Farzana Hassan reviews "The Jew is Not My Enemy" with a unique theological critique
- December 1, 2010
The Jew is Not My Enemy, or is he?
Arts and Opinion
Tarek Fatah, in his remarkably courageous and forthright book, The Jew Is Not My Enemy, rightly urges his fellow Muslims to shun their visceral hatred of the Jewish people. Published by McClelland and Stewart, it is a groundbreaking work in several respects. Muslims rarely, if ever, speak out against the rising tide of anti-Semitism among their co-religionists for fear of being labeled Zionist agents and neocon supporters.
They also risk being seen as traitors to the Muslim cause if they recognize Israel’s right to exist and thrive in the Middle East. In Fatah’s own words, “Few Muslims dare to state publicly that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state. Those of us who do, incur huge risks. Not only are we wrongfully portrayed as endorsing Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian territories, but it is claimed we are the ultimate enemies of Islam.”
Fatah is right. Too many Muslims are now governed by an apocalyptic zeal with an expansionist mission. They perceive the Jewish nation as a roadblock to achieving a global Islamic caliphate configured around the tenets of sharia.
Fatah’s call is sincere and earnest. Rooted in the conviction that anti-Semitism leads to self-destruction, the author makes an impassioned plea to his brethren in faith to repudiate attitudes that reflect so negatively on their collective psyche. Not only does rampant anti-Semitism reflect poorly on Muslims, it obstructs the peace process and the goal of nationhood for the Palestinian people.</span>
In appealing to his co-religionists, Fatah invokes Islam’s historical tolerance towards Jews, which eroded in the latter half of the last century. Here the author is careful to acknowledge that virulent anti-Semitism is a comparatively recent phenomenon, but expresses concern that it may very well be a growing one. The author states:
“The last quarter of the twentieth century would slowly undo the progress we Muslims had made in the preceding century. Our intellectual and cultural revival was stifled by the forces unleashed in Saudi Arabia and which are perhaps best captured by the late Saudi king Ibn Saud, who told an Anglo-American delegation: ‘The Jews are our enemies everywhere. Wherever they are found, they intrigue and work against us.’ ”
The author delves into history to understand better the causes of the conflict in the Middle East. He attributes contemporary Muslim anti-Semitism partly to the purported Banu Quraizah massacre as depicted in Islamic history. As the subtitle of the book reads, Unveiling the myths that fuel Muslim anti-Semitism, the author effectively refutes the historical claims associated with the fictitious murder of 900 Buna Quraizah Jews
Fatah also partly blames Israel for fueling anti-Semitism but his disdainful gaze falls mainly upon fellow Muslims as he provides numerous examples of Muslim anti-Semitism. However, the examples vary contextually, and thus Fatah’s definition of anti-Semitism is unclear.
For example, is all, some, or one particular criticism of Israel rooted in anti-Semitism? Is support for a Palestinian state anti-Semitic? Is it possible that such support is based, more objectively, on an acknowledgement of the right of any nation to determine its own destiny? Is virulent anti-Semitism prevalent in populous Muslim countries like Indonesia? Readers must have a conceptual framework of Muslim anti-Semitism to be able to decide whether the author’s perceptions of it are accurate and plausible.
One must also question Fatah’s interpretation of verse 5: 21 of the Koran, in which he claims Allah conferred the Holy Land to Jews unconditionally and permanently. To support his claim, the author relies heavily on the interpretation of Professor Khaleel Mohammad of the University of California. Fatah states:
Khaleel Mohammed says that among the verses of the Quran that are pertinent to the issue of the Holy Land, 5: 21 is the most significant . . . To elucidate his point, he rendered verse 5: 21 in as literal a manner as possible, translating the Arabic word kataba as “written” . . . it conveys the idea of decisiveness, finality, and immutability.
Agreed. But my objection to this interpretation is not over the meaning of the word, but the theological context Fatah associates with it.
<span>Israel has a compelling enough case to exist without requiring evidence from scripture. Invoking scripture to validate territorial claims is an anachronism subject to interpretation. Subjective interpretations of religious texts in fact weaken rather than strengthen Israel’s case because they invite hostile counter-claims.
For example, Islamists also use the Bible to strengthen their claims to the Holy Land and many suggest God made his covenant with all of Abraham’s progeny. They offer Ishmael’s circumcision as proof of his inclusion in the covenant. The children of Ishmael are therefore just as entitled to the Holy Land according to this view.
One can also easily argue that neither the Koran nor the Bible promised the Holy Land to the Jews unconditionally. God’s promise to Israel was contingent upon His people staying true to the covenant, an idea expressed in verses 7-8 of the chapter entitled “The children of Israel.” The verses state:
If you did well, you did well for yourselves, if you did evil, (you did it) against yourselves. So when the second of the warnings came to pass, (We permitted your enemies) to disfigure your faces, and to enter your Temple as they had entered it before, and to visit with destruction all that fell into their power.
<span>It may be that your Lord may (yet) show Mercy to you, but if you revert (to your sins), We shall revert (to Our punishments): and We have made Hell a prison for those who reject (All faith). (Koran 17: 7-8).
The verse cited above is pivotal to the debate. Rather than unconditional reward, Allah in this verse promises retribution if the Israelites break the covenant.
Let us return to the word kataba in verse 5: 21. While it certainly connotes permanence, one must question why Allah, in verse 5:26, revokes his own commandment to the children of Israel consequent to their reluctance to enter the Holy Land for fear of being vanquished. </span>Muslims believe that it is indeed the same God who spoke to the Israelites in the Tanakh.
For Muslims then, the Tanakh would also confirm the contention that God revoked his commandment contained in verse 5:21 on other occasions during the course of Jewish history. The Assyrian invasion of the northern kingdom of Israel resulted in the deportation of ten Israelite tribes in 722 BCE. The Jews of Judah (Judea) were later exiled to Babylon in 589 BCE.
Events following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD also resulted in similar deportations of the Jews. The conclusion? Given the transitory nature of human existence and endeavour, “permanence” must be seen as a term relative to changing circumstances and evolving political contexts, rather than Fatah’s literal and absolutist interpretation of the concept.
The Mohammed/Fatah interpretation is also fallacious in ignoring the Koranic concept of religious continuity. The Islamic scripture treats believers of old as God’s people in a generic sense. The new believers, the Muslims, are treated with the same respect in the Koran as the rightful heirs to God’s bounty.
The Israelites of old were certainly believers commanded to enter the land at a specific point in history. When they rejected God’s command, they forfeited their right to enter the land and, according to 5:26, wandered the wilderness of Sinai for forty years.
<span>Fatah ignores the philosophical underpinnings of the Koranic view of belief and godliness. According to the Koran, it is only believers who are seen as rightful inheritors of the bounty of heaven and earth. God in fact promises them the whole earth, rather than small territories of it as verse 6: 165 states. In addressing the believers the verse reads:
It is He Who has made you (His) agents, inheritors of the earth: He has raised you in ranks, some above others: that He may try you in the gifts he has given you: for your Lord is quick in punishment: yet He is indeed Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful (Koran 6: 165).
The above extract in no way invalidates Israel’s right to exist. As stated earlier, Israel’s legality is not in question and territorial claims <span><span>need not rely on scripture for validation</span></span>. And scripture or not, it is indeed in the interest of Muslims and Jews to make peace with each other. It is to the mutual benefit of both religious communities to adopt a path of peace and progress, not only in the region but in the entire world.
This path necessitates Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories and Arab repudiation of terror and violence.
The author prescribes the following for Israel: “For Israel the only action that matters is a specific and tangible step: end the occupation of the Palestinian territories and cooperate in creating a sovereign Palestinian state.”
In addressing Palestinians and Muslims he states: “Muslims today need to wake up from their hate-induced slumber of distrust, suspicion, superstition, misogyny, racism, homophobia, and tribalism . . . ”
Indeed Arabs and Muslims have much to learn from Jews, who have a four thousand year old tradition of enlightenment and democracy. They formed the intellectual vanguard of ancient times, articulating principles of universal justice and democracy in ideas and institutions such as the rule of law and the Sanhedrin, something unheard of in pagan cities of the time.
In acknowledging this, Muslims can revive their own tradition of tolerance, universal justice and pluralism. Fatah is also right to appeal to Jews to appreciate Islam’s contributions to human civilization so that the two religious communities, so similar and yet so distinct, can foster a climate of tolerance, understanding and peace-building.
The book is a must-read for Muslims and Jews. In particular, the message must be heeded by Muslims of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Fatah is first to start the reconciliation with the declaration: “The Jew is not my enemy.” He rightly hopes the rest of the Islamic world will follow suit and embrace this message of peace wholeheartedly.