Dr. Robert Kaplan has written an extensive, and thoughtful review-meditation on “The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism” posted today at The American Thinker. (Robert Kaplan received his doctorate in history from Cornell University, and is the author of Forgotten Crisis: The Fin-de-Siecle Crisis of Democracy in France, 1995.)
Central to his review, Kaplan provides the following critique of Bernard Lewis’ (mis)conceptions, which merit careful examination:
Lewis puts Islam’s record regarding Jews in a favorable light mainly with the generalizations he makes rather than the particular facts he marshals. These generalizations, which crumble under the slightest scrutiny, are of four general types. One holds that the least onerous version of Moslem oppression is typical of Moslem practice [Lewis writes “dhimmitude was a minor inconvenience Jews learned to live with …under Muslim rule the status of dhimmi was long accepted with gratitude by Jews” In making this improbable claim he gives no evidence or explanation. Could he mean that the Jews were grateful for not being killed?]
A second type of generalization claims that the worst of the behavior of Christians towards Jews was the norm. [“Jews of Christendom suffered incomparably greater persecution (than Jews of Islam). Persecution (under Islam), that is to say violent and active repression was rare and atypical. Jews and Christians (dhimmis) under Moslem rule were not normally called upon to suffer martyrdom for their faith. …They (the Jews) were not often obliged to make the choice which confronted Muslims and Jews in reconqured Spain, between apostasy and death.” Besides employing a peculiarly narrow definition of “oppression” which excludes all disabilities of dhimmitude, Lewis implies that Jews in Christendom were often obliged to suffer martyrdom for their faith or make a choice “between apostasy and death” — both of which are simply untrue.]
A third variety of generalization employed by Lewis claims that Muslim abuses are far less bad than the worst imaginable abuses by non-Moslems. [“Dhimmitude involves some rights…and is surely better that no rights at all. It is certainly preferable to the kind of situation that prevails in many states at the present time where minorities and for that matter where the majority enjoy no civil or human rights.” Offering no evidence or examples, Lewis writes as if there is any place on Earth where the majority of residents have “no rights at all.”]
A fourth type of generalization ascribes to “human nature” rather than Islam, with no basis of evidence, the unattractive characteristics exhibited by Moslems [After describing the intense anti-Semitism in the Arab world today Lewis tacks on the generalization that “No people is immune from the universal disease of ethnic or social hostility and the Arabs are no exception. Obviously Arabs are as liable (my italics) as Germans, Russians or Jews or anyone else to develop hostilities against other peoples; and their history and literature bear ample witness to this.” Lewis’s suggestion that hatred is a trait shared by all peoples equally — Germans, Russians and Jews, Britons, Italians, Canadians, Australians — as if raging mobs, as familiar in the annals of Moslem history as to today’s television viewers, are typical of all peoples; as if hate filled speeches by clerics are common in all religions; as if survey statistics of harbored hatred are not vastly higher among Moslems than among others; as if Moslem converts to Christianity do not regularly report their revulsion at the hatred which saturates the Moslem religion with which they were familiar. Replace Moslems with Danes, British, Russians Jews, Brazilians, Japanese or whoever and imagine, if you can, raging mobs rioting and killing over a newspaper cartoon.]
In addition to his generalizations Lewis employs clever reasoning to arrive at conclusions that are at least semantically if not in substance favorable to Islam. To reach the conclusion that Moslems were not until recently “anti-Semites” he begins by stating that
“anti-Semitism” [has] “hitherto been regarded as a specifically Christian disease – a certain attitude to Jews arising from the gospel narratives of the foundation of the Christian faith”
and goes on to say
“…anti-Semitism [is] a hatred which is unique in its persistence, its universality, its profundity and above all its theological and psychological origins…. In what follows the term anti-Semitism will be limited to …that special and peculiar hatred of Jews which has its origins in the role assigned to Jews in certain Christian writing and beliefs concerning the genesis of their faith, and which has found modern expression in such works as the Protocols and similar portrayals of a universal Jewish plot against both God and mankind. In this special sense anti-Semitism did not exist in the traditional Moslem world.”
Does this mean there was not hatred of Jews in the traditional Moslem world? Not at all. Lewis writes regarding Arabs during World War II:
“the Nazi war against the Jews won enthusiastic support …Hatred was deep and violent, and expressed in the strongest language, but it was still in the main traditional rather than anti-Semitic in its terms.”
Does this mean the emotion driving the plundering, expulsions, forced conversions and slaughter of Jews in the “traditional Moslem world” was not hatred? Although an unwary reader might get the impression that the answers to these questions is “yes” a reading of Lewis’s words and a moment of thought should make it clear that the answer to both is “no.”
How does Lewis reach the conclusion that anti-Semitism is unknown to classical Islam? He defines “anti-Semitism” as hatred of Jews according to Christian doctrine, not simply hatred of Jews. In doing so he distorts the ordinary meaning of “anti-Semitism” which in contemporary English means hatred of Jews.
There is a natural tendency for readers engaged with a text of history to seek a distillation of the author’s conclusions set off from the mass of details of his work. The reader feels gratitude toward the author who summarizes his conclusions and hands them to him, so to speak, on a silver platter. Bernard Lewis is such an author. Unfortunately his conclusions are quite disconnected and even contrary to the details of his writing.