“What is hateful to you,” the renowned sage Hillel said, “do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary.”
For every rule, however, there is an exception. As much as I despise the despicable “Blame the Victim” canard from the haters that we Jews bring antisemitism on ourselves, however, I do believe Islamic religious and political leaders, in large part, are to blame for much of the Islamophobia we see in our world.
The degree of Jew-hatred that exists today most likely was always there lurking beneath the surface waiting for an excuse to rise up—and Israel’s war against Hamas finally supplied that excuse. Islamophobia, however, has been growing in our world ever since the al-Qaeda attacks on 9/11; the excruciatingly painful reports of Hamas’ October 7th brutalities have only added more fuel to that fire.
It is bordering on accepted wisdom among non-Muslims that all Muslims are terrorists until proven otherwise. Islamophobic rhetoric now flows easily from the top down, even among political leaders here and globally. Fueling it, of course, are the extremists on the Christian right who hate all religious groups other than their own brand of Christianity.
Islamophobia is nothing new to the Jewish world. The blame for that is not on the wars between Israel and the Arab states but on the murderous attacks by Hamas and its terrorist counterparts that are all too often directed at children and other innocents—on such targets as pizza parlors, discotheques, and schools—with the October 7th atrocities being by far the worst example of such heinous deeds to date.
The blame for fueling Islamophobia, however, rests only partially with the terrorists who claim to represent Islam. They surely have helped poison how non-Muslims—sadly including Jews—view Islam and its followers, no matter who they are and how they live their lives. In large part, however, the blame must rest on Islam’s religious and political leaders. First, there is the encouragement and even financial support Muslim Arab governments give to terrorists. The Palestinian Authority, as is well known, even rewards suicide bombers by giving large annual stipends to their families and naming public facilities as memorials to the “martyrdom” of these conscience-less murderers.
Perhaps more importantly, however, is the timidity within the normative Islamic religious establishment to openly and persuasively challenge the misinterpretations and misrepresentations of Islamic teachings that enable terrorist cells to enlist “martyrs” to their cause. An example is Article 1 of the Hamas Charter of 1988, which states that its “program is Islam. From it, [Hamas] draws its ideas, ways of thinking, and understanding of the universe, life, and man. [Hamas] resorts to [Islamic teachings] for judgment in all its conduct, and it is inspired by it for guidance in its steps.”
Nothing can be further away from the truth, yet such claims coming from Hamas and other terrorist enterprises go unchallenged by most Islamic religious authorities.
Antisemitism in the Muslim world is a relatively late phenomenon, introduced by Christian Europe into the Arab world for political reasons in the late 19th century. If ever two people should be living side by side in peace and cooperation, it is the Jew and the Muslim. History proves it.
When the Muslims ruled Babylonia, the exilarch, the leader of the Jewish community there, was treated by the caliph as an equal. The caliph even sat the exilarch next to him on a throne of his own and ordered everyone—Muslims included — to stand and salute whenever the exilarch entered their presence, or passed by them in the street.
Just over a millennium ago, Muslims and Jews fought and died side by side against the barbarous Crusaders. When Islam rose to conquer Spain in the 8th century, the Jews were its chief allies.
The Muslim conquest inaugurated what in Jewish history is known, admittedly somewhat exaggeratedly, as “the Golden Age of Spain,” a period of great cultural and intellectual achievement for both Jews and Muslims. This period was characterized by religious tolerance, cultural exchange, and economic prosperity for Jews. Jews played a significant role in Muslim Spain, serving as scholars, translators, physicians, and government officials. They also made significant contributions to Spanish literature, philosophy,
Two people in particular were responsible for kick-starting that era: the Caliph Abd al-Rachmân III and Chisdai ibn Shaprut, the caliph’s personal physician. Chisdai was given control of trade in and out of the caliphate, served as prime minister and foreign minister, and was also a successful diplomat on behalf of the caliphate. With the caliph’s financial help and blessing, Chisdai turned Muslim Spain into a major center of Jewish culture and learning on virtually every level.
Ismail ibn Nagrela—Sh’muel Ha-nagid—was a renowned rabbi, talmudic scholar, and poet. For at least two decades in the early 11th century, he also was Granada’s “caliph in fact if not in actuality,” the chief of staff of the Caliph Habbus bin Maksen’s army, and played a pivotal role both in putting Habbus’ son Badis on the throne after his father’s death, and in having his son Joseph succeed him as chief minister. (To learn more, google to find the biography of Samuel-ha-Nagid in Britannica.com.)
While Islam has a triumphalist view of Judaism, Judaism views Islam as a sister faith, not an idolatrous one, as Maimonides, the Rambam, made clear. (See his “Letter to Ovadiah the Proselyte.”) Rambam held this belief despite having experienced in his youth the horrors of the “convert or die” radicalization that grew out of this triumphalist attitude. Yet he neither blamed all Muslims nor Islam itself for the bad behavior of Islam’s radicals. In his adulthood, he moved confidently in the Islamic world and was the trusted physician of the Qadi al-Fadil, Saladin’s vizier, and a prolific letter writer. (When he was in Damascus serving as a minister to one of Saladin’s sons, al-Fadil would routinely write letters to Rambam to get his approval for the medications that physicians in Damascus prescribed.) Rambam also was a physician to some of Saladin’s own family.
There is much about Islam that differs from Judaism, true, but not when it comes to the basics. We share many of the same understandings of how all people should view themselves.
For example, Genesis 5:1 states, “This is the record of the generations of Adam.” According to the sage Ben Azzai, this means that all people, having descended from the original human, are brothers and sisters to each other and must act that way towards each other. (See Genesis Rabbah 24:7.) In the Quran, Surah 4:1 states: “Fear your Lord Who created you from a single being and out of it created its mate, and out of the two spread many men and women. Fear Allah…and heed the ties of kinship.”
In other words, just as the Torah, in both its narrow and broader senses, teaches us the importance of human rights and dignity, and states that all human beings are related to each other and are equal in the eyes of God, so does Islam’s essential text.
There is more. Our Sages of Blessed Memory taught “that whoever destroys a life, it is as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is as if he saved an entire world.” (See Mishnah Sanhedrin 4.) The Quran echoes that sentiment. In verse 32 of Sura 5, it states, “whoever kills [an innocent] soul…it is as if he had slain all of mankind. And whoever saves one—it is as if he had saved all of mankind.”
Leviticus 19:18 states, “You shall love your fellow as you would love yourself.” In Islam, the Hadith (Islam’s “oral law”) teaches this: “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.” (See Hadith Number 236.) This saying applies to all humanity, not just to Muslims. It means that a person cannot be considered to be a true believer until he wishes for others, whoever they may be, what he wishes for himself.
Islam espouses a moral and ethical code, with a concept of repentance and a Day of Judgment. Islamic law (shariah) derives from a written document (the Quran), much as halachah flows from the Torah, and is similarly based on an oral tradition of scholarly interpretation (the Hadith). There also exists a huge body of responsa literature with clear roots in Babylonian rabbinic responsa. It also maintains a strict dietary code very similar to ours.
How sad, then, that Islamophobia is so pervasive among Jews. How much sadder that Islamophobia is becoming acceptable generally.
How much sadder still is it that the reason for this is the failure of normative Islam to combat the radicals on the only battleground that matters: in the mosques and the madrasas (the Islamic version of a bet midrash as an educational institution).
That failure has now turned Gaza into a battlefield. As much as this war has caused anti-Semitism to skyrocket and understandably brought with it so much outpouring of sympathy for the ordinary Gazans, it has also unleashed even further hatred for Islam than we have seen to date.
Blaming the victim in this case is quite justified.
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Kehillat Torat Chayim v’Chesed — a virtual congregation, and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.