The Denial of Muslim Antisemitism
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The Denial of Muslim Antisemitism

The Denial of Muslim Antisemitism

Amongst scholars, there is deep resistance to open analysis of hostility to Jews when it comes from Muslims and Arabs.

by

This essay appeared in the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, http://www.jsantisemitism.org/

A DUTCH PROFESSOR DARES

In a somewhat infamous incident in June 2006, Professor Pieter van der Horst of Utrecht University - a well-regarded senior Dutch scholar of early Christianity and Judaism - wanted to deliver his farewell address on what he called “the myth of Jewish cannibalism”; in this lecture, he planned to trace an antisemitic theme all the way from its pre-Christian roots to anti-Jewish blood libels in the Arab world today. Utrecht had no problem with van der Horst’s treatment of ancient Greeks, Christians, or modern Europeans. But the rector of the university, basing his decision on the report of a committee of some deans and a professor of human rights, told van der Horst - a member of the prestigious Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences - that he had twenty-four hours to remove references to Muslim antisemitism. Three grounds were provided: fear of violent reactions, unwillingness to thwart the university’s efforts at bridge-building between Muslims and non-Muslims, and concern that the lecture fell far below the university’s scholarly standards. At the time, and since, Utrecht refused to provide any concrete information about specific threats of violence. But inasmuch as he had to decide on short notice and was unable to disconfirm the rector’s contentions, van der Horst reluctantly edited his address. He was, however, understandably peeved by the attack on academic freedom and the unsubstantiated shots taken at his scholarly rigor. He later defended himself in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal.[1]

Van der Horst’s purportedly offensive statements would be regarded by most serious scholars of Muslim antisemitism as noncontroversial. These statements, for example, called attention to: 1) the close collaboration of World War II Palestinian leader Haj Amin al-Husseini with Hitler[2]; 2) the contemporary demonization of the Jews in many Middle Eastern countries[3]; and 3) the popularity of Mein Kampf in some Muslim nations.[4] While direct and overt censorship is thankfully rare in Western universities, van der Horst’s experience calls attention to numerous more subtle - and frequently more effective - roadblocks obstructing those who strive to deal objectively with Jew-hatred in the overlapping Muslim and Arab worlds. Van der Horst was not the first to hear the academic quality of his work vaguely impugned by those who were really dismayed by the nature of his conclusions.

Scholars in this field often encounter a dismissive wave rather than a refutation. Thus, philosopher Bernard Harrison writes that: “As a non-Jew, I have found, on the whole, my fellow non-Jews altogether too prone to pooh-pooh ... Jewish attempts to sound the alarm [on “the new antisemitism”].[5] Charles Small, the founder of the Yale Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism, considers himself a life-long member of the left, yet he reports that people frequently call him and the institute “neoconservative,” simply by virtue of its concern with antisemitism. Cartoonist and scholar Yaakov Kirschen argues that: “The minute you say antisemitism, you are delegitimized.... If I say ‘antisemitic,’ nobody looks at that [thing I am describing]. They look at me and say, ‘Oh, you’re saying it’s antisemitic. That means you must be right-wing.’ ”[6] Kirschen might have added that still others discredit those calling attention to antisemitism paranoid Jews “yet again” crying wolf. In my own experience writing and speaking frequently about Islamic antisemitism, I have come to expect a great deal of resistance whenever the taboo on addressing the topic is broken. This holds true even when one limits the discussion to old-fashioned bigotry - which one might presume would be less controversial than the so called “new antisemitism,” grounded, as it is, in rejection and demonization of the Jewish state. Moreover, resistance to serious consideration of the roots and consequences of Muslim hostility to Jews comes not only from those on the left and, certainly, not only from non-Jews.

While it is a cornerstone of the search for truth that all academic works should be subjected to energetic criticism, the resistance of which I speak approaches denial and does not focus upon particular analyses; rather, it applies to all discussions of Muslim antisemitism premised on evidence, rather than ideology. Factual material supporting the existence of serious Muslim Jew-hatred, hatred that goes far beyond criticism of the Jewish state, can be found in many sources.[7] Sometimes these sources disagree about the extent to which delegitimizing, demonizing, and double-standard based denunciations of Israel should be included in the definition of antisemitism. But even when we exclude Israel-based hostility altogether, massive levels of traditional bigotry remain.

Most people in the West are quite ready to denounce Jew-hatred when it comes from Nazis and other long-dead antisemites. To some extent, left-leaning scholars and human rights organizations also remain eager to oppose antisemitism when it emanates from traditional, sanctioned sources, especially on the far right. Some are even open to exposing resurgent Jew-hatred in Christian Europe, for example, in Poland and Hungary. But there is deep resistance to straight-speaking, unobstructed analysis of far more dangerous hostility to Jews - when it comes from Muslims and Arabs.[8] Along with this resistance, one finds defensiveness, especially on the left, when discussion turns to seemingly antisemitic utterances that are sometimes associated with extreme anti-Zionism.[9]

Consequently, it becomes important for scholars of antisemitism to understand not only the phenomena they are studying but also the reasons for resistance to arguments and evidence they marshal. Such resistance can be usefully divided into four categories: a) misguided counterarguments, b) dismissive ideology, c) systemic barriers, and d) fear-based resistance.

MISGUIDED COUNTERARGUMENTS

This is not the place to offer systematic refutations of the many attempts to shut down discussion of Muslim antisemitism before it starts.[10] But we can enumerate a few misguided counterarguments that have frequently been raised. Some issues are definitional, suggesting that what we say is antisemitism is not really antisemitism. One version, of course, holds that Muslims cannot be antisemites because they are, in fact, Semites. It is surprising how many supposed serious academics deem this essentially ridiculous, unscientific, and ahistorical point worthy of consideration. (I have never spoken on the topic without someone raising it.) Some writers have attempted to overcome this objection by adopting new terminology such as “judeophobia”[11] or “anti-Judaism,” but none of the replacements captures the essence and historical roots of the phenomenon as well as the word “antisemitism.”

Another argument holds that almost no Arabs or Muslim hate the Jews; they only hate the Zionists. An analysis of the content of anti-Jewish utterances and the targets of anti-Jewish deeds quickly reveals the limitations of this position.[12]

The underlying rationale is that the accumulation of reliable Muslim allies requires that we sweep Jew-hatred under a rug.

Some common counterarguments grow out of, or ostensibly grow out of, concern with civility, maintaining in one form or another that it is better to accentuate the positive aspects of Islamic and Arabic culture. Similarly, some maintain that nice people do not criticize other people’s religious beliefs. Both of these arguments rapidly become enemies of truth and offer a screen behind which evil-doers may operate.[13]

Other scholars have suggested various justifications for the “benign neglect” of Muslim antisemitism. Thus, some claim that focusing on antisemitism is not a good idea if we hope to: 1) encourage Muslim moderates, 2) advance President Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world, or 3) pursue America’s interest in the war on terror. The underlying rationale of all of these arguments is that the accumulation of reliable Muslim allies requires that we sweep Jew-hatred under a rug. Yet, it is at least debatable whether antisemites make trustworthy allies when historically (and presently) Jew-hatred has very frequently been tightly associated with anti-Americanism of the worst kind.[14]

Another pernicious but sometimes effective impediment to open discussion is the assertion, or implication, that criticizing Muslims - even for bigotry - is itself a form of Islamophobia. This argument usually asserts that hostility to Muslims - not hostility to Jews - is the real problem, as if the two forms of bigotry were somehow in competition. Some also denounce any mention of Muslim antisemitism as an attempt to stifle criticism of Israel; this position is essentially an attack on a straw man, as many scholars of Muslim and Arab Jew-hatred are themselves vocally critical of various Israeli policies and actions. Most scholars of antisemitism have been careful to articulate clear boundaries between legitimate criticism of Israel and antisemitism. One may disagree with these distinctions, but it is misguided to turn the fact that one also attacks Israel into a defense against charges of antisemitism.

There is clear evidence that hostility toward Jews - not just toward Israel - is widespread and not merely associated with a few extremist groups.

A more subtle contention is that those who call attention to Islamic and Arab antisemitism are painting with too broad a brush. It is, of course, legitimate to inquire about just how many Muslims are hostile to Jews, why they are hostile, and how deeply they feel the hostility. It is important to note as well that many Muslims, especially in the West, show no signs of anti-Jewish bigotry. Yet, there is clear evidence that hostility toward Jews - not just toward Israel - is widespread and not merely associated with a few extremist groups. Recall, for example, the enthusiastic reception of Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohammed’s deeply bigoted address in 2003.[15] Or, examine the Pew Global Attitudes Project opinion surveys, which have found consensual hostility to Jews in some Muslim and Arab countries.[16]

Many critics suggest that the real problem is not antisemitism per se but rather a little “regrettable but unavoidable” spillover from the Arab-Israeli conflict. This argument comes in many forms, all of which attribute the rise in Muslim antisemitism to some aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Usually, the root cause of the Jew-hatred is located in Israeli misdeeds. Though nation-states, including Israel, are rarely moral paragons, it is hard to maintain with any degree of intellectual honestly that Israel’s misdeeds have been commensurate with the scorn hurled against it.[17] Moreover, one might argue convincingly that Muslim anti-Jewish attitudes are as much a cause of the intractable quality of the Arab-Israeli conflict as they are a consequence of it.

When arguments deny the existence of substantial anti-Jewish sentiment in the pre-Zionistic period, they are misreading or misrepresenting the history and theology of Islam. Some ask how, when Muslims have always treated the Jews well, we can say what we are witnessing now is a serious instance of dangerous bigotry. The first answer to this argument is that even if the roots of antisemitism were all relatively recent, it would not negate or mitigate the current danger. A second, more important, answer is that Islam’s record of tolerance has been greatly overstated by many sources. At best, Islam’s historical treatment of the Jews has been a mixed bag; at worst, it was a long record of second-class citizenship, bigotry, and mistreatment.[18] Some suggest that Christians have been the deeper enemies of the Jews - historically true (but not saying much) - and that it is inaccurate to suggest that Islam contains the roots of antisemitic belief - demonstrably false.[19]

No one denies that the rise of Zionism and Israel have changed the way Muslims think about Jews. Yet, it is a complicated matter to specify the causal relationship between the rise of Muslim antisemitism and the progression of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The success of the state of Israel, after all, might have proved particularly difficult for Arabs to accept precisely because of the low regard in which Jews have traditionally been held.[20] It is equally tricky to speculate about how Muslim-Jewish relations might have progressed had there never been a state of Israel. But, in sum, Israel’s existence and the Arab-Israeli conflict have surely contributed importantly to the rise in Muslim antisemitism. Explicating this relationship is an important goal of scholarship, but a problem arises when political scientists, psychologists, and others use the rise of Israel as an excuse and justification for religious and ethnic bigotry.

Moreover, we must remember that public anger is not necessarily - or even typically - directed at true sources of a problem.[21] The many misfortunes, injustices, and “narcissistic wounds” experienced by large numbers of people in the many parts of the Arab world have a variety of sources, some of which are hard to identify. Most (but not all) of the time, blaming Israel has been little more than a form of irrational scapegoating (common in much bigotry) rather than an accurate direction of anger toward the genuine sources of Arab and Muslim troubles.

DISMISSIVE IDEOLOGY, SYSTEMIC BARRIERS, AND FEAR-BASED RESISTANCE

One might offer all manner of speculation about the underlying reasons observers often refuse to acknowledge the extent and danger of Muslim antisemitism. Many - including Jews themselves - simply have no seen enough of the evidence and, instead, extrapolate from their judgment that antisemitism is not a big problem in the West. Others react to what they see as overly defensive Jewish psychology; Jews, they imply, usually complain about antisemitism, perhaps as a consequence of their collective experience in the Holocaust. While this argument may have some merit with regard to assertions of antisemitism in the United States during the half-century following World War II, the wolf in the Muslim and Arab world has unfortunately arrived. There are also those who reason that, if so many Jewish scholars are themselves not concerned, how serious could the problem be? Nonetheless, Jews have not developed immunity to social, psychological, and political forces influencing Western populations in general, so it is wrong to presume that they, as a group, possess some magical expertise. Of course, other observers - who knows how many - may themselves dislike Jews, though they feel bound by the rules of social behavior that prevail in the West to keep such biases out of public discourse.[22]

IDEOLOGY

Many others are influenced mainly by sympathies and loyalties to Arab, Palestinian, and Muslim causes, which they feel may be tarnished by charges of antisemitism. No doubt many who empathize with the Palestinians may also dislike the antisemitism that has become associated with various Arab causes and hope that it will disappear when their objectives are realized. For these people, however, it is simply a matter of priorities, and Jews are lower on the list.

Muslim and Arab antisemitism poses certain intellectual inconveniences for parts of the intellectual left, though the left is a very diverse group and the situation varies tremendously depending on the particularities of allegiances and orientations.[23] Political scientist Andrei Markovits has noted: “Anti-Americanism and antisemitism relate to each other and empirically are almost always in close proximity, even if not totally identical. The overlap between them has become more pronounced since the end of World War II.”[24] Anti-Israel sentiments also correlate with antisemitism.[25] Thus, to oppose antisemitism puts one in bed to some extent with the Americans and the Israelis, and this - for some on the far left - is not a comfortable place to be. Markovits further explains that:

    In Western Europe as well as the United States, left-wing intellectuals began to perceive Israel as America’s pit bull after the Six-Day War. Israel became America’s tool in the latter’s imperialist designs on the Middle East and beyond.... [More recently, ] [t]he European and American Left - as well as the right - have come to view the ... war against Iraq as a thinly disguised American proxy for Israel’s purposes.... European antisemitism has changed in the sense that it is illegitimate to express hatred for powerless Jews, i.e. Jews living in Europe. The resentment is now reserved almost exclusively for Israel and - of late - Jews in America, the much-maligned “East Coast.”

As a result, Markovits contends, “... the threshold of shame about antisemitism has been lowered significantly over the past decade.”[26] Many on the left prefer underdogs and see their role as helping those who have not achieved political, economic, and military success. There is a strong desire to help the failed Arab and Muslim states and societies and it does not seem to some that a wholesale assault on the culture’s rampant antisemitism would be consistent with that agenda. Israel and the Jews lost sympathy when they stopped being victims. Concern for Palestinian rights and opposition to Israel can even override many other traditional leftist considerations. As British writer Nick Cohen puts it: “When brave feminists, gays, democrats and liberals in the Muslim world and in Britain’s Muslim communities make a stand [against Muslim intolerance toward them], they too are accused of being tools of the Zionists.”[27] And in some circles of the anti-racist left, nobody speaks out in their support.

Some others have a different agenda. They, understandably, hope to achieve a “just, peaceful, humane and sustainable world” by encouraging leading Islamic religious figures to broadcast statements of moderation. [28] Their objective, above all, is to keep the West from ending up in a conflict with Islam or Muslims. Unfortunately, gaining the cooperation of many Muslim religious leaders has proved far more difficult than expected and hostility toward the United States appears more broad-based than initially believed in the days following 9/11. In this context, to focus attention on bigotry emanating from large segments of the Muslim and Arab world is seen by some as fanning the flames of conflict by identifying negative characteristics of the community with which we seek to get along. There is a strong impulse to leave just this one stone unturned in the battle against bigotry. Even when antisemitism is unearthed, some - especially in Europe - try very hard to deflect blame from the Muslim community, though this may mean assigning it where it does not belong.[29]

Another problem is that if we face squarely the existence of venomous Jew-hatred in Iran, then we need also to face what will happen when this bigotry becomes nuclear armed. The prospect is frightening, not only because such a weapon might well be used on Israel. The presence of extreme hatred in high places leads us to doubt the mental stability of the leaders who would control such weapons and to suspect that they might use newly acquired power to foment all sorts of trouble in the region. That such fear might beget denial of the threat, something some psychoanalysts might predict is a possibility. In any case, many on the left regard the use of military force by Israel in conjunction with Western powers as anathema, no matter what the reason - and they are afraid that thinking about an almost-nuclear-armed, genocidally antisemitic power might lead to calls for preventive war.

Universities are sometimes unwilling to address topics that might get in the way of bridge-building with Muslim students.

SYSTEMIC BARRIERS

Above and beyond the ideological predilections of many academics, there are organizational and systemic forces working against those who seek to expose, study, and combat antisemitism in the Muslim and Arab world. For starters, most scholars and institutes in the field of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies - those ostensibly with the expertise to do the best research - show no serious interest in the topic.[30] This is partly due to their political commitments and partly due to the way the field has been funded with money from Middle Eastern sources. Sociologists, psychologists and other social scientists also face a host of methodological limitations - language barriers, poor access to subjects, lack of cooperation from host countries, dangerous field conditions, and other restrictive factors. Universities, as the van der Horst case reveals, are sometimes unwilling to address topics that might get in the way of bridge-building with Muslim students. Jewish students even run the risk of creating inhospitable local conditions when they try to express their views.[31] The reward system for faculty and sometimes for students - as the Columbia case demonstrates - sometimes discourages an outspoken position criticizing any aspect of Muslim culture, even its bigotry. Journal editorial policies and book publishing mores reinforce the prevailing reluctance to explore Muslim antisemitism.

FEAR

Of course, it is not just barriers imposed by ideology and the structure of academia that get in the way of research. Fear plays a role at many levels. First of all, Jewish and pro-Israeli scholars seeking to study antisemitism know that doing so would put themselves at some risk in many parts of the Islamic world. Indigenous scholars do not appear eager to take up the task. The “Daniel Pearl effect” keeps many writers silent, even when very few are murdered. For those who doubt this impact, consider that no full-length, non-hagiographical biography of Muhammad has appeared since the Salman Rushdie incident, despite obvious public interest after 9/11. Publishers also act on their fears, perhaps recalling that Rushdie’s Norwegian publisher and his Japanese translator were attacked. Even without taking into account fear for one’s physical safety, owing to prevailing academic winds - especially in Europe[32] - many scholars stay silent out of fear of professional isolation and associated economic consequences. Generally, self-censorship has had far more impact than actual censorship.

Thus, the battle to raise consciousness about Muslim antisemitism must contend with misguided counterarguments, antagonistic ideologies, systemic barriers, and fear. Together, they conspire to create a very odd and disturbing situation where many segments of the scholarly world, the human rights community, and the religious world - especially those parts that see themselves most opposed to racism “in all its forms” - have become fellow travelers in what Robert Wistrich aptly calls the world “longest hatred” and “a lethal obsession.”[33]

BIO: Neil J. Kressel (PhD, Harvard University, social psychology) directs the Honors Program in the Social Sciences at William Paterson University. In 2008-2009, he served as visiting associate professor at the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism. Kressel’s books include Bad Faith: The Danger of Religious Extremism and Mass Hate: The Global Rise of Genocide and Terror.

Please click here for the footnotes.

Published: August 6, 2011


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Visitor Comments: 10

(9) Robert Levy, September 12, 2011 3:16 AM

Fascinating Articles

I enjoyed this piece very much, and must say that the aspects pertaining to the modern left has resonance with my own experience .I am overall left wing and must say that I have not heard anti-semitic comments,but have heard comments on Israel which are unbalanced and lack perspective,for instance they fail to recognise the existence of pre-Israel anti-semitism and never have I heard mention the connections between the Grand Mufti and Hitler and the popularity of German fascism to a number of Muslims .However if the left can be accused of a kneejerk backing of the perceived underdog ,then the right can be accused of failing to support the Jews when they were victims.Even Daniel Goldstein's impressive work Hitler's Willing Executioners,highlights that within early twentieth century Germany anti-semitism was prevalent in all political parties but not the Communist Party,nor amongst the intellectuals of the Social Democrats.Within Czechoslovakia it was cheifly the left who organised attempts to save Jews from the Nazi occupiers.By contrast it has been noted by historians that conservatives in France were comfortable with many aspects of Nazi rule.

hrothgar, October 31, 2011 6:38 PM

The Bolsheviks were no Saints.

Strange then that Stalin was quite happy to sign a pact with Hitler and was the co-invader of Poland ,being quite willing to let Hitler and the Nazis do as they chose as long as it served the interests of the Bolsheviks.It is also reported that so called liberating Bolsheviks having entered the concentration camps violated the inmates although heaven knows they had suffered enough.When Stalin was suddenly struck down in the early 1950s he was in the process of initiating a full blooded purge of Jews.luckily he died.The Bolsheviks are as blood-soaked as any .

(8) Michael Jacobs, August 25, 2011 9:46 AM

Why resist?

Doesn't liberty *include* the option to hate your neighbor if you are not yet ready to love him? Is it written in our countries' laws that people must have a positive opinion about Jews? I think that we must not resist the hatred toward Jews, or anybody, since this will only cause it to increase. Why fear hatred, in particular when you know that this hatred is irrational? Why give further legitimacy to such hatred by debating and researching it? Don't we all have more urgent things to do? Simply stop your own hatred, *including* your hatred towards people who still hate. I think there is no other way out. Death is inevitable, but hatred is a choice which begins with each of us.

(7) Kathleen Wagar, August 11, 2011 12:46 AM

Don't you believe it.

In my ten years of dealing with Muslim/Arabs on their sites or in their writings online, I find that they continually lie for propaganda purposes when it comes to the Jews. It's not enough that for fourteen hundred years Muslim countries killed or forced out Jews living there and stole their land and property. They owe Jews billions of dollars in reparations. The upshot is I rarely believe what politicized Muslims have to say. Their attacks also reflect badly on other Muslims, causing them problems too.

(6) Mickey Davis, August 10, 2011 9:25 PM

When will the rest of the world wake up?

Islam is reaching out to bury the entire European continent and the European countries continue to fault Israel.

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