24 October 2015

Continuities in anti-Semitic and anti-Arab prejudice

In the current squabbles over Israel, two arguments are often put forward: one by activist supporters of Palestine to ward off allegations of anti-Semitism (most groundless, a few not), and the other by their pro-Israel detractors who want the label to stick. The first argument is that because Arabs are also an ethnically and linguistically Semitic people, it would be ludicrous and a self-contradiction to accuse their supporters of being anti-Semitic. The response to this, as indicated here from a leftist perspective by Owen Jones, is that those who argue this way are guilty of a fallacious appeal to etymology. Anti-Semitism has the clear meaning, Jones argues, of racial animus toward Jews in particular – and has done so for generations. And as far as Jones’s narrow argument goes, that’s fine. But I cannot help but wonder if there is a deeper connexion, at least in terms of content if not overlap with those who profess it, between anti-Arab prejudice and anti-Semitic prejudice that goes beyond mere wordplay.

Let’s think for a moment of what anti-Semitism actually means, and how Jews are attacked through it. It is a prejudice which clearly operates on a number of different levels. It is, in the first incidence, a form of religious prejudice against the adherents of the Jewish religion. Subsequently it is a cultural prejudice against those who identify with the Jewish culture. It is also a form of political prejudice against Jews as a class or Jews as a political bloc, and a racial prejudice against Jews as an ethnicity. There are several key distinguishing features of anti-Jewish animus, in particular the blood libel and the idea of the worldwide Jewish cabal. The stereotypes of the Jew are as a secretive, untrustworthy, seditious plotter; as a physically-cowardly sexual degenerate with pronounced and degrading appetites; as a swarthy, greasy, hook-nosed, bearded con man. In anti-Semitic literature, the Jews are responsible for crime and revolutionary violence, for the excesses of both capitalism and communism, and are never to be trusted because their loyalty lies first with their religious customs and not with their nation.

In the Western imagination, with the benefit of hindsight from the Second World War, it is easy to see how ugly and destructive these stereotypes are. But the ease with which anti-Semitic canards have ‘translated’ into canards against Arabs, is generally ignored. Owen Jones’s facile dismissal of the links between anti-Semitism and anti-Arab sentiment as mere wordplay ignores a great deal of history, and a long line of stereotypes against Arabs in particular. The religious prejudice bleeds over into Islamophobia, which I have discussed elsewhere, though not all Arabs are Muslim, and vice versa. But still, anti-Arab prejudice has a very marked similarity to anti-Semitic prejudice even on its face. According to anti-Arab stereotypes of the ‘billionaires, bombers and belly-dancers’ rubric, the Arab is also a secretive, untrustworthy, seditious plotter; a physically-cowardly sexual degenerate with pronounced and degrading appetites; and a swarthy, greasy, hook-nosed, bearded con man; responsible for crime and revolutionary violence (though the terminology has been upgraded to ‘terrorism’); and holding a stronger loyalty to his religious customs than to the nation he finds himself in. Where have we seen all of this before?

Memories have shortened since the attacks of 11 September 2001, but the canard of the ‘Arab cabal’ was prominent in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis and subsequent crises in the Middle East which impacted American oil prices and politics. This dovetails with the canard of the ‘Jewish cabal’ in a way which is simply too convenient to be coincidental. And the recent episode in which Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu attempted to blame the Shoah on the Palestinians rather than on the Nazis was not only bad history. It was not only an attempt to partially absolve the Germans of the horrors of genocide, and thus give credence to one of the core claims of Holocaust denial: that the Nazis never intentionally set out to murder the Jews. It was, in point of fact, a form of blood libel: it was a ploy to blame a domestic scapegoat for crimes against the Jewish people and religion, to implicate the present-day Palestinians as willing participants in a vast human sacrifice.

Yes, there is very much a continuity between anti-Semitism and anti-Arab prejudice, regardless of the actors who now give voice to each. We know already the tragic and horrific consequences of continuing to play with this sort of fire, but that doesn’t seem to stop people from playing with it.

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