Autocratic regimes within the Muslim world have long practiced a contrived and self-serving anti-Semitism. They use state-controlled media and politicised clergies to cultivate anti-Jewish animus in their citizenry. It is taught in schools and mosques through selective and acontextual readings of both scripture and history. This de rigueur hatred serves such regimes several uses. It provides them with a permanent conspirator that they can blame for social maladies and gives them a shibboleth to roil public emotions in order to distract them from administrative failures. They utilise the perceived sense of a common enemy to portray themselves as indispensable and justify the brutality and suppression of political expression which is the bane of the Muslim world.
Unfortunately, such attempts to divide are being reciprocated. Last year, Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, engaged in a distortion of history designed to foster hatred against Palestinians by exaggerating their role in the holocaust – even though he later retracted his statement. Aside from this, a number of Rabbis across Israel have campaigned for racism and segregation against Arabs, declaring it a Torahic precept to do so. In 2010, dozens of municipal Rabbis wrote a joint letter calling for denying Arabs housing in Jewish neighbourhoods on this premise.
A vital tool to counter these attempts to sow discord for political gain is an honest appraisal of the history of Jewish–Muslim relations. Let us examine some of the salient features of this history and inquire what lesson it is that history teaches us.
In the year 1163, Moses Maimonides wrote a letter known as the “Igeret Hashmad” (Letter of Apostasy) to the Rabbi, Ovadyah Hager. The letter was in response to certain views the Rabbi had expressed about Muslims and Jewish–Muslim relations. Rabbi Hager was urging Sephardic Jews to face execution rather than accept forced conversion to Islam at the hands of the Al-Muwahideen who had conquered southern Spain. Amongst his stated reasons for this was his belief that Muslims, due to their practices during the Hajj (annual pilgrimage to Mecca that includes walking seven times around the Kaaba and stoning pillars that represent Satan) were “idol worshippers”. Maimonides wrote: