The Attitudes of Lucknow’s Muslims towards Jews, Israel, and Zionism
By Navras Jaat Aafreedi
I grew up in Lucknow, a major centre of Muslim scholarship and culture, home to prestigious institutions of Islamic studies, Nadwātul Ulamā and Firangi Mahal. Except for a Jewish writer from Ahmedabad, Sheela Rohekar, who publishes in Hindi and has settled in Lucknow, and a few American and Israeli Jewish converts to Hinduism, there are no Jews in the city. Yet they find frequent mention in the Muslim discourse there. The mention is almost always negative in nature. Anti-Israel protests are common in the city and, during the American led invasion of Iraq, flags of Israel and America were drawn on the floor at the entrance to the biggest tourist attraction there, the Shia Muslim monument, Asafi Imambara (also called Bara Imambara), so that nobody could enter it without trampling the flags.
The attitudes of the Muslims of Lucknow towards Jews, like anywhere else in India, except in Mumbai, where they happen to be neighbours, are shaped by secondary sources of information and not as a result of any direct contact with them. The Muslim press in Lucknow is openly prejudiced against them. Its bias against Jews can be illustrated by a number of examples.
My doctoral research on “The Indian Jewry and the Self-Professed ‘Lost Tribes of Israel’ in India”, was misrepresented in the Urdu (the lingua franca of a large number of South Asian Muslims) press as a Zionist conspiracy against Islam aimed at depriving it of its bravest followers, the Pathans/Pashtuns, as they see themselves, by convincing them of their Israelite roots and then persuading them to migrate to Israel and populate the disputed territories there. The Freemason Temple in Hazratganj in Lucknow is perceived by Muslims to be Jewish-owned and that is exactly how it is represented by the Muslim journalists in Lucknow. A movement has been initiated to liberate its building, which used to be an imāmbārā before being leased to the Freemasons, from the alleged Jewish control.
This is a manifestation of the spread of many features of European anti-Semitism to the Muslim world. It was in Germany in the 1860s that Jews and Freemasons began to be perceived as working hand-in-glove for undermining traditional society. This combined criticism of the two groups shifted to France, where a string of books stressed upon it. The notion of a sinister alliance between the two played a conspicuous part in the Dreyfus Affair and it became a prominent feature of the European anti-Semitism. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (first published in Russia in 1904) includes the idea of a Jewish-Masonic plot to control the world. Up to this time, Freemasonry had been thought of as a conservative and partly anti-Semitic association in Germany, but as soon as the Protocols appeared in German and English in the 1920s, Jews and Freemasons began to be identified as the sinister agents responsible for the outbreak of World War I and of the German defeat. The slogan Juden und Freimaurer emerged as a battle-cry of the German rightwing, and was utilized by Hitler in ascending to power. During World War II, the Nazis under the leadership of Hitler persecuted Freemasons together with Bolsheviks and Jews.
While a Holocaust film retrospective, the first ever in South Asia, was in progress at two universities in Lucknow – the Bābāsāhéb Bhīmrāo Ambédkar University and the University of Lucknow – in September – October 2009, the two most popular Urdu daily newspapers there, Rāshtriya Sahāra and Aag, published stories denying the Holocaust. The articles were largely based on the arguments made by the well-known Holocaust deniers, viz., David Irving, Harry Elmer Barnes, David Hoggan, Paul Ressinier, and Arthur R. Butz. A large section of South Asian Muslims deny that the Holocaust ever took place, or raises doubts about its magnitude and scale, and even if it does acknowledge it as a historical fact, any serious reference to the Holocaust is often accompanied by a comparison with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
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Maulana Kalbé Sādiq, the veteran Shia cleric, once said in an interview, “…the Bush administration certainly is anti-Islam. This owes, in large measure, to the power of the Zionist lobby in America. Pro-Zionist Jews control large banks, many industries and much of the media in America, and if they leave America, the country will collapse. And it is this lobby, in addition to the extreme right-wing Christian lobby, that is behind the clearly anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim policies of the Bush government.”
In December 2012 the feature editor of the English weekly, The Lucknow Tribune, Mehru Jaffer, a Muslim who had lived in Vienna for a number of years, published an article on Jews in Lucknow by the present author, under a title different from what it had originally been submitted with and illustrated it with an anti-Semitic caricature. In response to a number of letters of protest from the present author and several scholars, The Lucknow Tribune republished the article without the illustration, but neither published an apology nor those letters of protest. It also never published the article on its website. Considering this, it is worth quoting here what Dr. Myer Samra, an eminent scholar of Jewish Studies, wrote to the editor of The Lucknow Tribune against the publication of that caricature:
What otherwise might have been an interesting article about Jews and people reputed to have Israelite backgrounds who have been associated with Lucknow over the centuries has instead turned into an offensive, anti-semitic piece, which in some countries could lead to either disciplinary measures against the paper, or to prosecution for publishing something likely to incite hatred and violence against a minority population group.
The title itself is a cause of concern. In relatively small letters you have the words “JEWS IN LUCKNOW”…Below that, and in very large writing, the use of an exclamation mark after “Moneylender and the Watchmaker” makes the “revelation” of such a community in Lucknow appear extraordinary, but more disturbing is the use of the term “Moneylender”, appearing in such large, bold red letters, making this appear to be the most significant aspect of the article. Moneylenders are never popular, and presenting this designation as a stereotype of a Jew, coupled with a cartoon sketch which has a long history as a hateful, antisemitic depiction of an avaricious Jew, taking up almost as much space as the article itself, makes for a strong statement that renders the article itself insignificant by comparison…I believe you owe an apology to your readership, and an assurance that such hateful material would never again be published in your newspaper.
Syed Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, who was the rector of Nadwatul Ulama in Lucknow and Founding Chairman of the Trustees of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, wrote in his book, Islam and the World (u.d.): “…they [Jews] were destined always to live in subjection to other nations and ever to be exposed to injustice, oppression, chastisement, extradition, troubles and hardships. Political serfdom, oppression and anguish suffered indefinitely had produced in them a typical racial character. They were notorious all over the world for excessive pride of blood and greed. Meek and submissive in distress, they were tyrannical and mean when they had the upper hand. Hypocrisy, deceit, treachery, selfishness, cruelty and usuriousness had become the normal traits of their nature. In the Qur’an we find repeated references to the extent to which they had sunk into degradation in the sixth and the seventh centuries” (pp.22-3).
During the two years (2008-2010) when I worked in Lucknow as a Fellow of the Centre for Communication & Development Studies, Pune, under its youth outreach programme called Open Space, I attempted to bring about a positive change in the Muslim attitudes towards Jews, Israel, and Zionism, which finds mention in Anna Guttman’s Writing Indians and Jews: Metaphorics of Jewishness in South Asian Literature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). My work was aimed at understanding and sharing the overlapping of Indianness and Jewishness in general, and Jewishness and Indian Muslimness in particular. However, I could have never organized many of the events that I did, had I not received cooperation from several Muslim individuals of Lucknow, who were signatories to “An Open Letter: A Call to Dialogue and Understanding between Muslims and Jews”, released by Muslim scholars under the auspices of the Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations, Woolf Institute, Cambridge, United Kingdom.
Deep rooted biases exist, yet there are spaces for initiating dialogue, and then there is ample hope as the great scholar Professor Sarva-Daman Singh says, “Let us all march hand in hand, in search of humankind’s collective nirvāna from want and strife; for if we are made in the likeness of God, we cannot do otherwise.”
Dr. Navras Jaat Aafreedi is an Indo-Judaic Studies Scholar and Muslim-Jewish Relations Activist, employed as an Assistant Professor in the School of Humanities & Social Sciences, Gautam Buddha University, Greater NOIDA, India. Can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org