Empire. I will engage in a quick tour. The Romans had destroyed Solomon’s Temple. They built a shrine to Jupiter where the temple had been. Eventually, the Byzantine Christians erected a Church there and later the Moslems got into the act by building Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount. It was here, in 620 AD, that something extraordinary befell the Prophet. Though Muhammad disavowed any talent or penchant for miracles, he did claim to have traveled by flying horse from Mecca to Jerusalem and thence up to the Seventh Heaven for an overnight visit.
During the crusades, the Jews were burned and disemboweled and buried alive throughout France, Germany, Bohemia, Hungary and down into the Levantine. When the crusaders reached Jerusalem, the slaughter was beyond comprehension. The streets literally flowed blood. All the Jews that remained in the city, the ones whose families down the centuries had somehow managed to survive there through Roman, Byzantine, and Moslem occupation, those that had lived through the entry of the crusaders into the city, the pathetic remnant of a people, were now herded into a synagogue and burned alive.
By the 19h century, the Jews were a people beyond desperation. Again, I will not engage in a litany of inquisitions, pogroms, slaughters, banishments, blood libels that afflicted them. Shakespeare’s England had rid itself of Jews and yet in his genius Shakespeare, who most likely never knew a Jew, created a great Jewish character, Shylock, and in the end of “The Merchant of Venice”, when the Jew demands his pound of flesh from a Christian, Shakespeare has him echo the Gospel of St. Matthew, “(Christ’s) blood be on us and on our children.” Shylock, puts it thus: “My deeds upon my head.”
Upon the heads of Jews rained Christian retribution. Anti-Semitism raged through Russia, Germany, Poland, Roumania, Hungary. The Germans accused the Jews of being in league with the French to destroy them and the French claimed the Germans were working with the Jews to undermine France. The Dreyfus affair in France in 1894 was a culmination of the fury against the Jews. Out of the despair of pogroms, destruction, degradation emerged Zionism which promised to the Jews a haven; and where else should it have been but in the land of the Bible? A fragile Jewish community in Palestine had somehow hung on through the centuries. The cry, “Next year in Jerusalem,” had been part of Jewish ritual extending back to the early centuries of the Common Era. The Jewish liturgy was filled with prayers and lamentations calling for a restoration of Israel.
The latter part of the nineteenth century saw a great influx of foreigners into what was loosely called Palestine. Zionist Jews, of course, but also anti-Zionist Jews, Christians sects, Socialists, Communists, Russians, Germans, French, Poles, Muslims came from all over the Levantine, North Africans, Egyptians, Turks, Circassians, Druze, Kurds, Bosnians, Persians, Afghans.
The Zionist Chaim Weitzmann played on the innate fear and paranoia of the British upper classes to gain a promise from them. When the Muslim Ottoman Empire finally collapsed after the First World War, the British gained a mandate to govern Palestine. For more than half a century Jews had been settling in Palestine which had been a backwater of the Ottoman Empire, with no fixed government and few permanent settlements. Bedouin tribes prevailed. The land, which in biblical times was lush, had grown fallow and arid. The law that existed was based on custom and retribution. It was ferocious. Anyone who wronged you or your family must be harshly dealt with. An eye for an eye and if you did not carry out this revenge, tha’r in Arabic, you were considered less than human.
British Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour declared, upon the imminent collapse of the Ottoman Empire, that the British viewed with favor the idea of a Jewish national home in Palestine.
There were conflicting claims. Arabs throughout the Mideast wanted what they seemed to have possessed: the Ottoman Empire should be replaced by Muslim states.
The Jews it would seem had an inside, if precarious track on a small portion of the former empire. There had been a Jewish presence in Palestine since biblical times. The indigenous Arabs were mainly Bedouins. The Jews held, as it were, the original lease on the land, the Bible. And for this, as for most of their woeful history, they were hated and reviled.
The Jews, fleeing the pogroms of middle Europe, came to Palestine as settlers. They built cities. They cultivated the land. They created industries. They bought sections of land from wealthy Arabs who then told their fellahin tenants that the Jews had no right to that land, that they had cheated and stolen the land from them.
Tensions grew up between essentially urban settlers and desert nomads. The Koran fueled these tensions. Long before there was an Israel, long before what has been called an occupation, Arabs have been terrorizing Jews in Palestine and using the Koran, the harsh surah, “The Cow”, as justification.
And there was a natural and inexorable inclination to conflict. The Zionists on one hand were passionate, determined, and aggressive; the fellahin were often looked down upon and treated with contempt. The Arabs for their part were suspicious and resentful of what they considered Jewish interlopers. This hostility was fueled by their religion. Islam justified the true believer in using any means possible to expel the despised foreigners. The Jews on their part had their true believers who brandished the Holy Bible as their mandate.
The tensions came to a confluence in Jerusalem in 1920. That year the Jewish Passover, the Greek Orthodox Easter, and the Muslin festival of Nebi Musa occurred during the same week in April. Nebi Musa was a gathering of Muslims from all over the Levantine in Jerusalem. It was organized to counter the influx of Christians into Jerusalem during Easter.
This year Nebi Musa was particularly violent. Prodded by Arab nationalist speakers, gangs of hoodlums roamed the streets beating Jews, burning their homes and looting their businesses. The Arab crowds chanted, “Islam was spread by the sword! We own this land! The Jews are our dogs!” In Arabic this formed a rhyme. In the days preceding the attacks on the Jews, Christians, despite having marked their homes and businesses with crosses, had also been attacked. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre had been desecrated.
The riots raged out of control. Jewish schools were vandalized. Torahs were destroyed; buildings set afire. Elderly Jews were beaten and stabbed to death. Children were assaulted, women raped. Realize this: There was no Israel at the time. There was no “occupation.”
When order was finally restored by the British, five Jews had been killed and over two hundred wounded, many seriously.
A year later, a week after Passover, the Arabs went on a rampage in Jaffa, looting, killing, raping. Fifty thousand people lived in Jaffa at the time, twenty five thousand Muslims, fifteen thousand Jews. The remaining peoples were Christians or other religions. The riot broke out because a group of Jews, mostly Eastern European immigrants, had offended the local Muslims by walking to the beach from their lodging in bathing suits.
The house, which was run by the Zionist Commission, was attacked by a mob armed with guns and bombs, sticks, and iron bars. Arab police joined the mob. Old folk, women, and children were beaten to death, shot, stabbed, axed. Women were raped, their bodies mutilated.
The riots spread to settlements beyond Jaffa. In the end order was only restored when the British High Commissioner ordered planes to bomb the mobs from the air.
Throughout the twenties, tension continued between Jew and Arab. In a sad echo of the relationship between seventh century Jew and Arab in the Arabian Peninsula, the Jews were worldly, relatively well off, while for the most part Arabs were peasants. The towns the Jews built were modern, efficient, the Arab villages next door, poverty-stricken, primitive. The envy of the Jews, reflected in the Koran, found its reality in the countryside of Palestine.
Though the Balfour Declaration stated that Arab interests would be protected, and this was reiterated in every subsequent declaration on the subject, the Arabs would have none of it. They wanted the Jews, despite their heritage, despite the biblical history, out of Palestine, out of Jerusalem.
Employing the Koran as the final word on the subject, their religious leaders in Palestine and the surrounding Arab states continued a drumbeat of ugly and bloody invective. The Jewish Bible no longer held power for the Jews. God had declared them non grata, expelled. All declarations came straight from God, through Mohammad, his last Prophet. It was incumbent upon all true-believing Muslims to rid Palestine of Jews.
As mentioned before, the Arabs had appropriated the Temple Mount for themselves by building the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the site where Solomon’s temple had once stood. If you’re going to usurp a religion, you must usurp its symbols. It was here, Islam proclaimed, that Mohammad had tied his horse before he flew up to heaven for an overnight visit.
Through the 1920’s there was constant tension between Jew and Arab over the Jews treating the Western Wall as something sacred. Despite the fact that the wall had been used as a place of worship since at least the middle ages, whenever the Jews attempted to define the area as anything more than a wall, on the High Holidays, for example— the Arabs became furious. They would not permit any symbols of the Jewish religion to be exhibited.
Much of what went on between Arab and Jew extended back to what had occurred between Mohammad and the Jews in Medina in the seventh century. The Muslims claimed to own the final word in God’s message to mankind. The Jews found this claim ridiculous and insulting.
The Muslim religious leader, Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Huseini, earlier had been sentenced by the British to ten years in prison for his part in the incitement of the Nebi Musa riots. He did not serve a day. He fled the country. Later, he was appointed Grand Mufti with the approval of the British High Commissioner for Palestine, Herbert Samuel, who was a Jew and a supporter of Zionism. Samuel’s obtuseness in this area proved a miscalculation of astounding proportion, but, alas, not surprising. The Jews, throughout their history, have consistently underestimated the fury and implacability of their enemies.
On the evening of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, September 23, 1928, controversy raged over a screen set up by the Jews at the Western Wall to divide men from women as the orthodox religion demands. With Arab onlookers screaming, “Death to the Jewish dogs!” the screen was torn down and an elderly Jew roughed up. Now the Grand Mufti accused the Zionists of wanting to take over the whole of the Temple Mount, to tear down the Al Aq’sa Mosque and rebuild Solomon’s Temple. Arab thugs roamed the area, assaulting Jews who even as much as set up chairs at the Wall for the elderly to sit on. Stones were thrown at worshippers and a cacophony of Arabic musical instruments kept up a steady stream of noise, attempting to drown out whatever prayer was undertaken.
Tension continued throughout the year and into the next. In August of 1929, it broke out in a pogrom of enormous proportion. It began on a Friday, the prophet Mohammad’s birthday. After services at the Al Aq’sa Mosque, Arabs rushed the Western Wall, beating the Jews there and destroying the Torah scrolls they carried.
The crowd, which had arrived at the Mosque armed, now roamed the streets, beating Jews wherever they found them. Outside Jerusalem, a group of Jewish boys playing soccer had the misfortune to kick their ball into a garden in a neighboring Arab village. One of the boys was grabbed and beaten to death. Hebron was essentially an Arab city of 20,000. There was a small Jewish community there numbering in the hundreds. The city had had its problems with anti-Semitism. There was a Muslim-Christian group, which had been carrying on a campaign of vilification of the Jews for years, but it never led to anything more than occasional harassment, fights, vandalism. On September 23, however, what had been relatively mild hostility toward Jews became ominous. Armed Arabs, returning from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, roamed the streets, calling out threats. A crowd formed. Speakers inflamed it. In the late afternoon the crowd moved on a Jewish school and began hurling rocks at it. A student who attempted to flee was grabbed by the crowd and stabbed to death.
By the next morning car loads of Arabs drove through the Hebron streets, signaling to the Jews by slicing their fingers across their necks, what their fate would be. They pelted Jewish homes with stones. Two Jewish boys, fleeing their house, were grabbed, beaten and stabbed to death.
Arab crowds broke into houses and beat the occupants mercilessly. Women and children were hacked with axes and swords. Heads were cut off. Two rabbis were killed and castrated. Another Jew was burned to death; a merchant who had served Arabs and Jews for years was stabbed to death and his daughter raped. A two-year-old child had his head ripped from his body. People were burned, stabbed, strangled, tortured. Houses, businesses, schools, and synagogues were looted and destroyed.
More than seventy people in Hebron alone were killed, including three children under the age of five and a group of Canadian and American yeshiva students. Across the country the toll rose to nearly a hundred and fifty.
It should be added that the massacre could have been much worse. Many Jews were in fact saved by their Arab neighbors.
The pogroms in Jerusalem and Hebron foreshadowed the unimaginable slaughter of the Jews a decade or so later by the Nazis. The Grand Mufti, who had so vociferously egged on the Arab crowds, had continued his attack on the Jews throughout the thirties. He eventually ended up in Germany, a lackey of the Nazis during the war. After the war he fled to France, where he was arrested as a collaborator. He managed to escape and made his way to Cairo where he spent the rest of his days a continuing force in Arab politics.
In an interesting, if enigmatic aside, Yasser Arafat over the years has alternately claimed a blood relationship to Haj Amin al-Huseini and vociferously denied it. His biography appears to have been manufactured out of both sides of his mouth: when talking to the Arab world, his cousin was the Grand Mufti; talking to the West, no relative at all. He has claimed Jerusalem as his birthplace, but also Cairo and Gaza. His birth name, it’s fairly certain, was Mohammad Abdel Rahman al Qudwa al-Husseini. In the early days, Arafat would regale people with anecdotes about his Jerusalem childhood as cousin of the Grand Mufti. In recent years he had refused to talk about it, which is probably just as well, considering the Mufti’s Nazi affiliations. When he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 with Yitzhak Rabin and Simon Peres, in an unusual bit of evasion, he did not submit a biography.
In the latter part of 1938, as Hitler’s armies, having annexed Austria, prepared to sweep into Poland, with the slaughter of millions and millions of Europe’s Jews looming on the horizon of history, the Palestinian Arabs were not through. The atrocities were not complete. In northeastern Israel, on the Sea of Galilee, is one of the four holy cities of Judaism, Tiverya. (The others are Jerusalem, Hebron, and Zefat) After the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in AD 70, it became the center of Jewish scholarship. In the modern era, the earliest European immigrants to Israel settled there in 1882. The first kibbutz was established there. It was here, in October of 1938, that Palestinian terrorists struck once again. Jews old and young, men and women, were massacred, nearly two dozen of them. Eleven children were murdered. The women had their genitals cut out, the children had been burned alive.
Keep in mind, again, this was before the State of Israel, before “occupation”, before Sharon and Netanyahu, before the West Bank, and the wars that followed the creation of the State of Israel.
In calling up the past, we have been forced to face brutal facts. Is it any wonder that most refuse to look on them? The suicide bombers and the events of 9/11 have roots going back into history, deep into the soul of history. Woe to a world and a people who face the fanatics of religion and politics and philosophy. Woe to a world that finds itself before the wrath and sword of the true believer.
Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman scholar of fanaticism and mass movements has written, “When hopes and dreams are loose in the streets, it is well for the timid to lock doors, shutter windows, and lie low until the wrath has passed.…Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil…Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance. A mass movement offers them unlimited opportunities for both.”
From the humiliation of Mohammad by the Jews of Medina in the seventh century to the aggressiveness and effrontery, modernity and tactlessness of the Jews of the 20th century, history has laid a heavy curse on the Chosen People; and in Mohammad, the last prophet’s, commune with God, the medieval mind of the fellahin has found its rationale, its calling, its liturgy for revenge.
The Koran says: “I made a covenant with the Israelites and raised among them twelve chieftains…But because they broke their convenant We laid on them Our curse and hardened their hearts…Those that make war against God and His Messenger and spread disorder in the land shall be slain or crucified or have their hands and feet cut off…”
Here now is the naked emperor. Most, if not all, of what the Jews have suffered throughout history grows out of theological doctrine, eschatological dogma. To the true believing Christian, the true Muslim, the Jews are the spawn of the devil. In Christian theology, Matthew, John, and elsewhere, the Jews were responsible for Christ’s crucifixion. And didn’t Allah declare, through his prophet, Mohammad—and Allah’s words are final, eternal, and irrefutable: “The most implacable of men in their enmity to the faithful are the Jews and the pagans…Those that disbelieve and deny our revelations shall become the inmates of Hell.”?
If one is a true believing Muslim one must believe this: It is God’s last word on the subject. Everybody tries to get around these ideas, to evade them, declare that they are fundamentalist and have no force, but if one really believes the religion, one must believe these things, these cruel and treacherous declarations with all the agony and tears and deaths that grew out of them. They are the very woof and warp, the texture, of Islam and Christianity.
We must come to terms with two enormously harsh and ugly facts—Christianity’s murderous assault on Jewish theological legitimacy, an assault that continued through the centuries, that involved inquisitions and pogroms and culminated in the holocaust-- “His blood be on us and on our children!” “Ye are of your father the devil and the lusts of your father ye will do.” And Islam’s ferocious and brutal attack and slaughter of Jews beginning at the very creation of the religion: “The most implacable of men in their enmity to the faithful are the Jews and the pagans…Those that disbelieve and deny our revelations shall become the inmates of Hell.”
With these pronouncements embedded in the New Testament and the Koran, the fate of the Jews was all but sealed for all time. What Christians and Moslems assert as theological truths are for the Jews blood libels that have created the most horrendous fate for a people known to mankind. No where in the dreary history of mankind’s inhumanity to man has one people suffered such on-going savagery.
When a child raised in fundamentalist Islam faces the Jews, he has God’s command to send the Jew to Hell. “Kill any Jew you come upon!” the Messenger of God had declared. It is a way to Paradise. After the campaign against the Jews of Kaibar, Ibn Ishaq tells us a Jewess, Zainab, attempted to kill Mohammad by poisoning his food. The plot was discovered. Three years later, as Mohammad, feverish with pneumonia, lay dying, he insisted that the Jewess had finally succeeded.
Should we ignore these things, minimize them, rationalize them, bury them? Should we let the emperor stroll through history naked and not comment on it? Should we ignore the past, repeat it over and over again, despite the fanaticism, the bombings, the death and destruction? Nearly three thousand at the world trade center—the next time who knows how many? And what of the avalanche of suicide bombings, Muslims falling over themselves to blow themselves up and secure their niche in Paradise with “bashful virgins whom neither man nor jinnee will have touched before.”?
And so we call these things to memory. We seek to understand them. We know that today’s immolations, today’s martyrs, grow from ancient injunctions, beliefs, envies, libels. These ideas, tragically, have enormous, growing power in our world, what we call the modern world. Through the Koran, through His Messenger, God speaks to these people.
We must look at the past clearly, unafraid, without hypocrisy and bias. We must strip away the veils of illusion and fanaticism. We must face the sword at the heart of dogma. We, too, must listen closely to the Messenger of God. We must strive to discern what he is really saying and who is listening to him.