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    Arabs & Jews – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. Did Arabs and Jews ever get on?

    A. This is obviously not an academic question, though a number of academic historians have researched and written on the subject. Since human experience seems to be that history repeats itself, there is every good reason to wonder whether the two peoples were ever able to enjoy a good relationship and what the prospects are for the future. The story seems to begin with Abraham, regarded by both peoples as their ancestor. The Jews claim descent from one of his sons and the Arabs from the other. Certainly both derive from Semitic forebears and their languages are interconnected.

    In Biblical times, long before Mohammed and Islam, Arabs and Jews were frequently allies, especially in commerce and trade. Late in the Biblical period there was an Arab nation, the Nabateans, who developed a sophisticated culture in the south of Judea, with advanced engineering skills and achievements. As the Jewish Diaspora spread far afield, Jews lived in prosperity in the Arabian Peninsula and played a significant role as merchants.

    Early in the 7th century CE, Mohammed proclaimed a new religion which all scholars admit owes a good deal to Judaism. At first Mohammed expected support from the Jews but when this was not forthcoming he became hostile towards them. The Caliph Omar, Mohammed’s successor, set out laws concerning “unbelievers”, and though there were restrictions against Jews the roles were often ignored and Jews fared better under Islam than under Christianity.

    There followed a long period of cultural cross-fertilisation in which Islam had a debt to Judaism and in turn influenced Judaism in literature and philosophy. In Spain in particular there was a so-called Golden Age in which the two cultures enriched each other. Thereafter the Jewish relationship – or lack of it – with Christianity loomed much larger on the scene of history, but Jews and Muslims continued to have intermittent contact.

    Both groups developed a passionate national feeling in the 20th century. Jews have no aggressive designs on Arabs, though prior to 1948, few had worked out a blueprint as to how the Jewish-Muslim connection would operate once the Jewish State came into being. The current hostility is doing neither side much good, and the question is whether a period of quietness could lead to a new chapter of cross-fertilisation.

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