Old-Time Religion, Newly Manufactured. Or: The Past Isn’t What It Used To Be.

An afterword to Haim’s post on screeds about anti-Jewish attitudes in Islam: A few months ago I wrote an article about anti-Muslim and anti-Christian prayers in Judaism. The anti-Christian prayers are medieval (I urged excising them.) The anti-Muslim prayer I cited is apparently a fake antique: It’s written in a medieval style, and it follows the midrashic convention of using “Ishmael” as a name for Muslims or Arabs. But it’s a product of the contemporary Israeli-Arab conflict, and it shows up in the liturgy of the Israeli religious right, which has dressed up militant modern nationalism as ancient theology.

There are several lessons to be learned:

First, attacks on Islam in authentic medieval Jewish prayers are almost impossible to find, as a leading historian explained to me:

Hebrew University historian Israel Yuval says that traditional liturgical attacks “are always against Christianity,” and are found in Ashkenazi prayers, not Sephardi ones. The rage reflects theological battles with Christianity, which claimed the Bible as its own and argued that Jews suffered in exile because God had ended the covenant with them. The Jewish response was a stress on “vengeful redemption”-looking forward to a conclusion of history in which the power relations were reversed, the Christians destroyed.

There was obviously theological conflict between Judaism and Islam from the time the latter began. But Jews themselves did not perceive Islam as trying to displace and disinherit Judaism in the same way, and therefore Jews did not write imprecations against Islam into their liturgy. Put differently, the internal Jewish evidence is that overall Jews living among Muslims did not feel themselves as threatened – religiously, and perhaps physically as well – at the same intensity as Jews living among Christians did.

Second, now that the Jewish state finds itself in a conflict with Muslims, some Jews have neatly managed to call up traditional sources and language to express hostility. They’ve made religion a tool for expressing base fury, produced by a modern national conflict and modern ideology. Yet for the people who recite the prayer, this newly minted hatred is old-time religion. Following the same pattern, the dangerous Biblical term “Amalek,” which the midrash once applied to the Roman Empire to label it as Judaism’s mythological enemy, and which was later applied to Christianity, is today for the first time being used to describe Arabs. Ancient language, entirely new use. (That this is an unworthy interpretation of Judaism is a separate story.)

One paradox of religions is that they generally claim to be unchanging and that they change rather quickly. People reinterpret them in response to circumstance and new ideas. Until 1967, the National Religious Party, representing the modern stream of religious Zionism, was one of the most dovish parties in Israel. By 1977, transformed by the Six-Day War and a seizure of messianism, it had become one of the most militant parties in Israel. Those caught up in the seizure are sure that Judaism has always looked like this, an attitude that reflects a poor training in Jewish texts, general history and moral thinking, but that, again, is a separate story.

(On the particular pattern of non-Western movements absorbing anti-Western ideologies from the West itself, it’s well worth reading Ian Baruma and Avishai Margalit’s Occidentalism.)

This kind of change isn’t something unique to Judaism. Good historical analysis needs to look at Islam in the same way.

But history also gets rewritten to fit circumstance. Current writers who find the Islamic past to be a long scroll of Jew-hating are rather obviously responding to contemporary circumstances. It’s justified to look for historic roots for contemporary phenomena, but that can very easily slip into recasting centuries of history in the most nightmarish perception of today’s conflict. Alas, the past just isn’t what it used to be.

7 thoughts on “Old-Time Religion, Newly Manufactured. Or: The Past Isn’t What It Used To Be.”

  1. All I can say is that you are doing exactly what you say the “Right” is doing, you are reinterpreting history in order to fit your ideology. You say they are “inventing” a mythological past of Islamic Judeophobia in order to justify their current ideology, and you are inventing a mythological Islamic “philosemitism” in order to buttress your own ideology.
    I am not an expert in ancient Sefardic prayer books. I do know that the RAMBAM, who lived under Muslim rule excoriates the Muslims for being the Jewish people’s worst enemy. He says this in the Iggeret L’Teiman (Letter to Yemen) and I have also encountered it in his MishnehTorah. As I mentioned in my previous comment, the Encylopedia Judaica points out that the image of the Jew in the traditional Muslim world is ” generally unfavorable”.
    As a sampler, read George Orwell’s article “Casablanca” written in 1939, about his visit to Morocco in this pre-Israel period. For some reason, there is nostalgia in Israel for Morocco claiming the Jews “had it good there”. That is not what Orwell (an anti-Zionist). He says that most Jews lived in the most degrading conditions and that there was virulent Judeophobia there. And this, again, is in a country that supposedly treated the Jews well.

    Comparing medieval Islam with medieval Christianity is of no interest to me in this discussion. We all know Christianity’s record. Many of them admit it themselves. The question is whether Islamic tradition demonizes the Jew as well, and whether this tradition is utilized today in discourse in the Muslim world about Jews and Israel. The fact is that it is. The Arab/Israeli conflict was NOT created by certain right-wing religious groups using allusions to Ishmael in some Midrashim, it is created by Arab/Muslim hate of Jews. I have repeatedly referred to Michael Slackman ‘s recent article in the New York Times about how most Arabs (at least in Egypt) believe that Israel somehow orchestrated the 9/11 attacks. One “proof” that “everybody knows is true” is that 4000 Jews didn’t show up for work in the WTC that day. Slackman points out that most Egyptians believe that many or even most of the problems they face are caused by Jews. Sayyid Qutb, the influential Egyptian theologian of Islamic extremists says in his commentary on the Qur’an, in the Sura “al-Baqqara” (the Cow) that “the Jews have been conspiring against Islam since the time of Muhammed”. Do you think he just made that up recently? He is drawing on beliefs common in the Islamic world.
    I am the first to admit there were good Muslim rulers who were good to the Jews, just as there were good Christian rulers. However, the bloodstained history of persecution in BOTH societies have left their legacies and you are badly mistaken if you think that pretending that these things don’t exist will change anything.

  2. With bigots having their day here in the US witness the recent hysteria over the only sitting right-wing
    Republican governor being nonminated for vice president since Spiro Agnew the with just as good a record on corruption I’ m sure Ben David would fit in just fine.Biblical and historical interpretors aside ,we live in the here and now and playing the blame-game is circular.
    There are some of my Armenian friends of mine who sound like Ben David and go to their history and interpreted statements in the Quran to justify their hatred of the Turks and most Moslems. They are just as self-absorbed in their Armenianess as Ben David is in his version of Jewishness.

    Definition of a bigot”One fanatically devoted to one’s own group,religion,race.or politics and intolerant of those who differ”

  3. If you think that’s bad, or just confined to Jews, Muslims, etc., you should look on some “Celtic” or “English” nationalist sites(yeah, these actually do exist). The things each “side” has to say about the other, based only in part on a shared historical record, are just as nutty and ahistorical as the “Muslims hating Jews forever” stuff mentioned above. And just as sad.
    Anne Gilbert

  4. George-
    Could you please quote from comments I have made in the past where I have proven to be “intolerant”? I said Morris was correct when he said that Islam has a long history of Judeophobia. Haim even said that was not incorrect.

    I believe that your concept of “tolerance”, like that of many “progressives” is that “everybody in the world is the same, and they all have the same values and those values are mine, which are obviously superior”. Since George is not a Judeophobe, he automatically extrapolates that Muslims are not Judeophobes, since it is superior not to be a Judeophobe and so anyone who points out facts that show Islam does have a streak of Judeophobia is “obviously” a racist and “intolerant”.

  5. My favorite definition of LIBERAL is “holding ,expressing,or following political views or policies that support civil liberties,democratic reforms,and use of government power to promote social progress ” not a view shared by Sarah Palin or PROGRESSIVE “promoting or favoring political or social reform ”

    We here in the US who are in the ever shrinking majority have a terrible problem with our changing demographic reality. Barak , although he may be the candidate of change “whatever that means” is a candidate who represents what we are going to look like in 2050. I won’t be here but I hope it goes better than this election .The deep seeded intolerance will win the day for McCain

    Y the whole tenor of you senarios are more reflective of your ethnocentrism that a certain comment isolated by itself. I will say that although correct in their context many times and views deeply held by you which you feel to be justified do not move us forward as G-d’s children and the discussion which we need to have

  6. George, I don’t even know what you mean by “ethnocentrism”. Doonesbury had a cartoon a couple of years ago (pre-“surge” in Iraq) in which an American and Iraqi soldier are driving in a car and they are under orders to pick up a terrorist suspect. The Iraqi tells the American that he will not arrest the suspect, he will kill him on the spot. The American asks why. The Iraqi responds, “because a member of his family killed a member of my family”. The American asks when this happened. The Iraqi said “in 1343”. The American says “what is it with you peope”. If I was the intolerant bigot you have implied I am, and if many Jews and Israelis were like me, we would be trying to murder Germans TODAY for what they did to us in recent history and we would be carrying out terrorist attacks in Spain because of the Expulsion of 1492. Bin Laden, in lauding the 9/11 attacks at the time, justified them because of “Western Colonialism” against the Arab world, almost all of which ended by the 1950’s. The mutual slaughter between Shi’ites and Sunnis (which mercifully has died down) that was going on in Iraq before the “surge” is based on disputes going back 1200 years.
    Jews don’t nurse grudges like this…we remember what happened (every year on the 9th of Av we read lamentations about massacres of Jews in the Rhineland 900 years ago, but nobody goes out looking for revenge.
    If your saying that my being “ethnocentric” means I am a Jewish Nationalist, my only response is “GUILTY”. The vast majority of people in the world are nationalists. Why do you think Belgium is breaking up? (and this is on the supposedly “tolerant, multicultural, anti-nationalist, progressive” European continent). Why did the Western European countries ENCOURAGE the break up of Yugoslavia, leading inevitably to the wars there? Almost everybody is a nationalist, and in fact, within limits, it is a good thing. It would not be a good thing for everybody to be the same and for there to be world government (this is the message of the story of the Tower of Babel in the Bible’s Book of Genesis). Different people have different characters and may need different governmental systems and different customs.
    Vive la difference!

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