Don’t mention the war? Towards better Jewish-Muslim relations

In the 1975 BBC TV comedy series, Fawlty Towers, hapless hotelier Basil Fawlty (played by John Cleese) whispers to Polly, the maid, “Don’t mention the war!” right before he does just that, upsetting his German guests with outrageous comments, and goose stepping around the dining room.
by STEVEN GRUZD | Aug 16, 2018

Is not mentioning the war – in this case the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the wider Arab-Israeli battle – one way to begin building trust between Jews and Muslims today?

This war over the land of Israel or “Palestine”, with the meddling of the great powers, has in fact overshadowed more than 1 300 years of co-existence between the two communities. At times they’ve been cordial and constructive, at other times corrosive and calamitous.

It is important to view contemporary Jewish-Muslim ties through a longer historical lens.

In the 7th century, when Islam sprung from the teachings of Mohammed the Prophet, there were both positive and negative encounters between the Jews of the Arabian Peninsula and Mohammed and his early followers.

Both traditions trace their religious origins to Abraham or Ibrahim, considered by both of their foundational texts as the first person to recognise and believe in a single deity. The two faiths share many stories, values and practices, albeit with different interpretations.

Jews (and Christians) under Muslim rule were classed as dhimmi, fellow monotheists, and therefore protected “people of the book”. Today, they would be considered second-class subjects to be sure, but then, they were not habitually faced with the terrible choice of conversion or death that fell to polytheistic pagans. By paying the annual jizya poll tax (sometimes financially exacting and always humiliating), Jews were allowed to practise their religion and live mostly peacefully, cheek-by-jowl with their Muslim neighbours, depending on particular historical contexts and circumstances.

At times, Jewish life flourished under Muslim rule: Baghdad in the 8th century; southern Spain until the late 1400s; and the Ottoman Empire from the 16th to 18th centuries. In al-Andalus – Muslim Spain – Jewish and Muslim elites shared a love of learning, a rediscovery of Greek philosophy, and Arabic as common language.

They mixed socially and cross-pollinated the world of ideas, as Europe languished in the dark ages. Individual Jews rose to become court doctors, military generals, even prime ministers. Life was much better than under draconian and dogmatic Christian rule.

When Jews were expelled from re-conquered Christian Spain in 1492, enlightened rulers of the Ottoman Empire welcomed these immigrants to strengthen their economy and royal court.

For most of these centuries, a Jewish minority lived under Muslim rule, at the pleasure of the caliph or sultan, and not the other way around. This changed with the founding of Israel in 1948, when Jews regained their sovereignty for the first time in almost 2 000 years, and local Arabs became a minority.

The events of 1948 also triggered the expulsion of more than 850 000 Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, from lands they had inhabited for centuries. Most settled in Israel.

Arguably, Jewish-Muslim relations today are at rock bottom. When violence flares up in the Middle East, its pits the communities against each other around the world, which causes spikes in anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia. Ignorance, fear, and mistrust abound.

Admittedly, there is more communal contact in Cape Town, especially among the progressive Jewish community and Muslims out of the mainstream, to the extent of praying and eating together in one another’s shuls and mosques on festivals.

Agreeing to disagree on the conflict has proved to be one way of making progress.

Many difficult peace negotiations first seek common ground, and defer the difficult issues until more trust has been built.

Maybe then, with a better understanding of the long and complex relationship between the two faiths and peoples, we can come to a place where we can, eventually, mention the war, and thus find a way to end it.

  • Steven Gruzd used this information as part of the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning course. Contact [email protected] for more information on this and other courses.


  1. 2 Marc Lipshitz 16 Aug
    What a load of rubbish ignoring the actual conditions that often applied to dhimmi:
    The Jizya was designed to be financially debilitating to everyone but the richest in an attempt to coerce them into converting
    Dhimmi were barred from many jobs
    Testimony of a dhimmi in court was deemed less than that of a Muslim meaning that unless a Muslim was prepared to testify against another Muslim (an exremely rare occurence) a Mulim could literally get away with rape, murder, theft, kidnapping etc against dhimmi.

    Lets look at the real facts of life of Jews under Muslim rule instead of the whitewashed history trying to blame Israel.  Lets look at the real status of dhimmi, oppressed, demeaned and humiliated and make sure that it is understood Jews ar enot going to go back to that status regardless of how it upsets people that we refuse to be second class citizens!
  2. 1 Ariella Milner 28 Aug
    No where in the Article I can see Steven blaming Israel or any other connection to Israel except of mentioning that in Israel the Muslims are for the first time a minority under Jewish rule.


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