Growing up in a Jewish community in the United States, I learned, in Jewish Sunday school as well as in daily life, that "Arabs" were our enemy. They were portrayed as ugly, two-dimensional, cartoon-like villains who wanted to kill us, hated us for no reason other than that we were Jews, and were always attacking our beloved State of Israel.
My family knew virtually no Arabs. No Arabs lived in our neighborhood (at least that I knew of), and the only Arab I ever met was the man who owned a popular Middle Eastern restaurant, who was a Lebanese Muslim. Welcoming and charming to our family as he was to all his guests, he was exempt from our hatred and suspicion because he was nice to us and we liked his food. It was as simple as that.
All I thought I knew about Arabs was that they came from the Middle East, were not Jews or Christians, and hated Israel (and, by extension, Jews) because... because...
...because they are Arabs?
I was unaware of my ignorance about Arabs until adulthood. No one had ever explained to me who these people were that we hated so much. Were they Muslims? Were they people from countries that spoke Arabic? Were they an ethnic group?
I was ignorant of the fact that while most Arabs are Muslims, they are also Christians, Druze, and Baha'i. And of course there are Arab athiests and agnostics. Even some Jews can be considered Arab, if they come from Arabic countries and Arabic culture, and speak Arabic. One famous example of this is Samy Elmaghribi, the great Moroccan Jewish singer:
In spite of our ignorance of what Arabs were, the adults who educated my classmates and I were very confident that they did know. And one of the things we heard, over and over again until we internalized it as fact, is that "Arabs" (sloppy and lazy shorthand for Arab Muslims) have always been the enemy of the Jews, and always will be.
And that is absolutely untrue. In fact, Arabs/Muslims, and Jews, for most of history, have lived in peaceful coexistence with one another. For centuries, they have been good neighbors, friends, and protectors to one another.
This was as true in the Middle East as it was in Central Europe, Turkey, and Spain under Arabic Muslim rule.
Spain, back in the time when it was known as "al-Andalus" under Muslim rule, is a fascinating and inspiring example of 800 years of enlightened Arab Muslim rule over a diverse population that included Jews, Christians, and pagans.
This passage from page 29-30 of "The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain" by María Rosa Menocal (2003) explains how Muslim rulers in Spain went beyond mere tolerance of Jews to open collaboration with them:
… The new lslamic polity not only allowed Jews and Chistians to survive but, following Quranic mandate, by and large protected them, and both the Jewish and Christian communities in al-Andalus became thoroughly Arabized within relatively few years of Abd al-Rahman’s arrival in Cordoba. One of the most famous documents from this period is the lament of Alvarus of Cordoba in the mid-ninth century detailing the ways in which the young men of the Christian community couldn’t so much as write a simple letter in Latin but wrote (or aspired to write) odes in classical Arabic to rival those of the Muslims.
Of course, one can see this adoption of Arabic by the dhimmi — the Arabic word for the protected “Peoples of the Book”, Jews and Christians, who share Abrahamic monotheism and scripture — throughout the rest of the Islamic world. In principle, all Islamic polities were (and are) required by Quranic injunction not to harm the dhimmi, to tolerate the Christians and Jews living in their midst. But beyond that fundamental prescribed posture, al-Andalus was, from these beginnings, the site of memorable and distinctive interfaith relations. Here the Jewish community rose from the ashes of an abysmal existence under the Visigoths to the point that the emir who proclaimed himself caliph in the tenth century had a Jew as his foreign minister. Fruitful intermarriage among the various cultures and the quality of cultural relations with the dhimmi were vital aspects of Andalusian identity as it was cultivated over these first centuries. It was, in fact, part and parcel of the Umayyad particularity vis-a-vis the rest of the Islamic world.
Not only in Spain but throughout the Western world, where Jews and Muslims lived together, cooperation, collaboration and mutual respect were customary.
When my partner and I traveled to Bosnia two years ago, we visited Sarajevo, which is overwhelmingly Muslim (though not Arab). There we learned that, for centuries, Muslims, Jews and Christians had lived together in friendship, harmony, and mutual respect. Intermarriage was (and still is) common; in fact, it is common for one family to have members of various religions. When you visit the cemeteries in Sarajevo, they are not segregated by religion. Jews, Muslims, and Christians are buried side by side, under tombstones bearing crosses, stars of David, and crescent moons. (In one famous example, of a very important and beloved figure from medieval times, the tombstone had all three). And things stayed this way for hundreds of years. But how many people know about it? Nowadays, the words "Bosnia and Herzegovina" primarily bring to mind the terrible Bosnian war of the 1990s. It seems deeply unfair that the place that is a truly a model for the rest of the world in terms of multiculturalism, tolerance and peaceful coexistence has, for one, suffered such horrific genocide, trauma and pain; and two, is hardly recognized for its beautiful, centuries-long history of peace and tolerance.
Getting back to the main topic:
Jews and Muslims lived in harmony up until the creation of the State of Israel, when the indigenous Arabs, the Palestinians, were pushed off their land, terrorized, displaced and murdered by the new Jewish settlers. Since then, there has been no harmonious coexistence in the Jewish supremacist apartheid state that is Israel, nor lasting peace. But that sad situation is quite new, compared to the approximately 1200-year history of Jews and Muslims living peacefully and flourishing together. (Adding the 800 years of Arab rule of al-Andalus plus 400 years of continued coexistence after Spanish Inquisition.)
After the fall of al-Andalus, in Spain and in other parts of Europe, anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim intolerance and persecution grew under Christian rulers. During these times, Jews and Muslims didn't just coexist; they were interdependent. Jews knew that if a place was safe for Muslims, it was safe for Jews, and vice-versa. Following each other from place to place, the two communities collaborated in their own survival. Moreover, during periods of persecution, Jews specifically fled to Muslim countries, where they knew they would be safe. This is case of the many Jews who migrated to Turkey during the Inquisition.
In short, the trope that "Arabs and Jews have always been enemies" is not only false and also destructive. If we are ignorant of the 1000-plus years of peaceful Jewish-Muslim-Arab coexistence, cultural richness and prosperity, then it's that much easier to believe that these things are impossible.
If it was possible in the past, it is possible now.