Arabs and anti-Semitism

The recent brouhaha over remarks by Helen Thomas regarding Jewish influence in American political life has again raised the hoary old argument that Arabs cannot be anti-Semitic because they are Semites. This unworthy semantic game either deliberately elides the point about anti-Jewish sentiment or stems from a profound ignorance of the history and meaning of the term anti-Semitism. There are many important points that need to be made about this matter. First of all, anti-Semitism is not the optimal term for anti-Jewish sentiment, among other things because there are other Semites than Jews, but it is the one we have, and comes with a long history and a well-established meaning. Rather than critiquing the term or coining a neologism to substitute for it, speakers of English should simply understand the term's history and commonly accepted definition and use it accordingly.

Much the same case can be made about the also highly questionable term Islamophobia, which has a much shorter history but which I argue we are also stuck with and might as well simply define accurately and use properly rather than dismiss or attempt to replace. Salman Rushdie and others I respect, and some who I do not, have suggested that because the term Islamophobia might be, and in some cases clearly is, used by ultra-sensitive religious types to try to inhibit criticism of, challenges to or satire against Islamic religious ideas and practices, the term should be dispensed with altogether. My point for a long time has been that we obviously need a clear term to describe the very specific set of ideas that inform fear and hatred of Muslims and that have little or nothing to do with actual opinions about real Islamic doctrine and practice. We have that term, for better or worse, and it is Islamophobia, and we should define and use it accurately rather than obfuscate, shun or replace it.

The same has to be said about anti-Jewish sentiment. Clearly we need a word to describe this very complex and in many cases very old set of ideas, and in English the term is anti-Semitism. Whatever we think about whether either Islamophobia or anti-Semitism are optimal terms or not, we are stuck with both of them. And after all, language is inherently unstable and there is always a huge gap between the signifier and signified, and between what the author of a set of words intends to communicate and what is understood by its recipients. There is no solution to this conundrum that is inherent in language and we simply have to live with it, so in the long run there is no word that can clearly convey a specific idea in a stable or containable manner and the best we can hope for is to have the widest possible commonly accepted understanding of what these terms mean and use and receive them with as much precision as possible.

Anti-Semitism is not the antonym of Semite or Semitism. It has a very specific history, and everyone who discusses it or is engaged in contemporary debates involving Jews, and those involving Israel and the Middle East, has an obligation to have at least a passing familiarity with it. The term anti-Semitism emerged in the middle of the 19th century, when in fact the only Semites with any kind of strong cultural, economic or political presence in Western society were Jews, and it was therefore universally understood as referring specifically to them. Anti-Semitism is essentially and historically a Western and Christian phenomenon, although it has never been strictly limited to such societies, and in its contemporary usage it refers basically to two distinct but overlapping strands of anti-Jewish Western thought.

The first is essentially religious and folkloric anti-Jewish sentiment in Christian Europe that largely predates the modern era. It's based on accusations of deicide, the rejection of Christ, the supposed connection of Jews with malicious spiritual and demonic forces, myths about Jewish practices such as the blood libel, defamation of Jewish religious texts and so forth. These religious and folklore traditions are essentially rooted in Christian antipathy towards Jews as the only major group of non-Christians in most Western Christian societies after the fall of the Roman Empire. One can think of this strand of anti-Semitism as anti-Semitism with a lowercase a.

The second strand of anti-Semitism, which should probably be referred to as Anti-Semitism with an uppercase A, is a set of social and political ideas that emerged in Europe during the 19th century essentially as a backlash to the emancipation of the Jews of Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. Prior to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, most Jewish communities in Europe were heavily regulated, marginalized, literally ghettoized, highly restricted in their social and economic activities and very much under the control and influence of frequently obscurantist rabbinical authorities. After the emancipation, Jewish communities in much of Europe quickly flourished in their newfound freedoms and opportunities, greatly expanded their cultural and political engagement with and influence in many societies, enjoyed a surge in the size and geographical diffusion of their population, and in some cases became significant actors on their national scenes. This development was viewed with alarm by conservative, reactionary, nationalistic, ethno-centric and racist elements in many European societies such as France and Germany. The reaction to the expanded Jewish presence and influence in European societies was the emergence of an overtly racist pseudoscientific, social and political orientation that drew on but went far beyond traditional religious and folkloric anti-Jewish attitudes and developed into a political program to contain and reverse these Jewish gains under the rubric of Anti-Semitism. Political Zionism was, in fact, largely a response to political Anti-Semitism.

The racist German journalist and activist Wilhelm Marr did not coin the term, but popularized it and founded the Antisemiten-Liga, or Anti-Semitic League, in 1880 with the specific aim of combating Jewish influence and enfranchisement in Germany and other Western Christian societies. Anti-Semitic conferences and political parties, openly employing the term to denote a specific anti-Jewish political program in Europe during the second half of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries were widespread, and obviously found their ghastly culmination and logical conclusion in Nazism and the attempt to physically exterminate the Jews of Europe, and possibly the world, during the second world war.

The rhetoric of political Anti-Semitism, interestingly enough and as I have pointed out many times in the past, is virtually indistinguishable, except for some of the specific nouns, from the contemporary Islamophobia infecting an increasing amount of Western social and political culture. The idea in both cases is that Jews or Muslims respectively are an alien presence, worship a hostile and dangerous God, are religiously authorized to do terrible things to non-coreligionists, and are engaged in a conspiracy to attack, undermine or take over Western Christian or, as they are now in the Islamophobic era typically referred to, Judeo-Christian societies and culture. The basic message is: these people may look and seem perfectly reasonable and even constructive, admirable members of the community but in fact they are dangerous and are engaged in a war of civilizations against “us.” And the reasons why, and the contexts in which, these discourses resonated at certain historical moments are also highly analogous: the emergence and growing influence and enfranchisement of non-Christian communities in Western societies that for both cynical and genuinely paranoid or chauvinistic reasons some people found a need to demonize and stigmatize in order to inhibit or rollback their ability to thrive. It's pretty much as simple as that, although the motivations are obviously varied and complex.

I'm not going to waste anybody's time in going into the details of either folkloric and religious traditional Western anti-Semitism or political Anti-Semitism as it emerged in the mid-19th century. The scholarship has been done in exhaustive detail and is available to anybody with the least interest in finding out about it. But it is important to note that the history of both anti-Semitism and Anti-Semitism (I'll stick with the lowercase from now on I think, because really I'm going to be referring to both simultaneously even though they have distinct but overlapping characteristics) refers specifically to Jews and a specifically Western and Christian set of ideas based on a very specific history of the relationship between Jews and Western Christian societies over two millennia. For this reason, it is both ignorant and meaningless to suggest that other Semites or speakers of Semitic languages such as Arabs are incapable of being anti-Semitic because they are also Semites. Anyone who makes this argument is only revealing either their own paucity of knowledge or their willingness to dissemble with semantic games. Frankly, I think among Arabs and Arab-Americans the first is much more common, but I've seen what is incontrovertibly the second as well, and it's clearly the worse of the two.

Even if there were no such history, it would still be a very bad argument because obviously it is possible for people of a certain identity grouping to embrace negative stereotypes and bigoted ideas about their own community. There are, after all, some very well known Arab-Americans who express plainly bigoted anti-Arab sentiments from time to time such as Prof. Fouad Ajami, and others who are extreme anti-Arab racists such as the repulsive Brigitte Gabriel (given to sentiments such as “Arabs have no souls” and similar charming remarks). I use these examples only because I am considering here the relationship between Arabs and anti-Semitism, but there are anti-Semitic Jews like the late chess master Bobby Fischer and the jazz musician Gilad Atzmon (and, if we are to believe his dubious personal narrative, another example would be the writer who likes to call himself “Israel Shamir”), African Americans with "Negrophobic" (as far as I can tell we're stuck with that term for now as well, and it seems even more problematic for obvious reasons) opinions, and so forth. So undeniable origins or participation in an identity community is no guarantee of not holding bigoted views or negative stereotypes about that very identity. Obviously even without the very specific history of the term anti-Semitism I briefly outlined above, it would be entirely possible for a Semite to be anti-Semitic anyway.

But, of course, there IS this history and even though anti-Semitism as such is essentially a Western Christian phenomenon, it has spread around the world and has unfortunately gained some particular currency in the past few decades among the Arabs and the Muslims. This is largely, as even Bernard Lewis (and I use that phrase advisedly) agrees, a consequence of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the plight of the Palestinians. There are some strains of anti-Jewish polemic in traditional Muslim theology and culture stemming from the medieval period of strong religious competition and argumentation between the three monotheistic faiths and also from the experience of Muslim rule over non-Muslims, including Jews, which was sometimes oppressive towards religious and other minorities. But there is nothing like Western Christian folkloric and religious anti-Semitism or modern European cultural and political Anti-Semitism in traditional Arab culture or Islamic theology. However, latching on to strains of anti-Jewish sentiment that do exist in parts of Muslim scripture and doctrine, European-style anti-Semitic sentiment has dug distressingly deep roots in contemporary Arab and Muslim discourse, particularly among Islamists.

The importation of European anti-Semitic ideas into the Arab world has a long and complicated history with many sources, but obviously anti-Semitic Christian missionaries and educators were a crucial source, as were various anti-Semitic Western governments and colonial officials. The ideas, not surprisingly, took root first and were propagated most enthusiastically in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the Arab world by Arab Christians who could readily understand the doctrinal aspects of Western Christian anti-Semitism (deicide, etc.). In the 1930s and 40s they spread into Islamist and some Arab nationalist circles as well. But until the Arab-Israeli conflict really got going, such ideas were, while no longer unheard of, nonetheless marginal in most of Arab culture.

The wars with Israel opened the floodgates. The Arabs and the Jews demonized each other, and the appetite for actual, Western-style anti-Semitic sentiments among the Arabs began to blossom. This trend was offset for several decades by leftist and internationalist sentiments that frowned on ethnic essentializing, traditional Islamic attitudes that were tolerant of Jews and Judaism, and the narrative that held that Israel was essentially a Western colonial enterprise unconnected to indigenous Jewish cultures and communities in the Arab world (which of course did not prevent anti-Jewish riots and other abuses in several ugly instances). With the growth of Islamist rhetoric, which often embraces Western-style anti-Semitism as axiomatic, particularly since the Iranian revolution of 1979, overtly anti-Semitic sentiment has found a disturbingly large audience in the Arab and some other parts of the Muslim world.

Of course the reverse is equally true. Israeli Jewish and other Jewish communities have concomitantly and simultaneously been developing anti-Arab racist and Islamophobic attitudes and discourses which are often either overlooked or simply tolerated by Western observers. There's no question that in the United States there is a great sensitivity to what is perceived, often rightly but sometimes wrongly, as Arab anti-Semitism, and very little recognition of or interest in Israeli or Jewish anti-Arab and Islamophobic discourse. Indeed, the right wing Jewish pro-Israel contributions to contemporary American Islamophobia could hardly be overestimated, and are at least as important a factor as religious Christian anti-Muslim agitation. So not only is this not a one-way street, it's probably equally grim on both sides.

Which brings us back to Helen Thomas. I really had intended to stay out of this altogether, and I'm not going to ultimately pass any definitive judgment on her recently expressed sentiments, but some observations seem necessary. Her initial comment was very disturbing, but could certainly have been dismissed as an off-the-cuff remark to a hectoring videographer by an exasperated and elderly journalist who was trying to be deliberately obnoxious to someone it seems may have been pestering her. The explanation offered at the time that she was referring to the occupation was never very convincing because she referred to Jews getting out of Palestine and going home to Germany, Poland or the United States, but not to Israel. But had it been isolated and off-the-cuff, as it first appeared, it really shouldn't have been that big a deal, especially since she apologized right away.

Certainly there were some obvious ways for her to fix things. A friend of hers approached me in the immediate aftermath of the first incident and asked what I thought could be done to repair the damage to her reputation. My suggestion was that she could draw on her vast experience of political life and work with some young staffers to put together a book on the apology as a phenomenon in American political life, as she experienced it in her many long years covering the White House and then also as applied in her own case. The United States is a country that believes in redemption and has a long history of accepting apologies and letting bygones be bygones, when things are handled properly. I thought a book linking her own experience with the need to apologize to the many cases she must have witnessed and covered firsthand would have made a very interesting read and also would have situated her conundrum in a positive and constructive context. It was not to be.

Instead, Ms. Thomas decided to make some additional remarks that got her into even deeper trouble. Parsing whether or not any of it descends to the level of anti-Semitism seems utterly beside the point. But to suggest, as she did in her subsequent remarks, that "Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street are owned by Zionists" is just silly, and it's indefensible. Let's take them one by one.

First, the White House is presently headed by an African-American president who is evidently sympathetic to ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state, and whose administration is working hard to accomplish that as a core American foreign policy goal. The American presidency, especially this one, is not “owned by Zionists,” and anyone who thinks so is absolutely paranoid. The idea that anyone who accepts the existence of Israel as a member state of the United Nations and proceeds accordingly is therefore a “Zionist” is to strip the term of any meaning whatsoever. By that standard, every American president since at least Herbert Hoover would have been a communist since they accepted the reality of and dealt with the Soviet Union. And, of course, that's exactly what the paranoid John Birch Society used to argue. Richard Nixon must have been an arch-communist since he entered an anti-Soviet entente cordiale with Maoist China, of all countries.

Congress certainly is responsive to pro-Israel organizations and pressures, because those organizations have utilized the levers of American power: money, votes, time and public communications, while there is virtually nothing on the other side of the equation. There is nothing illegitimate about the way pro-Israel organizations influence Congress, a body that was explicitly and deliberately designed to be lobbied. It's just pathetic that Arab-Americans, Muslim Americans and their allies have created nothing that can counter this influence. But that's our own fault. As I've noted many times, there isn't anything except our own apathy, cynicism, paranoia and selfishness holding us back as there are no laws prohibiting our own engagement with the American political system and few if any politicians who would refuse our money or refuse to meet with us respectfully having accepted our money if we ever decided to start giving it to them in any sizable quantities. It is not the fault of the pro-Israel lobby that so many of the Arab-Americans, in a great reversal of the founding ethos of the Republic, demand to be taxed without representation. I suppose it's possible to argue that in any case where there is a powerful lobby on one side and virtually nothing at all on the other side, the powerful lobby “owns” Congress, in a sense. But this implies some sort of permanency or ontology, as if this was a natural state of affairs rather than a consequence of a reversible series of choices on both sides to invest or not invest time, effort and money in causes in which they profess to believe. One group puts its money where its mouth is and the other, generally speaking, seems to be content with sitting at home drinking tea, waving their arms around and impotently shouting at the television. If that's the point Ms. Thomas was trying to make, her choice of words was extremely unfortunate.

The Wall Street example is also silly. There are lots of successful and influential Jews on Wall Street, and lots of them got rich in the process. But anyone who thinks that the banking and financial industries in the United States are “owned” by any ethnic community doesn't understand the diversity in that industry, the extremely heavy presence of white Christian American males in it, and the fact that ethnicity or religion aside, the only thing that matters in that context is the ability to generate revenues. No one is going to make it on Wall Street by virtue of their religion or ethnicity, or be shut out because of it either. Racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination no doubt exist, but in the end the only thing that really counts in that milieu is the ability to make money for oneself and, more importantly, others. And Wall Street's role in Middle East policy seems virtually nonexistent.

Hollywood, as a synecdoche for the entertainment industry in general and the movie industry in particular, is the strongest case here. The film industry in Hollywood is, as a matter of fact, dominated at its senior executive level by Jewish Americans. This truth makes many people uncomfortable, because it raises certain anti-Semitic red flags, but it's simply a fact that is verifiable by going down a list of the CEOs of the major Hollywood film studios and companies in a way that doesn't apply to Wall Street or any other American industry I can think of. It's not total, but there is no other word that will suffice than dominant. And what's wrong with that? Really it's something for Jewish Americans to be proud of, and for others to admire rather than complain about. The history was most forthrightly told in Neil Gabler's "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood" (Anchor Books, 1989). It might have been argued that for several decades during which Hollywood churned out an enormous number of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim horrors perhaps this ethnic factor may have been a contributor. But in the post-9/11 era in which Hollywood specifically, and the entertainment industry in general, has almost entirely cleaned up its act (as I have I think conclusively demonstrated elsewhere) and the center of gravity for Islamophobic sentiment has shifted to the realm of nonfiction and commentary (which is certainly worse), one would have to question whether religion or ethnicity at the executive level, which haven't changed much in the past couple of decades, was ever really a factor in Hollywood's anti-Arab and anti-Muslim attitudes in the last few decades of the 20th century.

Indeed, all of this talk about Jewish power, which is after all what this is albeit translated into concepts such as “owned by Zionists,” even when, as in the case of the entertainment industry and especially Hollywood, there is some basis for it, assumes a couple of things that are evidently not the case. First, there is no longer any consensus on what constitutes proper Zionism or attitudes towards Israel in the Jewish community, although perhaps there once was. The range of approaches has now become truly extraordinary, running from the non-, post-or anti-Zionist Jewish left, to the pro-Israel/pro-peace liberals, to the pro-Israel/but not opposed to a two-state solution political center, to the pro-occupation right and all the way to the chauvinistic, intolerant, extremist and increasingly religious ultra-right. Thomas' riff was no doubt a reference to Jewish power in the United States, but the idea that this power, which is definitely a very real phenomenon, translates into a uniform set of attitudes or policy positions on Israel and especially the occupation is simply wrong. On top of which, most Jewish Americans are strongly Democrats and don't vote on Israel alone, or even Israel mainly. So this kind of reductive talk, whether or not it could be considered in any sense anti-Semitic, is certainly not reflective of the present spectrum of Jewish-American opinion or the way in which it impacts the policy debate in the United States.

I do think it's possible to read Thomas' most recent comments as a rallying cry to Arab-Americans to get more involved, and that's certainly good advice. But the phraseology is extremely unfortunate and, indeed, inaccurate. And certainly she didn't do anything to contradict the impression that was created in many minds by her original off-the-cuff ill-advised remarks, and more than reversed whatever corrective had been accomplished by her well-advised apology. The debate over whether her original or follow-up comments are anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist or simply inaccurate isn't particularly interesting. But it needs to be clearly stated that the idea that because Thomas is of a Semitic Arab heritage she therefore cannot be anti-Semitic herself by definition holds no water at all. Sadly, there is far too much genuine anti-Semitism among Arabs and Arab-Americans, just as there is a disturbing plethora of anti-Arab and Islamophobic sentiment among Israelis and Jews around the world, including the United States.

Neither of these reciprocal phenomena of mistrust, fear and even hatred are causes of the Arab-Israeli conflict, they are the consequences, and, sadly, almost inevitable ones, of decades of bitter, existential struggle. In a debate with Alan Dershowitz many years ago at Harvard Business School, in which he tried to argue that Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism was a principle causal factor in originating and perpetuating the Arab-Israeli conflict, I pointed out that what he, and so many others, were engaging in through such rhetoric was a technique of classical sophistry known as a metalepsis, which often manifests as a substitution of an effect for a cause. He replied that in that case he supposed he was being a "Metalepsist," but I told him he was just being a sophist, and not in a good way. What's interesting about the debates I've had with Dershowitz is that while we can't agree at all on history, present realities, who is to blame or anything of the kind, we were able to agree on the only reasonable course for the future: peace based on two states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security. I think most Arab and Jewish Americans, and most Arabs and Israelis for that matter, can agree on that.

Since that's the case, we don't have to agree on anything else. We can work together towards that cause, without name-calling, without succumbing to bigotry and without justifying or rationalizing intolerance. This begins with not only recognizing that for different reasons we share the same policy goal, but also that Arabs are perfectly capable of being anti-Semites and Jews are perfectly capable of being anti-Arab and/or Islamophobic. All too often they both are, and it's not acceptable. It's up to both communities to police themselves and keep each other honest. We cannot, in the name of a counterproductive and atavistic tribal or ethnic solidarity, turn a blind eye to unacceptable rhetoric by our own ethnic fellows or co-religionists, and we can't hold others to a standard we are not willing to uphold ourselves.