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The Arabs are peoples living throughout the Middle East and North Africa. They speak various Arabic dialects and are for the most part of the Islamic faith.

Jewish and Arab tradition hold that the Arabs are the descendants of Ishmael, son of Abraham. In ancient times there were several small but highly developed kingdoms in the Arabian peninsula. Most of the Arabs, however, were camel breeding nomads. Those mentioned in the Bible probably wandered northward from Arabia and lived on the fringe of the Jewish settlement in Palestine. The early Arab kingdoms fell into decay in the first centuries of the common era. It was only with the religious revolution of Mohammed in the 7th century that the Arabs emerged as a major force.

Scion of a wealthy merchant family, Mohammed declared himself the prophet of “the only true faith.” Known as Islam, this religion centered around Allah, the “one true God,” but accepted the religious writings of both Christians and Jews. Its prophets included Abraham, Moses, the biblical prophets, Jesus, and Mohammed. Mohammed believed it was his duty to convert humankind to Islam. To this end, he began a series of “Holy Wars.” Leading an army of fierce desert warriors, he and his successors conquered the entire Middle East from Egypt to Central Asia. Later, North Africa and Spain were brought under Islamic rule. The pagan people of the conquered countries were converted to Islam, taught the Arabic language, and made subjects of a single Arab empire.

At that time most Jews lived within the Arab empire. When both persuasion and persecution failed to shake their faith, the Arab rulers were forced to evolve a policy of some tolerance. Jews were generally accepted as second-class citizens. But this legal definition of their status did not put an end to persecution. Fanatic Moslem sects led the occasional violent outbursts of hatred which often led to massacres. On the whole, however, Jews were much better off in the Islamic world than in Christian Europe. Though they continued to study Hebrew, Arabic became their spoken tongue. They came and went freely in the markets of the east.

By the 10th century, Jews were important in the international trade flourishing from Spain to India. There were Jewish bankers, ministers, generals, and doctors at most Moslem courts. In addition, the Jewish community remained fairly independent, and the community head had an honored place in the government of the Caliphs.

Golden Age of Judeo-Arabic Culture. Especially distinguished during this era was the cultural life of the Jews. Between the 7th and 10th centuries the Arabs evolved one of the greatest civilizations in history. In addition to the development and study of their own religion, Arab scholars had worked fruitfully in the fields of philosophy, poetry, language, history, geography, medicine, astronomy, and other branches of science. Speaking Arabic and mixing freely with Arab scholars, Jews contributed to all these fields of learning. More important, they developed a culture of their own, based on their ancient traditions and on the research of their Moslem neighbors. In Babylonia, the heads of great Talmudic academies continued the work of their predecessors in interpreting the Jewish law. Saadiah Gaon, head of the Jewish community in Babylonia during the 10th century, not only translated the Bible into Arabic, but also published studies in philosophy, poetry, religion, and law. In the following century, the center of Jewish life shifted to Spain, and a series of brilliant figures participated there in creating the “Golden Age” of Jewish history. At this time, Maimonides, a physician by profession, was one of the great masters of philosophy. His great works include a codification of Jewish law and a justification of the Jewish religion in terms of ancient Greek philosophy. The greatest achievements of the Golden Age, however, were not in philosophy, but in poetry. Living in both Christian and Moslem Spain, such poets as Judah Ha-Levi, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, and Moses Ibn Ezra created some of the most beautiful poetry in the Hebrew language. Their poems treat religious and secular subjects in forms derived from classical Arabic verse. They were all learned in science and philosophy and masters of classic Arabic prose as well as Hebrew and Jewish lore. Other poets and scholars in Babylonia, North Africa, and Tunis contributed to the flowering of Jewish culture.

The Golden Age of Judeo-Arabic culture came to an end with the decline of the entire Arab civilization in the 13th and 14th centuries. At that time, barbarian rulers gained domination over most of the Islamic empire. In the course of that period, the center of Jewish life passed from the shores of the Mediterranean to Europe proper. Many Jews continued to live on the shores of the Mediterranean but ceased to play a vital role in Jewish life. Until the rise of Jewish nationalism at the end of the 19th century, Mediterranean Jews lived as a subject people among their Arab neighbors who were under the dominion of foreign powers.

The Modern Arab Revival. The 19th and 20th centuries, which have witnessed the return of the Jews to Palestine and the creation of a Jewish state there, have also seen a negative change in Arab-Jewish relations. The Arab states, which were created after the defeat of the Ottoman-Turkish Empire in World War I, have firmly opposed the return of the Jews to their homeland. This opposition flared into open warfare in 1948, when the armies of five Arab nations invaded the newly-declared State of Israel. Despite four successive defeats on the battlefield, the Arabs did not accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state for more than 30 years. Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994 finally signed peace treaties with Israel.

Today, there are two opposite trends in the Arab world regarding Israel. On the one hand, extremist Muslim groups and regimes in the Arab world refuse to recognize the Jewish State, and even seek its destruction. On the other hand, some more moderate Arab regimes like Egypt, Saudi-Arabia, and Jordan show readiness to make comprehensive peace with Israel and normalize relations between Israel and the Arab world.

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