A State of the Union Reading List
Will Obama’s Vision of Child Care Overcome Nixon’s Legacy?

The Fact and Fiction of Islamic Anti-Semitism

By Alan Wolfe


In an excerpt from At Home in Exile, historian and scholar Alan Wolfe warns that, although the kind of Islamic-inspired anti-Semitism behind the Charlie Hebdo–linked attack at the Hyper Cacher kosher market in Paris is real, it is important not to let these actions overshadow “ongoing efforts at cooperation between the two faiths.”

“How did the Jews get back at Hitler?” run the words of what one presumes to be a joke. “They sent him back the gas bill.” So spoke a British Muslim cleric, Abdullah al-Faisal, to appreciative laughter at a 2001 event in the English city of Luton. One of his listeners then posed some questions: “Should we hate Jews, and when we see them on the street, should we beat them up?” To which the good cleric replied, “You have no choice but to hate them. How do you fight the Jews? You kill the Jews.” These horrific sentiments are cited by Anthony Julius toward the end of Trials of the Diaspora. If Christian anti-Semitism is no longer as powerful as it once was, and if Jewish anti-Semitism is a far-fetched charge, then the most important source of diasporic anti-Semitism may well be the rancid language and all-too-frequent violent deeds emanating from the world’s ever-growing Muslim community, especially, as the Luton story suggests, in Europe, where tensions between these two faiths have been palpable. In a 2008 report, the highly reputable Pew Research Center found disturbing trends in xenophobia and anti-Semitism throughout much of the European continent. Not all such Jew hatred originates with Muslims. Neo-Nazi and ultranationalist parties, such as Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary, and Svodoba in the Ukraine, while clearly anti-Semitic, contain more than their fair share of native-born Europeans who in all likelihood hate Muslims as well as Jews. But all too much of it does. France in particular has witnessed serious Islamic-based violence against Jewish targets. Toulouse, for example, was not only where four Jews, including three children, were killed by a French Muslim in 2012, but it has also been the scene of repeated anti-Semitic vandalism since. Saudi-run schools in Great Britain, according to the BBC program Panorama, rely on textbooks filled with anti-Semitic words and pictures, including descriptions of Jews as “monkeys and pigs.” Malmö, Sweden’s third largest city, which has one of the largest percentages of Muslims anywhere on the continent and whose mayor once suggested that Jews bring hatred on themselves, has experienced record-breaking numbers of attacks, including an explosive placed in front of a Jewish Community Center. A survey conducted by the Belgian sociologist Mark Elchardus found that half of the Muslim schoolchildren in Brussels hold anti-Semitic views. One can argue about why these things are happening. But that they are indeed happening is obvious. Had large numbers of Muslims not made Europe their home over the past decades, anti-Semitism would no doubt still exist there. That so many have only adds to a potentially combustible mix.

WOLFE-AtHomeinExileFor some writers, Muslim hostility against European Jews is just the latest chapter in a long history of Islamic intolerance. Islam, they contend, has always been a violent faith, shaped above all by its fascination with holy war. Jews, from such a perspective, offer an opportunity for hatred Muslims simply never have been able to resist. The Prophet himself, according to this line of thinking, expelled the Jews from Medina. In subsequent years, for example, during the eighth- and ninth-century Abbasid caliphates of Harun al-Rashid and al-Mutawakkil, Jews were forced to wear distinctive markings, setting a precedent for the Nazis to follow centuries later with their yellow stars. Even during the so-called Spanish Golden Age of interfaith coexistence, they were nonetheless dhimmis, or second-class citizens. Throughout the rest of the Middle Ages they were forced either to convert or to face death in Yemen, Morocco, and what we now call Iraq. They were subject to the charge of blood libel in Damascus in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth, the Nazi campaign against them was cheered along by figures such as Haj Amin al-Husseini (1897–1974), the grand mufti of Jerusalem, who lived in Germany, helped the Nazis with their genocidal efforts in Bosnia, urged on them the need to find a solution, any solution, that would prevent Jews from emigrating to Palestine, and then spread his anti-Semitic poison throughout the Middle East after Israel came into existence. His work was carried on by Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; Sayyid Qutb, whose writings inspired the attacks on the World Trade Center; and in our time by the terrorists associated with Hamas and Hezbollah. “The totalitarianism—and the evil—of Islamic Jihadism,” writes David Patterson of the University of Texas at Dallas, whose book A Genealogy of Evil is only one of many that promotes such a point of view, “exceeds even that of National Socialism, extending as it does not only throughout this world but also into the next.”

History rarely unfolds in quite so consistent a manner, however, and many of the incidents that constitute this presumably unbroken chain of Jew hatred, especially in more modern times, do not quite fit the role assigned to them. It is true, for example, that Damascus became obsessed with charges of blood libel in 1840. But since, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out, “the Blood Libel makes sense only to those who believe in transubstantiation,” it was the Christians in that city, especially those associated with the French consulate, and not the Muslims, who were the most engaged with it. Along similar lines, the fact that the Holocaust extended its reach to Muslim Bosnia overlooks that it was even more prevalent in predominantly Christian countries such as Poland and Romania. (Bulgaria, which also has a significant Muslim population, was one of the only European countries whose Jews for the most part survived.) The truth is that the history of Islamic-Jewish relations is far from one of nonstop conflict. “There is nothing in Islamic history,” Bernard Lewis has written, “to parallel the Spanish expulsion and Inquisition, the Russian pogroms, or the Nazi Holocaust.” Among Arab countries, moreover, the same pattern held until the twentieth century: “Despite ominous developments in the wider world,” the historian Martin Gilbert explains, “the life of the Jews in some Muslim countries was never better than in the 1920s.” Such coexistence continued into the next, and most horrific, decade. When Hitler assumed power in Germany, the Iraqi Jewish community, 120,000 strong, was not threatened; and in North Africa a ruler such as Ahmed Pasha, Bey of Tunis, Gilbert continues, “showed his contempt for Vichy’s anti-Jewish laws by granting exemptions to several leading Jews.” (Never mentioned by those who insist on the unshakable hostility of Muslims toward Jews is that North African leaders frequently resisted the determined efforts of officials in Vichy France to persecute Jews of North African origin living there.) Along similar lines, Si Kaddour Benghabrit, rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, as the film Les Hommes Libre shows, provided refuge to a small number of French Jews. Contemporary Muslim-inspired anti-Semitism in Europe, in short, runs against, not with, the historical record.

Of all the points in what is offered as unforgiving Muslim anti-Semitism, the most crucial role is generally assigned to al-Husseini. No one can doubt the mufti’s vile anti-Semitism. Yet the idea that he acted as the transmission belt responsible for shifting anti-Semitism from war-torn Europe to the war-plagued Middle East cannot stand close examination. Al-Husseini was widely distrusted by other Palestinian and Arab leaders who found his demagoguery and extremism counterproductive to the cause of Palestinian nationalism. (For the same reason, he was a godsend to the Zionist revisionists, his views and actions serving as confirmation of their argument that the Arab problem could be solved only through violence.) However important he may have been during the 1930s, moreover, his influence waned after the state of Israel came into existence: although popular in the Arab world because of his militancy, he played little role in the emergence of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Fatah, its political offshoot. Controversy will always surround this man. Still, one thing about him is indisputable: more attention is paid to him by supporters of Israel than by its critics: Peter Novick pointed out that the article on him in the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, published by Yad Vashem in Israel, was longer than the articles devoted to Goebbels, Goring, Himmler, and Heydrich, while Gilbert Achcar, a Beirut-born French scholar, found ten times as many mentions of his name on English-language websites as on Arabic-language ones.

If the example of the mufti teaches anything, it is that Muslim-inspired anti-Semitism is very real—and that far from being a constant, unvarying, phenomenon, it breaks out due to particular contexts and situations. Two words of caution are therefore in order before concluding that the current situation in Europe proves that Jews, once again, will never be safe in the Diaspora. One is that we should not become so preoccupied with Islamic anti-Semitism that we ignore ongoing efforts at cooperation between the two faiths. The other is that precisely because Islamic-inspired anti-Semitism in Europe has been so very real, special care should be taken not to repeat the mistake of conflating genuine race-based hatred of Jews with political criticism of Israel.


Alan_Wolfe-by_Lee_PellegriniAlan Wolfe is professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. The author and editor of more than twenty books, he is a frequent contributor to the New York TimesHarper’s, and the Atlantic. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.