Muslim anti-Semitism: Myth and Reality

The new issue of the quarterly Critical Muslim is out. The theme is Fear and Loathing. It has my review essay on Gilbert Achcar’s great book Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives. Here are a few excerpts:

The treatment of Jews who have remained in the Muslim world is no better or worse than that of any other minority. Since the founding of Israel their numbers have dwindled. Except for countries like Iran, where a substantial Jewish population still remains, few in the Muslim world ever encounter a Jew. Most know Jews only through scripture or news reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All Jews as a result have been cast unwittingly as adversaries by a conflict with which most of them have no connection, which many even oppose.

There is no point denying that anti-Semitism exists in the Muslim world today and that Holocaust denial is not uncommon. This is deplorable. But the anti-Semitism of the Muslim world is an epiphenomenon of a political conflict; it doesn’t have social roots. ‘It is functional and political, not social,’ says Yehoshafat Harkabi, the leading Israeli scholar and former head of the military intelligence, no friend of the Arabs. For most Muslims, anti-Semitism is a function of ignorance and unfamiliarity; it is also an abstract means of participation in a conflict where Jews have been cast as the oppressor by virtue of a state which adorns its instruments of war with Jewish religious symbols.  In this respect it is quite different from European anti-Semitism; it does not involve any actual contact with a Jew. It is also different in so far as it comes from a position of weakness, whereas European anti-Semitism was born of strength and directed against a vulnerable minority. It is comparable less to the racism of the Ku Klux Klan than to the reaction of the Black Panthers. Both kinds of hatred were totalizing, but only the former existed without a stimulus. Harkabi again:

Arab anti-Semitism is not the cause of the conflict but one of its results; it is not the reason for the hostile Arab attitude toward Israel and the Jews, but a means of deepening, justifying and institutionalizing that hostility. Its rise is connected with the tension created as a result of Zionist activity, and especially of the traumatic experience of defeat…Anti-Semitism is a weapon in this struggle.


But since the Holocaust is bandied about as a justification for the creation of Israel—and the dispossession of the Palestinians—some Arabs have assumed that the legitimacy of this enterprise could be undermined by questioning the Holocaust itself. Instead, writes Achcar, such partisans merely display an inhumanity which undermines their own cause, painting opposition to Zionist colonization as being based in anti-Semitism rather than in sympathy for its victims. Achcar notes that these attitudes, which have hardened as the conflict between Israel and the Arabs has escalated, sit in striking contrast with the Arab reactions contemporaneous with the Nazi genocide. He quotes many Arabs denouncing the genocide and professing sympathy for its victims, even as they affirmed the Palestinians inalienable political and national rights. Some even expressed a willingness to accept more Jewish refugees so long as the rest of the world was willing to accept their share.

All of this, however, has been erased from memory in no small part due to the Arabs own willingness to forfeit this admirable legacy. As Arabs and Muslims have abandoned this tradition in favour of clumsy flirtations with anti-Semitism, they have made it easier for their detractors to paint them as later-day Nazis. Trying to fight one alien import, Zionism, with another, anti-Semitism, was never likely to succeed. They seem to have overlooked that the former always relied on the later for its survival.


But where Achcar’s otherwise systematic, thorough and fair-minded work is lacking is in pointing to any reason other than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for explaining why anti-Semitic views prevail in places which have little investment in the conflict. Why even an otherwise astute politician like Gamal Adbul Nasser found it necessary to reference The Protocol , as he did in an interview with an Indian journalist. Might it be because discussions of Jewish power are so suppressed that people simply don’t know how to talk about it and inevitably turn to myth? There is a large disparity between Jewish political influence in the most powerful Western states and the amount of attention it gets in mainstream discourse. Consider the American electoral process: while it is commonplace to hear about the excessive influence of Wall Street over politicians, or the deleterious effect of the Citizens United legislation which allows corporations to donate unlimited amounts of money while enjoying all the protections of individual citizens, the fact is rarely mentioned that the the two biggest donors to both political parties — Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban — are rich Jews who are on record as saying that the one issue that interests them the most is Israel. Both have supported intransigent policies in the Middle East. Yet few people even know their names. Why this silence? Is it the fear of being labelled an anti-Semite? Is it dogma — which recognizes no agents, only structures and processes?

Every time the US president is brow-beaten by an Israeli prime minister and his American allies, political discipline mandates that the mainstream intellectual not notice; but ordinary people do. However, unlike the intellectual, they are not equipped with the analytical tools necessary for assessing this skewed balance of power. It is not entirely surprising then that some of them end up indulging in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories ascribing mythical powers to Jews, who are treated as an undifferentiated and coherent social bloc. The only way to disabuse them of these notions is to present them with an analytically sound, sociological explanation which recognizes both the sources and limits of Jewish power and accepts the diversity of their class, cultural, and political affiliations. John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, and Tony Judt have done this with insight and rigour. But Achcar makes a single, somewhat disparaging, reference to the former two and does not discuss the Israel lobby at all. This is unfortunate since a scholar of Achcar’s calibre could have certainly elevated the debate. This small quibble notwithstanding, Achcar has made an invaluable contribution, and Muslims would do well to make a gift of his book to anyone who makes another reference to the Protocols.

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