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Jewish-Muslim Relations

Ideological Background

Like Christianity, Islam is a daughter religion of Judaism in the sense that it takes the Hebrew Bible and Jewish monotheism as its starting point. In a process which is similar to the Christian theology, Islam then proceeds to proclaim a universal message. Judaism too proclaims values of universal and timeless application. But whereas Christianity and Islam each seek, in contradiction to each other, to convert the whole of humankind to their faith, Judaism does not. Uniquely among monotheistic religions, Judaism is not evangelical.

The Koran, like the New Testament, inevitably includes some material which denigrates the Jewish people. On the other hand, Islam accepts both Moses and Jesus as prophets, and Jews and Christians are respected as People of the Book, with protected or Dhimmi status. In practice, this has often meant that Christians and Jews have been second-class citizens in Muslim countries. The result has been that Jews under Muslim rule have historically suffered varying degrees of humiliating discrimination, and sometimes active persecution.

Historical Background

In the seventh century C.E., there were a number of Jewish tribes in Arabia, including three Jewish tribes in Medina. Shortly after the Hijra (the migration to Medina in 622 which marks the foundation of Islam) Mohammed offered the Jews freedom to continue their own religious practices within Islam.

When the Jews refused to acknowledge him as a prophet, Mohammed moved to distance Islam from Judaism. A doctrine of original monotheism having its centre in Mecca was adopted, and Mecca was substituted for Jerusalem as the direction of prayer. Jewish opposition in Medina was crushed and many Jews were banished. In 628 Mohammed captured and destroyed the Jewish town of Khaibar, and he later moved against the other Jewish settlements in Arabia.

In 638, Mohammed's successor Omar took Jerusalem from the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius. There is a tradition that he then introduced the Covenant of Omar incorporating discriminatory regulations establishing an inferior relationship of Jews to Muslims. However Omar is generally remembered as a moderately benevolent Caliph, and most scholars now attribute the introduction of the Covenant to Omar II in the eighth century. The rules of the Covenant theoretically applied to both Christians and Jews, but with the rise of European influence they were in practice enforced primarily against Jews.

The provisions of the Covenant originally included the prohibition of new churches and synagogues, payment of a special poll tax, wearing of prescribed and distinctive clothing, prohibition against employing Muslims, and against using saddles. Over a period of centuries the rules were expanded to include more severely discriminatory regulations. The rules of the Covenant were sometimes enforced and often allowed to lapse, depending on political and economic conditions. The prohibition against employment of Jews in the public service, for example, was frequently disregarded.

From the eighth to the eleventh centuries in Spain, for example, Jews were often trusted advisers and military leaders for the Islamic rulers. However, in the twelfth century, when the fanatical Almohades conquered North Africa and Spain, the Jews of Spain were offered the alternative of conversion or expulsion, with the provision that converts would still be subject to the conditions of the Covenant.

The story of the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides is an interesting example of conditions under Islam during this period. He and his parents were among those who fled as refugees from Cordoba, eventually arriving at Fez in Morocco when the Almohad persecution eased. Then, as forced conversion resumed, the family left for Acre in Palestine at the height of Crusader-Islamic conflict, and thence to Egypt, where an atmosphere of tolerance prevailed. In Egypt, Maimonides eventually became a physician in the court of Saladin, while his brother became a successful trader, buying gemstones in India.

Then, in the fifteenth century, after the expulsion of Jews from Christian Spain, it was Islamic Turkey which offered refuge and a place of honour for those who left.

The Establishment of Israel

The rebirth of Israel as an independent Jewish State was a traumatic event for some Muslims, as it posed a threat to the concept of Islam as the conquering force of truth, superseding other forms of monotheism. In order to rationalise this dilemma, the creation of the Jewish State was equated with European Christian colonialism, which had been similarly resented as a slur on Islamic dignity since the nineteenth century.

One response to the Arab-Israel War in 1948 was an outbreak of anti-Jewish persecution and expulsions in the Islamic world. There followed a massive explusion of Jewish communities, with hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees airlifted to Israel from Iraq, Yemen and Morocco in particular, and others arriving from all parts of the Islamic world. Unlike the Palestinian refugees, these expelled Jews were not even partly the authors of their own misfortune. But like the Palestinian refugees, they received no compensation for their losses.

Aonther consequence was the adoption for the first time by Islamic propagandists of traditional Christian antisemitic stereotypes. Cartoons appearing in the Egyptian and Syrian press look exactly like those from Der Stuermer (The Nazis' infamous antisemitic propoganda newspaper). The medieval Christian Blood Libel, the modern Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and Holocaust denial, have quite suddenly become part of the Islamic lexicon.

Jewish-Islamic Relations in Australia

The organised Jewish community has had no difficulty in establishing relations with Islamic communities such as the Turks, Afghans and Bangladeshis. In fact the Jewish community publicly supported the Bangladeshi Muslim community in overcoming their problems with the establishment of a mosque in the Bankstown municipality.

We have also had meetings with Islamic representatives on matters of common interest, such as the provision of Halal and Kosher food, divorce law reform and anti-vilification law. The Women's Interfaith Network has an Arab Islamic member who attends from time to time and in April 2000 a Jewish representative spoke at the women' s Muslim Youth Seminar.

One difficulty has been the publication of fiercely antisemitic articles in the local Arabic press, both Christian and Islamic. In most cases the Board has succeeded in arranging apologies and retractions through the good offices of the Anti- Discrimination Board.

Another problem has been the primitively anti-Jewish utterances of Sydney's Imam Hilaly, accusing the Jews, for example of ruling the world through sexual perversion. As long as such utterances were not condemned by the Arab Islamic leadership, official relations were simply not possible.

The NSW Jewish Board of Deputies has carefully refrained from making inflammatory comments about these matters. We value the tradition of tolerance in Australian society, where all citizens are free to embrace whatever faith they choose according to their own conscience. We look forward to the day when the Arab Islamic community wholeheartedly embraces this principle and is prepared to have relationships with other faith communities on the basis of equality and mutual respect.

Recommended Reading

An Introduction to Judaism for Muslims
by Reuven Firestone


An Introduction to Islam for Jews
by Khalid Duran


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