'Muslim anti-Semitism is a phenomenon that embarrasses Western liberal intellectuals and confounds their anti-Israel sentiment'
When Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer launched their campaign against “The Israel Lobby” with an article in the London Review of Books (March 23, 2006) — and subsequently in a book of the same name — they asserted that European anti-Semitism was largely the by-product of the Arab-Israeli conflict: “No one would deny”, they opined, “that there is anti-Semitism among European Muslims, some of it provoked by Israel’s conduct towards the Palestinians and some of it straightforwardly racist.”
According to this view, anti-Jewish incidents are mostly the misguided reaction of disaffected Muslim immigrant youth — they themselves the target of European prejudice — to the injustice that Israel inflicts on Palestinians. If the attacker is a Muslim, it is not “straightforward anti-Semitism” but rather the result of legitimate Palestinian grievances. Even if the nature of the attack involves depicting Jews as Christ-killers, it should not be treated as anti-Semitism because, so the thinking goes, it gives blanket cover to Israel’s supporters to silence their adversaries.
For Israel’s critics, the best answer to these inconvenient incidents is renewed efforts to bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians, mostly through Israeli concessions and change of policies. That may explain why Belgian media were reluctant to report on the brutal assault endured by a 13-year-old Jewish girl in mid-November. Five of her female classmates, all of Muslim background, kicked her in the head while screaming: “Dirty Jew, go back to your country.”
It is a strange view indeed — why is the nature of anti-Semitic attacks determined by the ethnic origin of the perpetrators or their motivation? What if the five attackers had been Christian skinheads?
Instead of providing an answer, Howard Gutman, the US ambassador to Belgium, recently chose to join the choir of denial. In a speech delivered at a conference on anti-Semitism in Brussels in late November, Ambassador Gutman stated: “Every new settlement announced in Israel, every rocket shot over a border or suicide bomber on a bus, and every retaliatory military strike exacerbates the problem and provides a setback here in Europe for those fighting hatred and bigotry.”
Suggesting a link between the conflict and the prejudice, Gutman went on to say that “Were a lasting peace in the Middle East to be reached…this second type of ethnic tension and bigotry here in Europe — which is clearly growing today — would clearly abate. I can envision the day when it disappears.” Peace in the Middle East would indeed equate with a huge reduction of this form of “anti-Semitism” here in Europe. Muslim anti-Semitism is a phenomenon that embarrasses Western liberal intellectuals and confounds their fervent anti-Israel sentiment. Confronted with bigotry, many of them downplay, trivialise or plainly deny it. They can now count a US ambassador as one of their own.
The thought-process by which Muslim anti-Semitism is whitewashed as a lamentable side-effect of the Arab-Israeli conflict enables those who subscribe to it to view the phenomenon as relatively recent, potentially short-lived and largely superficial. If the conflict is its cause, then one can subscribe to the romantic view of a harmonious Jewish-Muslim past that predated (and was spoiled by) Zionism. One can claim that the political nature of this problem calls for a political solution.
It is remarkable how this intellectual manoeuvre is impervious to facts. First, there is the inconvenient fact that Jews are much more likely to suffer from anti-Semitism than Muslims are to suffer from anti-Islamic attacks. Annual reports from several countries attest to this, despite the fact that Muslim communities are much more numerous than Jewish ones.
Second, there is the embarrassing nature of Muslim anti-Semitism, with its casual blend of traditional anti-Jewish Christian symbols and modern Nazi propaganda. How can one insist that this is the result of political grievance when no other similar conflict generates such intense prejudice for adversaries?
Third, there is the historical record that contradicts the romantic notion of past idyll — Jews did not always suffer under Muslim rule, but neither did they always enjoy it. Anti-Jewish persecutions, forced conversions, expropriations and random mass violence were not just the domain of Christendom. Islam did it too at times. Why continue to deny it?
But all this is beside the point. That a genuine sense of grievance for Palestinian rights explains deplorable behaviour is a hollow explanation. There is no justification for violence, nor is there an excuse for the prejudice fuelling it. To dismiss Muslim anti-Semitism on such grounds does nothing to promote the cause of peace.