Leo Baeck 1


Dec 2001 Journal

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Monotheism’s eternal triangle

Of the three great monotheistic faiths - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - the first is undoubtedly the oldest and therefore, however much they may deny it, the inspiration for the other two. It is also, and has been for well over a millennium, the numerically smallest and thus the most vulnerable.

From the Destruction of the Temple to the War of Israeli Independence, Jews were not subjects, but near-passive objects, of history. First Christianity then Islam swept triumphantly over continents, bringing vast swathes of the globe under their dominion. (Today Catholicism and Islam number roughly 1 billion adherents each worldwide.)

Size matters, but it does not necessarily confer commensurate power. Though backed by most of Europe, the Crusades made little lasting difference to the Middle East. Islam was predominant globally, and the Christian West appeared on the periphery.

The year 1492 marked a turning point in the history of all three religions. In that year the ‘Catholic Majesties’ re-conquered Andalusia from the Moors and expelled the Jews. Their dispatch of Columbus to America set in motion a chain of events that half a millennium later made the USA not only the world’s sole superpower, but also the chief target of festering Islamic resentment.

Jewish expellees from Spain found refuge in Muslim Turkey at a time when France and Tudor England were officially judenrein, and Germany still wallowed in the aftermath of the murderous Crusades. In the subsequent centuries the Muslim Turks’ initially tolerant attitude towards the Jews deteriorated, while their empire went into an irreversible decline. The 1840 ‘Damascus Affair’, triggered by ritual murder accusations and prompting foreign intervention, showed how far that decline had gone.

In Christian Europe, meanwhile, two divergent tendencies emerged. One was secularisation, which allowed baptised, or even unambiguous, Jews (Benjamin Disraeli, Adolphe Crémieux) to enter governments. The opposite trend was the increasing recourse to religious dogma in Tsarist Russia and the appeal to racist gut feeling in Germany.

By the 1900s the secular United States, a polity in which church and state were strictly separated, had become an arbiter of the world’s, and Jewry’s, fate. America settled the outcome of the two world wars (and in between aborted the birth of an effective League of Nations). It also served as a place of refuge and opportunity for 2 million impoverished, pogrom-haunted Russian Jews, whose grandchildren today constitute just under half of the world’s Jewish population.

Though Israel has rather fewer Jews than the US, it is the endangered Jewish heartland. For all that some of the dangers which beset it are undoubtedly ‘home-made’, the ultimate responsibility for the 50-year old Middle East crisis rests with the Palestinian leaders – from the Mufti of Jerusalem to Arafat – and their Arab backers. Hannah Ashrawi’s phrase ‘We are an all-or-nothing people’ is the key to the whole sorry saga – from the rejection of partition plans to the spurning of Ehud Barak’s olive branch last year.

In Europe, meanwhile, white racists who target Muslims and Jews alike benefit from Muslim Judeophobia. In France, the police chief Maurice Papon, having deported Jews to the gas chambers during the war, literally drowned Algerian demonstrators in the Seine in January 1961. But how could a case against Papon for Holocaust-related crimes ever be mounted if, according to Muslim propaganda, the Holocaust is a Zionist invention in support of a ‘bogus’ claim to a Jewish state in Palestine?

Another piece of hard-line Muslim propaganda is the depiction of Islam as a faith transcending race and nationality. In fact, Arabs fought the Turkish Sultan, who, as Caliph, was Mohammed’s successor in 1917-18. Bangladesh fought Pakistan in 1971 and Iraq fought Iran in the 1980s.

What flows inevitably from the alleged primacy of Islam over an individual Muslim’s nationality is the problem of dual allegiance. Whereas Christians glossed over the contradiction that their priests blessed the arms of both sides in the world wars, Islam allegedly admits of no such ‘fudge’. British Muslims who profess to see the War on Terror as an anti-Muslim crusade are therefore impaled on the horns of a sharp dilemma.

It is poignant under the circumstances to recall that the ‘dual allegiance’ issue split British Jewry at the time of the Balfour Declaration (which Edwin Montagu opposed - unsuccessfully - in the Cabinet). For today’s UK Jews, ‘dual allegiance’ has long ceased to be an issue. Britain and Israel, both being democracies, could not conceivably be on opposing sides in a military conflict.

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