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Professor Bernard Lewis, Scholar of Islam and the Middle East

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May 6, 2004 -  Click here to listen to Bernard Lewis, Scholar of Islam and the Middle East, after receiving the Akiba Award

Bernard Lewis
American Jewish Committee
98th Annual Meeting

I was asked to say something about the present problem of relations between Jews and Muslims in the larger historical and present day context. In modern times, and especially in this country, we have become accustomed to speaking of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The term is a new one. In earlier times it would have been equally resented on both sides of the high pond. But the reality is an old one, and it goes back to the very beginnings of Christianity. One could in the past have spoken with at least equal justification about Judeo-Islamic tradition. Because just as the Jews were an important component of Christian civilization, so too there was an important component of Islamic civilization, contributing to it and being in many ways profoundly influenced by it. That Judeo-Islamic tradition has unfortunately come to an end for a variety of reasons, which I can't go into now.

What I would like to say, since this is our particular concern of this gathering, is what is variously called Arab or Islamic anti-Semitism. This I may say with absolute certitude, is a recent, even a new, phenomenon. Let me explain what I mean. We have been told again and again and again that since Israel is a state and Zionism is an ideology, it is perfectly legitimate to criticize Israeli statesmen, their actions and their policies, or Zionism and its principles, without being guilty of anti-Semitism. That I agree with entirely, although I don't know that this constitutes an inevitable exemption. That's another matter.

But certainly one can criticize Israel, Israeli policies, Israeli actions, and criticize Zionism, without being guilty of anti-Semitism. I would even go a step further, and this may startle you. One can hate and persecute Jews without being guilty of anti-Semitism. Let me explain what I mean by this apparently absurd statement. Hating and persecuting people who are different is unfortunately part of the normal human condition. Wherever you go in the world, you will find prejudice of various kinds, sometimes mild, sometimes violent, against people who are different, whether by language or religion or regional origin, whatever.

I remember being in Denmark just after the war when the Danes were rather resentful of their two neighbors, the Germans who had occupied them, and the Swedes who had remained unhelpfully neutral - unhelpful, that is, to the Danes. And I was told in Denmark, "Swedes are Germans in human form" - a way of insulting two different groups at the same time. A parallel to that from the British Army, in which I had the honor to serve, What are Arabs? Do you know? Arabs are toasted Irishmen. For a long time the British Army was dealing principally with these two adversaries, and found, shall we say, certain similarities between them. I mention these as examples.

Now, Jews in the Muslim world before the dawn of modernity, we have two myths about this. According to one of them, it was a paradise of mutual respect and the harmonious cooperation between equals. According to the other, it was a bitter persecution. The truth is in its usual place somewhere between the extremes. Jews did not enjoy equality, nor did other non-Muslim religions, but they enjoyed a very much better status than non-Christians did anywhere in Christendom until, at the very earliest, the 17th century. They were a recognized part of society with a definite recognized status, and an important part to play. And this continued.

On the whole, Jews were rather better treated than Christians, because they were less dangerous. There was a certain amount of prejudice against Jews, but it expresses itself mostly in the form of a kind of amused or dismissive tolerance. Let me try to illustrate this by an anecdote, a late Ottoman joke. The time is 1912. By the way, I should have mentioned the stereotype of the joke in the Middle Eastern society, is that he is cowardly, that he is unmilitary, that he runs at the slightest provocation. The joke is from 1912, the Balkan War. The joke is that the Jews, burning with patriotic ardor, decided that they must do something to defend their Ottoman fatherland, so they requested permission to form a Jewish volunteer brigade. Permission was of course given, and instructors were sent to train and arm them. Eventually the brigade was ready, trained and armed, ready to set out for the front. And they asked for a police escort, because there were bandits on the way. I'm telling you this joke to illustrate the nature of anti-Jewish prejudice at that time.

Now, the Western type, or let's be more specific, the Christian type of anti-Semitism, is quite different from what one might call normal prejudice. It attributes to the Jews a quality of cosmic evil. This kind of anti-Semitism was introduced to the Middle East from Europe, it came through diplomats and missionaries and others, and had very little impact outside the Christian minorities. It really becomes a force with the Nazis who made a really major propaganda effort.

It really acquired its first major impact in 1948. In 1948 five Arab armies, fully equipped, set out for what they assumed would be a walk over, the easy task of removing this upstart little state called Israel. And we know what happened. The five Arab armies were unable to prevent half a million Jews from creating their state in the debris of the British Mandate. What matters there and what had an enormous impact, is the humiliation. Being defeated by such an inferior force was an insult bad enough; being defeated by Jews made it incomparably worse. As you know, we've been hearing recently so much about the importance of what is called honor, although the word has a different meaning from that which we normally apply to it in the Western world. Face might perhaps be a better term. The loss of honor, the loss of face, the loss of dignity, the insult.

For those suffering from this, and the suffering was acute, European-style anti-Semitism, attributing, as I said, to the Jews a quality of cosmic evil, making them a world power, this brought comfort to the soul, and this accounts for its very considerable impact at the present time, even including such perennial favorites of European anti-Semitism as the blood libel, the Protocols and the rest, which were previously virtually unknown.

An interesting contrast. At the time of the Dreyfus trial in France, Muslim opinion in the Middle East was overwhelmingly on Dreyfus's side, sympathizing with the persecuted Jew against his Christian, that's the point, persecutors. Since then it has changed totally. There are still some who try to protest against this. A good example is the recent dispute, shall we say, over the display of the Protocols in the library of Alexandria. And the fact that there was an argument, and not wholly resulting from protests by UNESCO and the American Embassy; UNESCO, surprising enough, in itself. And protests also from the Egyptian side, and from some who speak out about this, it gives one some slender hope for the future.

Thank you.