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Editorial Board

Adnan Abdelrazek

Danny Rubinstein

Sam'an Khoury

Daniel Bar-Tal

Walid Salem

Galia Golan

Gershon Baskin

Hind Khoury

Edy Kaufman

Ata Qaymari

Benjamin Pogrund

Nafez Nazzal

Dan Jacobson

Jumana Jaouni

Moshe Maoz

Munther Dajani

Khuloud Khayyat Dajani

Izhak Schnell

Lucy Nusseibah

Meir Margalit

Menachem Klein

Ali Abu Shahla

Ilan Baruch

Hanna Siniora

Yehudit Oppenheimer

Mossi Raz

Susie Becher

Frances Raday




Vol. 12, No 2&3, 2005 / Anti - Semitism & Islamophobia

Viewpoint

Western Perceptions of Anti-Semitism in Arab and Islamic Discourse

A vicious cycle of anti-Arab and anti-Semitic reactions must be broken.

     by Alexander Flores

In the past few years, anti-Semitism has once again become an issue. Jews and non-Jews alike claim that it is on the rise and the veracity of this assertion has by now become a bone of contention.1 This anti-Semitism is seen to exist not only in Europe but on a global scale, and for many, the main realm of a rampant and vicious anti-Semitism are the Arab world, the Muslim diaspora in the West and, to a lesser extent, other parts of the Islamic world. Many of the perpetrators of violent acts against Jews in France during the year 2002 were, in fact, young male immigrants of Muslim (mainly Maghrebi) background. And a scrutiny of the content of Arab media reveals a certain amount of anti-Semitic statements. Outfits like the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), an institute that documents and translates Arab media items with a critical intention, remind us constantly of this fact.
The picture of Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism drawn in that context is horrifying. In many cases, it amounts to the claim that the Arabs are the true heirs of the Nazis. Whereas the open expression of anti-Semitism in the West is proscribed by virtue of the revelation of the Holocaust with all its horrors — so runs the argument — no such taboo exists in the Arab world. There, anti-Semitism was imported from Europe, became quite widespread, and survived its ostracism from the rest of the world.

Nazi Heirs?

In Germany where the atmosphere is especially loaded because the specter of the Holocaust looms so large, some pieces along these lines can be found in a collection called A New Anti-Semitism? A Global Debate.2 Jeffrey Herf’s contribution “The New Totalitarian Challenge” is typical of the “alarmist” streak of the debate. According to him, we are witnessing a new wave of totalitarianism — the first one being the German and other European fascisms and Stalinism. This was overcome by the defeat of Nazi Germany and, later, the demise of the Soviet Union. Totalitarianism thus defeated in its traditional domain — Europe — was then transferred to the Arab and Islamic worlds where it could grow and even become dominant according to Herf. He points to certain roots of Arab-Islamic totalitarianism — French fascism, German national socialism and Russian Stalinism — and sees it as composed of Arab nationalism in its Saddamist version and Islamic fundamentalism perceived as a vicious, anti-Semitic and terrorist beast. “This wave that has taken root in the Arab and Islamic worlds consists of a mixture of secular Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism. Added to that is an influence of French fascism, German national socialism and Soviet communism that is tied up to secular pan-Arab radicalism and Islamic fundamentalism.”3
Yet Herf’s main contention is not with this totalitarianism but with the reaction of the European public to it. The world got rid of the “first wave” through vigilance and armed anti-fascism, and this experience should have been deeply engraved in the memory of European leftists and liberals. And indeed it was. But that changed. In the context of its sympathy for the anti-imperialist struggle of the Third World, the left developed an enmity towards the U.S. and Israel that was largely inspired by cultural anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism; that proved so persistent that it blinded its proponents to the dangers of the “new wave” of totalitarianism. Instead of coming out in full force against this threat and in unconditional support for the war against terror, spearheaded by the United States and the Israel of Sharon, they hesitated to hail the war in Afghanistan, came out vigorously against the war in Iraq, and found fault with Israel’s oppression in the occupied territories. Needless to say, Herf supports that oppression (“Israel’s justified retaliation,” p. 206) and those wars, again adducing the parallel with the war against Hitler, that might have been less costly and saved many millions of lives had it been waged in time as a preventive war — like the Iraq war. It is not always spelled out, but the implication is that the failure to identify Arab-Islamic totalitarianism is due to an anti-Jewish bias and, thus, to anti-Semitism even in Europe.
Typically, these warning cries concerning anti-Semitism in the Arab world are embedded in the picture of a new global anti-Semitism, and they are not accompanied by any precise depiction, let alone explanation of the “oriental” anti-Semitism. Rather, it is taken for granted that it has the same character, scope, context, and possible effects as Nazi anti-Semitism. Some of the proponents of this view, like Herf himself, are historians of Nazi Germany but know next to nothing about the Arab or Islamic world. Accordingly, they refer extensively to Nazi anti-Semitism but detailed references to Arab or Islamic anti-Semitism are scarce, second-hand or nonexistent. Such is the case of Omer Bartov who also has a contribution in The New Anti-Semitism mentioned above. Apart from a number of what he alleges are instances of anti-Semitism in the West, he cites four occurrences that are supposed to demonstrate the dominance of a massive and vicious anti-Semitism in the whole Islamic world: the famous (or infamous) speech of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad at the summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in November 2003; the murder of the American Jewish journalist, Daniel Pearl in Pakistan; some utterances by the perpetrators of September 11; and the charter of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist organization.4
However revolting these instances are, they hardly serve to shed any light on the phenomenon “Islamic anti-Semitism.” Societies with Muslim majorities cover a large part of the globe; they differ vastly amongst themselves; they have huge discrepancies and contradictions within each of them; and they undergo varied experiences. In order to grasp any fact pertaining to these societies, one has to accurately describe it and to consider the given political and social juncture — mostly within a national framework and, only exceptionally, as in the case of the “free-floating” international terrorism, within a global one. And seen from that angle, the Mahathir speech, the murder of Daniel Pearl, the thoughts of Usama bin Laden and his ilk, and the Hamas ideology have vastly different backgrounds. To disregard this fact precludes any sound understanding of the phenomenon.

The Background

If these incidents have anything in common, it is the fact that they came against the background of an escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and large-scale and stepped-up Israeli oppression in the occupied territories. And it is precisely this common denominator about which our authors remain largely and curiously silent. To be sure, Bartov, for instance, denies the intention of mitigating Israel’s occupation policies and warns us “never [to] confuse the legitimate criticism of Israeli policies with what all reasonable people agree is the despicable ideology of anti-Semitism.”5 Yet this is all he has to say about the subject.
This and similar pictures are quite widespread in Western perception. They shift the responsibility for the Palestine conflict and its existential character away from the realization of the Zionist project to which the Palestinians were reacting and onto a Palestinian anti-Semitism seen as an independent variable that led them to attack the Zionist enterprise, the latter being, thus, forced to defend itself to this very day. The ease with which this picture is accepted in leftist and liberal circles in Europe (and more specifically in Germany) is due to the perception of Zionism as a defensive reaction of Jews against mounting anti-Semitism in Europe and the ensuing basic sympathy for Zionism and its product, the State of Israel — all this of course against one background: the horror of the Holocaust. That this defensive movement took the form of a colonizing one in the place where it achieved its realization, and caused enormous harm to the Palestinians was less clearly and readily seen — helped by Israeli propaganda and widespread ignorance of facts and developments on the ground.
In the Arab world, it is the other way round. Everyday oppression in the occupied territories is perceived much more massively than in the West (most Arab TV stations have correspondents in Israel/Palestine), and, by and large, people are aware that this oppression does not come out of the blue or is a mere defensive reaction against suicide bombers but is the continuation of the century-old conflict. On the other hand, many of them do not see the defensive beginnings of Zionism in Europe because they are overwhelmed by its oppressive side in the Middle East. Seeing that the Holocaust is often brought forward to legitimize Zionism and Israeli actions and hence the Palestinians’ predicament, many Arabs try to minimize its scope or even deny it altogether. Thus, the Holocaust deniers find receptive ears among Arabs. And what is at base sharp criticism and condemnation of Zionism and Israeli actions — quite justified considering the facts on the ground — all too often takes anti-Semitic forms insofar as no distinction is made between the Zionist movement (and, since its creation, the State of Israel) and world Jewry.

A Double Mix

As a consequence, there is a double mix: In the West, there is concern over the possible re-emergence of anti-Semitism and over the actual or alleged anti-Semitism one sees in the Arab and Islamic worlds. Against this background, Israel’s actions in the occupied territories tend to be accepted as legitimate self-defense. This concern is used by an Israeli propaganda that portrays Arab enmity towards Israel as exclusively motivated by a deep-rooted and intense anti-Semitism of the Arabs. Inimical reaction to actual or potential anti-Jewish racism can take on the form of a general anti-Arab prejudice and, thus, another form of racism. In the Arab world, on the other hand, there is sharp criticism of Israel and its actions, fed by these actions themselves, partly intermingled with an anti-Semitism that draws its inspiration from different sources: anti-Jewish themes of Islamic tradition, European anti-Semitism, resentment of the label “losers of modernization,” and an Israeli leadership claiming that even its most brutal acts of oppression are in the best interest not only of Israel but of Jews worldwide.
The more these lines of argument are left entangled, the more they will reinforce each other and constitute a vicious circle. To break it, one has to separate the constituents of the respective mixtures. In the West, the rejection of Arab anti-Semitism should not prevent people from seeing Israeli injustice as an important background for the development of such anti-Semitism, and the latter should not be used to justify that injustice.6 And regarding the Arab world, one should try to distinguish between conflict-induced enmity and anti-Semitism. Dan Diner, in a contribution to the German volume, states that the enmity of Palestinians and other Arabs towards Israel and Zionism is primarily due to the reality of the conflict, but that the origin of the anti-Jewish clichés and pictures through which this enmity is expressed should be sought elsewhere. One should seek them in the anti-Jewish elements of early Islamic tradition and, overwhelmingly, in traditional Christian anti-Judaism and modern “conspiracy-style” anti-Semitism that was borrowed from Europe. This has been readily accepted today, as it enables people to “understand” their marginal position in the world and their defeats more easily than by confronting the actual, complex causes. Conflict-induced enmity and anti-Semitic clichés have become so thoroughly intertwined that it gets virtually impossible to analytically disentangle them — or so Diner claims. Therefore, he suggests a “Gordian” approach: to fight anti-Semitism as if there were no Palestine conflict and to try to solve the conflict as if there were no anti-Semitism.7
This formula seems to imply that there is a contradiction between both courses of action. This does not necessarily have to be the case. Arab anti-Semitism and the need to fight it do not stop us from trying to solve the conflict but are an additional incentive to do so. And work at a solution of the conflict is perfectly compatible with speaking out against Arab anti-Semitism. So let us try to do both. To do so, things have to get disentangled, and this is difficult as Diner rightly claims. One thing, however, has to be done, and that is a much more thorough analysis of Arab anti-Semitism than is available so far.8 MEMRI, Robert Wistrich9 and others have drawn a distorted picture, for their own purposes. Many Arabs and others who resist the anti-Arab clichés have left the subject untouched because it appears embarrassing. Yet the problem exists, and it has to be tackled lest it become an additional stumbling block to the attempts which aim to solve the problem on a rational and human basis.


1. See for instance the controversy around the study “Manifestations of anti-Semitism in the European Union” commissioned and, for a while, suppressed by the “European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia.”
2. Neuer Antisemitismus? Eine globale Debatte. Ed. by Doron Rabinovici, Ulrich Speck and Natan Sznaider. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2004. It should be noted that by no means do all contributions in this volume fall in the alarmist category.
3. Jeffrey Herf, “Die neue totlit?re Herausforderung,” in: op. cit., pp. 191-210, here p. 195.
4. Omer Bartov, “Der alte und der neue Antisemitismus,” in: op. cit, pp. 19-43, here pp. 33-43. A shorter version of this piece was published under the title “He Meant What He Said” in The New Republic, Feb. 2, 2004.
5. Bartov, 27.
6. Bartov is absolutely right when he states: „There is every reason in the world to reject attempts to justify objectionable Israeli policies by reference to the Holocaust“ (Bartov, 27).
7. Ibid., 328s. The wording of the proposal takes up Ben-Gurion’s famous formula from the beginning of the Second World War: To side with the British in the war against Nazi Germany as if there were no White Paper and to fight the White Paper as if there were no war.
8. For a comparative review of two German monographs on the subject see, Alexander Flores, “Arabischer Antisemitismus zwischen D?monisierung und Analyse,” in: Inamo 37, spring 2004, 48-52.
9. The writings of Robert Wistrich are a main source for the proponents of the “Arabs Are Nazis” view; see e.g. his “Muslim Anti-Semitism: A Clear and Present Danger.” (http://www.ajc.org/InTheMedia/PublicationsPrint.asp?did=503)








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