by John Bunzl
What is Anti-Semitism?
The frequency of verbal and sometimes physical attacks against Jews in Europe (particularly in France) — mostly in some way connected to developments in the Middle East — has led observers and interested commentators to declare the phenomenon of a “New Anti-Semitism.” The Merriam-Webster International Dictionary (2004) even redefined the term “Anti-Semitism” in the following manner:
1) Hostility toward Jews as a religious or racial minority group, often accompanied by social, political or economic discrimination
2) Opposition to Zionism
3) Sympathy with opponents of Israel
The perception of (2) and (3) as anti-Semitic was promoted by the Israeli establishment, official Jewish communities and American Jewish Organizations.1 The latter might have been additionally motivated (after 9/11) by a desire to present Israel and the Jews as victims of “international-Islamic terrorism.” In contradistinction, one should remember that any meaningful definition of anti-Semitism follows number (1) mentioned above, i.e. hostility towards Jews as Jews, “because” they are Jews, irrespective of what they do or think. This would lead us to the conclusions that expressions of (2) and (3) could possibly only be constructed as anti-Semitic if and when they are directed against Israel because of the ascribed and stereotyped “Jewish” characteristics of this state.2
But what if hostility (at least in the Orient) is due to the perception of Israel as European, Western, alien, non-Arab, non-Islamic and particularly as repressive vis-à-vis the Palestinians? Don’t we hear constantly that even attacks by Palestinians against Israelis are directed against them “only because they are Jewish”? Are there no other reasons for such acts, even if we condemn them? Is it so difficult, painful and dangerous to look into these causes?
These difficulties result from the conflict itself.3 We don’t deal only with a confrontation between two peoples in one land but also with a process whereby one collective is brought in via migration and settlement while the other (native) collective is being replaced and repressed. Such a colonial process is in need of ideological justification. Therefore we find the interpretation of Arab resistance as groundless violence from the beginning of the Zionist enterprise, while one’s own behavior is always constructed as counter-violence.
Islam and Anti-Semitism
So we have a conflict that is, structurally speaking, antagonistic “enough” — but due to its long duration and the needs of auto-justification, has become ideologized beyond recognition. In the Arab-Muslim world, hostility towards Israel, which defines itself as the state of the Jews, is amalgamated with Judaeo-phobic images from Koranic sources and anti-Semitic stereotypes of Euro-Christian origin. Add to this a tendency to think in terms of conspiracy theories and a demonization of the West (beyond the real grievances) and you have a dangerous mix that has become part of the problem.
Looking into contemporary forms of Arab or Muslim hostility towards Israel and Jews, we have to state from the outset that they are to a large extent responses to a real conflict — and that they are and could be influenced in the future by its development. As in a mirror image,4 hostility to Islam or Arabs in Israeli discourse does not stem from pre-existing trends in Jewish thought but from the conflict itself. “In principle” neither do Palestinians fight Israelis because they are Jews nor do Israelis fight Palestinians because they are Arabs.
But enemy images often have a life of their own; especially in conflicts of long duration combined with a continuous pressure for auto-justification and delegitimization of the “other.” Often this is achieved by projecting the conflict deep into the past. Think of the grotesque exaggeration of the conflicts between the Prophet Mohammed and Jewish tribes in the 7th century by Islamist zealots.5
The Examples of Hizbullah and Hamas
Taking the examples of Hizbullah and Hamas, Esther Webman contextualizes the origins of Judaeo-phobic amalgams.6 With Hizbullah she sees the negation of Israel as influenced by a combination of Khomeini’s anti-Western orientation and negative images of Jews and Judaism in Islamic traditions. Other attitudes are derived from Christian-European sources: Jews/Zionists rule the world, the Torah commands Jews to kill; Jews control the media and — together with the Freemasons — strive for world domination etc. On the other hand Israel is seen as a puppet of the U.S., perhaps a concession to the traditional Muslim imagination of Jews as weak and coward — in contradistinction to their image as powerful in the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (an anti-Semitic pamphlet originating in czarist Russia, still widely circulating in the Arab and Muslim worlds).
Obviously Hamas is more focused on Palestine, but in its ideological expressions the conflict is not seen as national or territorial, but as an opposition between Jews and Muslims, Judaism and Islam, falsehood and truth, infidels and believers. In addition, one can find references to European anti-Semitic fantasies: Jews were behind both world wars, they invented Communism, control the drug trade, manipulate the world economy etc. As if in a mirror image Jewish settlement movement Gush Emunim’s ideology of Greater Israel, the whole of Palestine is described as a waqf (Muslim endowment) which cannot be conceded in any form to infidels.
It would be wrong however to assume that Judaeo-phobic stereotypes dominate the discourse of Hizbullah or Hamas. Politico-tactical necessities or experiences with reality, pragmatic steps like prisoner exchanges, ceasefires (hudna) or the goal to participate in Palestinian Authority institutions, can modify “anti-Semitic” certainties.7 And let’s not forget that the image of the Jew in Palestinian society differs sharply from the European-Christian as well as from the traditional Islamic one because it is constantly amalgamated with the concept of “soldier,” “settler,” “Zionist” or “Israeli.”
Arabs and the Holocaust
Traditionally, the Arabs saw the Holocaust as a European event. Europeans were responsible, and the Arabs should not “pay the price.” The “price” usually was defined as the establishment and existence of the State of Israel at the expense of the Palestinians. This attitude cannot be attributed to anti-Semitism; its primary objective was to delegitimize the Zionist adversary. Arab attitudes should be seen within this perspective. There was no genuine treatment or research of this subject. Out of available positions — from denial via trivialization to justification — those fitting “best” to the respective needs and contexts were chosen.
The peace process of the 1990s and the mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestine liberation Organization (PLO) offered an opportunity for parts of the Arab intelligentsia to deal with narratives of the “other” side. In this context, the centrality of the Holocaust for Israeli-Jewish self-understanding had to be recognized by Palestinian and Arab intellectuals. The Holocaust entered Arab discourse and disputes not to legitimize the opposing collective but to better understand its complex motivations and their effects.8
Let’s not forget that in spite of its drawbacks, Oslo had some positive impact on the awareness of at least elements of the Palestinian narrative in the Israeli public. It is not only due to the “New Historians” that concepts such as the “nakbah” (the Arabic word for catastrophe and the designation for “1948”) became part of Israeli discourse. The trauma of the “other” became less taboo.
Arab “recognition” of the Holocaust was often undermined by putting this genocide and the nakbah on the same level – or by linking recognition of the European Jewish tragedy with demands for recognition of the nakbah. At the same time the unwholesome role of the Mufti of Jerusalem (who did collaborate with Hitler) is frequently trivialized. On the other hand, the same issue is still used by Israeli propaganda to discredit the Palestinian National Movement altogether. Only recently a balanced analysis has emerged from Israeli and Palestinian scholars such as Zvi Elpeleg, Israel Gershoni, Philip Mattar and Azmi Bishara.9 Honest attempts to cope with this past still face an uphill struggle in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Just take the enthusiastic reception of Roger Garaudy and his Holocaust denial in Beirut, Cairo and Damascus 10 in the late 1990s and the spread of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories after 9/11.11
All the more important are the voices of those Palestinian, Arab and Muslim thinkers who challenge their societies on the issues of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. Let’s start with Azmi Bishara who argued in a study published in 1994 that it is necessary for Arabs to deal with the Holocaust since Palestinians were directly or indirectly affected by this tragedy — and coexistence can only be reached by coping with the collective memories of both peoples. Arab anti-Jewish attitudes are not the reason but a result of the conflict.12 But that does not make them less harmful. Hazem Saghiyeh deplores a mutual insistence on victimhood which does not contribute to understanding the sufferings of the other. The Holocaust has universal significance, dealing with it seriously does not constitute a “Zionist conspiracy” but a historical necessity.13 And the late Edward Said asked how it was possible to demand the recognition of one’s own trauma when refusing to recognize the trauma of the other, warning Arab intellectuals “who refuse to see the relationship between the Holocaust and Israel… I cannot accept the idea that the Holocaust excuses Zionism for what it has done to the Palestinians: far from it. I say exactly the opposite, that by recognizing the Holocaust for the genocidal madness it was, we can then demand from Israelis and Jews the right to link the Holocaust to Zionist injustices towards the Palestinians.”14
Zionism and Anti-Semitism
So where does this all leave us with the fighters against the “New” and “Islamic” anti-Semitism?
First of all they underestimate the grave effects of a lasting conflict on the consciousness and sub-consciousness of the parties concerned. Had the Zionists decided — let’s assume — to colonize Argentina, would an “Islamic anti-Semitism” flourish as well? Would Palestine have been colonized by — say — French Roman Catholics, could we not expect resistance to bear anti-Christian features? Would it not use memories of the Crusades?
Second, there is an underestimation of the effects of the U.S.-led war against international and Islamist terror. Can anybody talk about moods in the Arab-Islamic world without considering U.S. policies after 9/11 as well as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? Were not Jewish, pro-Israeli, pro-Likud politicians in the U.S. evidently involved in the elaboration of the “war on terror” against the “axis of evil”? Does any allusion to this state of affairs automatically constitute a reference to the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”? 15
Third, there is an underestimation of both the meaning of Israeli policies and the relationship between Israel and the official Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Does Sharon lead a colonial war against the Palestinians or not? Has he declared that he considers every Jew an “ambassador of Israel” or not? 16 Have official Jewish communities in Paris, London and elsewhere not organized mass demonstrations under the slogan “solidarity with Israel” while Sharon’s tanks and bulldozers devastated Jenin? 17 It is not only an “anti-Semitic” but also a Zionist paradox that links “every Jew, even if he does not want it with Israel — and Israel, even if it does not want, with every Jew.”18 Does not Brian Klug have a point in asking whether it is anti-Semitism pure and simple “when alienated Moroccan and Algerian youth in the poor outskirts of Paris, outraged by conditions in the occupied territories, attack Jewish individuals and institutions”? and then answering: “Fundamentally, it is an ethno-religious conflict between two communities with opposed identifications: roughly, French Muslims with Palestinian Arabs versus French Jews with Israeli Jews.”19 This is no consolation for the victims, but an adequate analysis is a precondition for adequate practical measures. A semantic question has been politicized. This is why definition matters. It is time to reclaim the word “anti-Semitism” from the political misuses to which it is being put.”20
And last not least, what would follow from a definition of the new forms of hostility as anti-Semitism? A war à la “war on terror”? After some reflection, we would have to realize that we are not dealing just with projections of a Hitlerite kind but have to face the maligned “root causes” after all? I am afraid much of the excitement about the “New anti-Semitism” is just meant to avoid these conclusions.