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1. A Historical Survey of Jewish-Arab Relations.
The Middle East was the cradle of human civilization and the place of origin of the three monotheistic religions. However, from approximately 750 B.C. onwards, the free creative nations of the Middle East were crushed and atomized by the steamrollers of conquering empires: Assyrians, Neo-Babylonians, ancient Persians, Macedonians and Romans. Even the Arab conquest of the Middle East did not lead to the formation of new and enduring national states. For reasons explained in the concluding chapter, the Arabs, while impressing their language and religion on large sections of the Middle East, soon submerged themselves in its ancient subject population and were ruled from about 900 A.D. on by foreign soldier castes, mostly of Central Asian and Caucasian origin. For centuries the Arab-speaking countries have had the character of a colonial area, governed neither by, nor for, the local population.
Although great colonial empires have their advantages, as a whole the history of the Middle East under its various foreign rulers was a sad one. It is with this heritage of long suffering that the present states of the Middle East have to cope. Poverty, illiteracy and fanaticism are still rampant. In our generation, however, a fundamental change is taking place.
Inaugurated by the great Turkish revolution after the First World War, followed by the change of dynasty and system in Iran, and completed by the reemergence of the Arabs and the coming of Israel, a new era has begun for that part of the Middle East. Again, as in its ancient and most creative period, self-conscious, self-governing and autonomous nations have been making their appearance. The very foundation of the state of Israel is symbolic in this respect. Israel, together with its northern neighbor, Lebanon, which harbors the descendants of the Phoenicians, one of the most gifted and enterprising peoples of antiquity, marks the return of those classical times, when free peoples created the variegated culture of the Middle East.
As soon as a people called the Arabs makes its appearance in history, it has a connection of some kind with Israel. The very first Arab known to us by name and date, Gindibu (which means locust), is mentioned as a member of an alliance against an Assyrian invader, in which King Ahab of Israel figures at the head of 10,000 foot-soldiers and 2,000 war chariots, while the Arab sheik heads 1,000 camel riders. This—the battle of Karkar in Syria—which took place in the year 853 B.C. is not mentioned in the Bible and not, of course, in Arabic sources, because Arab history in the proper sense of the term begins only much later with the founding of the Arab religion, Islam, just as Jewish history really begins only with Moses, the founder of the Jewish creed.
The Arabs had some knowledge of their forefathers one or two centuries before the beginnings of Islam, just as the Book of Genesis has preserved a number of the traditions prevalent in Israel concerning their racial ancestors prior to the formation of their religion and nationhood. However, the Muslim Arabs were fully aware of the fact that in remote antiquity there had existed a number of Arab peoples of which they knew nothing at all. They rightly spoke of al'Arab al-ba'ida, "the Arabs who had disappeared," a telling designation for all these ancient Arab peoples, who had made their appearance in the borderlands of the countries of ancient civilization—Syria, Iraq and Yemen—and were absorbed by the higher civilizations of their environment.
As a striking example of such an ancient Arab people, I might mention the Nabataeans, who were the immediate eastern neighbors of the Jewish people during the fateful centuries of Maccabean, Herodian and Roman rule, and who had very close relations with the Jews, both friendly and hostile. These Nabataeans had originally been an Arab people, but adopted the Aramaic language, which at that time was spoken throughout the lands of the Fertile Crescent, including Palestine (and in which to the present day the Kaddish, one of the most holy and most familiar prayers of the synagogue, is still recited). In addition to their linguistic assimilation, these Nabataeans settled down; and so completely were they submerged in the predominant civilization that, some centuries later, the word "Nabati," Nabataean, signified in the language of the Muslim Arabs an Aramaic-speaking peasant.
In any case, although it is not mentioned in Muslim-Arabic sources for the reasons just explained, close relations existed between Israel and the Arab peoples from the ninth century B.C. on, and numerous references to Arabs are found in the later books of the Bible, in Flavius Josephus and in particular in the vast literature of the Jews which developed in the first centuries of the Christian era, the Talmud and the Midrash.
Furthermore, if we do not confine our survey to the peoples actually called Arabs, but include under this designation peoples showing the typical traits of real Arabs, i.e., camel-breeders, raiders and merchants engaged in foreign trade, then we can trace back the relations between Israel and peoples of this description to an even earlier date; for the tribes of Ishmael and Midian, who were typically Arab in character, and who appear in the stories of Joseph, Moses and Gideon, are regarded in the Bible as descendants of Abraham, which makes them the closest kin of Israel. Some prominent American orientalists have even described Israel itself as an Arab tribe, and an English Arabist suggests that the ancestors of Israel originate from the ancient land of Sheba in South Arabia. (This would mean that the present-day exodus from Yemen is only a repetition of an event which took place about 4,000 years ago.)
In the following chapter we shall have occasion to discuss these and other theories about the common origins of Israel and the Arabs. In any case, it is evident that the relations between the two peoples go back to the most remote times. However, they became striking and of the highest historical significance only in the age of the Prophet Muhammad, about 1,400 years ago, when Judaism, and a segment of the Jewish people then living in Arabia, stood beside the cradle of the Muslim religion and Arab statehood.
Concerning the fateful events and developments which took place at that time, during the three most decisive decades of oriental history (about 615 and 645 A.D.), not a single contemporary account has come down to us from Jewish sources. While we learn about Jewish-Arab relations in ancient times solely from Jewish and other non-Arab sources, we derive all our knowledge concerning these relations in the time of Muhammad and the subsequent early period of Islam either from explicit statements or the inner evidence contained in Arab-Muslim books. Nevertheless, even this one-sided source of information shows fully the great importance of Judaism both for the development of religious, moral and legal conceptions in the Koran, the sacred book of the Muslims, in early Islam, and for the formation of the young Muslim community and state.
It has often been stressed by prominent scholars, for example, Theodor Noeldeke, the great German orientalist, that Islam was far more akin to Judaism, in its basic ideas, as well as in the details regulating the lives of its believers, than Christianity, despite the closer "family relations" between Christianity and its mother-religion. This opinion, although requiring some qualifications, is basically true; the Muslim religious law in particular, which is the very core of Islam (as the Halakha is of Judaism) bears a most astonishing resemblance to the Jewish religious law, its older sister. To what extent these phenomena betray parallel developments or are borrowed will be discussed in Chapter 5. In any case, they did not fail to exercise a deep influence on Jewish-Arab relations in Islamic times.
With the great Arab conquests following the rise of Islam, which converted all the countries between Spain and Persia into a single territory dominated by the new religion, and soon after by the Arabic language as well, the majority of the Jewish people of that time came under Arab rule. Thus began the long and great period of Jewish-Arab symbiosis. The Jewish historians of the nineteenth century, as in the case of Graetz (the author of a classic ten-volume history of the Jews), who were deeply embittered by the contrast between the enlightened ideas of that century and the denial of civic rights to Jews in many European countries, pointed out most emphatically that the legal and actual position of the Jews during the Middle Ages was much better in Muslim-Arab countries than in Christian Europe; and the "Golden Age" of Judaism in Muslim Spain has become a phrase which has found its way even into the most popular accounts of Jewish history.
As we shall see, there is some exaggeration in these assertions. However, there can be no doubt that the legal status of the Jewish religion under Islam, particularly during its early period when the Arabs were still predominant, was very much better than their situation in the Byzantine Empire, which ruled over many countries occupied later on by the Arabs. In addition to a more favorable legal status, the Jewish people in early Islamic times enjoyed a complete economic and social revival, to which, however, the Arab contribution was indirect.
At the time of the Muslim-Arab conquest, the majority of the Jews were still engaged in agriculture and manual labor. Farmers, however, had a wretched time under Arab rule, and the remnants of the ancient agricultural peoples in the Middle East died out, that is, they lost their identity, in Islamic times. The Jewish people, too, so to say, died as an agricultural people during the seventh and eighth centuries, but, unlike other ancient populations, returned to life as a nation of merchants and artisans.
This transformation was due to the great "bourgeois revolution" of the ninth century (which has not yet been sufficiently investigated). Due to this revolution, the civilization of the Middle East during early medieval times was characterized by its commerce, industry and bureaucratic organization, at a time when western Europe was mainly agricultural and was dominated by knights and feudal lords. The Jews took their full share in this great Middle-Eastern mercantile civilization, in particular from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries; and it was at that time and in that part of the world that Judaism itself received its final shape.
There, under Arab-Muslim influence, Jewish thought and philosophy and even Jewish law and religious practice were systematized and finally formulated. Even the Hebrew language developed its grammar and vocabulary on the model of the Arab language. The revival of Hebrew in our own times would be entirely unthinkable without the services rendered to it by Arabic in various ways a thousand years ago. Arabic itself became a Jewish language and, unlike Latin in Europe, was employed by Jews for all secular and religious purposes, with the sole exception of the synagogue service.
The intermingling of Jewish and Arab life can best be demonstrated by the fact that the Jews in Arab countries had their full share in the appalling decline of those countries in the later Middle Ages, and the following centuries. As early as 1377 Ibn Khaldun, the great Tunisian sociologist and philosopher of history, wrote:
The realm of the Arabs has been wiped out completely; the power now rests in the hand of non-Arabs, such as the Turks in the East ... and the Franks (European) in the North.
This state of affairs remained unchanged unto our time. At the beginning of the First World War, not a single independent Arab state was in existence, and the world at large—the majority of statesmen not excluded—was not aware that an Arab nation existed at all. Concurrently, the Jews in Arabic-speaking countries, who at one time had formed both the majority of the Jewish people and its social and spiritual pivot, simply faded out of Jewish history. They were almost forgotten by the bulk of the nation, which was now concentrated in the Christian countries, taking its full part in their stupendous development in modern times. There remained Jews in all the Arabic-speaking territories (with the sole exception of northern Arabia), but their number was relatively small—less than ten per cent of the total Jewish population of the world. The Jewish-Arab symbiosis had lost its historical importance.
All this changed completely when, during the last three generations, the erection of a National Home for the Jewish people was conceived and realized in Palestine—a country which originally was regarded as a part of the Ottoman-Turkish Empire and which could, therefore, simply be acquired by means of a Charter from the Turkish Sultan. The endeavors of Theodore Herzl, the founder of the Zionist organization, to obtain such a charter are characteristic of the situation around 1900, when Arabic nationalism was not yet born. However, Palestine eventually proved to be in the very heart of a new Arab world emerging from the ashes of that Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I.
Thus, after the prolonged connection of ninety per cent of the Jewish people with Europe and Western civilization, the revival of Jewish statehood, although in the main the outcome of this connection with Europe, was taking place in the center of an awakening East. This East—it is true—is itself deeply indebted for its revival to the West, but still sees in antagonism to Europe the essential content of its newly created national life. Sirr min asrar Allah—" a. secret of God's secrets"—this is how Ibn Khaldun would have described this unique situation.
The State of Israel, which is the direct result of a great romantic longing for a return to the East, a longing expressed in a famous piece of nineteenth century Hebrew literature, Feierberg's novel Le'an (Whither), finds itself, or at least is regarded, as the spearhead of the West in the midst of a still hostile Eastern world.
Not only that, but the oriental Jews living in Arabic-speaking countries who had been completely lost sight of by the majority of the Jewish people, are again in the foreground. Whoever knew or cared anything about the Jews of Yemen, Iraq or Libya? At present, however, after their mass immigration into Israel, they constitute one of the major assets and problems of the new State.
Into Israel, which is a society of a completely Western pattern, the East has intruded in the form of the huge influx of co-religionists from Arab and oriental countries. In addition, Israel has a very considerable Arab minority, so that we have here the interesting phenomenon of Arabs living in a Jewish environment.
These two facts combined compel Israel to tackle in a most concentrated form, a problem which today confronts the world at large: whether the culture of the West is strong enough to amalgamate the gigantic masses of the Eastern peoples—from Morocco to Indonesia and the Philippines—who have already adopted not only Western techniques, but also many Western patterns of thought, into one basic global civilization.
Israel is engaged today in the same task—on a comparatively small scale, it is true, but in a most intensive form. Israel thus has become the laboratory for the world. It has to do the job, whether it likes it or not. Israel, simultaneously a Western society planted in an Eastern environment, and an Eastern intruder into a Western structure, has this problem: the East to which, on the one hand it has come and by which, on the other hand, it is invaded, is mainly represented by the Arabs, with whom it had so long a history in common.
Two peoples which had been in close contact with one another for thousands of years—sometimes as different nations, sometimes as different religions, sometimes even as different civilizations—are now confronting each other in a totally new and a most complex situation.
To sum up: the long history of Jewish-Arab relations consists of four main periods of unequal length.
The first, which might be fittingly called "pre-history," stretches over two thousand or more years and divides itself into two parts: the dim, but important, age of common origins of the two peoples —and the 1,400 years of recorded contacts from King Ahab down to the many references to the Arabs in talmudic literature, contacts which were interesting in many respects, but not of very great historical consequence.
Then came the second and, in the past, most important, period of creative Jewish-Arab symbiosis lasting about 800 years, during the first half of which Muslim religion and Arab nationhood took form under Jewish impact, while in the second half traditional Judaism received its final shape under MuslimArab influence.
Excerpted from Jews and Arabs by S. D Goitein. Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Posted April 11, 2011