Retracing the Origin of Jewish-Muslim Animosity
By Noor Saadeh
Dear reader, as I take pen to paper in early November, only God knows where we will be by the time this writing reaches you.
Behind the sound bites and agenda-driven propaganda, where did all of this supposed “ancient Jewish-Muslim animosity” begin? Muslims know there is no basis behind this trope, for among the People of the Book, Muslims assured the Jews of the safety and freedom to live and worship as their religion and culture required.
There were no pogroms as in Czarist Russia and not being forced to live in ghettos, as is generally still the case in the U.S. (https://www.urban.org/). Muslims ruled Jerusalem for centuries in relative peace and security. Sultan Bayezid II even sent the Ottoman navy, commanded by Kemal Reis, to Spain to rescue all the Jews expelled after the Reconquista. Additionally, fleeing Jews found homes in Morocco, Palestine, and other Muslim lands (Vernon O. (2008). A History of the Muslim World Since 1260: The Making of a Global Community. Prentice Hall. p. 82). Muslims also helped Jews get out of Nazi Germany and other occupied European countries (“Last Train to Istanbul,” Ayşe Kulin and John W. Baker, 2013).
Given these facts, how did Muslims become the target of such vitriol, animosity and violence? Former prime minister Ariel Sharon (2001-06) and his contemporaries cemented the qualifier “terrorist” to Muslim. More importantly, how did Americans so enthusiastically ally themselves with undisputed political and financial support to Israel and reiterate the Zionist narrative?
The Midwest in the 50s was a different time. I confess, I was a baby boomer. In very Eurocentric Wisconsin, we were children of Dutch, German, Scandinavian, and Polish immigrants. Nary a dark face appeared in a sea of blonde hair and blue eyes. Reading Sundown Towns, the premise of which is that no person of color could remain within a city’s limits after sunset, I was shocked to learn that my hometown had remained a Sundown Town until the early 70s.
I recall reading “No Jews Allowed” signs in northern Wisconsin’s resort areas and abhorring nearby Oshkosh’s hateful KKK parades. The 2024 Republican National Convention will be held in Milwaukee, a Donald Trump stronghold. Yet in 1960 “Exodus,” a very emotional but mostly fictional blockbuster film debuted in theaters nationwide. It was hailed an Oscar winner, boasting handsome actors and a tear-jerker plot accompanied by a memorable soundtrack that so pulled at the audience’s heart strings that it was set to lyrics. It made the Top 10 charts. Puzzled, I began to see friends sprouting Star of David necklaces and bracelets. Classmates admitted their dream of joining a kibbutz to help kill those nasty Arabs. This was the blonde-blue-eyed Sundown Town of my youth? “Exodus, often characterized as a “Zionist epic,” has been identified by many commentators as having been enormously influential in stimulating Zionism and support for Israel in the U.S. Richard L. Coe stated that the film “has this vitality of the immediate and will be of incalculable influence in reaching those unfamiliar with the background of Israel … It is safe to say that in several years, when this film will have played much of the world, its influence will have become critical” (The Washington Post March 5, 1961).
While Preminger’s film softened the anti-British and anti-Arab sentiment of the novel, the film remains contentious for its depiction of the Arab Israeli conflict.
Jewish moguls used to play a prominent and often leading role in much of the American film industry’s development. But where, when, and how was this country’s negative opinion and stereotyped caricature of the Arab (i.e., Muslim) formed that led to today’s mind-boggling support of Israel’s occupation, apartheid and genocide?
The book and documentary of the same name: “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People,” which “analyzes 1,000 films that have Arab and Muslim characters, produced between 1896 and 2000, out of which great majority, 936 titles, were negative in their portrayal, arguing that the slander of Arabs in American filmmaking has existed since the early days of the silent cinema and is present in the biggest Hollywood blockbusters today. Shaheen analyzes a long series of ‘demeaning’ images of Arabs through his presentation of various scenes from different American movies … showing Arabs as bandits, as a savage, nomadic race, and Arab women as shallow belly dancers serving evil, naïve, and greedy Arab sheiks. Most important is the image of the rifle in the hands of Arab ‘terrorists.’ The film then attempts to explain the motivations behind these stereotypes about Arabs, and their development at key points in American history, as well as why it is so important today…”
Cartoons, also largely produced, written and directed by Jews, were created for the young but with some mature and dark-themed undertones. Arabs (aka Muslims) were never spared. One particularly offensive Popeye cartoon revolved around half-clothed “natives,” turban-topped heads, making their exaggerated obeisance to King Popeye uttering “Salaami, salaami, bologna.” Remarking to a colleague that Muslims greet each other with salaam, her memory went right to the same cartoon as she gleefully repeated those words. I quickly explained how very offensive that was while giving her all the excuses, because she had no idea. She had been programmed. As had we all.
Epic blockbusters like “El Cid,” set during the fall of Islamic Spain, brought everyone’s favorite Hollywood Epic hero Carleton Heston (of” Ten Commandments” fame), as the dashing and eventual martyr/hero of the Spanish Reconquista. Again, another stirring soundtrack and handsome hero, (and who was ever more handsome or cast as much as Heston in these Biblical bigger-than-life roles?) and who won the day for the beautiful señora against the dark and very evil Moors (aka Muslim).
Enter the “cute,” funny and often self-hating Jewish personality and comedian. The much-maligned Woody Allen comes to mind. The founders of American comedy acts are a Who’s Who of familiar names largely from the Jewish community (https://www.thefamouspeople.com/jewish-comedians.php).
What comprises American humor? Comedian Ricky Gervais summarizes this well:
“We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and a weapon. We avoid sincerity until it’s absolutely necessary. We mercilessly take a shot at people we like or dislike basically. And ourselves. This is very important. Our brashness and swagger is laden with equal portions of self-deprecation. This is our license to hand it out. This can sometimes be perceived as nasty if the recipients aren’t used to it. It isn’t. It’s pretend fighting. It’s almost a sign of affection if we like you, and ego bursting if we don’t. You just have to know which one it is. I’m not one of those people who think that comedy is your conscience taking a day off. My conscience never takes a day off and I can justify everything I do. There’s no line to be drawn in comedy in the sense that there are things you should never joke about. There’s nothing that you should never joke about, but it depends what that joke is. Comedy comes from a good or a bad place. The subject of a joke isn’t necessarily the target of the joke. You can make jokes about race without any race being the butt of the joke. Racism itself can be the butt, for example. When dealing with a so-called taboo subject, the angst and discomfort of the audience is what’s under the microscope. Our own preconceptions and prejudices are often what are being challenged. I don’t like racist jokes. Not because they are offensive. I don’t like them because they’re not funny. Comedy is an intellectual pursuit. Not a platform” (“The Difference Between American and British Humour”, Time, Nov. 9, 2011)).
Not exactly the type of Islamic personality so beautifully outlined in Surat al-Hujrat (Quran, Chap. 49).
Sarcasm and Seinfeld
Although in the early days, the butt of jokes were wives, mothers-in-law, and self-deprecation, a new comedian arose ridiculing everyone and everything — the Jerry Seinfeld comedian. Americans came to love them. Sarcastic, ego-driven, and master of the put down. No one was safe, not even parents. And especially not God. God forbid. Everyone became fair game, and these odd anti-heroes joined the rich and famous. Nowadays they come at us in sitcoms, movies, ads and nightclubs. We fill stadiums to hear them and laugh, sometimes embarrassingly, at their dark humor and foul language, which has also become the norm and changed our very vocabulary.
Our tastes have changed ever so gradually. Our sensitivities have become fewer. It’s just a joke. Can’t you take a joke? But from these beginnings sprang the Charlie Hebdos, the Quran burnings and the caricatures of the Prophet (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam). If we reflect, it’s not so innocent or funny or heroic. And for this writer, it leads us right to where we are today … and why our fellow Americans simply don’t comprehend the lack of humanity paraded before our eyes every day.
Returning to Hollywood and the new multibillion dollar industry of gaming, we’ve been so overexposed to violence, torture, and killing that we’ve become immune. We no longer even flinch. Can you find any offerings without violence, language, gender identity on any platform? From our own young U.S. soldiers (“Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one of the most common health diagnoses U.S. service members receive. Research shows that 5-20% of service members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have developed the condition”, https://www.mcleanhospital.org/ ) to the Israeli military, the rate of PTSD is rising from the inordinate level of brutality and murder they commit (“The PTSD-stricken Israeli soldiers who wake up screaming,” Gloria Tessler, Dec. 29, 2022, The Jewish Chronicle) All for the love of nation and homeland, driven by the obliging media-filled propaganda.
Following the wide public acceptance of the movie “Exodus,” Jews became emboldened and entered the field of active dawa in American churches, gradually entering the public sphere. But not as the traditional Christ Killer. Even the Pope exonerated them (“Pope book says Jews not guilty of Jesus Christ’s death,” Phillip Pullela, March 2, 2011, https://www.reuters.com/), all part of the now widely accepted Judeo-Christian heritage on which the U.S. was supposedly founded and continues today (The Y Rebrands Itself, But Where Did the C Go?” YMCA of South Hampton Roads, ymcashr.org).
However, knowledge is power. Firstly, Iqra, read. Then, as God reiterates, hear, see, think! Taddabbur!
Let’s not be guilty of absorbing this propaganda or being blind and/or helpless in the face of the machinations all around us. Muslims must learn our real history and reclaim our narrative. Read, listen, watch. Social media abounds with platforms. A few notables — Blogging Theology, The Thinking Muslim and Middle Nation — present thinkers, scholars, historians, political analysts and real experts in their respective fields. They’re not your 5- or 10-minute YouTube videos. They demand time, attention, and taddabbur; however, God requires this. They’ll change your mind, enlighten and inspire you. We’re going to need all this information in the days ahead to turn the tide of propaganda so well and patiently established by the Children of Israel.
Noor Saadeh is writer, speaker, and co-owner of Noorart