Review: In Ishmael's House

Restored to the Middle Eastern map


By Lyn Julius, October 14, 2010
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Iranian Jewish family in 1924, from ‘Esther’s Children’  (ed: H Sarshar)

Iranian Jewish family in 1924, from ‘Esther’s Children’ (ed: H Sarshar)

By Martin Gilbert
Yale University Press, £25

Sir Martin Gilbert's In Ishmael's House, perhaps for the first time, makes accessible to a mass readership the neglected history of Jews in Muslim lands, from Afghanistan to Morocco. Spanning 14 centuries from Mohammed's bloody subjugation of the Jewish tribes of Arabia to the virtual disappearance of Jewish life in the 20th, In Ishmael's House is built on a dichotomy of contrasts -"co-operation and segregation", "protection and exclusion" - experienced by Jews in the region.

Gilbert tells us that Jews prospered under all but the most fanatical of regimes. Who would have guessed, for example, that Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the leading centre of learning in the Arab world, was founded in 988 by a Jew - Yaqub ibn Killis?

Over 400 pages, Gilbert has assembled vivid and detailed vignettes, memoirs, letters and personal testimony to chart the peaks and troughs of Jewish fortunes under Islamic rule. He strains to point out acts of compassion and rescue by Muslims but the overwhelming impression is that dhimmi Jews did not, contrary to Arab propaganda, always live happily under Muslim rule.

Gilbert strains to point out Muslim compassion

Non-Muslims knew their place. Jews had fewer rights and were condemned to suffer humiliation, sporadic violence, perennial precariousness and anxiety. Jacob Dahan died for employing a Moorish servant in 19th-century Morocco. In Iran in 1910, the witness to a dignitary beating two elderly Jews in Shiraz was murdered. In the 1930s, 5,000 Jews needed permits to leave towns in Afghanistan and were made to pay the poll tax.

But after doggedly charting the decline of the Jewish communities following Israel's establishment, and the Jewish refugees' search for recognition, Gilbert's conclusion seems oddly starry-eyed and politically correct: "The exodus and dispersal after 1947 of 850,000 of the Jews living in Muslim lands was a cruel interruption to a 1,400-year story of remarkable perseverance and considerable achievement."

The dhimmi status of Jews in Iran, Central Asia, Yemen and North Africa was enforced more rigidly than in the heart of the Ottoman empire, but Gilbert makes little distinction between areas where Jews were the only minority, or one of many, or treatment by Sunni or Shi'a Muslims.

Nor does he explicitly set the 20th-century persecution of the Jews in the context of the oppression of all minorities under pan-Arabism and Islamism. Moreover, the title suggests that the Muslims owned the house, while Jews lived under sufferance as guests. Yet Jews and Christians predated Islam by 1,000 years.

Overall, however, the book is a triumph of truth over propaganda, and will make a valuable contribution to restoring Jews to the history books of the Middle East, from which they have been unjustly expunged.

Lyn Julius is a journalist and co-founder of Harif, an association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa

    Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011