The first truly anti-Semitic incident in the Middle East occurred in Damascus in 1840 among Catholic missionaries. An Italian-born monk had disappeared, and several statements extracted under torture ascribed his disappearance to the Jews, who allegedly wanted the victim's blood to bake matzos – an anti-Semitic trope familiar from the Middle Ages in Europe, which the French consul brought into play.
Most European citizens were legally under diplomatic protection, which is why the French consul was able to have a direct influence on the investigations. A few Christians played along, hoping for economic advantages over Jewish competitors. The Islamic governor of Syria, on the other hand, refused to agree to the death penalty being applied.
The affair attracted much attention in Europe and resulted in a campaign by international Jewish dignitaries. This may have succeeded in securing the release of the convicts, but it also damaged relations between the two religious groups.
In North Africa too, the Jews had more to fear from European settlers under French colonisation than they did from their Muslim neighbours. A decree issued by the French justice minister, Adolphe Crémieux, drove a wedge between the religious groups from 1870 onwards. With the stroke of a pen, Crémieux made all Algerian Jews French citizens, without them having asked for this. By contrast, it was almost impossible for Muslims to obtain full citizenship, even though Algeria was French territory. Crémieux also helped to found the Alliance Israélite Universelle, an influential organisation headquartered in Paris, which ran schools first in North Africa and then in the Ottoman Empire, to "civilise" the Jewish population, whom they regarded as backward, to European standards. In so doing, the Jews were alienated from their neighbours in terms of language, habits and qualifications.
Until the fall of the empire, most Ottoman Jews remained loyal patriots. In the fields of economics, politics and culture, Jews, Christians and Muslims were closely linked, living side by side in modern residential areas and meeting in schools, chambers of commerce and freemasons' lodges. After the First World War, the younger generation fought in political parties for a socialist order without religious barriers or for the liberation of the Arab nation from imperialism.
The number of anti-Jewish attacks in Arab countries increased during the 1930s with resistance to Zionism in Palestine. The idea of having to cede to Jews land that had been under Muslim rule for more than a thousand years seemed absurd. What's more, the Zionist project was also under the protection of the hated British colonisers.
When Lord Balfour made his famous declaration in 1917, expressing the British government's support for the establishment of a "Jewish homeland" in Palestine, the British foreign minister himself probably didn't believe it was something that could be achieved.
However, it took the Zionists only two decades to develop a complex and powerful organisation in Palestine. The growth in population size as a result of immigration raised the pressure from the Jewish community on Palestinians until the outbreak of the Palestinian Revolt in 1936, which made the Palestine question a pan-Arab issue.