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Jews And Muslims: It’s Complicated (III)


Original Guest post by Mehdi

Read part I and II in this series

The revolutions that swept across Europe: the French revolution, the Napoleonic wars and the 1830-1848 revolutions had a tremendous effect on the lives of people in the Muslim majority world:

  • Economically: as the industrial revolution radically changed world economics, increasing the importance of industry and manufacturing, it also reduced the importance of economic centers such as China, India and the Ottoman empire. Increased effectiveness in navy and train freight transportation fed the needs of the new European industrial elite, particularly hungry for natural resources.
  • Militarily: European powers acquired military experience and technology during their wars that gave them a decisive edge over potential opponents elsewhere in the world. This would prove decisive when they conquered nations and carved out their colonial empires, in the process destroying any resistance.
  • Politically and strategically: the wave of revolutions radically changed European politics and the structure of political systems. It also resulted in rivalries and competition that drove them to radicalizing their modern imperialist projects, which started to impact the rest of the world.

These changes are all well-known (documented by the late British historian Eric Hobsbawm), but most historical analysis focuses less on an important aspect: the impact of enlightenment ideas and modernity, especially on Arab minorities, including Arab Jews.

As explained in the last article, Jews (and Christians) lived under the Dhimma status, which provided a framework for protection and collective rights. The major paradigm shift was about the term “collective,� as this new era of modernity advanced the role of the individual and the importance of his/her rights.

Arab minorities were gradually exposed to these ideas, often via. European imperialist powers whose motives were less than noble. The imperialist powers carried out “divide and conquer� policies, using missionaries, trade delegations, military expeditions and specific legal arrangements known as capitulations.

European powers also declared themselves the protectors of so-called repressed minorities, such as the Druze or Maronite in Lebanon; a cynical move which sought to manipulate groups in order to increase their influence.

While the Enlightenment ideas were clearly instrumentalized for ulterior motives,  they were still attractive to minorities who aspired to a better status than second class citizenship. It should be noted however that there was also great tumult when changes were put into place, many minorities did not desire change to the status quo.

The decline of the Ottoman empire and other Muslim states led to a situation where they were incapable of addressing new challenges brought by modernity, they could not re-invent a legal system that worked for centuries but required adjustments or reforms in a new context. There were attempts to do so but they did not stir massive support, and were inaudible in the context of European aggressions.

European colonial powers also enacted laws and decrees that were clear “divide and conquerâ€? measures, such as the Crémieux decree in Algeria (named after Jewish French politician Adolphe Crémieux), which allowed for native Jews to become French citizens while Muslim Arabs and Berbers were excluded and remained under the second-class ‘indigenous’ status outlined in the “Code de l’Indigénat.â€?

CremieuxThere were many other examples, (such as the French promotion of Berber separatism in Algeria and Morocco to no avail), and while the previous example is specific to Algeria, it shows the impact of colonialism on coexistence between Algerian Jews and Muslims.  As their lifestyles changed, they started naming their children differently (moving from typical Arabic Jewish names such as Mardochee or Haim to French names such as Raymond, Maurice or Marcel), living in different neighborhoods and studying under different educational systems (if they ever went to school at all, since the indigenous populations were globally excluded from any education).

The Impact of European Anti-Semitism

Historically, while some limited collaborations existed, the lives of European and Arab Jews was quite different. It is impossible to list all of these differences, but it is important to highlight that the condition of European Jews, and the persecutions they were subjected to (pogroms in Eastern Europe, discrimination in central Europe, Anti-Semitic public campaigns such as the Dreyfus affair in France) ended up impacting the Muslim world.

The history of Anti-Semitism is complex, and should be differentiated depending on the European countries and regions, but their concrete effects resulted in European Jews debating the best ways of addressing them, choosing between different strategies:

  • Assimilation: many European Jews believed in their capacity to be accepted by succeeding in public life, whether economically, politically (e.g. Benjamin Disraeli), or by simply supporting the emancipating ideals of enlightenment or modernity. Many prominent Jews chose a more radical approach by being involved in anarchist or communist revolutionary movements. It is interesting to note that several examples of Jewish success stories resulted in backlashes and more Anti-Semitic delirium (as a side note, contemporary racist rants in the USA after the election of President Obama or in Europe against Muslim or Black ministers parallel this delirium).
  • Emigration: chosen mostly by Eastern European Jews, especially after several waves of pogroms. The preferred destination was usually the USA, until restrictions were applied through the 1924 immigration act.
  • Zionism: promoting a separate Jewish homeland. The movement was initiated by Theodor Herzl after the Dreyfus affair convinced him that Jews had no future in Europe.
  • Bundism: mostly based in Eastern Europe, promoting national-cultural autonomy but clearly in conflict with Zionism. Bundism depicted Zionism as an escapist doctrine, stating it served the agenda of Anti-Semites who wanted Jews out of Europe. Bundists defended Jewish communities in Eastern Europe until WW2. Famous Polish hero Marek Hedelman was one of its main figures, refusing to leave Poland and was also a prominent critic of Israeli policies until his passing. The Nazi holocaust, terror policies and repression ended up destroying the Bund movement.

BundThese directions are not a comprehensive outlook and strategies were not as clear cut, but this shows the different strategies that Jews had when facing European Anti-Semitism. The objective of this article is not to qualify which strategy is the best, nor to draw any political equivalence between such approaches. I am myself extremely opposed to Zionism but my criticism is not the topic of this article, the intent is to examine what happened and the resulting consequences.

Overall, the majority of European Jews either chose assimilation or immigration to the USA until 1924. The rise of Nazism in Germany and anti-immigration laws in the US aimed at European Jews changed the situation drastically and made the Zionist project an alternative in the 1930s and after WW2.

The Zionist movement started organizing departures of European Jews towards Palestine for settlement. The Balfour declaration provided the movement with political cover for departures, leaving the British in a situation where they had to balance their promises toward Zionist leaders with the promises of independence they made to Arab leaders. The British never established a clear strategy in the face of the arrival of Jewish settlers which led to more tensions and increased conflict such as the 1929 Hebron massacre.

While they were incapable of addressing the demands of both communities, the actions of the British strengthened the Zionist movement at the expense of Palestinian society and its leadership. For instance when they militarily crushed the 1936-39 Palestinian intifada and also simultaneously trained Zionist settlers, including many future Israeli army leaders within their ranks, such as Moshe Dayan. The events in the 1920s-30s gradually led the Zionist movement to become stronger, more militarized and tempted to implement an expulsion of the Arab population.

Intifada-36The outcome of the 1947-49 war was made predictable by the combined: crushing of the 1936-39 Palestinian insurgency (leaving the Palestinians with most of their political leadership either dead, in prison or in exile, crushed militarily, and with hardly any organized militia), the acquired military experience and weaponry by Jewish Hagganah and Irgun movements (during the Intifada and WW2), and the moral outrage following the horrific WW2 holocaust, which drew sympathy to the Zionist cause from the European and American public.

Joseph Stalin provided unexpected support to the Zionists first by allowing several tens of thousands of Polish Jews to emigrate to Palestine, including trained soldiers who had participated in resistance movements during the war, and by providing an important weapon shipment via. Czechoslovakia that David Ben Gurion later acknowledged to be decisive.

Ironically Joseph Stalin provided this decisive support to Zionists while conducting anti-Semitic campaigns in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

On the field, despite the intervention of Arab armies, the Hagana/Irgun and other militias outnumbered them, most estimates range between about 60,000 troops on the Israeli side versus less than 30,000 on the Arab side. The only army that was a potential threat to the Zionist militias was the Jordanian Arab legion, which never entered the battle due to a secret agreement between Golda Meir and King Abdallah, where the latter agreed to stay away from the conflict while being allowed to annex the West bank.

The war itself is subject to a lot of controversies, regarding the different strategies undertaken by the belligerents, the factors that led to the Israeli victory and the intentionality behind the mass expulsion of the Palestinians. The narrative of an Israeli “David” fighting heroically for its survival against superior Arab “Goliath” armies and winning against the odds has been the mainstream story for decades on the Israeli and Western side.

This view has started to erode since the 1980’s with the emergence of Israel’s “new historians”, the picture is now more nuanced, showing that the odds for an Israeli victory were even, if not overwhelmingly in its favor.

Nearly 80% of the Palestinian population living within the new state of Israel were expelled in what is known as the Nakba, most of them became refugees even before David Ben Gurion declared independence. (As often is the case in such tragedies, estimates are subject to speculation, the official figure is 711,000 Palestinians while 10,000 Jews were forced to evacuate their homes from Arab dominated parts of former Mandatory Palestine).

This was clearly shown and documented by the generation of “new historians,” who accessed the Israeli archives in the 1980s, confirming that the Palestinians were forced out massively and violently. There is a debate among the historians as to whether the expulsion was planned in advance (Benny Morris claims that it wasn’t whereas other historians such as Avi Shlaim or Illan Pappé conclude the opposite), but they all confirm that Palestinians were forced to leave their home. After the war, they would never be given any possibility to return to their lands, despite Israel signing UN resolution 194 that allowed such a return.


The irony is that Zionism, which presented itself as a liberation movement for Jews, became a colonization and expansionist movement for Arabs. That dilemma is still there, especially after the 1967 six-day war which saw the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai, and Golan heights (an occupation that still goes on except for the Sinai peninsula).

While the narratives continue to be debated, two points are indisputable:

  • The 1947-49 war resulted in the Nakba and saw the beginning of the Palestinian tragedy: causing moral outrage for Arabs and Muslims and a state of constant tensions and wars with the state of Israel, which presents itself as the representatives of Jews around the world.
  • Arab Jews were left in an uncomfortable situation, not clear whether to join the new state or stay in their countries.

The next and final article in this series will cover the separation between Arab Jews and Muslims, its reasons and effects and what we can and must do now.


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  • el turco

    Hi Just_Stopping_By,

    I didn’t mean to imply that there is no familial component to Judaism, but the “who is a jew?” question is much more controversial in the Ashkenazi world than amongst Sefaradim. Absent any Reform/Orthodox tensions, the Sefaradim adhere to the classical Biblical combination of matrilineal religious/ patrilineal tribal identity while retaining the historically inclusive understanding of conversion (the Syrian takkanah outside Israel is the exception that proves the rule).

    I think it’s hard to overstate the culture clash that Sefardic communities experienced around these types of issues in the 20th century.

  • Just_Stopping_By

    Hi, el turco:

    What you say about religious Jews and genetics is interesting. Having family and friends across the spectrum, I think it’s safe to say that every group views the others as having getting the question of “Who is a Jew” wrong. :-)

    After all, we know that matrilineal descent was discussed in the Mishnah, welll before modern secular Jewish movements were around. I think your point on secular Jewish movements focusing nearly exclusively on genetics is true, but it’s not as if genetics was not a serious component of religious Jews’ considerations as well. (And, note that groups like Reform Judaism have their own views, encompassing patrilineal descent as well as demonstrated observance of at least some Jewish custom(s).)

    Anyway, I’m glad to hear your views on this. It adds to the mosaic of thinking on the issue, which is indeed quite complicated.

  • el turco

    The only caveat is that the non-zionism (and sometimes anti-zionism) of religious Jews has a complicated relationship with the existence of the only state-military mechanism in over 2000 years which privileges rather than penalizes them for their Jewishness. This is especially true of my community, Jews of middle eastern descent, for a variety of reasons.

  • Mehdi

    True 😉

  • The greenmantle

    Not sure I am that special :-)

    Sir David

  • Tanveer ¯_(ツ)_/¯ Khan

    You probably did.

  • GaribaldiOfLoonwatch

    I’m glad we could embrace you into our bright loving orangeness! I think we saved your teenage years from the nether regions of internet Muslamic ray guns.

  • Tanveer ¯_(ツ)_/¯ Khan

    LoonWatch is a great place. It’s loving orange brings a sense of comfort and home and orange juice.

  • GaribaldiOfLoonwatch

    Hey, something nice about Loonwatch. A rare thing to hear these days. :)

  • el turco

    Great points and I think your understanding of the relationship between nationalism and enlightenment is the same as mine (whether we are correct is another question). I would only offer two corrections from a (“orthodox”) Jewish perspective:

    1. “Today self-identification, not bloodlines or genetics, has largely become the basis for adopting a cultural identity.” If anything it was the secular Jewish movements that made genetics the essence of Jewish identity. Religious Jews are brought up with the stories of Yitro, Yael, Ruth, Ovadia the Prophet, Shemaya and Avtalyon, Onkelos and the many other converts who became leaders of the Jewish people and defined our history. While Christian and Muslim restraints on Jewish conversion limited it for the past 2000 years, religious Jews have always understood our tribe to be defined by self-identification and open to all. After rejecting any metaphysical mission or meaning, secular zionists, bundists, etc… redefined Judaism as primarily an ethnic group. This secular re-imagining of Jewish identity is why most religious Jews never accepted modern zionism.

    2. “It seems that he [Cremieux] was trying to create a Jewish International cultural autonomy.” This autonomy always existed and in the 1600s a Jewish banking house in Istanbul could mediate between a Jewish port owner in Amsterdam and an Italian Jewish merchant, all while appealing to the legal rulings of the Rabbis in Palestine (an actual case!). All correspondence was done in a common language and culture based on Biblical Hebrew. The difference with Cremieux, and the later zionists, is that their dreamed Jewish international autonomy was based on enlightenment/nationalist principles rather than the Torah.

  • Mehdi

    Thanks, interesting thoughts.

    I think that the concepts of nationalism (a pretty modern concept in human history), national identity, all grew as a result of the complex 19th century in Europe. The conditions of the rise of nationalist sentiments came as part of the enlightenment and the French revolution was a huge catalizer, but not all European nations addressed it in the same way, minorities in Europe also lived it differently. I believed that Eric Hobsbawm described this better than anyone else.
    I think the scope of this topic goes beyond this article, but one key point was that enlightenment and modernity represented a positive change in some areas but also caused several reactions and side effects, including the rise of nationalism and the disastrous effects that came without it, people wanted their own freedom but not always the others’. Nationalism always seem to come at the expense of other people.

  • el turco

    You’re not wrong but the context is lacking. “Divide and conquer” only works on divided societies. The early islamic empires understood this principle and offered jews a way out of the “mellah/ghetto” through arabic acculturation in the same way the later french empire did through french acculturation.

    My discussion was of the secular alliance schools and their acceptance by actual sefardic communities, not the decrees which were enforced by military power. There the history is mixed.

  • Mehdi

    That is great to hear coming from you :-)

  • The greenmantle

    This is one of the reasons I like loonwatch – we can have and read such erudite conversations sometimes. Unlike other websites out there that are just full of echoes and hate .

    Sir David

  • el turco

    You once asked me how to make clear that your anti-zionism is not anti-semitism. I think knowing history is critical to this. Not only the bund, but the many non-exclusivist iterations of zionism make clear that this current situation was not inevitable. Freeing our minds from simple pro/anti dichotomies allows us to start proposing collaborative solutions. Abdallah Ocalan of the PKK is a great example of this:

  • Just_Stopping_By

    Well, I can keep two opposing ideas in my mind at the same time. Actually, I can’t. Well, come to think of it, I can. And I can still funkshunnnnn.

  • Mehdi

    Ok understood now, it does fit into the context, I may have misread also some of your previous comment. thanks.

  • Mehdi

    I have a friend whose relatives were bundist, unfortunately, WW2 descimated the movement.

  • The greenmantle

    Another great part to your series! I had never come across the Bundists before and found their approach interesting.

    Sir David

  • Mehdi

    Thanks El Turco, good comment about the Napeleon emancipation act, the enlightenment ideas had a positive effect on European Jews, especially the ones seeking assimilation or being involved in radical politics, I’m less clear on their effect for Zionism and Bundism.
    That said, I don’t think that it was a much of a continuation and that the spirit of the mideast French colonial policies were that correlated, there was also a very cynical usage of these emancipation ideals by French colonialism, and it took quite some time before the Cremieux decree was enacted after Algeria’s brutal conquest.
    As for the calls for reform, the people who called for Nahda in the Muslim world in the beginning of the 20th century (Al Afghani, Abduh, etc.) were not influenced by these ideas, they had other references. I didn’t read the Daniel Pipes article (and to be frank he’s not my cup of tea) but I sense that it’s an external call for reform coming from someone who doesn’t really understand nor wants to understand Islam.

  • Mehdi

    Very kind comment again, thanks Garibaldi and thanks for to LW for giving me this opportunity.

  • GaribaldiOfLoonwatch

    Along with the your series on the Arab Spring that delved into economic, social and historic factors, I think here as well you’ve given a tantalizing glimpse into the history between Jews and Muslims. There is so much to write and discuss on this topic, including the importance of taking into account regional specificities. Another casualty of European dominance and ideas penetrating the Muslim majority world was a belligerent form of nationalism, which too often, as you touched upon, was not able to integrate or make room for minority groups. I look forward to the next article.

  • Mehdi

    Thanks Mindy, totally agreed, it takes two sides to listen, engage and coexist. The harder part is trying to understand the other point of view, even if one doesn’t agree with it.
    I do like this quote on this quote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to
    function.” F Scott Fitzgerald

  • mindy1

    I think understanding the past could help towards a better future, but BOTH sides have to be open to listening…

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