Much of what’s been written about Jewish-Muslim relations before 1948 regards the subsequent large-scale Jewish departure from the Middle East and North Africa as an “inevitable culmination of centuries of discord,” said Daniel Schroeter, a professor of history at the University of Minnesota.
But the narrative that says Jews were mistreated and unable to integrate into Arab countries across the region overlooks the fact that before the establishment of the State of Israel, Jews were often “part of the Arab cultural milieu throughout the Middle East and North Africa,” Schroeter argued.
Schroeter spoke Nov. 21 about Jewish-Muslim coexistence in the modern Arab world as part of the Shoshana Shier Lecture Series at the University of Toronto’s Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies.
The historical period in question is too often regarded through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both by pro and anti-Zionist thinkers, he said.
“One side imagines a romantic past of interfaith harmony, arguing that the Islamic world provided a haven for Jews and that colonialism and Zionism undermined that… Another says the Middle East failed to modernize and create a civil society in which religious minorities could be members… hence the inevitability of the Jews’ departure.”
Rather, Schroeter said that before the 19th century, Jews’ legal status was well defined in the Muslim world. Jews and Christians were generally protected by the state and permitted to practise their faiths in exchange for accepting subordinate status.
However, Jews received significant autonomy. “The idea that Jews lived as second-class citizens makes little sense [in this context], because the idea of citizenship didn’t apply in the pre-modern Islamic world,” Schroeter said, adding, “Islam did see Jews and Christians as inferior, but that didn’t prevent peaceful interactions between Jews and Muslims on a quotidian level.”
Although Jews in Arab countries tended to live in concentrated residential quarters at the time, they weren’t ghettoized. The boundaries were permeable, and Jews could freely enter the cities’ public sections.
Jews sometimes opted to go to Muslim courts instead of Jewish ones, and it wasn’t unusual for Muslims to shop at kosher butchers or drink alcohol in Jewish areas. In the pre-modern Muslim world, Jews and Muslims frequently mingled in the marketplace. Jews owned shops, cafes and bathhouses. In Yemen, for example, Schroeter said Jewish pedlars and artisans were an “inseparable part of the [commercial] landscape until the mid-20th century.”
Following the rise of Islam in the seventh century, most Jews in the Arab world became fluent Arabic speakers. In the early modern period, Jews often spoke their own languages or dialects, such as Judeo-Arabic or Judeo-Spanish, but conversed in the vernacular in their dealings with Muslims.
European colonialism in the region in the 19th and 20th centuries disrupted some of the established patterns of coexistence between Muslims and Jews, with European powers sometimes pushing to improve Jews’ rights as a way to gain influence and justify their territorial expansion.
Schroeter said European expansion brought “possibilities for new kinds of interaction in the public sphere,” but also changed “clearly defined boundaries between [Muslim and Jews], [which usually served] to maintain a peaceful coexistence.”
In cities such as Cairo, Baghdad and Casablanca, Jews entered the modern commercial sphere, working in grocery stores and pharmacies. They often became innovators in technology and the development of modern financial institutions.
In the years between the two world wars, some Jews’ growing support for Zionism caused conflict. But the fact Jews could publicly express their Zionism, and simultaneously champion Arab nationalism “showed how much Jews were able to participate in the political sphere,” he said.
“Even in the 1940s, as tensions grew over the issue of Palestine, a larger-than-ever Jewish public was being educated in Arabic and participating in the Iraqi and Arabic public sphere,” Schroeter said.