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Monday, December 19, 2011

Reconciling the two narratives of Jews in Arab countries

Arabs and some others like to claim that Jews lived in harmony with Arabs before Zionism. They will bring examples of how well Jews were treated.

A book written in 1871, called "An account of the manners and customs of the modern Egyptians," by Edward William Lane and Edward Stanley Poole, shows both sides of the story.

First the good news:

The Jews, in every country in which they are dispersed (unlike any other collective class of people residing in a country which is not their own by inheritance from the original possessors or by conquest achieved by themselves or their ancestors), form permanent members of the community among whom they dwell: a few words respecting the Jews in Egypt will therefore be not inappropriate in the present work.

There are in this country about five thousand Jews (in Arabic, called "Yahood," singular "Yahoodee"), most of whom reside in the metropolis, in a miserable, close, and dirty quarter, intersected by lanes, many of which are so narrow as hardly to admit of two persons passing each other in them.

In features, and in the general expression of countenance, the Oriental Jews differ less from other nations of Southwestern Asia than do those in European countries from the people among whom they live; but we often find them to be distinguished by a very fair skin, light-reddish hair, and very light eyes, either hazel or blue or gray. Many of the Egyptian Jews have sore eyes, and a bloated complexion; the result, it is supposed, of their making an immoderate use of the oil of sesame in their food. In their dress, as well as in their persons, they are generally slovenly nd dirty. The colours of their turbans are the same as those of the Christian subjects. Their women veil themselves, and dress in every respect, in public, like the other women of Egypt.

The Jews have eight synagogues in their quarter in Cairo; and not only enjoy religious toleration, but are under a less oppressive government in Egypt than in any other country of the Turkish empire. In Cairo, they pay for the exemption of their quarter from the visits of the Mohtesib; and they did the same also with respect to the "Walee, as long as his office existed. Being consequently privileged to sell articles of provision at higher prices than the other inhabitants of the metropolis, they can afford to purchase such things at higher rates, and therefore stock their shops with provisions, and especially fruits, of better qualities than are to be found in other parts of the town. Like the Copts, and for a like reason, the Jews pay tribute, and are exempted from military service.

Sounds like things were pretty good. But then the authors dig a little deeper:

They are held in the utmost contempt and abhorrence by the Muslims in general, and are said to bear a more inveterate hatred than any other people to the Muslims and the Muslim religion. ...It is a common saying among the Muslims in this country, "Such a one hates me with the hate of the Jews." We cannot wonder, then, that the Jews are detested by the Muslims far more than are the Christians.

Not long ago, they used often to be jostled in the streets of Cairo, and sometimes beaten merely for passing on the right hand of a Muslim. At present, they are less oppressed; but still they scarcely ever dare to utter a word of abuse when reviled or beaten unjustly by the meanest Arab or Turk; for many a Jew has been put to death upon a false and malicious accusation of uttering disrespectful words against the Kur-an or the Prophet. It is common to hear an Arab abuse his jaded ass, and, after applying to him various opprobrious epithets, end by calling the beast a Jew.

A Jew has often been sacrificed to save a Muslim, as happened in the following case.—-A Turkish soldier, having occasion to change some money, received from the seyrefee (or money-changer), who was a Muslim, some Turkish coins called 'adleeyehs, reckoned at sixteen piasters each. These he offered to a shopkeeper, in payment for some goods; but the latter refused to allow him more than fifteen piasters to the 'adleeyeh, telling him that the Basha had given orders, many days before, that this coin should no longer pass for sixteen. The soldier took back the 'adleeyehs to the seyrefee, and demanded an additional piaster to each; which was refused: he therefore complained to the Basha himself, who, enraged that his orders had been disregarded, sent for the seyrefee. This man confessed that he had been guilty of an offence, but endeavoured to palliate it by asserting that almost every money-changer in the city had done the same, and that he received 'adleeyehs at the same rate. The Basha, however, disbelieving him, or thinking it necessary to make a public example, gave a signal with his hand, intimating that the delinquent should be beheaded. The interpreter of the court, moved with compassion for the unfortunate man, begged the Basha to spare his life. "This man," said he, "has done no more than all the money-changers of the city: I, myself, no longer ago than yesterday, received 'adleeyehs at the same rate." "From whom?" exclaimed the Basha. "From a Jew," answered the interpreter, "with whom I have transacted business for many years." The Jew was brought, and sentenced to be hanged; while the Muslim was pardoned. The interpreter, in the greatest distress of mind, pleaded earnestly for the life of the poor Jew; but the Basha was inexorable: it was necessary that an example should be made, and it was deemed better to take the life of a Jew than that of a more guilty Muslim.

The Jews in Egypt generally lead a very quiet life: indeed, they find few but persons of their own religion who will associate with them....The more wealthy among them dress handsomely at home; but put on a plain or even shabby dress before they go out: and though their houses have a mean and dirty appearance from without, many of them contain fine and well-furnished rooms. ...

Avarice is more particularly a characteristic of the Jews in Egypt than of those in other countries where they are less oppressed. They are careful, by every means in their power, to avoid the suspicion of being possessed of much wealth. It is for this reason that they make so shabby a figure in public, and neglect the exterior appearance of their houses. They are generally strict in the performance of their religious ordinances; and, though overreaching in commercial transactions, are honest in the fulfilment of their contracts.
Essentially, when Jews weren't wantonly killed too often, it was considered as if they had wonderful lives living under their Islamic masters.