Jewish sorcerers

The Saudis promised to reform their reactionary religiouss education, and it’s still reported to be full of ihadist bigotry.

Let’s join in the condemnation. The Saudis promised to reform their reactionary religious education, but it’s still credibly reported to be full of jihadist bigotry. Hat tips: Eric Muller via Michael Froomkin.

The eighth-grade textbook includes this remarkable claim about Jews:

Despite this, they espouse falsehood through idol-worship, soothsaying, and sorcery.

A serious question: where did the mullahs get this weird accusation, as absurd as the blood libel, though I suppose less destructive? As far as I can see, it’s not in the Koran, which accuses the Jews of various offences – usury, treachery, disobedience to God, rejection of the prophets, of Isa and of Mohammed – which have some stretched connection to seventh-century experience. But sorcery? Is this freshly made up, or derived distantly from mediaeval Christian anti-semitism, like Bashir Assad’s nonsensical charge that the Jews betrayed Jesus. (Judas = the archetypal Jew.)

It’s as easy to over- as under-estimate one’s enemies. On this showing the Wahhabi clerics who control Saudi schools aren’t learned fanatics, like Ayatollah Khomeini, just bigoted peasants.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

11 thoughts on “Jewish sorcerers”

  1. I was also curious about where this story came from, since it doesn't seem to be some Saudi bureaucrat's idea.
    It appears to stem from the tale, not in the Koran, of Labid ibn Asim, who put a curse on Muhammed which apparently caused him to hallucinate. In some versions of the tale, Labid is Jewish; in others he is paid by the Jews of Medina. Muhammed breaks the spell with the aid of a divine vision, and then forgives Labid and refuses to speak of it — this may have something to do with why the story doesn't appear in the Koran.
    There is a helpful Sunni website in English which specifically uses this tale to tie Jews to sorcery.
    Another web site called, which does not appear to be anti-Jewish but may certainly be unreputable, claims that Jews can use 'good magic':
    The Jews evaded the prohibition against sorcery by determining that there were powers of sanctity – the use of which was permitted – and powers of impurity, and only these constituted sorcery and therefore were prohibited.
    Most likely it's the first thing but the second one also piqued my interest.

  2. Wimberley perpetuates yet another anti-Semitic libel, like "Jews can't be farmers" or "Jews can't be athletes." I bet Jews could be just as good sorcerers as anyone else. It's the sorcerer schools' quotas over all those centuries that kept them out. And I personally know Jews who can thay a thoos/say thooths/sooy saiths/the hell with it, assert stuff right up there with anyone.
    Fight this prejudice: the next time you need a sooth, go find a Jew and athk him to say it for you.

  3. come to think of it, I believe A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum has actual footage of Zero Mostel (Jewish!) saying a soosss or two.

  4. What's with the Jews and the idol-worship? I mean, even I can remeber what happened to Edgar G. Robison and his golden calf when Charleton Heston ariived with the Ten Commandments….

  5. Neil's first link gives the explanation we've all needed for short-term memory loss. Q. Where's my hairbrush? I'm sure I left it here. A: It's a Jewish spell! Consult a Jewish soothsayer to get your hairbrush back.

  6. It's a strange, sad fact that religious movements tend to degenerate into magic-working, and that mystical religious movements are more inclined in that direction than legalistic or ritualistic movements. C.S. Lewis once remarked that it would be absurd to use the Stairway to Heaven as a short-cut to the corner drugstore. But obviously something in human nature prompts us to do precisely that.
    (Arguably, science became the dominant religion of our culture because non-miraculous scientfic/technical wonder-working is much more efficacious and reliable than the other kind, rather than because of its more purely intellectual virtues. Newton's explication of the laws of motion is sublime,but GPS position-finding is way cool.)
    The degeneration into magic-working happened to Taoism, to most of the schools of Buddhism except for Zen, and to alchemy (which in its pure form was an attempt to produce the gold of spiritual enlightenment from the base metal of human nature). Sufi and Christian saints and their followers will swear up and down that the miracles they are said to work have nothing in common with sorcery; Hindu holy men will modestly note that their ability to float in mid-air is really of no importance whatever compared to their doctrines. It's all quite depressing or amusing, depending on whether your heart is stronger than your head or vice versa.
    And the mystical parts of Judaism, especially kabbalah and hasidism, are by no means exempt. (Nor was rabbinic Judaism exempt at its founding; the Talmud tells some remarkable tales concerning its famous sages.) Some of the stories are harmless and amusing: told rather than believed, like the story of the golem of Rabbi Low of Prague. But when the most insanely extreme residents of the Israeli settlements wanted to cast a death curse, first on Yitzchak Rabin and then on Ariel Sharon, the appropriate curse &#8212 the pulsa de-nura, or "lash of fire" &#8212 was there waiting for them in the kabbalistic tradition.
    So it would be false to say that contemporary rabbinic Judaism has any traffic with sorcery. But to deny that some parts both of esoteric Judaism and of Jewish folk-religion put stock in wonder-working would be equally false. Human, all-too-human.

  7. They should be careful leveling accusations of sorcery at us. Haven't they heard what the death-eaters do to people who offend sorcerers?

  8. From Mark's comment, it seems there may have been some little basis in fact for the accusation of sorcery, in the Talmudic and cabbalistic use of incantations; surely exceedingly rare today. Christianity has magical elements too, and not only in the Eucharist. Philippe Aries, in "The Hour of our Death", relates the architectural changes in mediaeval churches to the need to increase the number of altars to allow for ever more masses for the dead. In 1650, one eminent French lawyer-sinner provided in his will for 10,000 masses for his soul! Doesn't Islam too have its share of folk magic, for example in dervishism, though disapproved of by the religious lawyers?
    What about the other charges, of soothsaying and idolatry? I'm out of my depth here, but isn't cabbalistic magic basically intended for healing, not prediction? And the charge of idol-worship still makes no sense to me against rabbinical Jews, though of course it has some polemical force against Catholic and especially Orthodox Christians.

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