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.