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Fact-checking Biden: The myth of 'ancient hatred for Jews' in the Middle East debunked

MEMO's political analyst Nasim Ahmed presents his latest op ed: 'Fact-checking Biden: The myth of 'ancient hatred for Jews' in the Middle East debunked'

May 14, 2024 at 9:30 pm

Last week, President Joe Biden amplified a dangerous myth when he claimed that the Middle East has long harboured an “ancient hatred for Jews”. This assertion, made during Holocaust Memorial Week, suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of the region’s history. By alleging that Hamas is “driven by an ancient desire to wipe the Jewish people off the face of this earth”, Biden not only spreads falsehoods but also engages in a troubling revisionism of history. It is no exaggeration to suggest that the rhetoric of the US President serves to justify Israel’s genocidal actions in Gaza and its takeover of historic Palestine.

Biden’s statement effectively transposed the historical anti-Semitism prevalent in Europe and the ancient animosity toward Jews within Christendom onto the Middle East. How can Hamas, a group established in 1987 in response to Israeli occupation, be attributed to an “ancient hatred”, especially given the absence of a historical precedent for such animosity towards Jews in the Middle East compared to Europe?

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In fact, for centuries, Jews found sanctuary and co-existence in Muslim-ruled lands while facing persecution in Europe. This fact is attested to even by some of the staunchest critics of Islam and Muslims. “The coming of Islam saved [Jews]”, an essay in the Jewish Chronicle concluded.  The author goes on to state that Islam provided a new context in which Jews “not only survived, but flourished, laying foundations for subsequent Jewish cultural prosperity.”

The historical reservoir of anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust did not originate in the Muslim world, but rather in Christian Europe. Contrary to Biden’s assertion of “ancient desires”, the Middle East, where the three Abrahamic faiths were born, was not the breeding ground for such sentiments. In fact, Muslims and Jews have a rich history of peaceful co-existence and mutual support, dating back to the time of Prophet Muhammad. As early as 622 CE, the Prophet ratified the constitution of Medina, a ground-breaking pact that unified Muslims, Jews and others into one community, as part of the Ummah, demonstrating a long-standing alliance and shared heritage.

In contrast, it was the Byzantine Christians who conquered Jerusalem in 629 and massacred and expelled Jews. When Muslims retook the city in 638, the Second Caliph, Umar Iban Al-Khattab, re-opened Jerusalem to Jews and allowed them to return, a policy that continued for centuries under Muslim rule. In fact, it is safe to assume that if it was not for the care and duty shown by Muslims to Jews, there would be no continuous Jewish settlement in Palestine to speak off.

It was the Crusaders, not Muslims, who massacred both Jews and Muslims when they captured Jerusalem in 1099. Yet, time and again, under various Muslims rulers, including the Ottomans, Muslims consistently allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem and live in peace after periods of Christian persecution. The Golden Age of Islam in Moorish Spain, as it is often called, is another testament to the long history of Muslims, Jews and Christians co-existing and thriving together under Muslim rule.

While no era was perfect, there is no historical evidence of generational Muslim campaigns to systematically oppress or murder Jews, let alone subject them to pogroms as was so often the case in Europe. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a modern political issue rooted in contemporary injustices, not an ancient religious feud fuelled by an ancient hatred for Jews, as claimed by Biden.

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Any good-faith historian will acknowledge that, throughout various Muslim empires, many Jews flourished as scholars, doctors, merchants and government officials. The renowned Jewish philosopher, Moses Ben Maimon (1138–1204), also known as Maimonides, for example, served as a court physician to the legendary Sultan Saladin in Egypt. This pattern of Jewish integration continued under Ottoman rule, where Muslim leaders actively encouraged Jewish settlement in Constantinople. When the Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, they found a welcoming home in the Ottoman Empire.

Prior to the establishment of Israel and the rise of Zionism, the concept of an “Arab Jew” or a “Palestinian Jew” was not considered a contradiction in terms. The triumph of Zionism relied on creating a false dichotomy between Arab and Jewish identities, as Professor Avi Shlaim eloquently demonstrates in his memoir, “The Three Worlds of an Arab Jew.” Shlaim, an Iraqi Jew himself, sheds light on the historical reality that Jewish communities had thrived in Mesopotamia for over two millennia before the establishment of the State of Israel.

In his book, Shlaim underscores how Zionism’s success necessitated the portrayal of Arab and Jewish identities as inherently incompatible, despite the fact that Jews had been an integral part of the Arab world for centuries. This artificial division served to justify the Zionist narrative of the need for a separate Jewish homeland, while disregarding the long-standing co-existence and shared cultural heritage of Arabs and Jews in the region.

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Why is Biden propagating such slander against an entire civilisation, particularly a falsehood that has long been a staple of the Zionist playbook to vilify and marginalise Palestinians? Anti-Semitism in the Middle East is a relatively modern occurrence, with much of what is labelled as anti-Jewish sentiment actually rooted in opposition to Israel and its colonial ambitions in historic Palestine. As recently as the early 20th century, Jewish communities thrived in places like Egypt and Iraq. However, the emergence of Arab nationalism, exacerbated by Israel’s takeover of Palestine, fuelled tensions between Jewish and Muslim populations.

It would be mendacious to ignore the fact that the trigger for growing tension between Jews and Arabs and the wider Muslim world was entirely due to the installation of a foreign and a colonial power in the heart of the Middle East. The establishment of Israel was predicated on erasing Palestine from the map and forcibly displacing its indigenous inhabitants. The resistance to this colonial enterprise stemmed not from an inherent hatred of Jews, but from a desire to oppose the subjugation and dispossession of the Palestinian people.

Perpetuating the myth of an “ancient hatred” between Muslims and Jews in the Middle East not only distorts history but also fuels the very conflict it claims to explain. By erasing the long, peaceful and complex history of co-existence, cultural exchange and mutual respect between Jews and Muslims, the misguided narrative fuelled by Biden only serves to justify the ongoing injustices and human rights abuses in the region. It is imperative that world leaders, especially President Biden, refrain from reinforcing these dangerous misconceptions and, instead, work towards fostering a more accurate understanding of the historical context that has shaped the current political realities.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.