A Path to Peace Inspired by the Past: A Solution to the Turmoil in the Middle East Seems as Far Away as Ever. but, Says Martin Gilbert, Past Relations between Muslims and Jews Have Often Been Harmonious and Can Be So Again

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Enmity between Jews and Muslims seems to be a fact of life in the 21st century: a hostility that impinges on Jewish and Muslim life worldwide and, in particular, on the Arab-Israeli conflict, now in its sixth decade. When did this enmity begin? How was it sustained? Why did it survive? In order to answer these questions we must look to the other side of the coin, to a story that might serve both sides today as a positive reminder of what could lie ahead.

Hostility has unquestionably been a part of the long historical narrative of Arab-Jewish relations. Among the chants and placards that accompanied and followed the Turkish ships carrying aid to the Gaza Strip, and which were intercepted by Israeli forces, was the Muslim rallying cry: 'Jews: remember Khaibar. The army of Muhammad is coming back to defeat you.'

This cry has echoed in each decade of modern times. On August 7th, 2003, when Amrozi bin Nurhasin, one of the 'Bali bombers', entered an Indonesian courtroom for sentencing, having been found guilty of blowing up more than 200 people--none of them Jews--he shouted out the same rallying cry in the presence of the world's media.

The cry refers to an event that took place in the year 628, when, as leader of the new faith of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad achieved one of his first military victories, against a Jewish tribe living in the oasis of Khaibar on the Arabian peninsula. Contemporary Arab sources report that between 600 and 900 Jews were killed in the battle. This Muslim victory was followed by the spread of segregation and taxation for non-Muslims, as well as forcible conversion to Islam.

Two months after Amrozi bin Nurhasin received his sentence of death, the Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad--who in 1986 had inaugurated an 'Anti-Jews Day'- told the Tenth Islamic Summit Conference held in the Malaysian city of Putrajaya, that: '1.3 billion Muslims cannot be defeated by a few million Jews. There must be a way ... Surely the 23 years' struggle of the Prophet can provide us with some guidance as to what we can and should do?

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Within three years of this appeal, Palestinian Arab voters cast a majority of their votes for Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement (44 per cent as against the 41 per cent who voted for Hamas's nearest rival, Fatah). The Hamas Charter, promulgated in 1988, looks forward to the implementation of 'Allah's promise', however long it might take:

The Prophet, prayer and peace be upon him, said: 'The Day of Judgement will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say 0 Muslims, O Abdullah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.'

From the time of the Babylonian conquest of Judaea 2,500 years ago Jews have been dispersed, first in Mesopotamia and Persia (now, respectively, Iraq and Iran), then, following the Roman conquest of Judaea, throughout Arabia and North Africa from Egypt to Morocco: all lands that came under Muslim rule with the conquests of Muhammad. In the 12th century, 600 years after the death of Muhammad, the Jewish sage Maimonides (1135-1204) described the situation of the Jews after five centuries of Muslim rule: 'No nation has ever done more harm to Israel.' He went on to elaborate: 'None has matched it in debasing and humiliating us. None has been able to reduce us as they have.'

Reflections on the past

Yet there is another side to this tale of debasement and humiliation. By the end of the 20th century Bernard Lewis, among the most eminent historians of the Middle East, a lifelong student of Jews and Islam and himself a Jew, reflected on the 14 centuries of Jewish life under Islamic rule since Muhammad. He concluded that the situation of Jews living under Islamic rulers 'was never as bad as in Christendom at its worst; even if it was never 'as good as in Christendom at its best'. …