50 years of occupation have reawakened latent prejudices and old stereotypes not only against Jews, but also against Arabs and Muslims. But many still deny Israel‘s increasingly oppressive control is a crucial factor
One of the original aims of Zionism was to normalize relations between Jews and other peoples. So how tragically ironic would it be if the policies of the state it engendered are normalizing anti-Semitism instead?
That there has been an alarming rise in anti-Jewish sentiment over the past few decades, particularly in the Arab and Muslim worlds, is not in dispute. What is contested is the cause. Here, in essence, was my take, as a young researcher, in the mid-1970s:
While Israel continues to rule over the West Bank, there are bound to be ever more frequent acts of resistance by a population that is feeling encroached upon by a spreading pattern of Jewish colonization and who yearn for independence.
As long as Israel continues to govern that territory, she will have little choice but to retaliate in an increasingly oppressive fashion just to keep order. The moral appeal of Israel‘s case will consequently suffer and this will further erode her level of international support, although probably not among organized opinion within the Jewish diaspora.
This sharpening polarization is bound to contribute to an upsurge in overt anti-Semitism.
I don’t suggest this is the whole story. But it is a key part of it.
Rising anti-Jewish sentiment in the Arab and Muslim worlds is only one side of the equation.
The other side is the corresponding phenomenon of mounting anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment in the Jewish world. In turn, the conflict’s toxins have spilled over into other areas of the globe and, in some cases, have fanned latent prejudices against Jews, Muslims and Arabs, reawakening old stereotypes of Jewish cunning and power on the one hand, and threatening Muslim hordes on the other.
The parallel rise in these phenomena is not a coincidence. Each of them feeds off and nourishes the others. So they need to be viewed not in isolation but alongside each other.
But these trends have not been uniform. During the “Oslo years” of the 1990s, the political culture was, for a time, transformed. New friendships across the divide were struck and Israel’s stock in the Arab world, and globally, shot up. There was a marked decrease in anti-Semitic incidents.
Earlier, following President Sadat’s peace initiative in 1977, Egyptian spiritual leaders were urged to downplay those portions of the Koran that spoke ill of the Jews and to stress those parts that called on Muslims to make friends with the Jews. Israeli embassies stopped circulating literature depicting President Sadat as a Nazi sympathizer.
I don’t expect to be around to shamelessly quote myself again in another 40 years but, as passions continue to rise, it is hardly rocket science to foresee that if Israel does not end its occupation of the Palestinians soon, and if organized Jewish opinion in other countries appears openly to back it, there will almost certainly be a further spike in anti-Jewish sentiment, potentially unleashing more sinister impulses.
For centuries, deep-seated anti-Semitism scarred European countries. This “special and peculiar hatred of Jews”, according to the veteran historian Professor Bernard Lewis (in his 1985 article ‘Antisemitism in the Arab and Islamic World’), had its “origins in the role assigned to Jews in certain Christian writings and beliefs”. By contrast, “In this specialized sense, anti-Semitism did not exist in the traditional Islamic world”. While Jews “were never free from discrimination”, they were “only occasionally subject to persecution”. The more recent “European-style anti-Semitism”, he noted, was precipitated by the Israel-Arab conflict and accelerated after the 1967 war.
Given its history, it is hardly surprising if latent anti-Jewish feeling has continued to linger in parts of European civil society, whether on the right, the centre or the left. In the UK, allegations of anti-Semitism have been made recently against members of the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn – some of genuine concern, some dubious and some blatantly phony.
In other countries too, including the U.S., there have been recent cases of anti-Jewish prejudice, some malicious, some careless, and some born of ignorance or confusion. Actions that are not inspired by anti-Semitism can impact as anti-Semitism, such as the banning of Jewish women displaying the Star of David from the Chicago Dyke March in June. To make the vital distinctions, we must have regard to the evidence in each case.
An acquaintance quizzically remarked to me recently: “I thought an anti-Semite was someone who hated Jews, not someone whom Jews hated.” The case of Jeremy Corbyn is indicative: do some Jewish circles loathe him because he is, allegedly, anti-Semitic (for which there really is no evidence) or because his commitment to human rights principles does not stop at the Palestinian doorstep?
Like all forms of racism, anti-Semitism is monstrous, but false or exaggerated claims can also be grotesque – and counterproductive. They not only cheapen the accusation but carry the parallel but opposite peril of failing to perceive brazen anti-Semitism when it stares us in the face.
People whom Jews wouldn’t have touched with a bargepole in bygone years, are today serenaded by the Israeli government and by some pro-Israel groups in other countries.
Right-wing, pro-Zionist, evangelical Christian groups in the U.S., whose concept of the “rapture” would eventually see all Jews convert or perish, are not the only ones. Known Hungarian, Polish and Latvian anti-Semites have been courted on the ground that their political parties take Israel’s side at the European Parliament.
In these and other cases, professed support for Israel or Israeli actions are employed to relieve the charge of anti-Semitism, even for avid anti-Semites with neo-Nazi links or with a record of Holocaust denial.
None of this is to say that anti-Zionism or hostility to Israel in the wider world is not sometimes used as a cover for anti-Semitism or, in some cases, that it does not spring from similar impulses. But this does not justify lumping together real anti-Semites with the real victims of oppressive Israeli policies and their champions, while giving a free pass to ostensibly “pro-Israel” anti-Semites.
The yearning to normalize relations between Jews and other peoples is yet to be fulfilled. The single most important key today is to end the Israeli occupation without further pretext and agree a fair settlement of the conflict with the Palestinians and the wider Arab world while the opportunity still presents itself.