A normal hatred?

July 27, 2006

By Tony Klug

Recent actions by the Israeli military in Gaza and Lebanon, and
the responses to them, have prompted renewed fears of antisemitism
among the British and other Jewish communities. Jonathan Sacks, the
British chief rabbi, had already warned earlier this year of "a kind
of tsunami of antisemitism." Yet some voices from within these same
communities are quick to deny any link between Israeli policies and
anti-Jewish feelings. Rather, current enmity towards both Jews and
Israel, notably from within the Arab and Muslim worlds, is explained
as a phase in Jew-hatred stretching back centuries. Melanie Phillips
promotes such a theme in her book Londonistan, where she writes:
"the fight against Israel is not fundamentally about land. It is
about hatred of the Jews," who, she says, are viewed by Islam as
"a cosmic evil." From this, it follows that the way Israel conducts
itself is at most a minor factor in the hostility directed towards it.

This is certainly a convenient argument for those who have an interest
in making it. But the evidence points in the opposite direction, as
exemplified by the Israeli-Palestinian accords of the "Oslo years"
in the mid-1990s, which sent Israel's stock to unprecedented heights,
both in the Arab world and globally. In the same period, according
to leading Jewish research institutions, "a general lessening of
antisemitic pressure was recorded."

As for the claim of historical "Jew-hatred" in the Islamic world,
its validity has been repudiated by no less an authority than veteran
historian Bernard Lewis, a middle eastern scholar of impeccable
pro-Israel credentials. In a presentation in 1985, he distinguished
three kinds of hostility to Jews: "Opposition to Zionism, 'normal'
prejudice (what has been described as 'the normal rough and tumble
between peoples'), and that peculiar hatred of Jews which has its
origins in the role assigned to Jews in certain Christian beliefs."

Using the term "antisemitism" to refer to the third kind of hostility
only, he remarked: "In this specialised sense, antisemitism did not
exist in the traditional Islamic world." Although he held that Jews
"were never free from discrimination," they were "only rarely subject
to persecution."

Lewis identified three factors that gave rise to a more recent
"European-style antisemitism in the Islamic world": the rise of the
European empires, the collapse of the old political structures, and
Jewish resettlement in Palestine along with the creation of Israel and
subsequent Israeli-Arab wars. While arguing that antisemitism played
a part from the start of the mandate period, Lewis claims "the real
change began after the Sinai war of 1956 and was accelerated after
the six day war of 1967."

What distinguished the 1967 war from previous battles was that it
concluded with Israeli military rule over occupied territories that
contained over 1m Palestinian Arabs, a number that has more than
tripled since then.

The importance of the distinction highlighted by Lewis-between
the centuries-old European Christian prejudice with its demonic
conception of the Jew and the more recent antipathy sparked off by a
bitter, contemporary political conflict-is compelling. Using the word
"antisemitism" to cover antagonism to almost anything Jewish, including
Israeli policies, Zionism as an ideology or even the existence of
Israel, and then rationalising this modern tendency by slapping on
the prefix "new" seriously risks debasing the coinage.

On the other hand, it is not as straightforward as this, for in
certain circumstances the different anti-Jewish phenomena may blend
into and nourish each other (what Brian Klug has termed "poisonous
intercourse"). Consider the following hypothetical case. In the
context of a fierce, long-standing dispute, the state of Armenia
captures and occupies a chunk of neighbouring Turkish territory, builds
Armenian-only settlements and highways, allows militant settlers to
intimidate local inhabitants, imposes curfews and closures, erects
myriad checkpoints, demolishes Turkish homes, imprisons a large segment
of Turkish youth and periodically bombards Turkish-inhabited towns.

Instead of dissociating themselves from such conduct, imagine that
organised diaspora Armenian communities around the world-haunted by
memories of massacres of their kinfolk-elect to defend and justify
it in a show of solidarity while displaying no tolerance for the
dissenters-"self-hating Armenians"-in their ranks.

In these circumstances, would it be surprising if a certain
anti-Armenian sentiment developed in a spread of countries, not only
among those who felt an affinity with people of Turkish or Muslim
origin but also among those committed to human rights and international
law? Yet Armenian communities, feeling besieged and misunderstood,
might put the animosity down to a historical Muslim antipathy towards
Christians and a latent anti-Armenianism on the part of not just the
Turkish people, but much of the rest of the world too.

For their part, the Turks and their supporters might investigate their
own or Armenian scriptures to see if they could uncover historical
explanations for what may seem to them like the cruel and treacherous
nature of their oppressors. In this hypothetical case, the search
would possibly lead nowhere. However, an equivalent investigation
targeted at Jews in the case of the very non-hypothetical Arab-Israeli
conflict would be certain to produce the sought-after results, if
only because of the ancestral battles that once took place between
the Jewish tribes of Medina and the contemporaneous followers of the
Muslim prophet, Muhammad.

In general, however, Muslim scriptures are not bountiful source
material for Jewish perfidy. It is not just that the messages they
give out are not consistent but also that Jews are not an especial
preoccupation of Muslim literature. And this is where bona fide
antisemitic ideas eagerly step in. Imported into the Muslim and
Arab worlds where once it was alien, the antisemitic "explanation"
is now increasingly embraced by disaffected people with minds primed
to be receptive to a simple it's-all-the-Jews'-fault answer to many
problems. In short, what distinguishes the Jewish predicament from
the hypothetical Armenian one is that in the Jewish case, a potent,
ready-made ideology is lurking in the wings. Thus what starts out
as a political "anti-Jewish sentiment" may, in given circumstances,
metamorphose into classical antisemitism.

While helping to explain the cause of the phenomenon, none of this
justifies the rise of antisemitism in the Arab and Muslim worlds,
or anywhere else. It poisons the conflict and is intensely inimical
to a solution. As a strategy, it is counterproductive: indeed, it was
the spread of antisemitism that played the decisive role in winning
so many Jews to the Zionist cause in the first place. As a tactic,
it is highly divisive: confusing and alienating Jewish sympathisers
of the Palestinian cause as well as many others who despise racism
of all types. Moreover, stereotyping one party is liable to prompt
equally pernicious and ignorant counter-stereotyping.

The charge of antisemitism against Palestinians and others who
champion their cause is often made too flippantly. It lumps together
real antisemites with the real victims of oppressive Israeli
policies. Equally, many Arabs, Muslims and their supporters too
easily dismiss the accusation of antisemitism as just a device for
defending shameful Israeli policies. While this is sometimes true,
the accusation is sometimes true too-just consider the Hamas covenant.

Some leading Palestinian figures have not only acknowledged the
infiltration of antisemitism into Arab society but have been
outspoken in their rejection of it. But the longer the broader
conflict continues, the greater likelihood that antisemitism per se
will indeed take root throughout the region. In that event, it would
not only outlive the putative end of the Arab-Israeli conflict but
enormously complicate its resolution in the first place.

These are matters of serious concern not just for Israelis and
their government. They could affect the standing and safety of Jews
everywhere. If only for their own protection, Jewish communities
around the world have a strong interest in distancing themselves from
Israel's repressive practices and annexationist tendencies. Beyond
this, they are sometimes in a position to influence Israeli policies
and to help bridge the gaps between the antagonistic parties. But to
engage in such initiatives would entail jettisoning their more common
instinct of unquestioningly following the Israeli government's cue,
whatever it may be.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress