The Mother of All Anxieties – Muslim Attitudes towards the Jews

7. März 2011 0

Book review: Moshe Ma’oz: Muslim Attitudes to Jews and Israel

Ma’oz has done an outstanding job giving us a timely compilation of essays. Considering the current uprising across the Arab Muslim world and its open expression of rage against its own dictators as well as with Israel and the Jews, his book is at the forefront and must be read with great urgency. Indeed the attitudes of a people will determine the outcome of any conflict. The word “attitude” is defined by Webster as: “a settled way of thinking or feeling about someone or something, typically one that is reflected in a person’s behavior.” In ballet the term calls to mind a particular ballet position “attitude.” Think of the arabesque, which means “in the Arabic style.” There are more than one positions for it and it is not a far cry from what Ma’oz attempts to do, that is map out the contours of such positions by Arabs and Muslims towards Jews and Israel.


Moshe Ma’oz: Muslim Attitudes to Jews and Israel: The Ambivalences of Rejection, Antagonism, Tolerance and Cooperation, Sussex Academic Press, 2010. Buy at: Amazon.

Last August 2010 The Economist published two book reviews concerning Muslim attitudes toward Jews entitled “The Touchy Subject of Muslim attitudes to the Jews”. One was about the history of Jews in Arab lands by Martin Gilbert and the other about the Holocaust by Gilbert Achcar.

Unfortunately for reasons unknown to this reviewer The Economist may not have had Muslim Attitudes of Jews and Israel: The Ambivalences of Rejection, Antagonism, Tolerance and Cooperation to include and this is a shame because this text will become a classic. The Oxford trained scholar, Moshe Ma’oz, is Professor Emeritus of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has brought together a fine series of scholarly voices from across the spectrum of countries, disciplines and political affiliations to research the current status of Muslim attitudes.

The book offers tidbits of primary source research as well as innovative insights to the intractable conflict. At the core is the hatred of the Jew. It is a complex problem since one also has to factor in the relationship of the three revelations – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Since Islam is the last of the revelations yet considers itself the first, that makes Islam, ironically dependent upon Judaism for a significant part of its religious identity because of the co-optation of the giving of the Law at Sinai which makes divine will manifest in human discourse. Islam must negotiate the triadic aspect of the Ibrahimic relationship as well as a dyadic one. Triads are tricky because they involve more people. Interestingly enough two essays unwittingly touch on the issue of triads: Amikam Nachmani’s “The ‘Triangle’: Europeans, Muslims, Jews” and P. R. Kumaraswamy’s “Indian Muslims and the Three Js: Jews, Jerusalem and the Jewish state” thereby acknowledging the fact that triads are constantly being juggled. However, the principle dyad addressed herein is between Muslims and Jews. This is complicated in a different way because dyads tend toward splitting into “either/or” relationships, that is – love/hate relationships, which are all too often devoid of balance or middle ground due to anxiety. Muslim Attitudes attempts to give depth and breathe to the parameters of such schizoid stereotyping.

The book opens a segue to steps that need to be taken to reduce anti-Semitism, anti-Israel and anti-Zionist stereotyping. Obviously education is key and the role of the media. At a deeper level these essays shed further light on the unspoken covert facets of such anxieties operative within the conflict. For this reason alone Ma’oz’s Muslim Attitudes to Jews and Israel is unique and quite different from the two books reviewed by The Economist. Ma’oz creates space for voices that may be less known to the English reader, such as Wasfi Kailani on Jordan, Ofra Bengio on Iraq, Saziya Burcu Giray on Turkey or Ibnu Burdah on Indonesia. I once asked an Israeli authority (who will remain anonymous) who was their leading scholar on East Africa since I have a particular interest in Somalia. This person replied that Israel has no leading scholar concerning East Africa. Fortunately I discovered that Aryeh Oded carries the day.

As a psychoanalyst reading this book I was impressed by the subtitle, which focuses on the crucial concepts of ambivalence, rejection, antagonism, tolerance and cooperation. Freud drew attention to the seriousness of ambivalence in psychology as a root cause contributing to aggression, rage and paranoia. All human beings are innately conflicted holding polar feelings of love and hate in check most of the time, save when there is an outbreak of violence. The balance is a delicate one to be sure and the ability to hone back unconscious hatred found in stereotyping is a tall order but education is the key starting in early childhood. Halim Barakat, the Egyptian scholar, has argued that the Arab Muslim family is the microcosm for society at large. Behaviors are learned in the home. Perhaps the most psychologically oriented essay is that of Ofra Bengio concerning Iraqi perceptions of Israel. Her eloquently penned essay aptly notes that Jews/Israelis/Israel/Zionism is not just the “other” but the negative other.

The essays are organized and expand to further themes starting with Anti-Semitism in the Arab and Muslim World: Myth and Reality moving to Ambivalent Attitudes in Muslim-Arab Countries and from there to Non-Arab Muslim countries and communities in Asia and ending with Muslim communities in Africa, Europe and the USA.

I found Wasfi Kailani’s “The breakdown of Arab-Israeli Peace: Research from remote, reciprocal stereotypes and Anti-normalization – the case of Jordan” particularly helpful. Take the simple concept of Jews being perceived as “children of Abraham“ or cousins, Kailani correctly labels these phrases as “symbolic political slogans or more likely as interfaith discourse.” Elsewhere I have written that we need to get over this fantasy as it puts too “good” a spin on a complicated problem and in this case it very well may have contributed to how the honeymoon ran amuck between Jordan and Israel because the relationship was over-idealized from the get go. As an aside, his essay called to mind Queen Rania of Jordan’s recently published children’s book, The Sandwich Swap (2010). I received a book poster of it while attending the Book Expo of America in May 2010. The poster’s image speaks more than a thousand words by depicting children of various nationalities gathered for lunch at a long picnic table exchanging sandwiches. Many different flags grace the table save that of its neighbor with whom it has a peace treaty – Israel. What exactly was her royal highness of Jordan who is of Palestinian descent thinking? It would behoove Queen Rania to read Kailani’s essay. In passing he mentions the important role of the prison for cultural inculcation where many Arabs have learned Hebrew as well as many Israeli security officers reciprocally have learned about Arab culture. This interaction could be noteworthy for those in Europe, America and other countries who are now dealing with recruitment to extremism in jail.

Esther Webman’s “The Image of the Jew/Zionist/Israeli in the Arab world”, is an exceedingly important contribution because she underscores violence and conflict as a nonverbal communication constituted to a large degree through image. Imagery in the political sense is similar to a patient’s covert body language that tells how they actually feel about themselves. Rage can be thought of as a shield to protect a self, even a group self, that feels threatened and under attack. The behavior is nearly autonomic. Rage is inextricably linked to paranoia. Rage masks terrors not fear. Terrors are nonverbal before a child has the capacity to articulate what they are feeling and experiencing. Such terrors have to do with unmet dependency needs regrettably intertwined with shame and humiliation. Paranoia is essentially about the relationship of the mother to the baby even though later on it takes on the garb of conspiracy thinking occurring in shame honor cultures. Webman is able to pull this off especially well in her section on “A complex personality swinging between arrogance and interiority feelings.”

I found Joseph Kostiner and Michael Kahanov’s on Saudi Arabia and Israel informative concerning behind the scenes politics – beginning with a brief history of the role Saudi Arabia has played in the Arab-Israeli conflict, how differently they have dealt with the matter than the Egyptians and their Peace Initiative of 2002 while coping with Iranian ascendancy – revealing their own high anxieties about another “negative” other. Samir Ben-Layish and Bruce Maddy-Weitzman bring a rich expose to the multi-faceted relationship of Morocco and its Jewish community. They are correct to stress the unusual mix of historical experience relating to both the megorashim (i.e. those Jews expelled from Spain) and the moriscos (i.e. the forced converts from Islam to Catholicism) and then flight to North Africa. All this history further complicates contemporary relationships and attitudes towards Jews with regard to a communal history of trauma. Yitzhak Reiter’s contribution focuses on Islam and the Question of Peace with Israel: “Jad al-Haqq’s Fatwa permitting Egypt’s 1979 Peace Treaty with Israel.” This kind of originality in thinking opens the door to unexplored possibilities and establishes ground to build on for future negotiations.

Tural Ahmadov writes about Azerbaijanians’ diversity in attitudes concerning Israel and Jews by offering up primary source material derived from interviews. The results caution us from assuming that there is just a wholesale Palestinization of hatred against Israel and Jews. Again the issue is one of education. Ahmadov claims that „Overall, it is readily visible that public support is in favor of the Palestinians, but not always against Israel.“ It is regrettable that there was not a scholarly essay concerning Afghanistan though fortunately Paul Rockower and Aneeq Cheema’s “Dancing in the Dark: Pulling the Veil off Israeli-Pakistan Relations” is an engaging essay concerning its next-door neighbor. I particularly found the section on „Breaking Bread in New York“ concerning President Musharraf’s address to the American Jewish Congress in 2005 interesting in that it once again pointed to the commonalities of the monotheistic faiths but also Musharraf’s ability to acknowledge the Holocaust. There is also much to be gleaned from the mutuality of early statehood for both Israel and Pakistan and the partition of India. I can not possibly do justice to the essay here. Similarly Paul Scham did an admirable job raising many significant issues concerning America’s Muslims attitudes towards Jews, Israel and Jerusalem. He notes that we are only in the beginning phase of being able to comprehend the diversity of such attitudes and suggests that more empirical research needs to be undertaken. I do not wholly agree with the idea that empirical research will help us understand attitudes in a profound way because we only encounter the tip of the iceberg of ambivalence and hatred. However, having said that, it is an important start. I am not so sure though that the American Muslim community “appears to be more comfortably integrated than any other Muslim community in a westerner country.” My work concerning the Somali diaspora in the United States and especially Minnesota which has the largest diaspora outside of Mogadishu has lead me to understand how humbling it is to be a Muslim immigrant. Many, not all, acclimate readily to life in America. I would have liked to have seen more in this collection underscoring anxieties of attitudes arising from the low status of the female in Arab societies, Muslim countries and in the Muslim diaspora. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a tour de force concerning the subjugation of women in Islam and non-believers.

I do, however, have one major quibble and that is with Mark Cohen’s “Modern Myths of Muslim Anti-Semitism.” Even though he holds a distinguished chair in Islamic studies at Princeton, I feel that the essay is regrettably not balanced and uncritical especially with regard to both Andy Bostom and Bat Ye’or’s work. They are fine scholars in their own right though politically they are not located in the same place on the spectrum with Cohen. Moreover Cohen seems to underestimate the psychological significance of the category of dhimmi for Christians and Jews. It is a projection of inferiority and humiliation inflicted upon the negative other under the seemingly benign gesture of “protected” category. It is a hard concept to expunge from the theology as well as from the history and even current events, most especially when the eucumenical discussion clings to false concepts like „cousins“ and „children of Abraham.“ This category patronizes the people of the book – Christians and Jews signifies and signifies that the playing field has never been “level”. Furthermore it provides the mechanism to facilitate blaming the negative other.

Overall, Ma’oz has laid the groundwork for continued and inspirational work in this area of attitudes. He is to be congratulated on bringing together such a superb thought provoking collection of essays. Editors do not have an easy job compiling all the various “attitudes” and weaving them together into a coherent text, nevertheless Ma’oz has done a stellar job.

Moshe Ma’oz: Muslim Attitudes to Jews and Israel: The Ambivalences of Rejection, Antagonism, Tolerance and Cooperation, Sussex Academic Press, 2010. Buy at: Amazon.

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