There are many things about Barack Obama’s presidency that have left a bad taste in America’s mouth. We can add another one to the list; namely, his astonishing lack of understanding about the history of Muslim anti-Semitism.
In a recent interview with The New Yorker’s David Remnick, Mr. Obama pontificated that “the interests of Israel in stability and security are actually very closely aligned with the interests of the Sunni states.” To call this a completely inaccurate assessment would be an understatement.
It didn’t stop there, however.
The unlikely professor of Middle East history, secretly disguised as a mild-mannered leader of the free world, also said: “What’s preventing them from entering into even an informal alliance with at least normalized diplomatic relations is not that their interests are profoundly in conflict, but the Palestinian issue, as well as a long history of anti-Semitism that’s developed over the course of decades there, and anti-Arab sentiment that’s increased inside of Israel based on seeing buses being blown up. If you can start unwinding some of that, that creates a new equilibrium.”
Mr. Obama is claiming Muslim anti-Semitism is only a few decades old at best.
This statement is so baffling that it’s hard to know where to start. Clearly, he hasn’t read a great deal on this topic. If Mr. Obama had ever delved into the work of pre-eminent historians such as Will Durant, Paul Johnson and Bernard Lewis, he would quickly discover that his knowledge of this important topic was severely lacking.
The history of Muslim anti-Semitism goes back many centuries. Mr. Durant wrote in “The Age of Faith” (1950), the fourth volume of his impressive series “The Story of Civilization,” that the “Moslems, living by Mohammed, resented the Jewish rejection of their prophet.”
Moreover, the tradition of Jews and Saracens wearing a “distinctive color” on their clothing in Christian Europe “was in part a retaliation against older and similar laws of Moslems against Christians and Jews.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Johnson noted in “A History of the Jews” (1987) that when it came to Islamic rule in the 12th and 13th centuries, “Always, in the background, there was the menace of anti-Semitism.” The historian pinpoints the “worst actual persecution occurred under the fanatical or mad Fatimid caliph al-Hakim, early in the eleventh century, who turned first on the Christians, then on the Jews.”
Another “zealot-ruler was Saladin’s nephew al-Malik, who called himself the caliph of the Yemen (1196-1201).” Mr. Johnson mentions “a letter of August 1198 from the Yemen relates how the Jews were summoned to the ruler’s audience hall and forcibly converted: ‘Thus all apostacized. Some of the pious, who [then] defected from Islam, were beheaded.’”
In the author’s view, “Parts of Islam were much worse than others for Jews. Morocco was fanatical. So was northern Syria. Anti-dhimmi regulations, such as sumptuary laws, were often strictly enforced to gouge a financial settlement out of the Jewish community.”
Mr. Lewis takes a slightly different view in “What Went Wrong?” (2002).
While “Jews in traditional Islamic societies experienced the normal constraints and occasional hazards of minority status … they were better off under Muslim than under Christian rule, until the rise and spread of Western tolerance in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries … . [W]here hostile stereotypes of the Jew existed in the Islamic tradition, they tended to be contemptuous and dismissive, rather than suspicious and obsessive.”
I would therefore interpret this as a softer version of anti-Semitism — and hardly anything to be proud of.
Mr. Lewis thinks existing Muslim anti-Semitism increased after the state of Israel was founded in 1948. “As some writers at the time observed,” he put it, “it was bad enough to be defeated by the great imperial powers of the West; to suffer the same fate at the hands of a contemptible gang of Jews was an intolerable humiliation. Anti-Semitism and its demonized picture of the Jew as a scheming, evil monster provided a soothing answer.”
Some observers may argue my criticism of Mr. Obama’s New Yorker interview is simply a matter of semantics. Yet it’s much more than that. We must expect better of our political leaders, and they have to understand the extensive history of a particular region to potentially have a significant impact.
Mr. Obama doesn’t seem to realize Muslim anti-Semitism has a long, sordid past. Rather, he appears to think it’s a decades-old phenomenon. This may shed further light on why he’s been such an extraordinarily weak leader on foreign-policy matters.
Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.