Not so long ago many prominent Jewish thinkers believed in a natural affinity between Judaism and Islam. They called themselves Mosaic Arabs.
In neoconservative circles it is widely accepted that Arabs are feverishly anti-Semitic. However, a new ideological battle is brewing among neocons between those who believe that Arabs imported anti-Semitism and those who argue that Islam is intrinsically anti-Semitic.
Andrew Bostom, the American neoconservative 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 credited with helping provide the Bush administration with the ideological cover it needed to invade Iraq, asserts that: “European anti-Semitism… was essentially alien to Islamic traditions, culture, and modes of thought. But to an astonishing degree, the ideas, the literature, even the crudest inventions of the Nazis and their predecessors have been internalised and Islamised.”
However, Lewis tends to gloss over the elephant in the room. Although a certain degree of “classic” anti-Semitism 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 anti-Semitic in nature, and stem from sympathy with the plight of the Palestinians.
Likening Muslims and Arabs to the Nazis is, of course, a trademark of die-hard defenders of Israel. In his groundbreaking book, Orientalism, the late Edward Said described Lewis's work as “aggressively ideological” and very close to being “propaganda”.
“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 anti-Semitism 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 anti-Semitism on its head, arguing, for instance, that Jews should be emancipated, not because all humans were equal, but because of their superlative status.
A more colourful example of a sympathetic Jewish orientalist was Lev Nussimbaum (1905-1942). Born to an oil magnate in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan and the hub of global oil production at the time, he fled there following the Bolshevik revolution, but always carried around an idealised image of the Caucasus in his heart.
He moved to Constantinople, Paris, Weimar-era Berlin, the United States and fascist Italy, somehow managing to evade death at the hands of the Nazis by posing as a Muslim prince, after having converted to Islam. Under the pseudonyms Essad Bey and Kurban Said, he penned numerous best-selling novels, biographies and historical works, the best known of which is the Ali and Nino love story.
“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.
At around the same time as Nussimbaum was in Germany, a Polish Jew by the name of Leopold Weiss was wandering aimlessly there after abandoning university in Vienna. In 1926, while working as a foreign correspondent in mandate Palestine, he converted to Islam, describing his new faith as “a perfect work of architecture. All its parts are harmoniously conceived to complement and support each other”. Renaming himself Muhammad Asad, he eventually became Pakistan's first ambassador to the UN.
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.
“During the Enlightenment … Jews and Muslims had begun to merge in the European mind,” Reiss notes. “Many Jews of northern Europe saw in this redefinition of themselves as Asians an opportunity to escape their demeaning European image as insular, persecuted ghetto dwellers.”
When liberalism began to give way to “tribalism” and ideas of racial supremacy – which resulted in virulent anti-Semitism 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 Ottoman Empire.
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.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 20 May 2008.