click here to jump to start of article
  • Torah Reading: Naso
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​

In Ishmael's House

In Ishmael's House

The long history of anti-Semitism in Muslim lands.


One of the 2002 Bali bombers, Amrozi bin Nurhasin, on trial in an Indonesian courtroom and headed toward execution, shouted out the message he wanted his crime to convey: “Jews: Remember Khaibar. The army of Muhammad is coming back to defeat you.”

This was his explanation of the murder of 202 people eight years ago. Of those who died, 88 were Australians, 38 Indonesians, 24 British. None were Jews. So what was Amrozi, a Java-born Indonesian, raving about? It’s a question worth considering as we assess the recent arrests for terrorist conspiracy in Ottawa. Islamic terrorists can finds motives in ancient struggles the rest of the world long ago forgot.

Martin Gilbert, the author of some 80 books, including the official biography of Winston Churchill, explains Amrozi’s meaning at the start of his alarming chronicle, In Ishmael’s House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands, published last week.

Amrozi was remembering an event 1,375 years in the past, when Muhammad attacked Jewish farmers living in the oasis community of Khaibar, in what is now Saudi Arabia. More than 600 Jews were killed and the survivors lost all their property and had to pledge half of their future crops to Muhammad.

Today, few Jews know the word Khaibar. But among certain Muslims it has permanent resonance. Khaibar set a precedent, endorsed by the actions of the Prophet. After Khaibar, non-Muslims who were conquered had to give up their property and pay heavy permanent tribute to their Muslim overseers. That form of discrimination lasted for centuries. It was this incident and its aftermath that nourished Amrozi’s homicidal ambition.

Muslims love to recall that Jews once lived in peace among them. Of course, Jews were always second-class citizens, their rights sharply limited. Still, it was sometimes better than settling among Christians. Bernard Lewis, a major authority on Islam, says that Jewish lives under Islam were never as bad as in Christendom at its worst, or as good as in Christendom at its best.

Well before Israel’s creation in 1948, Arabs were identifying Jews as enemies.

In the 20th century, Arab hostility to Jews took an ugly turn. Some claim that the new state of Israel “caused” the trouble. But well before Israel’s creation in 1948, Arabs were identifying Jews as enemies.

In 1910, in the now-Iranian city of Shiraz, mobs robbed and destroyed 5,000 Jewish homes, with the encouragement of soldiers. In 1922, in Yemen, an old decree permitting the forcible conversion of Jewish orphans to Islam was reintroduced. The government searched towns and villages for children without fathers, so that they could be given Muslim instruction. The children were chained and imprisoned till they agreed to convert. In 1936 in Iraq, under Nazi influence, Jews were limited by quota in the public schools, Hebrew teaching was banned in Jewish schools and Jewish newspapers were shut down.

Anti-Semitism intensified when Israel was created, and grew still worse after Israel won the Six-Day War of 1967. By the 1970s, about 800,000 Jews, perhaps more, had been forcibly exiled from Arab countries, their property seized. According to the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries (WOJAC), they lost property now valued at well over $100-billion.

A majority of these exiles settled in Israel. In the 1950s, the UN recognized them as refugees and compensation was discussed. Later, the Arab states turned the UN against Israel and, by association, against Jewish refugees. In 1975, the General Assembly condemned Zionism as “racism and racial discrimination.” Various political leaders in the West (notably Irwin Cotler, the former justice minister of Canada) have continued to argue for compensation. But after the 1975 resolution, as Gilbert notes, that idea was unlikely to receive any UN support.

The number of Jews displaced by the Arabs in the 20th century roughly equals the number of Palestinians displaced by Israel. But the plight of the Palestinians has received several hundred times as much publicity. One reason is the constant propaganda from Muslim states and their admirers in the West. Another is that many Jews, unlike Palestinians, don’t want to be called refugees.

Gilbert quotes an Iraqi Jew, Eli Timan, living in London: “The difference is that we got on with our life, worked hard and progressed so that today there is not a single Jewish refugee from Arab lands.” Those who suggest that this model be copied elsewhere will of course be condemned as heartless bigots.

This article originally appeared in the National Post.

October 3, 2010

Give Tzedakah! Help create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.
The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 13

(13) M. Hussein, February 1, 2012 5:11 PM

jewish books in arabic

Arabs of today know nothing about Jewish Thought, culture and civilization. They need authentic Jewish Books translated into Arabic to read. Jews do nearly nothing on this aspect. I translated Memonides Mishneh Torah from Hebrew into Arabic, Martin Buber's Hasidism and Modern Man and Jacobs' The Jewish Law into wonderful Arabic. My translations are waiting on my computer an interested Jew to come and say, do you need a help to publish your translations Mohammad?

(12) Mike Lampard, October 10, 2010 10:04 AM

Very good article

and interesting! It shows the stupidity of the UN, and national governments who send delegates to the UN and how shallow their thinking is! There is no doubt about it that we are entering very evil times. If the Un utterly fails to recognize the fairness of the jewish/israeli cause, then there is absolutely no hope for any decisions of integriity coming out of the UN.

(11) Bobby 5000, October 9, 2010 1:55 AM

how about the inquisition and the holocaust

To suggest that Jews suffered more in Moslem countries than Christian is a gross distortion of history. Jews have suffered under Christian rule in many contexts. 1. Spain Judaism under Moslem rule was considered the golden age. Scholarship flourished, Jews faced few restrictions until the Catholics took control and instituted the inquisition. Jews were tortured until they converted and those who remained Jews expelled. 2. Thassonlika was a vibrant city under primarily Moslem rule. 3. Holocaust Christians blamed Jews for financial problems and the virulent anti-semitism in Germany and Poland turned to large-scale murder 4. Pogroms in Russia reflected the belief that Jews killed Christ and that Jews were pre-occupied with money. The recent anti-semitism in Arab countries is sad but to say Jews have faced less discrmination under Christian rule is historically wrong. The persistent suffering and discrmination under boht Christian and Moslem rule shows the necessity of a Jewish state.

(10) Marian, October 4, 2010 5:03 PM

I am a Catholic reader of They still call us "Crusaders". The Crusades ended CENTURIES ago and these people still have not progressed beyond the Dark Ages.....

(9) Anonymous, October 4, 2010 12:20 PM

RJMosk... Look it up

“While the term's etymology might suggest that antisemitism is directed against all Semitic peoples, the term was coined in the late 19th century in Germany as a more scientific-sounding term for Judenhass ("Jew-hatred"), and that has been its normal use since then.” Wikipedia

See All Comments

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.

  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment