Muslims, Jews, and the Western World: A Jewish View

An Interview with Richard L. Rubenstein, WORLD & I Magazine,
February 1991


Author’s note: In the late 1980s I attended a number of international conferences on religion in which I came to know some Muslim religious leaders. I remember especially two, the late Professor Ismail R. Faruqi of Temple University in Philadelphia and the late Sheikh M.A. Zaki Badawi, Principal of the Muslim College in London. Although I admired their scholarship and their commitment to inter-religious dialogue, I came to realize that there was an unbridgeable gap between their commitments and mine, especially concerning the conflict between Arabs and Israelis.


I had spent the better part of my professional career exploring the historical and theological interpretation of the Holocaust, but by no later than 1990 I had become convinced that both Israel and the Western world were facing a profound old-new challenge, the challenge of radical Islam, that neither could dare to ignore. Unfortunately, all too many of my theological colleagues were and are doing precisely that.


While attending one such conference in 1990, I was interviewed by Lloyd Eby, an editor of The World and I magazine, published by the Washington Times Corporation. After its publication in February 1991, I decided to include the interview in the second edition of my first book on Holocaust theology, After Auschwitz. Originally appearing in 1966, the second edition was published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 1992. There was no reference to Islam in the first edition. By the time, I started work on the second, I felt strongly that I could no longer ignore the challenge of Islam. I have been studying and writing on Islam ever since.  


The reader will note that in the interview, I was especially concerned with Saddam Hussein, his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, and his threat to gas “half of Israel.” Saddam Hussein is no longer with us, but if the reader substitutes the name of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for that of Saddam Hussein, one can easily say, “Plus ça change, plus ça reste la même chose” (The more [some] things change, the more they remain the same.)


I was also concerned with the futility of the peace process which our new president and his team of the Middle East experts have taken up so insistently. I was convinced then and am convinced more strongly now that there is a critical mass of Palestinians for whom “peace” in the Middle East can only come about through the total destruction of the State of Israel. Unfortunately, I fear that some members of the president’s team might not find that “solution” unwelcome in spite of rhetoric to the contrary.


In a few places, I have altered the style of my responses but not the content.




W&I: Could you speak on the Jewish-Islamic issue from the point of view of a Jewish scholar?
        RUBENSTEIN: I don’t think there is a specific Jewish-Islamic issue. First, I believe that Islam regards itself as the original true religion, whose fundamental meaning was revealed by the Prophet Mohammad, and that Islam regards both Judaism and Christianity as distorted views of the original true religion, so that inevitably Islam has an interpretation of both Judaism and Christianity that neither can accept. Second, I believe that in the history of Christendom there have been three possible and two actual challenges to Christendom. One was Judaism. The second was Islam, and the third was atheistic communism. After Christianity became the religion of the Roman empire, Judaism was no longer a real challenge to Christendom. Jews ceased to be sufficiently influential culturally or numerically for their tradition to be a challenge.
        Islam, on the other hand, was the most powerful of all challenges to Christendom. In 711, Islamic forces occupied almost the entire Iberian peninsula. At one time or another, large parts of Christian Europe were occupied by Islamic forces, including Bulgaria, Romania, the Balkans, southern Italy, and large parts of southern Russia, namely, the Ukraine. Historically, Islam has almost always constituted a serious challenge to Christendom.

        In the last two centuries, Islam has had a series of cultural shocks. Islam was unable to do what the Japanese have done, namely, to meet the challenge of Western modernization. When Islam first entered Europe in the eighth century, it was the superior culture. It had a level of sophistication and culture that was far higher than that of northern Europe. For several centuries, the victories of Islam were such that the victories themselves were taken as signs of the superiority and the truth of the Islamic faith. Therefore, the shock was all the greater when, starting in the eighteenth century, European countries turned out to be quite different. The European countries, especially in the west, had effectively modernized. They had experienced the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment, and they had the capacity to develop skills and to advance learning in a way that left the Islamic world far behind, at least in the realm of national power.
        What the Islamic world did have, what it has to this day, is the Shari’a, that is, the Islamic way of life as found in the laws that derive from the Koran. Undoubtedly, the Islamic world looks down to this day on the world that came from the European Enlightenment as a world lacking real morals. 
        W&I: In the Middle Ages the Islamic world was ahead scientifically and culturally, but then they fell behind. Why?
        RUBENSTEIN: The Islamic world fell behind scientifically and culturally because they were so convinced of the superiority of their own ways that they saw no reason to adapt to modernization, whereas the European Christian nations were able to adapt to modernization in ways that Islam was not.
        For two centuries, the Islamic world experienced a kind of inner dislocation because they were supposed to be the true religion and the superior civilization, yet they saw the infidels as victorious all over the world. In Asia, the British took over the Islamic domination of the Indian subcontinent. The Dutch took over Indonesia. The British took over Egypt; the French took over Syria. This was not the world Islam had been used to. Then Islam tried to overcome this the new situation in which they were inferior in power to Europe. They tried modernization, and Westernization. Unlike the Japanese, who also tried modernization and Westernization but were able to do this in a way that allowed them to preserve their cultural integrity, the Islamic world was unable to create this same kind of a synthesis. It is not enough to modernize. If you ruin your culture while modernizing, then modernization has done you no good whatsoever.
        I think one of the worst shocks to the Islamic world came in 1967 when el Kuds, which is what they call Jerusalem, fell to the Israelis. But remember how that 1967 war started: The Egyptians announced that they were going to blockade Israel and the UN troops stationed between Israel and Egypt in the Sinai peninsula got out of the way. The Israelis pleaded with the Jordanians to stay out of the war, in which case there wouldn’t have been any problem with the West Bank. When the Jordanians entered the war, in order to defend themselves, the Israelis took the whole territory of Palestine for the first time in almost two thousand years. Jerusalem, the third holiest city in the Islamic world, fell to the Jews. Of course, Jerusalem is also Judaism’s holiest city. 
        The Israeli victory  made matters even worse. Not only had the Islamic world experienced defeats at the hands of the Christian world, whose power was obvious, but this small group of Jews had also inflicted military defeat on them. And, for the very same reason. The Jews had learned from the Christians how to adapt to modernization in a way that the Islamic world had not. Basically, had the Islamic world adapted successfully to modernization, the Jews could not have won those wars.
        W&I: Islamic scholars and religious leaders claim that there is no impediment in Islam to rapprochement between Islam and Judaism, that this is purely a political problem.
        RUBENSTEIN: It is not true that, as Islamic leaders and scholars claim, that the problems are purely political. I respect Islamic culture, but there is a fundamental  religious difference between both Judaism and Christianity on the one hand and Islam on the other: Islam claims that it alone is the original true religion of God, and that both Judaism and Christianity are distortions. Islam divides the world into Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb. Dar al-Islam is that part of the world that is in Islamic hands and is governed by traditional Islamic law. Dar al-Harb is in the hands of infidels. From the Islamic point of view, since Islam is the true religion, its aim is to make sure that ultimately the whole world falls under Dar al-Islam. Now, for any part of Dar al-Islam to be captured by infidels is a very real defeat. So the conflict is not just political; it is religious as well.
        Another very important point: I don’t think most Americans realize just how important and how much religious significance the oil boom that started in 1973 had for the Islamic world. The oil boom convinced the Islamic world that a tremendous power reversal was taking place. If you look at where the oil is located, the greatest amount of oil is to be found in those countries that are completely loyal to the most traditional reading of Islam, namely Libya and Saudi Arabia and also some of the emirates. So it was not hard for Islamic thinkers to see the boom as God’s confirmation of the standing and status of Islam. They also saw a direct correlation between faithfulness and fidelity to traditional Islam and their new prosperity. At the same time, they regarded the 1973 war between Israel, Egypt, and Syria as resulting in a victory for the Islamic world, although, in reality, the war ended in a stalemate.
        After the war, Muslims then saw their former colonial masters coming to them and treating them deferentially, as people upon whom they were dependent for their economic wellbeing. The Saudis, for example, were able to tell the English, you can’t show the film “The Death of a Princess” on your television, and the English meekly gave way. The Saudis, the American government, the French–all saw this tremendous increase of Islamic wealth and began to behave towards Islam as they never had before. The oil wealth gave Islam huge amounts of money to spend on Islamic causes. At the same time, there was a disenchantment with Western ways, not only by Iran but throughout the Islamic world, a turning back to the fundamentals of Islam.
        In 1973, after the oil boycott started and OPEC (the Organization of Oil Producing Nations) quadrupled the price of oil, one of the Arab ministers said, “This is our revenge for Poitiers.” Poitiers (or Tours) was the battle in 732 at which the Christian forces, under Charles Martel, finally stopped the Moslems who had come all the way into Spain and were succeeding in taking France. These people have very long memories. They now see that, with the oil, they have the possibility of once again becoming dominant.

        As far as the Jews are concerned, I am absolutely convinced that the Muslims are not going to rest content simply with a Palestinian state. That will be the prelude to the next move, which will be to make the whole area once again part of the Dar al-Islam, that is, an Islamic domain, which it had been for centuries. That entails either expelling all the Israelis-and nobody else will take most of them-or killing them off.
        I also am frankly very scared about the new situation that we find ourselves in with Iraq. If you listen to Saddam Hussein’s speech of August 9, 1990, you hear an Arab leader who is calling for jihad, for holy war. He appealed to all of Islam to expel the infidels from being in proximity to and polluting the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The oil boom of the 1970s was seen as confirmation of God’s grace toward Islam. Now the next step is to see whether there is some way in which a revived Islam can dominate the Christian West with oil and the high-tech weapons oil can buy.
        With regard to Saddam Hussein, the question of whether or not he is a believer is like the question asked of a taxi driver in Beirut. The driver was going from one part of the city to the next. At a checkpoint he was asked, “Are you Christian or Moslem?” He replied, “No, I am an atheist.” They then asked, “What kind of atheist, Christian or Moslem?” It is quite clear that what Saddam Hussein and many others seek is Islamic hegemony. At bottom, this is a religious conflict. It is a continuation of a fight that goes back to Poitiers in 732. If it succeeds, it will be a final reversal of the fortunes of Islam after two centuries of humiliation.
        I don’t see the conflict as essentially a Jewish-Islamic conflict. I see it in much larger terms. One of the most disturbing aspects of the conflict is the issue of nuclear ballistic capability. As reported in Scientific American, the long-range, high-tech cannon, invented by the American renegade weapons genius, Gerard Bull–a cannon manufactured in separate parts and finally discovered by the British-had a range of three thousand miles. This indicates that Saddam Hussein not only wants nuclear weapons–he obviously has been trying to get them for years–but he also wants intercontinental ballistic missiles. What does he want them for? He wants to be able to tell the United States, “We will control what price oil goes for, and if we control the energy of the world, you cannot touch us because we have the nuclear weapons to defend ourselves. We will become dominant in a way that Allah intended us.” I see here that his appeal is to a religious war, to a holy war. Saddam Hussein puts conservative Arabs, like President Mubarak and the Saudi royal family, in a terribly difficult bind. He speaks the language of traditional Islam. In the eyes of the masses, he makes those people look like sellouts to the infidel. He has called upon the Arab “street” in Egypt and Saudi Arabia to disobey their rulers and join in his fight in the name of the ancient rivalry, the Crusades, the Muslim entry into Europe, and all that.
        What scares me is the possibility that no matter how much the Iranians hated the Iraqis in their war, the call of fundamental Islam, which Saddam is now making, is one that they are going to hear. So we may some day have a very, very nasty kind of conflict on our hands.
        W&I: Islamic scholars and religious leaders say that Islamic fundamentalism is a distortion of real Islam and that it is being used for political purposes. That’s one point. Second point: All of the Muslims we have spoken to express a certain bitterness at what they see as the lack of evenhandedness in the West. They claim that America, for example, supposedly stands up for the principle of human rights and the rule of law but that it applies them selectively. It is not applied, for example, to Israeli behavior in Palestine, whereas it is applied to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
        RUBENSTEIN: Here again I just think they are not seeing things straight. First of all, Israeli behavior will not result in a country hostile to the United States controlling half of the world’s oil supply. The issue is whether America going to allow a power hostile to its interests to control its economic destiny?

        As far as the Arab-Israeli conflict is concerned, I don’t think Israelis owe the Palestinians very much. If the Palestinians had the power, they would drive the Israelis out to the sea. It is that simple. And if you know that people are out to drive you into the sea and–after the Nazi Holocaust–they are in alliance with people who promised to gas Jews, then you have a situation where many Israelis look at every single Palestinian as an enemy.
        W&I: Is it fair to invoke the Nazi Holocaust in this dispute?
        RUBENSTEIN: You invoke the Holocaust if an Arab leader declares, “I am going to gas half of Israel out of existence.” Hitler killed millions of Jews with gas, and then Saddam Hussein comes along and says, “Look, I’ve got the weapons and I can gas half of Israel out of existence.” That is very, very provocative language, and it is using precisely the method that is bound to create the greatest possible anger and distrust on the part of the Jews.
        W&I: And you interpret his language as deliberately chosen?
        RUBENSTEIN: Absolutely. This is a man who has proven that every weapon that he has had, he has been willing to use. If he is ever in a position to use this weapon, he will. The one thing that gives the Israelis any kind of security is that the cost of doing this would be so great in terms of the damage the Israelis could do to his country that he has second and third thoughts about it. You don’t make threats of this kind lightly. There is a saying toward the end of Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night that Hitler was the only one who kept his promises to the Jews. He promised to kill them and he did. Now, after Hitler, anybody who promises to kill Jews is going to be taken seriously by any Jew who doesn’t delude himself. Anybody who promises to gas half the Jews of Israel is going to be taken very, very seriously.
        I was in Israel a year ago. I was also in Israel three weeks after the end of the Six Day War of 1967. When I was there in 1967, all the hotels on the Jewish side of Jerusalem were filled. Somebody said, “Well, why don’t you try East Jerusalem and go to an Arab hotel.” We went over there. They treated us with exquisite courtesy. They were ambivalent because until the Six Day War there were no Jews in East Jerusalem and all of a sudden they either had to have Jewish guests or the hotels were going to be empty. The food was good. We liked it sufficiently that for several years we came back to the hotels in East Jerusalem. But there was no way in the world that I could go to a hotel in East Jerusalem last year. One person I knew, Menachem Stern on the faculty of the Hebrew University, was walking from his office at Hebrew University to his home and he was stabbed to death by Palestinians.
        I was not going to take that chance. That does not mean that every Palestinian would stab me to death, but, as a family man, I could not take the chance. I had to assume that every Palestinian could be a potential enemy because there had been enough stabbings and things like that so that I could not possibly stay at an East Jerusalem hotel.
        When people are that divided, where there is absolutely no trust between them, and where one side perceives the other side as dominating and the other perceives their opposite numbers in terms of: “They will stab us to death if they can, in any back alley,” then you have got a witches’ brew.
        W&I: When we speak to the two sides, each blames the other wholly for the conflict.
        RUBENSTEIN: I don’t blame the Arabs. If I were a Palestinian, I would see the the Israelis as foreigners who have come back to a country that they had left centuries ago. But I am not a Palestinian. I liken the struggle to the conflict between Antigone and Creon. Antigone must be loyal to the law of the family, which says she is unconditionally obliged to bury her brother. Creon is the king. He must be obedient to the law of the polis, which says that the rebel against the polis must not have an honorable burial. So they end up–both of them having some right on their side–in a clash that neither can avoid. That is the way I see the situation.
        W&I: You used the term witches’ brew a minute ago and now again you come back to language that suggests hopelessness.
        RUBENSTEIN: I don’t see any solution to this problem. I have told the Israelis that they will survive as long as they can escalate the cost of killing Jews beyond what the Arabs want to pay.
        W&I: So we end there with this hopeless view?
        RUBENSTEIN: That’s my view. I have said for twenty years that the Israelis will survive as long as they have the weapons that make any attempt to wipe them out unacceptably costly. And basically what this means is that you may have in the Middle East now what used to exist between the United States and the Soviet Union. As long as the Israelis have a credible second-strike nuclear capability, they have a chance to survive. The Israelis have got to convince the Arabs that even after they are overwhelmed, the Israelis can unleash so many nuclear bombs that it is not worth the Arabs’ trying. And that is, I think, what the situation comes down to. There’s simply no way to adjudicate this thing. From this point of view I would therefore not surrender an inch of Israeli territory to the Palestinians.
        I have no problem coming to an international conference like this where I can have cordial conversations with Islamic scholars. Nevertheless, I see the conflict as a zero-sum game. It may be a want of imagination on my part, but I don’t see any credible alternative. I am not saying that this is the way I want things to be. Unfortunately, I have never found a credible way of mediating the Israeli-Arab conflict.
        W&I: Is there any metalevel context that the two sides can go to?
        RUBENSTEIN: If, living in the United States, I meet an Islamic scholar who also lives in the United States, we have the metalevel context of American democracy. We are both free to pursue our religious life and we can enter into dialogue with each other. He cannot impose his religion on me and I am cannot impose mine on him. By contrast, in Israel there is no metalevel context. When, for example, a Moslem or a Christian makes supercessionary claims vis-a-vis Judaism, I am not especially concerned, as long as there is a context in which we can share our ideas and insights. But when there is a situation where supercessionary claims and political conflict mesh together absent a trustworthy metalevel, then the dialogue stops. Certainly the United Nations is no place for the metalevel. By virtue of Arab power and also the number of Islamic states, the United Nations has been consistently pro-Arab from the very beginning. No Israeli can or should trust the United Nations.
        Nor are the great powers, even the United States, able to offer a metalevel context. Each power has its own interests and will ultimately act in terms of how it perceives those interests. Now it may very well be that some metalevel religious force can do it. There are people that you and I know who hope for and are working toward a peaceful solution of this conflict, but, I simply don’t see it.

        W&I: You speak like an advocate for the Israeli-Jewish side.
        Right after the Six Day War of 1966, I stayed at an Arab hotel in East Jerusalem. My wife Betty and I had never been to the Old City and decided to visit it the morning after our arrival. (Before the Six Day War, Jews couldn’t go there.) When we arrived at the Damascus Gate, a thin, young Palestinian, about twenty years old, came up to me and asked, “Would you like a guide?” I thought, well, this would be a prudent thing to do, let him tell us what he thinks and show us around. For the next two hours, I heard the bitterest expressions of rage and resentment against Israel that I had ever heard. He assumed that we were Christian. My wife’s hair was blonde, her eyes blue, and since we entered the Old City from East Jerusalem he made that assumption. Both of us felt it was more important to hear what he had to say than to argue with him. For two hours I let him talk. He was convinced that someday the Arabs would drive the Jews out to the sea and wipe them out–it was just a question of time.
        Finally, after two hours, I paid him. I said, “There is one thing I think you ought to know: We’re Jewish.” He said, “Oh, you’re Jewish. You Jews have long memories.” I said “Yes.” He said, “You remember the destruction of the Temple by the Romans.” I said, “Yes, we do. And now we have Jerusalem back again.” He said, “What makes you think that we have shorter memories? We remember the Crusades.” I said, “I know you have long memories. That’s why there can be no peace between us.”
        W&I: Maybe you should learn to forget.
        RUBENSTEIN: One can forget only if the danger is no longer present. If the danger is a fantasy, one can forget. But if the danger is real, and it is, forgetting only increases the peril. Just listen to Saddam Hussein’s rhetoric. Read his speeches.
        Well, that is probably about as bleak an analysis of the situation as you are going to get, isn’t it? Remember Elie Wiesel’s comment, “Hitler kept his promises to the Jews.” These are people who have promised to drive the Israelis out to the sea, and say so when they are broadcasting in Arabic. I take such promises very seriously.
        W&I: The Islamic religious leaders and scholars tend to say that this is a kind of popular hysteria whipped up for political reasons by unscrupulous politicians and that it is not the real voice of Islam that you are hearing.
        RUBENSTEIN: If you are talking about people like Sheikh Zaki Badawi, who lives in London and is a very cultivated man, I would say that he may be sincere about this. But I think you are going to find that a lot of Islamic scholars are quite sincere in their particular union of politics and religion, that such threats are not just “manipulation.” It is too deeply rooted in their history. They did not conquer as far as they did for the sake of material advantage alone. They conquered because they were convinced they had the only true faith and that they were giving it to the people they conquered. And, very few people whom they converted through conquest ever apostasized. Muslim political moves always had a religious foundation, and I believe that remains true to this day.
        As I said, I believe that they interpret their oil as a God-given gift. I also believe that, in the long run, oil will be their Achilles heel. Japanese wealth, for example, comes from value-added production rather than extraction. Once Arab oil gives out, as it will some day, what will they have? The Japanese, who are producing things, will find something instead of oil. But what will the Arabs have after the oil is gone?


Richard L. Rubenstein is President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Religion at the University of Bridgeport. He is also Lawton Distinguished Professor of Religion Emeritus at Florida State University in Tallahassee. 

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