The ‘Mosaic Arabs’
By Khaled Diab
Not so long ago many prominent Jewish thinkers believed in a natural affinity between Judaism and Islam.
In neoconservative circles it is widely accepted that Arabs are feverishly antisemitic. However, a new ideological battle is brewing among neocons between those who believe that Arabs imported antisemitism and those who argue that Islam is intrinsically antisemitic.
Andrew Bostom, the American neo-conservative scholar, has published a book which argues that Muslim societies have been anti-Jewish since the dawn of Islam. Other prominent neocon thinkers don’t go quite so far.
Bernard Lewis, the prominent Arabist whose polemics on Islam are crediting with helping
provide the Bush administration with the ideological cover it needed to invade
However, Lewis tends to gloss over the elephant in the room. Although a certain degree of “classic” antisemitism has entered the Arab world, I would say that the vast majority of the sentiments Lewis conveniently dismisses as irrational hatreds are, in fact, anti-Israeli, and not antisemitic in nature, and stem from sympathy at the plight of the Palestinians.
Likening Muslims and Arabs to the Nazis
is, of course, a trademark of die-hard defenders of
“So intent has Lewis become upon his project to debunk, to whittle down, to discredit the Arabs and Islam that even his energies as a scholar seem to have failed him,” wrote Said, who was a fierce opponent of what he viewed as Lewis’s pseudo-scholarship.
With accusations of antisemitism flying around, and against the poisonous backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it will probably surprise many to learn that not so long ago many prominent Jewish thinkers believed in a natural affinity between Judaism and Islam, and looked eastwards for their salvation.
Benjamin Disraeli, the first and only British prime minister of Jewish extraction, described Jews as “Mosaic Arabs”. A philosemite, he turned antisemitism on its head, arguing, for instance, that Jews should be emancipated, not because all humans were equal, but because of their superlative status.
colourful example of a sympathetic Jewish orientalist
was Lev Nussimbaum (1905-1942). Born to
an oil magnate in
“He based his entire life and career on an urgent desire to explain the east to the west, all but rhapsodising on the superiority of the former to the latter,” Tom Reiss writes in his readable biography of Lev Nussimbaum entitled The Orientalist.
the same time as Nussimbaum was in
This is perhaps unsurprising given that, prior to the Enlightenment, the Muslim world was the most tolerant and permissive place to be a Jew, despite occasional episodes of local oppression. The Enlightenment and liberalism had served the emancipation of European Jews well, despite its assimilationist pressures. However, Jews, no matter how well assimilated, were still regarded by many as outsiders.
the Enlightenment ... Jews and Muslims had begun to merge in the European mind,”
Reiss notes. “Many Jews of northern
began to give way to ‘tribalism’ and ideas of racial supremacy – which resulted
in virulent antisemitism and pogroms culminating in
the Nazi killing machine – Jews began to look to the security of their previous
"golden ages" in Muslim Spain and the
Zionism took shape in this increasingly stifling atmosphere and attempted to find a Jewish ‘final solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem’ by applying the ‘völkisch’ ideal to Jews, most of whom had previously regarded themselves not as a single people, but as a global faith and cultural community.
Many Arabs mistakenly view Zionism as exclusively an ‘imperial’ project. But it is at once a colonial project, an anti-imperial movement and a class struggle. Although Theodor Herzl saw Zionism “as a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilisation as opposed to barbarism”, so-called cultural Zionists and many early settlers in Palestine saw their ‘return home’ as part of a wider pan-Asiatic project.
Eugen Hoeflich, an Austrian Jewish writer and journalist, naively wrote books calling for the unification of the Asiatic peoples of the world – Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Confucians – into a united front against the forces of European mechanisation, as if the world’s most populous continent, with its diverse cultures shared a common goal. This imagined Jewish orient, like classical European orientalism, viewed the east as some timeless monolith, but took pride in its supposed passivity, irrationality and emotionalism.
As a reflection of this romantic pride, the cultural Zionist Martin Buber (1878-1965), an advocate of Jewish ‘uniqueness’, wrote: “Within the Jews lies the whole force of Asiatic genius: the unification of the soul.” Despite this snobbery, Buber's vision of a bi-national Jewish-Arab state based on “peace and brotherhood with the Arab people” strikes me as the best way out of this seemingly intractable conflict.
ã2008 K. Diab. Unless otherwise stated, all the content on this website is the copyright of Khaled Diab.