The minutiae of racism

The minutiae of racism

11 Aralık 2003

Al-Ahram Weekly Online : 4 - 10 December 2003 (Issue No. 667)

Anti-Semitism wasn't born with Israel or with Israeli propaganda. It is much, much older. The term itself dates to the Germany of the 1870s, where it was used self-referentially to describe an ideological antagonism towards the Jews of central Europe. Some attribute it to the German activist and preacher, Wilhelm Marr, who in 1879 founded the Bund der Antisemiten -- the Anti- Semitic League -- to combat what he claimed were Jewish designs to destroy German society from within by sewing the seeds of corruption and decadence. Anti-Semitism is thus a modern term coined in a specific context and delineating a specific referent: Jews.

What sense is there in attempts to blur the boundaries of the definition of the term and the phenomenon it identifies by claiming that racism against the Arabs is a form of anti-Semitism because the Arabs are Semites too? Why implicitly acknowledge this ethnic racial term, as though it were scientifically sound, and subsume ourselves beneath it? Racism against the Arabs does not have to be described as anti-Semitic in order to be condemned. Nor did hatred of the Jews in Europe arise because they were Semites. But anti-Semitism has become a term that lumps together diverse phenomena in a single definition -- hatred or incitement to hatred against Jews in Europe using religious, ethnic racial, nationalist or social pretexts. A more recent tendency has been to project the term retroactively across history and horizontally across different cultural contexts.

Anti-Semitism is not the only type of racism that merits condemnation. The genocide perpetrated against the Aztec people and civilisation and against other native American peoples is no less odious for not being anti- Semitic but rather a form of colonialist racism that dehumanised the indigenous inhabitants.

Anti-Semitism is a real historical and social phenomenon, and to deny it is to deny reason and the facts of history. Until very recently it constituted the most widespread and virulent form of racism within Europe. Bush and his followers like to locate contemporary nations within the Judeo-Christian tradition, which they celebrate as the cradle of enlightenment, modernism and liberal democracy. We do well to remember, though, that this same cradle gave rise to anti-Semitism and the holocaust.

Some Zionist historians have attempted to date anti-Semitism to the ancient Greek and Roman Empires. Any manifestation of discrimination or hostility towards Jews during the period is chalked up as an example of anti-Semitism. However, there is a difference between racism that targets a specific ethnic group, to the exclusion of others, on the basis of some presumed intrinsic traits and the type of religious and tribal xenophobia directed against all alien peoples and cultures, of which the Jews were only one, however unique their monotheism. And we should remember that the one God of Judaism was also tribal and xenophobic. Ancient Jewish history is not, after all, devoid of instances in which scriptural injunctions were used to justify the extermination of "heretic" peoples. Such attitudes are typical of ancient societies which did not possess a concept of humanity, let alone a universalised humanity that might embrace the "other".

Anti-Semitism is a specific type of animosity towards the "other" that evolved out of the relationship between Christian Europe and its Jewish inhabitants. Jews were not merely another alien people to Europeans, they were "the other" par excellence. Before the Crusades were ever really underway zealous holy warriors rampaged through "Ashkenazi" villages, as contemporary Jewish chroniclers termed them, massacring the inhabitants. Discrimination against the Jews in Europe continued throughout the Middle Ages through various forms of ostracism and exclusion. Jews were prohibited from owning certain types of property, particularly land, and barred from certain occupations and crafts. An interesting footnote here is that some historians in the Jewish studies department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem have attempted to revise readings of the Christian-Jewish relationship in medieval Europe, arguing that there was considerable reciprocity between the two religions in their vilification of the other.

Whatever the merits of such revisionism it remains perfectly legitimate to argue that religious hatred of the Jews in Europe gave rise to an anti-Semitism of a clearly racist stamp, in accordance with which Jews were variously cast as an inferior race whose mere presence in Europe threatened the purity of the superior Aryan race. Jews were characterised as a corrupting element whose usurious practices were responsible for the impoverishment of the old peasant, aristocratic and professional classes and the dissolution of their world in the face of rising bourgeois values.

In spite of being relative recent secular anti-Semitism is difficult to separate from the theological legacy of the Middle Ages and the religious mindset of the people of that period. The Jew was not only the embodiment of the other, he was the denier of the divine gospel, the rejecter of the New Testament. Although Christian theology maintains a variety of opinions on Judaism, Jewish theology invariably characterises Christianity as a false messianism, the very antithesis of Judaism.

Though it is not my intention here to discuss modern anti-Semitism at length it is worth noting that France, which Israel currently accuses of being anti-Semitic, was the first European country to grant Jews equality under the law. This occurred on 28 April 1791, when the national assembly voted to grant them full rights as citizens. In so doing the French parliament established the concept of a citizenship that transcends religious affiliations. However, the same process of secularism and spirit of enlightenment that proposed solutions to the Jewish question also gave birth to modern anti-Semitism. In part this was the product of the reactions of conservative forces against the enlightenment and what they perceived as the erosion of the values and legacy of the established social order and systems of obedience. Behind all this social and moral decay, they believed, there had to be some internal destructive force at work, one that had no affiliation with the people and their religious values, and the Jews were obvious candidates.

But anti-Semitism emerged in part, too, from contradictions inherent in the project of enlightenment. Of particular importance are the pseudo-Darwinian theories of race that formed the basis of theories on historical imperatives and many of the social engineering projects of early- and mid-modernism. There is no doubt that the modern anti-Semitism that this process engendered was one of the most atrocious forms of racism, culminating in the attempt to obliterate the Jews of Europe and the Nazi Holocaust.

Islamic civilisation, like other Oriental civilisations, has never harboured an animosity towards the Jews remotely approaching the levels of anti-Semitism. And while this does not entitle eastern civilisations to a certificate of exculpation from the many massacres they have committed it must be remembered that anti-Semitism is not their creation. It is also true that Islamic history contains many examples of discrimination against religious minorities, though these pale in comparison with the suffering inflicted upon Islamic sects at odds with the dominant theological trend, or the scale of persecution directed at dissidents affiliated to the majority sect but regarded as a threat to the prevailing order.

Israeli attempts to broaden the concept of anti-Semitism so as to retroactively include Islamic civilisation are a shameful bid to recast Europe's Jewish victims in the setting of the Middle East conflict, in which context Israel is in fact the perpetrator rather than the victim.

On the other hand we should note that modern Arab political movements, heavily influenced by aspects of European political thought -- including national socialism, early Italian fascism and reactionary concepts imported from late 19th century Russia -- have also been contaminated by anti-Semitic ideas. When Zionists used the holocaust to justify the events of 1948 some believed that the response should be to deny that the holocaust ever took place or to minimise its magnitude. When faced with the crushing defeat of 1967 a belief surfaced that the only way it could have happened was if the enemy was indeed a global satan, its evil tentacles everywhere.

It was in the wake of the 1967 defeat that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion -- a notorious forgery concocted by Russian intelligence under the Czars and which had nothing remotely to do with the Arabs -- began to circulate widely in the Arab world. More recently, as political Islam benefited from the failure of the prevailing Arab nationalist trend to enshrine its pan-Arab and populist slogans, scattered fragments of imported anti-Semitism have mingled with an anti- Jewish religious animosity substantiated by some Qur'anic scriptures and contradicted by others.

There are many reasons to criticise certain streams in Arab political culture, not least over how it has dealt with the "Jewish question" and failed to distinguish between the Jews and Zionism. This latter blurring is precisely the thing Israel needs in order to underline its confusion of criticism of Zionism with anti-Semitism. In posing as the historic representative of world Jewry, the mouthpiece of Jewish suffering, it has been necessary for Israel to Zionise that suffering much in the same way that it retroactively amalgamated the diverse histories of Jewish communities into a single national/ Zionist history.

What, one should ask, is to be understood from the bombings of synagogues in Turkey? Is it not self evident that the target is a religion and does that not make it appear as though the Middle East conflict is a religious one? Perhaps the perpetrators of those acts believe it is. But that is not how the majority of Arabs and Muslims think. The majority of Arabs and Muslims do not believe that their conflict is with the Jewish religion, or any other religion for that matter. Nevertheless Israeli propaganda, reinforced by the rhetoric and acts of some Islamic forces steeped in fundamentalism, asserts that Jews are being targeted because they are Jews. Thus is it that the Arab-Zionist conflict becomes an Islamic-Jewish conflict. Such are the underpinnings of the contention by Israeli ideologues and politicians that the source of the spread of anti-Semitism has moved from Europe to the Islamic world.

It must be stressed that engaging in the process of self-criticism outlined above does not contradict the following facts: firstly, that anti-Semitism is a European phenomenon that reached its height at the hands of the Nazis; secondly, that the most prevalent form of racism in the West today is not anti-Semitism but that targeting Arabs and Muslims; thirdly, that not all anti-Semites are anti-Israel, which has been posited as the solution to Europe's Jewish question or, alternatively, which has been held up as a model of the militaristic nation-state; and fourthly, that the western political and intellectual traditions that have been and remain staunchly opposed to anti-Semitism are, today, among the harshest critics of Israeli policy and the Israeli occupation.

Israel has been systematic in its attempt to portray any criticism of Israel or Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism, sufficiently so to have propagated a climate of intellectual terror. But it is also consummately pragmatic and has been very selective in who it calls to account. Thus Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who exonerated Mussolini from having contributed to the death of Italian Jews by sending them on "a picnic in the north", has so-far escaped Israel's wrath. But then Berlusconi is useful, in spite of the fact that the Italian historian Primo Levi was one of those sent on that "picnic" to Auschwitz. Jacques Chirac is altogether different: the charges Israel is levelling against him have nothing to do with hatred of Jews, of which there is no evidence, and everything to do with his criticism of Israel.

Many organisations have been founded to hunt down and bring to account the authors of statements deemed anti-Semitic. Since the majority of the world's organised Jewish communities are ardent supporters of Israel there has been an increasing tendency to regard criticism of Israel as a manifestation of anti-Semitism even when much harsher criticisms emerge from within Israel itself.

This is one of the factors that has aggravated the complexity of the Palestinian question. Israel bemoans the global concern for the Palestinian cause. It accuses the world of bias every time there is an outcry against Israeli practices in the occupied territories.

To the Palestinians this international attention would be a source of strength if they were to take appropriate advantage of it through a liberal, democratic -- and inevitably anti-Zionist -- discourse. Historically, though, it has been a source of weakness. The attention is focussed, after all, not because of the Palestinians but the Jews, and the place the Jewish question occupies in the western memory and conscience. One consequence of this perspective has been a tendency to treat the situation in Palestine not as one involving an occupying power and an occupied people but as a dispute between two equal and opposing parties. It is a convenient formula that allows official Europe to skirt the issue of Israel as a colonialist phenomenon, though it means that the harshest criticism it levels against Israel is akin to the exasperated attempts of an ever forbearing mother to keep her spoiled and impetuous child from hurting itself while enduring the stings of its curses and insults.

In a sense, then, the Palestinian issue has been the subject of global focus on the Middle East ever since the Balfour Declaration: conversely, were it not for global attention there would not have been Palestinian cause, or it would have been resolved a long time ago in the way other colonialist issues have been resolved. The Palestinian problem arose precisely when other peoples were gaining independence, and it grew more intractable as other issues were being resolved. While certain Palestinian elites might benefit from the "Palestinian cause industry" the Palestinian people themselves are not to be envied for the excessive global attention they attract.

It is possible to free ourselves from the entanglement between the Palestinian and Jewish questions and the global attention they attract only by flights of wishful thinking. Realistically, the issue can only be handled by rejecting anti-Semitism, which means the rejection of supposedly clever attempts to argue the justice of the Palestinian cause on the basis of some absolute evil from which others have suffered in the past. Our thought and discourse must also reject Israel's attempts to use anti-Semitism to silence any voice raised against Israeli policies and practices. Israel, we must insist, is not immune to the charge of racism.