General Antisemitism

The Perils of Self-Deception on the Root Cause of Antisemitism

This is cross posted by Colin Rubenstein at Jewish Ideas Daily

The US Ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman, addressing a conference on antisemitism on November 30, controversially insisted that Muslim “hatred and indeed sometimes… violence directed at Jews generally [is] a result of the continuing tensions between Israel and the Palestinian territories” and should therefore not be seen as the same thing as “real” antisemitism. He went on to insist that a Mideast peace deal would see a “huge reduction of this form of labeled ‘antisemitism’.”

Aside from the immorality of, effectively, rationalising a form of racism as due to the alleged behaviour of its targets, Gutman’s comments were factually indefensible. There are clearly elements of strong, even eliminationist, antisemitism within the Muslim tradition predating Zionism by centuries.

A good example is the hadith [a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammed] which was quoted by various figures associated with the Muslim Brotherhood at an election rally in Cairo on Nov. 26. It states: “The Hour [of judgement] will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them. When a Jew hides behind a rock or a tree, it will say, ‘O Muslim, O servant of Allah! There is a Jew behind me, come and kill him!'”

This hadith is among the most quoted passages about Jews in certain Islamic traditions. It is certainly part of the Hamas Charter and utilised by al-Qaeda as well as the Muslim Brotherhood.

It is true that, in medieval times, Jews in Muslim societies tended on the whole to be better off than in Christian Europe, but this is hardly to suggest that their human rights were fully respected. Further, Muslim antisemitism became more vicious and dangerous in the 19th and 20th centuries primarily due to the influence of modern European ideologies, including Nazism, which often came to be perceived through the lens of problematic anti-Jewish Islamic sources.

As a result, Jews across the Middle East began to suffer heightened violent hatred well before Israel and Zionism emerged on the agenda. In 1912, the Jewish quarter in Fez was almost destroyed in a mob attack. In the 1930s and 1940s pogroms and other attacks on the Jews were widespread in Iraq and Libya. Pro-Nazi Arabs slaughtered dozens of Jews in the “Farhoud” pogrom in Baghdad in 1941.

A good exhibit of the contemporary reality of this racist ideology was one of the speakers at the Nov. 26 Cairo Muslim Brotherhood rally – Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, probably the most popular Sunni cleric in the Arab world. He has previously described the Holocaust as “divine punishment” for the Jews and expressed the hope that “Allah willing, the next time will be at the hands of the [Muslim] believers.” He also stated he wants to die a martyr in the process of killing “Allah’s enemies, the Jews.”

To imagine this ugly and pervasive amalgam of traditional regional and European antisemitism is all going to evaporate if Israel signs a peace deal with the Palestinians is fantasy. So why do people like Ambassador Gutman utter such fallacies?

Perhaps because it would make reality so much easier if it were true. The pervasiveness of Muslim and Arab antisemitism is a significant barrier to a lasting peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours. If we can fantasise that it will all disappear the minute a deal is signed, advocating a peace deal becomes so much more urgent, straightforward and uncomplicated compared to preparing a basis for peace by eradicating the inculcation of hatred and building an ethos of coexistence and compromise.

A similar phenomenon appears to be occurring today with respect to the increasing Islamist takeover of the Arab Spring democratisation movements, in Tunisia, in Libya and above all, Egypt.

Like Arab-Israeli peace, genuine democracy in the long run can only benefit the peoples of the Middle East. But what if undemocratic, intolerant, or totalitarian elements use democratic elections to take power, as occurred even in “sophisticated” Weimar Germany? For publics and policymakers, this creates complications, conflicts and doubts in pursuing democracy for the region. For pundits, it is so much easer to pontificate that anti-democratic exploitation of democratic institutions is unlikely, even impossible.

So editorialists, commentators and columnists are rushing to reassure Western publics that the election of the Muslim Brotherhood and even more extreme Salafists in Egypt is nothing to worry about – they will be tolerant democrats respecting human rights, and keen to encourage peaceful coexistence. These states will be democratic Turkey, not theocratic, revolutionary Iran, we are assured.

These predictions are neither certain, nor, if true, that reassuring. The states in question – Egypt, Libya and Tunisia – have none of the recent democratic traditions that Turkey has developed over decades. Moreover, given the way the current, admittedly non-violent, but Islamist AKP Government of Turkey has made widespread use of the judicial system to intimidate or even jail political opponents and media critics, it remains unclear if genuine Turkish democracy can survive.

The Muslim Brotherhood is tactically very different from al-Qaeda – much more sophisticated and patient concerning the tools and methods they will use to reach their goals, and prepared to use the language of democracy to placate both Western and Arab publics about their intentions. However, they share a belief that the Sharia legal system is not only the blueprint for a perfect society given by God but provides a political and religious obligation to create such a society. Yet the implementation of this Islamist political ideology is obviously incompatible with both democracy and human rights. Moreover, as noted, antisemitism and other forms of intolerance are deeply embedded in these same circles.

Authentic change and maintaining realistic hope for a better future are vital. But pinning hope on a refusal to face reality – on blinding oneself to the existence and prevalence of both antisemitism and totalitarian worldviews – amounts to self-delusion. Western policymakers cannot develop effective policies to encourage Middle East peace and much-needed democratisation across the region without understanding and confronting, unflinchingly, the real barriers to progress.

6 replies »

  1. if i might, i would invite you to consider the character of anti-semitism – its irrationality, its persistence, its force, its magnitude, its pervasiveness, its vagariousness, its longevity, how it tinges such a varied group of people, how it draws on so many diverse justifications – that it is not entirely natural.
    but indeed that it is supernatural; and that there is a piece of literature and a group of people that offer a simple enough explanation for this.

    no other hatred in all of history comes close. and yet we try to rationally explain it? in order to try and find a way out? a solution?

    and now i will fill in the last bit, when you consider anti-semitism’s mercurialness, its lies, and its very fundament – that it is based on an accusation. now lets go back to shul and try and remember: who is “the accuser”?

    i didnt think it was that difficult

  2. I don´t think anti-Semitism is always irrational. Hatred can be an energizing motivation for people dissatisfied with their lifes and unwilling to engage in self-criticism. Also, as philosopher John Kekes pointed out, people are ambivalent: all of us have good and malevolent predispositions, which are pretty much “natural”. Depending on myriad circumstances, some people can act motivated by their malevolent dispositions in a pretty rational way: to gain some advantage, to assuage their boredom and self-doubt, to feel in control or powerful, etc. I guess the lesson is that morality doesn´t coincide with rationality, and that is the classical mistake of the “optimistic faith” of the Enlightenment.

    • ” Hatred can be an energizing motivation ” as an explanation for “I don´t think anti-Semitism is always irrational.” is rather unsatisfactory unless you think that a benevolent Mother Nature supplied Jews to be hated in order to energize vile haters (the vile here is of course my own form of energisation)

      • Well, the difference is that the central role of Jews in Christian mythology. That´s the main source of anti-Semitism, including secular anti-Semitism.

        Also, it´s hard to separate emotions from rationality. Many (or most) our life is driven by emotions anyway, for good or bad. What I was saying is that Jew-hatred can very well be rational: it is rational (though imoral) to exploit anti-Semitism to get a job you crave; or to blame the Jews for one´s own failure, etc. Our own debutante is a case in point.

  3. Aside from the immorality of, effectively, rationalising a form of racism as due to the alleged behaviour of its targets, Gutman’s comments were factually indefensible.

    There is a difference between rationalising and justifying. And in this case, Gutman did not even rationalise prejudice towards Jews in general on account of their alleged behaviour. Plus his comments were factually debatable – not “factually indefensible”.

    That said, even though certain Israeli policies may have indirectly led to some of the increase of anti-Semitism in the Arab world (where the essential problem remains the mindset of the accusers, of course) Gutman is perhaps naive in repeatedly stressing “continuing tensions between Israel and the Palestinian territories”. It appears that the very existence of Israel is a major factor behind this prejudice and hatred.

    He adds:
    Peace in the Middle East would indeed equate with a huge reduction of this form of labeled “anti-Semitism” here in Europe.

    How can he be so optimistic? And what does a “huge reduction” constitute anyway?