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December 26, 2014 12:22 pm

Frenemies: Judaism and Islam

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Islamic worshippers finishing prayers. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

I always used to regard Islam as a religion much closer to Judaism than Christianity was. Its passionate Orientalism resonated much more with my experience of Judaism–less impersonally theological, instead more behavioral and warm. The Muslim centrality of Shariah, is akin to our wider use of the term Torah, with its emphasis on behavior. Maimonides said that according to Jewish law one may take an oath by Allah. According to him the word Allah and our names for God were one and the same, something one could not say about the Trinity.

The Muslim veneration of Mohammad goes way beyond our respect for Moses, who was revered less as a quasi-miraculous person and more as the vehicle of transmitting the Torah. Maimonides also pointed out that Christianity accepted the same Old Testament as we did, even if it thought it had been superseded by the New. Islam, on the other hand, claims we had forged and distorted the original text. A rather difficult claim to take seriously, given the prior existence of our text long before Islam ever appeared on earth. But since when have theological assertions ever been subject to logic or history?

I have always had a bias towards Orientalism and its mood. But there were other aspects of Orientalism I did not like: its attitudes to minorities, its male chauvinism, its more autocratic, less progressive mentality, and the tendency to violence that Jihadism seemed to encourage (yes, I do know there are rival concepts). But many of those elements can be found in the West, too. As a result I always felt a far greater affinity to Islam and a much closer personal connection with those Muslims I encountered in my youth and my career in the rabbinate.

However, once one leaves the theoretical regions of religious interaction there is an altogether different reality. The elephant in the room of course, is Israel and the presumption that this is what has soured relations. But the fact is that Jews were not treated that well under Islam. Jewish communities were assaulted, forced to convert and often killed just as often as Muslim powers tolerated them as second-class citizens, dhimmis. It was worse under the Shia than the Sunnis (and, of course, much worse under much of Christianity). But even then it was often random and unpredictable. This was the state of affairs even before modern nationalism appeared on the scene.

Jews had always been migrating to the Land of Israel. It is arrant nonsense to link Jewish settlement in the Middle East to the Holocaust. The religious connection with the Land had always been powerful. Three times a day we have prayed for Zion for two thousand years. Just think of Yehuda HaLevi’s famous poem written in medieval Spain, “My heart is in the east, and I am at the edge of the west.” The Ottomans positively welcomed Jews escaping from Spain. But now two nationalisms have clashed in what has become a case of two families wanting to possess the same house, not being willing to share it, and two religions each supporting their own (more or less).

I once used to try to avoid tension with Muslim friends by asserting that I was not an admirer of Zionism as a secular movement, that I was a Jew by religion. But the truth was that my religion’s connection with the Land of Israel was so powerful, even essential, that I did indeed want us to have a space of our own, and if that meant defending it, so be it. Given that everything is now measured in terms of National Identity and if Serbs and Croats can have their own states regardless of reluctant movements of population, to deny this to Jews, given the record of doors closed against them, could only be explained in terms of anti-Semitism.

Still, to this day I try to avoid awkward subjects. I never really liked nationalism. It always struck me as bordering dangerously on jingoism. I toyed with the idea of a return to a variation of the millet system under the Ottomans, where each religion ran its own affairs under a centralized bureaucracy. There is no way I could see that working now in the Middle East, where even internal Muslim factions are murderously engaged against each other.

Everywhere in the Middle East, the religious voice is growing and increasing in power at the popular level. We really are in the midst of a Kulturkampf, a battle of religion against religion, sect against sect, and all of them against the secularists. Tom Friedman argued recently in the New York Times that the voices of secularists are rising in the Middle East. I hope so, but I am skeptical. A few swallows do not make a spring.

Here’s the problem. Judaism is a priority for me. More so than for many Jews. If I care about the survival of Judaism, I will inevitably care about Jews, wherever they are. If I hear about Jews being attacked or oppressed, I do want to help them to respond. Just as when the Jews of Damascus were attacked and killed in 1840 (long before Zionism), or the Jews of Mashad were forcibly converted to Islam in 1839. The whole of the Jewish world rose to their defense. That is how I feel to this day.

Now if I care this way about other Jews, why should not Muslims feel the same way about other Muslims they see mistreated by Jews or Christians or anyone else? Cannot I maintain contact and friendship with people who have different priorities to me, so long as we respect each other’s differences?

Once I thought that people with a certain kind of education would incline to think for themselves. But nowadays whole nations and communities are so infected with deep anti-Semitism that it is almost true to say that a Muslim anywhere in the world is likely to be preconditioned to dislike Jews. In the same way that there are Jews who believe every single Muslim wants to kill them. I wonder nowadays when I see people in Muslim dress whether I should assume they hate me. In Abu Dhabi airport last month I wondered if someone might want to stab me. Even in New York I often notice black looks at my kipa from Muslims. But then Charedi New Yorkers tell me they often get black looks from almost everyone.

So what are we to do? Try to maintain a friendship by never speaking about the unspeakable? The fact is that everywhere one can find a distinction between the view of the masses, the prevailing orthodoxy, and the views of individuals. Arab Muslims are very different than Indian Muslims, who are different than Indonesians. Everywhere there is a majority that hates and discriminates, and a minority that cares and thinks for itself. Jews vary in their attitudes depending on religious affiliation, education, and degree of acculturation. Just because some, even many, of the “other” do hate or dislike us, should we allow that to deny ourselves the benefits of sharing common interests and the richness of other cultures with those willing to share?

The fact is that despite the whipped up frenzy of hatred that supporters of Hamas indulged in this past summer, there are so many examples of Jews still trying to build bridges with Muslims and plenty of examples of Muslims responding positively.

An editorial in the London Jewish News last week highlighted all the positive moves that are being made between Jews and Muslims in the UK. In Stamford Hill both religions combine forces on social issues. Similar green shoots can be found in New York. We must not let the hatemongers control the agenda, and neither must we fall back on a default position of antagonism.

These are the hardest times I can remember for interreligious relations, with many Christian groups too. Just as in the world of the sixties an understanding emerged to avoid theological issues that divided religions, so now I believe we can agree to avoid political ones if we wish to speak to each other. We can feel a person’s pain without agreeing about the political circumstances, whether it is race, religion, or politics. Just because secular politicians seem incapable of civility, we who claim religious inspiration must not descend into that black hole. I am more convinced than ever that we must persevere. I hope this coming secular year will be a better one for peace and understanding. We are not all barbarians.

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  • Islam, which is 99% ideology and 1% religion and Judaism have only one single matter in common: both are supposed not to eat porc.

    Islam embraces death, blood and misery. It is the only “religion” asking for the destruction of an other religion and people.

    • Jon R.

      Judaism is the only religion that enshrines God-ordaioned genocide in its scripture (while simultaneously whining about oppression at the hands of others.) Neither the New Testament nor the Koran indulge in that kind of hypocrisy.

      • Larry S

        Nowhere does the Torah give an unlimited blank check to genocide, one that is unconstrained by time or circumstance. But the Koranic injunction to not “make friends among the Christians and Jews”, or even the intent to “slay them where ever you find them” are not limited by space or time.

        Moreover, Jews, for, oh, the past 4000 years, have not been acting on the injunctions given when they entered the Land of Canaan. Moslems act on the incredibly violent and oppressive mandates of the canonical works of their ideology on a daily basis.

        You comment is puerile.

        • Jon R.

          “Nowhere does the Torah give an unlimited blank check to genocide,”

          Oh, I see–the Tanakh’s advocacy of genocide is actually nuanced and carefully calibrated. It’s genocide done the responsible way! It’s the thinking man’s genocide!

          Larry S, you are just one more hypocrite in the synagogue.

          “Moreover, Jews, for, oh, the past 4000 years, have not been acting on the injunctions given when they entered the Land of Canaan.”

          Jews, as such, have not existed for more than 2,500 years, and compared to the obvious Tankakhic fantasies like the narrative of the patriarchs, the sojurn in Egypt and Exodus, and the Book of Esther, the account of the destruction of the Canaanites and others is quite realistic. And the expansion, forced conversions and general intolerance of the Hasmonean period shows just what a Judenreich is like in practice.

          The only thing that has limited the scope of Jewish destructiveness is its small size and its diaspora existence over most of the last 2,000 years. Both before then end of Israelite/Jewish sovereignty in the 1st century AD and since the establishment of a vicious and expansionist Jewish state in the 20th century, we see unrelenting aggression and violence.

          Stop whining.

  • E Pluribus Wombat

    No. Just enemies and they can all incinerate in hell while screaming allah akbar or whatever.

  • charlie johnson

    There is a little white man in a wheelchair in England who is extremely well educated ,Educated leaders claim that he is the smartest man on the planet.He wants to leave us and move somewhere out there in the skies beyond the Moon.His greatest fear is that education has brought us the scientific technology to blow up our little planet and this event is scheduled for the near future. But in the meanwhile there are these highly educated individuals who are offering us the chance to allow them to restructure our relations to establish harmony among all races and creeds of humans.Then they will board a rather large space vehicle and fly away leaving all us happy campers to ogle over their great intelligence and wisdom. As for my own view of this offer. You can blast off now.Good riddance.

  • Jon R.

    Prior to the late 20th century, the general line was that Islam had treated Jews relatively well in the medieval and modern periods compared to Christianity and that it was ideologically much closer to “true” monotheism” than trinitarianism. The “Islam treated Jews well” meme was used to assail institutional Christianity in an attempt to make more Jew-friendly.

    In that late 20th century, Jews perceived that this meme was no longer quite so “good for the Jews.” First, because they had had considerable success in co-opting and re-shaping institutional Christianity to suit Jewish goals and second, because Islam emerged as the principal resistance ideology to Zionism and the imposition of an aggressive Jewish state in the Muslim Middle East.

    And so the narrative of “Islam-(relatively)-good and Christianity-bad” had to change, because it was no longer “good for the Jews.” There is no real attempt at ascertaining objective truth here, but merely of Jewish subjectivism in pursuit of particularist Jewish goals. End of story.

  • gandolf

    Islam is a crime against humanity worse than Nazism

  • Mark Jay Mirsky

    Dear Rabbi Rosen,

    Once again you have touched on a profound subject of concern to us all, Jews like myself, and other religious observers, with rare intelligence and judgment. It is sad that columns like yours do not have the wider circulation of media like The New York Times Op Ed page, or the journals like The New York Review of Books.


    • Esther

      Dear Rabbi Rosen

      Thank you for this article. Unfortunately there is so much uninformed comment around. Very grateful for your commentary. It would be great, as another commentator said, if your articles were more widely available.

      Maybe you could come and visit us in Australia. Jesus was Jewish, the only scripture he would have been reading/interpreting was the Jewish Bible, so I have found the insight given to me by internet Jewish resources and Rabbi’s like yourself of enormous value in understanding my own faith as a Christian.

      I feel it is a season history for open dialogue and seeking of truth between all faiths..based on what is really said in our books, not distortions of the scriptures.

      Thank you for your wisdom.

  • Here is another example of positive bridge-buiding between Muslims and Jews, see the book “Divine Diversity: and Orthodox Rabbi Engages with Musims”

    Thank you Rabbbi Rosen for keeping the door open!

  • charlie johnson

    There is a big swamp nearby me.It has alligators and snakes .I stay over here and they stay over there.I am a Christian,I don’t know why they hate Christians. I believe they think in terms of a turf war.I don’t go out there and try to convert them.But if one comes here and looks like he is going to bite I shoot him,

    • judorebbe

      Thank you for your common sense. – You have a better understanding of reality than the Israeli Government and the vast majority of American Jews.

      • charlie johnson

        I think I have been a closet Jew for the greater part of my life. (Some liberal outed me)

    • Jon R.

      And what about the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and/or Creeks who once lived in the swamp near your house? Your ancestors certainly didn’t stay where they came from. There was a turf war and your side won. That’s why you get to live there. Equating Muslims with venomous and man-eatinga animals is a lame analogy.

      • charlie johnson

        Funny that you should mention the natives of America.My grandmother on my mothers side was half Cherokee her husband was Irish . The grandmother on my fathers side was for the most part blackfoot I think,My father being part indian and Irish Sweed. I am not a part of the royalty of the USA.This land I am here own is not my property .I had 4 acres in Texas I gave away as a matter of charity.I have no fortune ,I get by on a veterans check, Because I served this nation in a war and did not hang back at Ft Polk La as a clerk.I was beside of the poor and mixed races not directing them from a golf course three thousand miles away Do I own land taken from the natives of America? NOPE! Look at the list of big land holders in the USA.Those people blame the hillbilly over in West Virgina for all the problems we have today. They tell the Afro Americans that these uneducated inbreds are their greatest enemy.Hitler and Stalin was not the only ones who relished in the value of propaganda.

        • Jon R.

          I appreciate your service. I am a veteran as well.

          OK, I take your point. I guess I mistakenly thought you were analogizing between Muslims and snakes.

          • charlie johnson

            Oh,Hello Ron, I just learned that if any person or group does not want to get along then there is nothing to do but avoid them if at all possible. As you have served in the US armed forces in war time you may have noticed this,You could be black or white. You will run across some of another race you might claim as kin.Then others you may find very hostile to you because you are not like them.Just avoid the kind who don’t want to get along and be friends with those that do,But not a rug for people to walk on.

  • Julian Clovelley

    The real elephant in the room is the growing realisation at popular level of realities long recognised at academic level, which centre on the hard truth that all of the histories that are part of the religious cultures were falsified, and fictionalised, in ancient history. These histories include the D-vine allocation of land, and an entirely fabricated Genealogical origin of what were likely to have been clans. By the time the Bible was committed to writing the Bardic process had created complex fictions of the events before about the eighth century BCE – that included the Creation legends – Eden, Babel, Sodom Gomorrah, Abraham, and the Exodus and occupation of Caanan. All these and more.

    In most regions the power of legend to dominate the present has long been eroded away. Britain is not shaped by the Arthurian legends. Iceland is not shaped by the sagas. Scandinavia is not shaped by Viking legend. Modern Australia owes little to Aboriginal legend. Legends worldwide have largely passed into being cultural curiosities. Many once did give their societies much religious foundation – but those days passed long ago

    But there have been modern exceptions, and those exceptions have created havoc. Nazi Germany in part took form from a revival of the Heldensage, and the Rhine legends. Through Wagner they created a mythos for the uniting German speaking peoples. Whilst it never became a religion, it became an inspiration right up to the upper levels of the SS. Jewish people recognise the potential danger of the Wagnerian mythos and still agonise over whether this music of undoubted genius should be played in Israel. In fact however it was a Jew that introduced Wagner to me

    Judaism could reasonably be described as a religion which contains within itself a myth of common origin, and a religious land claim. The religious land claim has no historical foundation and is only accepted by Judaists and fundamentalist Christians. The Genealogical claim is disproved both by simple logic and by Genetic observation. Whilst all European communites have common genetic links none of them have a particularly strong one in comparison to others – other than that caused by long term, until present, occupation of restricted territory. Even then the outside genetic input is very high. To suggest that Sephardic, Ashkenazy, Yemeni, Ethiopian Jews are of single pure common origin is frankly ludicrous

    The myth is not so much Judaic as Zionist. What in Judaism is religious imagery, in Zionism is trasformed into political justification for action. But as the concept of nationalism rightly dies in a globalised world (and not before time) so Zionism joins the realm of ludicrous concepts in the eyes even of former adherents.

    It is the use of that word “WE” that is always a problem. For example if a ten year old English person said ‘WE beat the Germans in the second world war” it would sound quite silly. He was not part of that “WE”.

    Similarly alarm bells ring when I read a sentence such as appears in this article – the kind of sentence Zionism throws around with complete abandon “The religious connection with the Land had always been powerful. Three times a day WE have prayed for Zion for two thousand years.” (My Emphasis)

    No WE haven’t. THEY did – those people in the past who through assimilation are now part of the ancestry of all of us. The genealogically discreet and unique link is itself a religious myth. But even within that mythos has to be a recognition that the first Christians were Jews and therefore Jewish blood is a major part of Christian ancestry. That is historical reality – that Christianity first evolved in Jewish communities, and spread largely through conversion and intermarriage, as rites such as circumcision were abandoned.

    There is no religious path to peace in the Middle East, because the religions are nationalist, clan-ist, tribalist and racist – yes racist – admit it, for that is the sad truth of any religion that is so strongly based on a highly disputable Genealogical claim

    We are one human people – desperately struggling to move forward – to progress in peace and prosperity. We can never do it unless we allow our religions – encourage them even – to remain as part of our cultural history but not as part of our real history of origin.

    My family contains assimilated Jews that are on record. My connection with the Land of Israel, if Genealogy dictates connection, is just as strong. But so is everybody’s. Through assimilation over five thousand years we all have the same connection. The fact that only a minority adhere to a particular religion does not make their connection “special”. get over it – we are one people whose ancestors likely came out of Africa. That is scientific theory yet to be totally verified – The rest is myth.

    There will be no peace until there is a proper balance between religious and secular – a clear separation between religion and State. That is what a viable Israel needs to be promoting – not a “Jewish” State. Until we recognise that the divisions of religion in the modern age are malignant artefacts destroying our hopes and our future, we will get nowhere. Accept siruations as what they are – turn your back on the past as dominating your actions and emotions, at the same time as earnestly studying it for lessons – embrace the future.

    • charlie johnson

      The clerks now write the history.Karl Marx the clerk tried to make worldwide scientific government available for all humans .He declared god dead and snuffed out large masses of believers .Turned houses of worship into museums and took the people property at gunpoint.His Russian deadbeat pals did it in his honor.So there is your scientific government .( Or was) As I remember ,The medical profession we claim as strictly science may have been given a big boost by barbers in France who cut the veins of the customers to drain bad blood to heal them of maladies.Communism is very convincing if the teacher has an AK 47 pointed at the students head. You may find North Korea very progressive as any believer must look no higher than four feet up to their little God the Chinese refer to as “Little Fatty”.In my world I leave room for a power not subject to mans inflated ego of himself.

    • AEWHistory

      So the premise of your argument is that Zionists claim Israel because it was granted by G-d? Then you’ll be relieved to know that this is one of the great falsifications against the Zionist movement. Zionists, myself included, believe we are the original (read indigenous) people of Israel and the Arabs and Muslims are colonizers. Now why do I think this won’t matter to you one bit?

      • Julian Clovelley

        Hallo AEW – lets have a look at your critical sentence: “Zionists, myself included, believe we are the original (read indigenous) people of Israel and the Arabs and Muslims are colonizers”

        Here again the word “WE”. Sorry but the original indigenous people of Israel were not “WE” – “WE” came later – probably in your case born like me some time after 1940.

        The trouble is your understanding of Genealogy is wrong. You see I have two parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents, sixteen great great grandparents – and I’m only back about 100years from my birth . Each person in a generation is the portal to another valid personal lineage and the number doubles every generation. Go back about five hundred years and I have in my 18th Great grandparents one million and forty eight thousand, five hundred and seventy six lineages. You see Genealogy does not work like that – the inverted pyramid,, relied on to say who we think we are, is a commercial, and sometimes political, confidence trick. Genetic inheritance and ancestry don’t work that way. We all in part, are the supposed “seed of Abraham” – I can name some of my family’s own assimilated Jews – There is neither Gentile nor Jew – we are one intermingled human race

        That is why there really aren’t genetically pure streams over five thousand years – statistically by then one would be into the billions of family lineages. The claimed inheritance of the kind Zionism promotes is an entirely modern fraud based on a misconception that Judaism has carried as a religion, since its likely main origins as a uniting force – likely amongst a group of Caananite tribes around three thousand years ago. The origin stories are bardic myths evolving over centuries and edited about two and a half thousand years ago to create a united “Jewish” people with a legendary common origin and a religious based land claim. There is no Jewish Gene – there never was any more than there was a Hebrew enslavement in Egypt or an Exodus

        it is not your “believing” that matters, it is what really happened – In truth we know very little. That does not entitle us to fill the gaps with convenient self serving fable, nor to claim that a mythological collection is a “historical narrative”. David Ben Gurion though it likely that the Palestinians contained within them the same ancestry as the Jews, and were largely descended from those who remained in Judea after the, now disputed, Roman period Exile

        I have one agenda and that is truth. I don’t fill gaps with fables my daddy told me, or that I heard in Sunday School. I look to the evidence. I base my personal opinions on what I know, with reasonable certainty, to exist. In the case of the Israeli Palestinian region it is the collapse of the Ottoman Empire against which my own grandfather fought – and where he in fact died. It is in the violent chaos that followed the Great War and its bungled treaties – and above all it is in the UNGA Resolution 181 of 1947.

        I don’t need more. I don’t need a religious fable to justify Israel’s existence, nor am I prepared to accept ridiculous legend as justification of refusals to share and negotiate a new stability, and general prosperity, aimed at a better future for the regions people – whoever they delude(sic) themselves to originate from. In addition, as a person whose birth religion was Christianity we (you and I) share the Old Testament – I have as much right to analyse and examine it as you. And if I find that scholarship does not confirm it – indeed contradicts it – I have a right to say so. There is no “belief” or agenda in it on my part – except that I have never been able to consciously live a lie and firmly “believe” I should have the integrity never to…

        Listen closely “Judaism is a religion that contains within it a belief in a discreet and unique common ancestry” – but I’m sorry it is like your idea that “WE” are the original(indigenous) people of Israel (whatever you mean by that) and the Arabs and Muslims only colonizers – it is “belief” and not factual reality. I would rate that belief in its modern Zionist incarnation as prejudiced, self serving and incompetent – most especially when even the Biblical Myth tells us that the Hebrews arriven in Caanan to find people already living there, with cities and towns that were already old. The Patriachs are described as having travelled through already occupied land – read your Bible. Your belief does not even match your own mythology. Professor Sand of TelAviv University has been telling you the truth, as have many past Jewish thinkers and leaders. It is time you listened. What matters to me, by the way(answering your concluding remark) is that you express opinions on matters about which you don’t read! Regards.

    • AEWHistory

      One additional point: I don’t know what genealogical works you’ve been reading, but I’ve read ALL the major published papers now and your assertion is entirely without merit. Even the most pro-palestinian of these papers actually allude to the strong possibility that Jews have as much indigenous right to Israel as the Palestinians. the problem is that these papers tend to have severe methodological flaws, whereas the papers that have supported the Jewish historical narrative are much better supported. This makes sense on multiple levels. But again, I doubt that any of this will make a difference to you. Your entire post comes off as someone with a thinly disguised agenda.

  • Tom Tuey

    Mr. Jeremy.I always thought that Israel should be
    a place where Jew and Muslim could exist in
    peace…respecting each others “religion”…. living
    side by side in communities and helping each
    other….a place where there were no actual
    boundaries as such….a place of inclusion for
    everyone and not exclusion…and as the ” peace,”
    grew to include other cultures and people the
    boundaries…liquid at best..would expand to
    include the new citizens like a warm blanket
    gives a feeling of peace, contentment, security…..
    a welcoming into the community with arms
    outstretched in friendship….what a dream..oh,
    How I wish that it could be……

  • Absolutelyjack

    What a snore. Take a break for the holidays. You really should not damn our Islamic brothers with faint praise. You are an otherwise brilliant commentator. It is a shame to see you pull your punches. Happy Sylvester, Rabbi.

  • Musa Alhassan

    A beautiful,enriching write-up keep empowering the world with words that advance our core values hope,optimism,enterprise

  • Mickey Oberman

    To take just one example of your somewhat less than inspiring essay
    And request comparitive facts, figures and proofs of of its reality.

    “The fact is that despite the whipped up frenzy of hatred that supporters of Hamas indulged in this past summer, there are so many examples of Jews still trying to build bridges with Muslims and plenty of examples of Muslims responding positively.”

    Mickey Oberman

    • charlie johnson

      We could all get along if we could just agree. We could all agree if we could just get along. But if we take our time and wait and see. We will then all know who was right and who was wrong.