Antisemitism in the Middle East in 1835

Antisemitism in the Middle East in 1835

In the editorial in the current January edition of the Australia/Israel Review, Colin Rubenstein takes on the false belief that antisemitism in the Middle East comes almost solely from the conflict with Israel and will disappear if there is an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. This was prompted partly by a speech by US Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman, which sparked controversy as a result of his claims that Muslim “hatred and indeed sometimes… violence directed at Jews generally [is] a result of the continuing tensions between Israel and the Palestinian territories” and should therefore be differentiated from “real” antisemitism.

In the course of the editorial, Colin noted:

It is true that, in medieval times, Jews in Muslim societies tended on the whole to be better off than in Christian Europe, but this is hardly to suggest that their human rights were fully respected.

Now, some material has come to light which illustrates this point brilliantly. The blogger “Elder of Ziyon” has published some excerpts from a book from the 1830s which make it very clear what the situation of Jews in the Arab world was at that time – before Zionism was even invented, and before there was much influence from European antisemitism on the societies of the Middle East. The book is An account of the manners and customs of the modern Egyptians, by Edward William Lane and Edward Stanley Poole, based on their numerous visits to Egypt over the period 1825-1835.

Lane and Poole wrote a relatively brief appendix on the Jewish community of Egypt which makes it clear that while they were both free to practise their religion and reasonably able to earn a living, they were also despised and hated, subject to arbitrary beatings and other abuses at any time by Muslim individuals, and also to frequent persecution and “exemplary” execution by the state.

Thus they write:

The Jews have eight synagogues in their quarter in Cairo; and not only enjoy religious toleration, but are under a less oppressive government in Egypt than in any other country of the Turkish empire. In Cairo, they pay for the exemption of their quarter from the visits of the Mohtesib… Being consequently privileged to sell articles of provision at higher prices than the other inhabitants of the metropolis, they can afford to purchase such things at higher rates, and therefore stock their shops with provisions, and especially fruits, of better qualities than are to be found in other parts of the town.

But on the other hand:

They are held in the utmost contempt and abhorrence by the Muslims in general, and are said to bear a more inveterate hatred than any other people to the Muslims and the Muslim religion. …It is a common saying among the Muslims in this country, “Such a one hates me with the hate of the Jews.” We cannot wonder, then, that the Jews are detested by the Muslims far more than are the Christians.

Not long ago, they used often to be jostled in the streets of Cairo, and sometimes beaten merely for passing on the right hand of a Muslim. At present, they are less oppressed; but still they scarcely ever dare to utter a word of abuse when reviled or beaten unjustly by the meanest Arab or Turk; for many a Jew has been put to death upon a false and malicious accusation of uttering disrespectful words against the Kur-an or the Prophet. It is common to hear an Arab abuse his jaded ass, and, after applying to him various opprobrious epithets, end by calling the beast a Jew…

The Jews in Egypt generally lead a very quiet life: indeed, they find few but persons of their own religion who will associate with them….The more wealthy among them dress handsomely at home; but put on a plain or even shabby dress before they go out: and though their houses have a mean and dirty appearance from without, many of them contain fine and well-furnished rooms. … They are careful, by every means in their power, to avoid the suspicion of being possessed of much wealth. It is for this reason that they make so shabby a figure in public, and neglect the exterior appearance of their houses…

This is, I think, a pretty good picture of the life of Middle Eastern Jews for much of the past millennium – with their religious freedom largely respected, less likely to be expelled or slaughtered wholesale than their European counterparts (though this did sometimes happen too) but at many times treated with hatred and contempt by the majority population, living constantly in fear of them, and frequently subjected to judicial persecution, rather than protection, by the rulers. It therefore rings hollow when people like Gutman and others (see here and here, for example), insist that there was little or no tradition of antisemitism in the Muslim world before the advent of Zionism.

I recommend that that anyone interested in this topic read the full excerpts from Lane and Poole republished by “Elder of Ziyon”, which contains further examples of how Jewish residents were subject to arbitrary execution by Egypt’s rulers. The full book, which looks fascinating but has relatively little about Jews beyond what ‘Elder of Ziyon” published, is also available online.

Tzvi Fleischer