Sir Martin Gilbert has created a master work and generational touchstone on the history of Jewish/Muslim relations from the time of Muhammed to the present day. The flowing narrative consolidates a wide range of reference material including books by Mark Cohen, Gotein,Hitti, Hourani, Levin, Lewis ,Satloff, Shulewitz, Stillman, Troper (and many others), historical archives, government documents and the author's personal interviews and correspondence with members of the Oriental Jewish community.
The book begins with how Jews came to live in Arabia, Persia and North Africa and continues with the life of the Prophet leading to the seminal Jewish defeat and subjugation at Khaybar which is still invoked by Hamas, Hiz b'Allah and others to this day. He describes the strictures on dhimmi life imposed by the Pact of Umar which was likely codified in the early 8th century. Once under the established dominance of Islam Jewish life was able to flourish and acquire a degree of protection.
This golden age ended under Almohed persecution in Spain, repression in Yemen and the Mameluks of Egypt (1250-1516) who enforced dhimmi regulations with rigor. Yet Jewish poetry and culture was admired and encouraged in Shiraz and in the Cairo massacre of Christian Copts of 1343, Jews lent Christians their own discriminatory garments which deceived the mob and kept them safe. In 1561 under the Ottomans, the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent gave a land grant of seven villages around Tiberea in perpetuity as a Jewish principality, predating modern Zionism by 300 years.
The middle section of the book focuses on the periods from the 1800s up until the establishment of Israel in 1948. Contrary to the myth that Jews and Arabs coexisted happily together throughout time. Chapter 7 relates a number of references to the quality of Jewish life, among them (pp104) a quote by William Tanner Young, British Vice Consul in Jerusalem in 1839: "The Jew in Jerusalem is not estimated in value much above a dog - and scarcely a day passes that I do not hear of some act of tyranny and oppression against a Jew"; "A Moslem's right to harass a Jew was taken for granted; it would not have occurred to the victim to react or report the matter to police" (pp169, Mordecai Ben Porat, on Jewish life in Baghdad in the 1930s).
Ch. 15-20 considers the post 1948 unjust surveillance, dispossession, imprisonment, attacks, murders and flight of Jews from Arab lands. Recall the threatening words of chief Egyptian UN delegate Heykal Pasha to UN on Nov 14, 1947 who said "the lives of one million Jews in Moslem countries would be jeopardized by Partition... it might be responsible for very grave disorders and for the massacre of the large number of Jews." (pp209). Similar words were uttered by the representative of the Palestinian Arab Higher Committee, a close relative of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al Husseini. This indeed was the unacceptable reaction of Arab leadership and popular response to the defeat of their campaign against Israel's Jews and failure to reestablish their dhimmi status.
Gilbert does not focus solely on the negative. For example he points out that while popular opinion grew against Jews in the hinterland, forcing a migration to the cities, Jews enjoyed support of the Sultan of Morocco, a story more or less repeated in Tunisia where Jews eventually concentrated on the island of Djerba. Whereas Iran under Reza Shah turned more towards Nazi Germany, his son Shah Reza Pahlevi was more favourably inclined. In the early 1950s Arab Iranians drove anti-Jewish sentiments but the government refused to join in. When anti-Jewish riots broke out in Iranian Kurdistan the government extended protection to Jews who wanted to move to Tehran or Israel. Things became worse when the Shah's government fell to the Ayatollah, as they did for other non-Muslim minorities. The book ends with a chapter which brings us to up to the events of March 2009.
Can I recommend this book? Yes and yes and yes again! This review is merely an brief synopsis that I hope it encourages you to buy the book, gift it, keep it as a reference and place it prominently on your shelf. There is a much greater wealth of material inside. It should be part of the curriculum of every program of Jewish or Middle Eastern studies. If they have yet to order it ask your local public, church, mosque, college library to add a copy or two to their collection. It complements the Ashkenazic and Israeli narratives, which are well sourced elsewhere, and hopefully will be the basis of spurring further explorations of this kind, not only of the Jewish experience under Islam but also that of other minority communities from Armenians to Zoroastrians. Middle Eastern Muslims, peace be upon them, would also (I hope) greatly benefit by employing this book as a mirror to see how they are viewed by others.