Why I Have Written "Jihad and Genocide"

by Richard L. Rubenstein (February 2010)

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I sat at my desk happily putting the finishing touches on the manuscript of the second edition of Approaches to Auschwitz which I co-authored with Professor John K. Roth of California’s Claremont-McKenna College.[1] I began that morning with an enormous sense of satisfaction that I was finally completing my share of a very arduous task. At the time, I had devoted the better part of a career of half a century to research, writing and lecturing on the Holocaust and the terrible phenomenon of genocide.

At about 8:45 A.M., I turned on the TV for the morning news and learned that American Airlines Flight 11 had just crashed into the 110-story North Tower of New York’s World Trade Center (WTC). I understood immediately that the crash was no accident. On February 26, 1993, Ramzi Yousef, an Islamic terrorist, had detonated a car bomb under the same tower with the intention of toppling it into the South Tower, collapsing both towers and hoping to kill the 250,000 people at work in the structures. Yousef and his accomplices meant to commit mass murder in the heart of New York. They failed to bring down the towers, but six people were killed and 1042 injured in the attempt.[2] As I watched in horror, I knew that Islamic extremists, whom I shall henceforth identify as Islamists, had finally succeeded. My horror was intensified, if that were possible, when I watched United Airlines Flight 175 crash into the twin South Tower. Minutes later, I learned that yet another plane had crashed into the Pentagon, and that United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania failing to reach its target, which was apparently either the White House or the United States Capitol.

Within the space of little more than an hour, the United States had experienced the most devastating attack on its homeland in its entire history. The iconic structures of American financial and military power had been successfully assaulted and only the selfless bravery of the doomed passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 prevented a similar strike on the center of American political power.

Apart from sheer horror, my immediate reaction was to ask myself whether our book on the Holocaust had instantly become an exercise in futility. Without delay, I sent John Roth an e-mail message saying that, as important as was the Holocaust, it happened sixty years ago and we were facing a very real present danger. I told him that henceforth my efforts were less likely to be focused on the Holocaust than on the threat of radical Islam. John was supportive in his reply, but insisted that both were equally important.[3] He was, of course, correct. As is evident from much of the material in this book, there is more than a little affinity between National Socialism and Islamic extremism. As partners in World War II, both sought the utter destruction of the Jewish people, a project Islamists have never abandoned. As is evident from a multitude of hateful sermons, media propaganda, and street demonstrations, all too many of which are available on the internet, today’s Islamists have recycled some of National Socialism’s most vicious anti-Semitic propaganda while peddling the obscene canard that the Israelis are latter-day Nazis. 

In 1952, my senior year as a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, I was accepted for admission to Harvard Divinity School. The Holocaust had cast a very long shadow over my decision to continue graduate studies at an historically Protestant institution. The Holocaust had taken place in Christian Europe and was not without the support of important segments of European Christendom. I wanted to understand the history and the present status of the complicated and ambivalent relationship between Judaism and Christianity and Harvard Divinity School seemed like a good place to start.

The focus of my studies there was overwhelmingly Euro-centric. My most memorable experience was Paul Johannes Tillich’s course on classical German philosophy.[4] The son of a Lutheran pastor with a doctorate from the University of Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland), Tillich served as a chaplain in the German army during the First World War. In the years immediately before Hitler’s coming to power, Tillich, then a professor at the University of Frankfurt, expressed his strong opposition to National Socialism in speeches and lectures. As soon as the Nazis took over, they dismissed him and he joined the faculty of New York’s Union Theological Seminary. Tillich’s course did more to enlarge my understanding of European Christian culture than any other course I took at Harvard.

One of the requirements of my degree program was to take a year’s work in a religious tradition other than Judaism or Christianity. In the academic year 1953-1954, I took a course on “Islamic Origins” followed by a course on the “History of Muslim Faith.” At the time, Islam seemed to be a remote curiosity that I was required to study. I certainly did not carry away from those courses the idea that any version of Islam could constitute a deadly threat to my people, my country, and my civilization. That would come later.

Unfortunately, neither I nor the overwhelming majority of Harvard students of the period had the slightest inkling of the writings of such Islamist thinkers as Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949), Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) and Syed Abul A’ala Maududi (1903-1979). Uncompromising enemies of Western civilization, their quest for universal Muslim domination shaped the worldview of the perpetrators of 9/11 and may affect the lives and destiny of every man, woman, and child in the twenty-first century.

Ten days after 9/11, President George W. Bush addressed a joint session of the United States Congress in which he sought to make a distinction between the perpetrators of 9/11 and the peace-loving Islamic mainstream. The president declared:

I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith… Its teachings are good and peaceful. And those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying in effect to hijack Islam itself.

Undoubtedly, in a moment of unprecedented national crisis, the president’s first responsibility was to calm a potentially explosive inter-religious situation. Nevertheless, in retrospect one can ask whether his statements or the somewhat similar sentiments expressed by President Barack Obama in Cairo on June 4, 2009 were accurate. In reality, Islamist enmity toward the infidel West, such as was manifest on 9/11, is not a consequence of a small, unrepresentative group “hijacking” a religion whose “teachings are good and peaceful.” On the contrary, the kind of Islamist hostility that drove Islamist terrorists to act on 9/11 and all too many other occasions is deeply rooted in centuries of Islamic tradition. As Professor Mary Habeck has observed concerning Qutb, al-Banna, and Mawdudi, the spiritual mentors of contemporary radical Islam:

None of these theorists could have had any impact in the Islamic world if their arguments had not found some sort of resonance in the religion of Islam.

My first hint that a version of Islam might constitute an irreconcilable menace came in the aftermath of the Six Day War of 1967. As that war approached, my wife Betty and I feared that the Arabs would be able to make good on their promise to drive the Jews into the sea. Ahmed Shukairy, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s first leader, predicted Israel’s “complete destruction” in the coming war” while Hafaz al-Asad of Syria promised to “destroy the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland.”

Within a week Israeli forces had swept to the Suez Canal, occupied all of the West Bank, and had taken Quneitra on the Golan Heights, about forty miles from Damascus. Betty and I were determined to visit Israel as soon as possible. We arrived close to Tisha b’Ab, the mid-summer fast day that commemorates the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and the Romans in 70 C.E. For the first time since the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132-136 C.E., the Temple precincts were in sovereign Jewish hands. When we arrived in Jerusalem, all the hotels in Jewish West Jerusalem were fully booked. Jews from all over Israel had come up to Jerusalem and were turning the traditional day of mourning into a day of rejoicing. We were advised to stay at the National Palace Hotel in Arab East Jerusalem. The hotel management was clearly in a state of shock. We were apparently their first Jewish guests. While they treated us courteously, they were understandably not happy about the circumstances that had brought us to them.

The morning after our arrival we decided to explore the Old City of Jerusalem which had been barred to Jews from 1947 to 1967. As we entered by the Damascus Gate, a thin, physically fit Arab in his early twenties offered his services as a guide. It was quickly apparent that he thought we were Christian. We had entered the Old City from the Arab side and, with her blue eyes and reddish blonde hair, Betty had often been taken to be Christian. Betty and I silently came to the same conclusion: we were eager to hear his opinions, not our own. For an hour and a half we listened to a hateful tirade against Jews and Israel. He made no secret about his determination to do anything he could to reverse the Arab defeat. 

When the tour was over, I paid him and said, “I want you to know that we are Jewish.”

He was surprised but then said, “You people have long memories. What makes you think that ours are any shorter?”

“We don’t.”

He was young, energetic, obviously intelligent. His English was excellent. It was all too obvious that he would never agree to peace with Israel under any circumstance. I had no doubt that there were very many more like him. Israel had won a battle, but with young men like that as enemies, it had not won the war. Moreover, I could see no material advantage peace with Israel might bring that would persuade him to work toward it.

Even after that encounter, I still believed that the Arab-Israeli conflict was primarily a dispute over territory that might with time, patience, and compromise be amenable to a viable solution both sides could live with. That appears to be the position of those who favor the so-called “two state solution” of two peoples “living side-by-side in peace and security” but who ignore the “Roadmap,” a step-by-step blueprint adopted in 2003 by Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the “Quartet” (the United States, the European Union, the U.N. and Russia).[8] Among the obligations the Palestinian Authority agreed to, but never implemented, as indispensable conditions for statehood were “an unequivocal end to violence, terrorism, and incitement” against Israel.[9] The fatal flaw of those who seek a two-state solution while downplaying the Roadmap lies in the fact that a critical mass of Muslims define the struggle against Israel as a defensive jihad “against the infidels who raid the abode of Islam.”[10] Put differently, such Muslims believe they are under an unconditional religious obligation to expel the Jews who, they believe, have forcibly taken possession of a portion of the abode of Islam.

Over the years, I met and came to know a number of Muslim religious leaders, regarded as “moderate,” who were willing to enter into dialogue with Jews and Christians at inter-religious conferences.[11] In no case did I ever meet one who did not look forward to the eventual demise of the State of Israel and the reincorporation of its territory into dar al-Islam, the abode of Islam. I am especially mindful of my encounters with two distinguished Muslim authorities, Professor Ismail al-Faruqi (1921-1986) and Sheikh M. A. Zaki Badawi (1922-2006). Professor al-Faruqi taught for many years at Temple University and made the claim that “Islam offers a perfect solution to the Jewish problem which has beset the Jews and the West for two millennia.” Elaborating on that “solution,” he described the conditions under which Jews would be permitted to live as an “ummah community,” that is, a religio-national community, under Muslim domination:

[Islam] requires the Jews to set up their own rabbinic courts and put its whole executive power at its disposal. The shariah (sic), the law of Islam, demands of all Jews to submit themselves to the precepts of Jewish law as interpreted by the rabbinic courts, and treats defiance or contempt of the rabbinic court as rebellion against the Islamic state itself, on a par with like action on the part of a Muslim vis-à-vis the Islamic court.

What al-Faruqi failed to specify was that under such a regime Jews would be dhimmis, a humiliated subject people. Moreover, such a community would have no place for Reform, Conservative or secular Jews. Any rejection of Orthodox Jewish authority would make a person liable to the same punishment as a Muslim in rebellion against shari’a. Put differently, the penalty for non-compliance with rabbinic courts under the conditions of dhimmitude offered by al-Faruqi as a “solution” would be death inflicted not by Jewish but by Muslim authorities. As we shall see, al-Faruqi’s proposal is both moderate and humane in comparison with the “solutions” offered by more radical Muslim leaders.

Shieikh M.A. Zaki Badawi was a graduate of al-Azhar University in Cairo with a doctorate in Modern Muslim Thought from the University of London. He served as the principal of London’s Muslim College. In its obituary, the Guardian newspaper called him “Britain’s most influential Muslim.”[13] He was also an Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. For a number of years, mostly in the nineteen-nineties, Betty and I attended international conferences at which he was also present. We were impressed with his urbanity, sophistication, and broad knowledge of world affairs. Normally, we sat with him and his wife at dinner, as we often did with Professor Faruqi. One evening, Zaki Badawi interrupted our train of conversation by unexpectedly bringing up the subject of Israel. “They’ll really have to go, you know,” he informed me. His wife, an English convert to Islam, added, “Like the Crusades.” There was no point in arguing with him. Other Muslim scholars had told me the same thing, but none had his standing or authority.

Occasionally, I would ask my Muslim colleagues in dialogue, “Where would the Israelis go?” Inevitably, I would receive a formulaic response: “Back where they came from.” While some Western countries might accept a few especially talented Jews, if they survived a Muslim onslaught, the vast majority would find no haven anywhere. Moreover, because of the incessant demonization of Israel in left-wing, pro-Arab propaganda, whatever fate befell the Israelis would be reckoned as no more than what they deserve as colonialists and imperialists, if not latter-day Nazis. We discuss that defamation and its genocidal potentiality in the following chapters.

Zaki Badawi and the Muslim scholars who wanted to send the Jews back where they came from were not entirely forthcoming. They were highly intelligent, well-informed men who could as easily draw the lines between the dots as could I. They knew that a defeat of Israel’s Jews would result in their extermination, but they had no intention of spelling it out, at least in a Western language if not in Arabic. This was especially true of Zaki Badawi because of his position in Great Britain. While he was alive, on those ceremonial occasions at which Britain’s leading figures in religion appeared together, Zaki Badawi was the Muslim representative who appeared with the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and the Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sachs. Zaki Badawi was too skilled a diplomat publicly to advocate a position on the Middle East with long-term genocidal consequences.[14] By the time I came to know him, I had no doubt that the Arab-Israeli conflict was as much a religious as a political conflict with a genocidal outcome should the Muslims prove victorious.

Moreover, there have always been influential opinion makers and government leaders in the United States and Europe for whom the establishment of the State of Israel was an historic mistake and who would welcome Israel’s demise as the real solution to the problems of peace and stability in the Middle East.

Evidently, when he served as Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon saw this as a potential danger. On October 11, 2001, one month after 9/11, he warned that the United States risked appeasing Arab nations the way European democracies appeased Hitler on the eve of World War II and with the same result. When Sharon introduced the memory of Neville Chamberlain and the Munich agreement of 1938 into the peace process, there were very few Western officials who openly advocated an end to the State of Israel. Nevertheless, he was apprehensive that some high officials were advocating a “solution” that would ultimately have the same result.

Diplomats and political leaders usually express their views with a measure of finesse, but not always. For example, speaking to an audience in Alexandria, Egypt in May 2004, Michel Rocard, France’s Socialist Prime Minister from 1988 to 1991, called the establishment of Israel “an historic mistake” and described that nation as a “unique and abnormal…entity that continues to pose a threat to its neighbors until today.”[15] 

The ambassador asked, “Why should the world be in danger of World War Three because of those people?” Similarly, shortly after 9/11, the late Daniel Barnard, Ambassador of France to the United Kingdom, declared at a private London gathering, that the current troubles in the world were all because of “that shitty little country Israel.” [16]

What is seldom discussed publicly by the Western elites who see Israel’s demise as the solution to the problems of the Middle East is the likely fate of Israel’s Jews were the Muslim ever to achieve that objective. One reason for the reticence may be a pervasive amnesia concerning why so many Jews came to Israel in the first place. Starting in the eighteen-eighties, there was a direct correlation between the rise of European anti-Semitism and the decision of so many Jews to uproot themselves and migrate to Palestine.

When the war ended in May 1945, all of Europe had become a charnel house for the Jewish survivors. Unwelcome in the countries of their birth, an estimated 250,000 found shelter under miserable conditions in Displaced Persons camps in Germany, Austria, and Italy. Their number was augmented by Eastern European survivors who, when they attempted to return to their homes, often found that they were returning to deadly pogroms.[17] Apart from all national and religious sentiments, the Yishuv, the Jewish settlement in Palestine, was the only community that unconditionally welcomed the majority of both the survivors of the Holocaust and the Jews from Arab lands who were forcibly expelled by government action and mob violence in the post-World War II years.[18]

For many Jews, the Holocaust, the expulsion of approximately 900,000 Jews from Arab lands, and the return of the Holocaust survivors to Palestine exemplified a fundamental theme in Jewish religious experience, exile (galut) and return. Certainly, the Shoah demonstrated the most extreme perils of galutal-Naqba, the catastrophe.

Regrettably, I am enough of a student of history to know that civilizations often have their beginnings in military combat. In the era of St. Augustine (354-430 C.E.) and St. Ambrose (340-397 C.E.), for example, North Africa, Rome, and Milan were part of one unified, Roman-Christian world known as Romania.[19] With the Umayyad conquest of North Africa in the seventh century, that world was split apart by the success of Islamic arms. Similarly, without the reconquista, Christian civilization would never have been reconstituted in Spain. 

Undeniably, Palestine’s defeated Arabs had real grievances, but all too many of their leaders offered the Jews who had settled in the Land of Israel only the choice of expulsion or extermination. We see this in the Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement, known by its acronym HAMAS, a document all too often ignored by political leaders who contend that the inclusion of Hamas in the so-called peace process is indispensable.[20] The Covenant clearly and unambiguously states that Hamas’s long-term objective, the destruction of the State of Israel and the extermination of its people, is grounded in an unconditional religious imperative regarded as binding on all Muslims. Unfortunately, there are high-ranking proponents of the so-called peace process within the governments of the European Union and the United States who argue that with the proper inducements Hamas can either be persuaded to change its position on peace with Israel or can join a Palestinian government led by Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestine Authority. Such a government, they claim, could credibly foreswear terrorism and provide the basis of “two nations living side-by-side in peace and security.”

I have never forgotten the following scene in Eli Wiesel’s memoir Night:

My neighbor, the faceless one, said:

“Don’t let yourself be fooled with illusions. Hitler has made it very clear that he will annihilate all the Jews before the clock strikes twelve, before they can hear the last stroke.”

I burst out:

“What does it matter to you? Do we have to regard Hitler as a prophet?”

“I’ve got more faith in Hitler than in any one else. He’s the only one who’s kept his promises, all of his promises, to the Jewish people.

Hitler kept his promise until the total collapse of the Third Reich. Today, there are leaders throughout the Islamic world who are once again making the same promise. There are also those in the West who ignore the renewed expression of those promises and urge Israel to come to terms with the very people who pledge publicly and unconditionally to destroy them. For Israel to follow such counsel would be suicidal. If the Holocaust has any meaning for Jews it is that they must believe those who promise to destroy them especially when they actively seek, as does Iran, the weapons with which to do so. They at least are telling the truth and intend to keep their promise if they can.

The Gaza war of 2009 gave Israel yet another taste of what to expect from the United Nations and the so-called international community if it agrees, as many are urging them, to a two-state solution without the safeguards spelled out in the Roadmap. Without those safeguards, sooner or later Israel would find that its people are subjected to rocket attacks and other forms of aggression coming from groups within the newly independent Palestinian state. In divided Jerusalem rockets could be launched from Arab neighborhoods a few blocks from their Jewish counterparts. Palestinian authorities would, of course, deny that they are responsible, but the rockets would continue sometimes sporadically, sometimes rapidly. If Gaza is the model, the Israeli government would try to refrain from retaliation until its own population had enough and demanded action. When the effort to put an end to the attacks finally comes, the provocations would once again be ignored by the so-called international community and Israel would be subject again to virulent demonization not only from angry Muslims but from the media and left-wing academic circles throughout much of the Western world. During the Gaza war of 2009 there were calls for another Holocaust and the restarting of the gas chambers in the street demonstrations in many of the cities of the Western world, as well as in sermons, cartoons, and other propaganda especially in the Arab media. Ironically, a dishonest peace would be worse than honest recognition that the conflict cannot be resolved under present circumstances.

Having spent most of my career writing and teaching about the Holocaust, I now find myself once again confronted by sworn enemies of the United States and Israel who have promised to exterminate my people. With knowledge gained over many decades, I feel I have no option but to take these people at their word.

That is why I have written this book. 


[1] Richard L. Rubenstein and John K. Roth, Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and Its Legacy, 2nd ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003).

[2] Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower and the Road to 9/11 (New York: Vintage Books, 2007), 201-203.

[3] I am grateful to Professor Roth for his e-mail of 21 Mar. 2009 in which he helped to clarify our correspondence.

[4] Richard L. Rubenstein, Power Struggle: An Autobiographical Confession (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974), 154-169.

[5]Transcript of President Bush’s address to a joint session of Congress on Thursday night, September 20, 2001” CNN.com./U.S. (12 June 2009).

[6]Mary Habeck, Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 41. See also the measured comments by Robert Spencer on the alleged “hijacking” of Islam, “Johns Hopkins professor: Jihadists’ ‘definition of jihad is quite different from that generally accepted by Muslims today,’” Jihad Watch, 17 May, 2007, (13 June 2009).      

[7] Michael Oren, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 78.

[8] The text of the Roadmap can be found at “A Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” United States Institute of Peace, 30 Apr. 2003. 

[9]Statement by incoming Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman at the ministerial inauguration ceremony,” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1 Apr. 2009, <>;see also Jeff Jacoby, “In Israel, A Voice of Realism,” Boston Globe, 5 Apr. 2009, <>.

[10] Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Loyalty and Enmity” in Raymond Ibrahim, ed. and trans., The Al Qaeda Reader (New York: Broadway Books, 2007), 93. Al-Zawahiri cites Ibn Taymiyya (1263 – 1328) as his authority.

[11] The proceedings of one such conference, a Jewish-Muslim dialogue held in Cordoba, Spain, are to be found in Charles Selengut, ed., Jewish-Muslim Encounters: History, Philosophy and Culture (St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2001).

[12] Ismail R. al-Faruqi, “Islam and Zionism,” in John L. Esposito, ed., Voices of Resurgent Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 265.

[13] Jack O’Sullivan, “Zaki Badawi,” The Guardian, 25 Jan. 2005.

[14] Nevertheless, there was one genocide to which Zaki Badawi was indifferent. I was informed by a British friend who had been active in raising the awareness of the British public about the mass murder in Darfur that when he sought the support of Zaki Badawi, the latter responded that he had no interest in the sub-Saharan victims as they were in really polytheists and not Muslim.

[15] Ryan Jones, “French Official: Israel’s Establishment a Historic Mistake,” Jerusalem News Wire, 20 June 2004.

[16] Barbara Amiel, “Islamists Overplay their Hand, But London Salons Don’t See It,” Daily Telegraph (UK), 21 Dec. 2001.

[17] Jan T. Gross, Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz (New York: Random House, 2006).

[18] Ya’akov Meron, “Why Jews Fled the Arab Countries,” Middle East Quarterly, Vol. II, No. 3, Sept. 1995.

[19] Henri Pirenne, Mohammed and Charlemagne (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2001), 17.

[20] For example, in the spring of 2009 Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a New York Times columnist, “Hamas must be represented at the negotiating table. Only then can you get a solution.” Roger Cohen, “Turkey Wants U.S. ‘Balance,’” New York Times,6Apr. 2009, <>.   

[21] Eli Wiesel, Night, trans. Stella Rodway (New York: Avon Discus Books, 1969), 91-92.

Richard L. Rubenstein is President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Religion at the University of Bridgeport and Lawton Distinguished Professor of Religion Emeritus at Florida State University. He is the author of numerous books and articles on Jewish theology, the Holocaust and other issues including After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism, The Cunning of History, My Brother Paul and Dissolving Alliance: The United States and the Future of Europe. His most recent book is Jihad and Genocide (Rowman and Littlefield, 2010)

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