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In Ishmael's House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands, Reviewed by John Farber

John Farber, August 15, 2013

In Ishmael’s House: A History of Jews in Muslims Lands by Martin Gilbert. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. Toronto, 2010

Let's be frank, for many reading history can be boring! But, if Santana is correct, “Those who do not learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.”, and writers like Martin Gilbert write about it, then reading it is essential and can even be exciting. In Gilbert's 2010 book, In Ishmael’s House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands, he makes reading history painless and fascinating; even for the skeptic. In it he presents a history of the Jews in the Middle East from 1500 years before Mohammed to today; presenting facts interlaced with intriguing personal stories.

According to the Acknowledgements, the book has a direct Winnipeg connection. Gilbert explains that the impetus for the book came from Israel Asper z”l, shortly before his death. The trustees of the Asper Foundation followed through by “...making available the resources of the Foundation.” Several Winnipeggers are acknowledged in this section.

Gilbert is well qualified to write this book and has written several others on this and related topics. He is the author of 88 books, including Churchill and the Jews. In 1976, he outlined in maps the story of the Jews in Arab lands.  He was knighted in 1995 for his contribution to British history. He is the official biographer of Winston Churchill and was part of the British Government's Iraq War Inquiry.

Published in 2010, this 424 page scholarly book is composed of 22 chapter (355 pages), 20 fascinating maps depicting Jewish communities through the ages (18 pages) 315 reference sources (18 pages) and a 16 page Index. It also includes 29 pictures and a short Glossary of Arabic and Hebrew words.

Basically, the book details the travels and travails of the Jews who lived in and around Europe and Mideast countries from before Islam until the present day. The first 6 chapters chronologically detail the history of Jews from before Islam up to the end of the 17th Century. The seventh chapter details the 18th and 19th centuries. The remaining chapters contain more contemporary history, including events leading up to the creation of the State of Israel to present times. The final chapter discusses the Jews of today who remain in Muslim lands.

Each chapter begins with a poignant quotation or statement from the chapter. For example, the Introduction begins with “Jews: remember Khaibar.”  (p.xviii) This quote is from Amrozi bin Nurhasin, one of the 2002 Bali bombers. In 628 CE, one of Mohammed's first military victories was against a Jewish tribe living at the oasis of Khaibar in the Arabian Peninsula. While few, if any Jews today remember or even know of this event, for Muslims, according to Gilbert, “.., the battle of Khaibar resonates with meaning even today....”, and is still spoken about with some affection. (p. xviii)

In the Introduction, Gilbert describes the ebb and flow of the relationship between Jews and Muslims over the centuries; vacillating between debasement and humiliation and tolerance and protection. While Jews were always explicitly considered “second class” (dhimmi in Arabic), with the expectation to behave accordingly, there were periods where relationships and Jewish life flourished with Jews living in relative peace and security (provided they accepted subservience). It is these two opposing conditions that form the foundation of this book. Gilbert states, “The focus will be on the Jews themselves:...who strived to become an integral, productive, and accepted part of the countries in which they lived, and whom loyalty was to the local power, which, sadly, often turned against them.” (p. xxi)

Gilbert explains that he is driven by three perspectives; the historical narrative (the chronology of events throughout the area), the documentary evidence, and most interesting, the “human voice” of those who experienced the events of their time. He draws upon actual words, eyewitness accounts, letters, poems, oral testimony, etc. Indeed, what makes this historical read fascinating is that Gilbert not only reviews the history through facts as he and other authorities know them, but tells the personal stories of individuals who lived at different times in14 Muslim-ruled countries; Afghanistan, Algeria, Uzbekistan (formerly the Bukharan Khanate in Central Asia), Egypt, Iraq (formerly Persia), Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Ottoman Turkey, Palestine (when under Muslim rule), Syria, Tunisia and Yemen. He tells the story of how people were treated, how they lived, and how they and their family's survived.  This adds human flavour; colour, interest and nuance to what might otherwise be fairly dry reading for the lay reader.

Gilbert begins by describing the history of the area prior to the birth of Mohammed in 570 CE and the rise of Islam. He reminds the reader that for more than 1000 years before Islam, Jews lived in what were to become “Muslim lands”.  He notes, for example, that when Queen Sheba ruled Yemen in 900 BCE (1500 years before Mohammed); Jews were brought from Judea to Yemen. Jewish gravestones have been unearthed in Carthage dating from 813 BCE. Jerusalem was the Jewish capital of Judea for 600 years, until it was conquered by the Babylonians in 587 BCE resulting in the destruction of the First Temple (1000 years before the birth of Mohammed). In 515 CE (55 years before the birth of Mohammed), Yemen was ruled by a Jewish King, Yusuf Asar. It was not until 638 CE, 5 years after Mohammed's death that Jerusalem first fell to Muslim rule. Subsequently came the Crusaders and others, with Muslims finally reoccupying Jerusalem in the 1500's which continued until the defeat of the Ottoman Turk in 1924 and ultimately the recapture of the Old City of Jerusalem by Israel in 1967. 

Jewish history is marked by migration and resettlement. During Roman rule, hundreds of thousands of Jews were dispersed making new homes stretching from the North-West tip of Spain eastward to the Himalaya mountains in eastern Persia (Iraq today), through North Africa along the Mediterranean to the Northern tip of Persia and all the way south to Yemen; a vast area indeed. In these communities, most of which eventually came under Muslim rule, Jews maintained their faith, traditions heritage, and the Hebrew language for prayer; adopting local language for daily life. 

From this stage, Gilbert begins systematically describing the Jewish history of this vast geographical area with detailed discourse of the rise of Islam and the Jewish connection. He notes that the two centuries following Mohammed's death saw, what was to become a repeating theme for the next 1200 years, swings from protection and enlightenment to intolerance and potential annihilation of the Jews. In Chapter 4, Gilbert covers the first 400 years under Islam and notes as Islam expanded it was often welcomed by the Jews as potential relief from Christian persecution and that Jews were able to make great strides.

The Crusades brought new challenges as the Crusaders, determined to capture Jerusalem killed both Muslims and Jews along the way. It was the time (1159 CE) of the great Jewish scholar Maimonides (Rambam in Hebrew).  As in other times, many Jews, including Rambam, were forced to convert to Islam; justifying it as an acceptable alternative to torture and death (Rambam later returned to Judaism after moving to Egypt, which at the time was more tolerant of Jews). Gilbert quotes Maimonides, “We have done as our sages of blessed memory instructed us, bearing the lies and absurdities of Ishmael. We listen but we remain silent.” In spite of this silence, “we are not spared from the ferocity of their wickedness, and their outburst at any time. On the contrary, the more we suffer and choose to conciliate them, the more they choose to act belligerent towards us” (emphasis added, p. 57).

Each new chapter continues unfolding historical facts interspersed with personal accounts and stories.  As the book progresses, Gilbert provides increasing detail as he reviews country-by-country events. This form, format and structure of the book leaves the reader with a much clearer understanding of what has transpired over the centuries and how we arrived at the current situation. He strikes a good balance between presenting the facts without overwhelming the reader. 

As a lay reader of history, there is little to criticize about this book. A few more pictures would have been welcomed break from all the text, but is hardly a major criticism.

The maps at the back of the book are essential and deserve special comment. It is perhaps cliché to say a picture, or in this case pictures, is worth a thousand words, but the series of maps confirm the veracity of this statement. They reveal how extensive Jewish life and culture was in this area of the world up until recent times and how events impacted migration. Map 1 displays the conquest of Islam by 750 CE. Maps 2 ¨C 19 show in detail communities where Jews lived and from where and when they were expelled and migrated over the centuries. Map 20, the final map, shows the “number of Jews who were expelled from Arab/Muslim lands seeking refuge in Israel between 1948 and 1972”, (p.374). If the first 355 pages of reading is not clear enough, the 18 pages of maps at the end, forming essentially a book within a book, removes any confusion.

This book is an essential read, especially for those less familiar with Jewish history. Copies are available from the Winnipeg Public Library and the Kaufman-Silverberg Library at the Asper Campus. After reading this book (Acknowledgements notwithstanding), it is no wonder why a copy was given as a gift to students of the 2013 High School Graduating Class of the Gray Academy in Winnipeg. It should be on the bookshelf of every Jew and person interested in current Middle East affairs.

P.S. If interested, a good complimentary follow-up to In Ishmael's House is the book The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family's Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World by Lucette Lagnado, Harper Collins, 2008.



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