Islamophobia – the New Antisemitism

August 20, 2010
Richard Kuper


Islamophobia as the New Antisemitism

Jeremiah Haber, 19 August 2010

[see also Peter Beinart’s The Ground Zero Mosque Controversy]

Daniel Luban has written a timely and well-researched article in Tablet on what he calls, the “New Antisemitism,” the anti-Islamic bigotry that is on the rise in the United States [see the article below – ed].Using the term “New Antisemitism” to describe this bigotry is much more appropriate than using it to describe anti-Zionism or anti-Israelism; the latter often have nothing to do with anti-Semitism, and when they do, it is with the old anti-Semitism. While it is true that the term “anti-Semitism” originally arose in Germany as an explanatory euphemism for anti-Judaism, the exclusion of an “alien semitic and oriental religion” goes quite nicely with current Islamophobia, although, of course, there are important and fundamental differences. (For both similarities and differences see Luban’s article.)

It is a sign of the Jews making it in America that, with Islamophobia on the rise, many Jews now feel comfortable about joining their erstwhile enemies, the nativist (old) anti-Semitic bigots, in common cause against the newcomer religion. Add to this the Jewish antipathy towards Islam because of Arab attitudes towards Israel and Zionism (Jews tend to forget that prominent Arab anti-Zionists were Christian), plus the human propensity for bigotry and tribalism, and that pretty much explains Jewish Islamophobia – except that, I hasten to add, there is very real Arab and Islamic anti-Semitism out there in the world, again mostly because of Israel and Zionism. Still, it is the task of religious leaders to fight the very natural tendency of their flock to degenerate into bashing the other. I would like to think that most Jews will join the real Americans who reject all forms of religious bigotry – not merely because it politically correct to do so, or because it is our American duty, but because it is a core value.

Why, then, are so many Jews hemming and hawing about the Cordoba Center? Take it from me – it’s all about Israel. When Jews, and I mean here liberal Jews, are open to religious dialogue with Christians and Muslims, they have no difficulty in respecting difference. But when it comes to Israel, they demand that the other side accept the Zionist narrative, or, at the very least, be open to accepting it. A reform rabbi in today’s American may have good friends who are Christian. But how many anti-Zionist friends will she have? And given that most Muslim clerics are anti-Zionist, the Jews’ insistence on their acceptance of Zionism is a bar to tolerance and real dialogue.

Let me take as an example of this insistence on Zionism a recent op-ed by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin . Rabbi Salkin begins by commending his friends and colleagues for standing up to the anti-Islam hysteria. But he then explains why Jews are “permitted to worry” about the “man behind the mosque,” Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Actually, Rabbi Salkin never refers to him as “Imam Rauf” but prefers to call him, rather discourteously,”Rauf”. But perhaps it is understandable that Rabbi Salkin omits the religious title because in his long piece he does not write a single word about Imam Rauf’s religious doctrines, his interpretation of Islam, his views of other religions such as Judaism, or his writings on spirituality. Rabbi Salkin does not say why Imam Rauf has been called by Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee (the pre-eminent Jewish figure in ecumenical relations world-wide and the former Chief Rabbi of Ireland), “an important voice of moderation.” Rather, Rabbi Salkin only discusses what Imam Rauf writes about Israel and Zionism, and makes this the litmus test of his acceptability for Jews.

And what is Imam Rauf criticized for? For “simply repeating the Palestinian narrative and saying that the Muslim world is a restricted neighborhood into which a Jewish sovereign nation-state need not apply.” The Imam writes that “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is viewed in the Muslim world as being sustained by America.” (One wonders whether Rabbi Salkin would have difficulty conducting a dialogue with General David Petraeus, who said something similar.)

In short, the Imam is criticized by Rabbi Salkin for not finding any room in his worldview for the Zionist narrative. He is criticized for not accepting Zionism!

I would rejoice in hearing, from his lips, an affirmation of the right of the Jewish state to exist, even in what he believes to be his Middle Eastern ‘hood.

Rabbi Salkin’s wish that Muslim clerics accept the Zionist claims to Israel is on a par with the traditional Christian’s wish that the Jews accept the divinity of Jesus. To demand, or even wish of the other side to accept your narrative (especially when that narrative is highly controversial, and detrimental to the other side), and to make that wish a precondition for acceptance, is to place us back in the Middle Ages. If Jews can respect and tolerate Christians, and liberals can respect and tolerate conservatives, then Zionists should be able to respect and tolerate anti-Zionists, especially Muslim and Arab anti-Zionists. Not necessarily to agree with them, of course, but to respect and tolerate them. And, in any event, it is the duty of religious leaders not to make the existence of those differences a barrier to further cooperation and search for understanding – against the orthodox bigots of the world, both religious and secular.

I am sure that there are many stands taken by the orthodox rabbinate (such as the validity of reform conversions) that may make a liberal rabbi uncomfortable. But would Rabbi Salkin write an op-ed saying why reform Jews are “permitted to worry” when an orthodox rabbi comes to town?

On one point I will agree with Rabbi Salkin. The Imam is wrong in repeating the myth of the rosiness of Jewish life under Islam, a myth that incidentally was embraced by Jewish orientalists in the nineteenth century. But the Imam is right to say that the growth and success of political Zionism was most responsible for the deteriorating relations between Jews and Arabs (and Muslims, most of whom are not Arab). And the Imam is also right to say that many Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians, even with their dhimmi status (attenuated often in the modern era) were more acculturated in their surroundings, and felt more at home there, than, say, many Jews of Eastern Europe.

In any event, one does not look to rabbis or imams for historical accuracy. And Lord help us if we look to them for political analysis. Some of us continue to look to them for ethical and spiritual guidance, despite recurring disappointment in that department.

Do Jews have to “worry” about the thought of Imam Rauf? Maybe because I live in Israel, and because I see how some orthodox rabbis, both modern and ultra-, are able to relate to Muslim clerics who are not Zionists, I don’t share the fears that an American rabbi like Rabbi Salkin has. I also see other orthodox rabbis writing things in the name of Judaism more worrisome for Jews than anything that Imam Rauf has ever written.

It would be better for Rabbi Salkin simply to agree to disagree with Imam Rauf about Zionism – and not make Imam Rauf’s support of the Palestinian narrative any more a cause to worry than his support of the Islamic narrative. And, when he reads the Imam’s book on Islam, he should not be sensitive only to what he has to say about Israel and Palestine.

Surely someone who urges Jews to “put God on the guest list” at their bar/bat mitzvah would not exclude a priori from his spiritual fellowship opponents of the Zionist enterprise, whether they be Jews or non-Jews.

tabletThe New Anti-Semitism

Recent attacks on Islam in the United States echo old slurs against Jews

By Daniel Luban | Aug 19, 2010

After Abraham Foxman waded into the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy, opposing plans to construct an Islamic community center a few blocks from the World Trade Center site, the Anti-Defamation League chief was assailed by critics who charged that the ADL was giving license to bigotry and betraying its historic mission “to secure justice and fair treatment to all citizens alike.” A week after initially coming out against the mosque, Foxman announced that the ADL was bowing out of the controversy, but the damage to the group’s reputation had been done.

The problem for the ADL is that there simply isn’t much anti-Semitism of consequence in the United States these days. While anti-Semitism continues to thrive elsewhere in the world and to molder on the fringes of American society, Jews have by now been fully assimilated into the American ruling class and into the mainstream of American life. A mundane event like the recent wedding of Protestant Chelsea Clinton and Jewish Marc Mezvinsky drove this point home. What was notable was not the question “will she convert?” but how little importance anyone attached to the answer; the former first daughter’s choice between Judaism and Christianity seemed as inconsequential as the choice between Episcopalianism and Presbyterianism would have a few decades ago.

At the same time, many of the tropes of classic anti-Semitism have been revived and given new force on the American right. Once again jingoistic politicians and commentators posit a religious conspiracy breeding within Western society, pledging allegiance to an alien power, conspiring with allies at the highest levels of government to overturn the existing order. Because the propagators of these conspiracy theories are not anti-Semitic but militantly pro-Israel, and because their targets are not Jews but Muslims, the ADL and other Jewish groups have had little to say about them. But since the election of President Barack Obama, this Islamophobic discourse has rapidly intensified.

More Context

‘Sharia’ is a much more abstract concept than ideologues—whether Mideast Islamists or Newt Gingrich—suggest

While the political operatives behind the anti-mosque campaign speak the language of nativism and American exceptionalism, their ideology is itself something of a European import. Most of the tropes of the American “anti-jihadists,” as they call themselves, are taken from European models: a “creeping” imposition of sharia, Muslim allegiance to the ummah rather than to the nation-state, the coming demographic crisis as Muslims outbreed their Judeo-Christian counterparts. In recent years the call-to-arms about the impending Islamicization of Europe has become a well-worn genre, ranging from more sophisticated treatments like Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe to cruder polemics like Mark Steyn’s America Alone and Bat Ye’or’s Eurabia.

It would be a mistake to seek too precise a correspondence between the new Islamophobia and the old anti-Semitism, which differ in some key respects. Jews have never threatened to become a numerical majority, or even a sizable minority, in any European country, so anxiety about Jewish power naturally gravitated toward the myth of the shadowy elite manipulating the majority from behind the scenes. By contrast, anti-Muslim anxiety has focused on the supposed demographic threat posed by Muslims, in which the dusky hordes overwhelm the West by sheer weight of numbers. (“The sons of Allah breed like rats,” as the late Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci put it.) It may be that in many ways this Islamophobia shares more of the tropes of traditional anti-Catholicism than classic anti-Semitism.

But if the tropes do not always line up, there is some notable continuity in the players involved. One of the most striking stories of recent years has been the realignment of segments of the European far right behind a form of militant support for Israel. Much of the traditional neofascist right remains both anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic, but savvier far-right leaders have realized that by dropping the anti-Semitic elements of their platforms and doubling down on Islamophobia, they can tap into a new base of support from pro-Israel hawks across the Atlantic. Both the British National Party and the Vlaams Belang in Belgium have gone this route, although it remains questionable whether the move away from anti-Semitism is more than skin-deep. (The Vlaams Belang’s predecessor party, for instance, was disbanded after a controversy concerning Holocaust-denying statements made by one of its top officials.) Equally striking has been the rise of Geert Wilders, the controversial Dutch politician whose Islamophobia, virulent enough to draw the condemnation of even the ADL, has made him a darling of “anti-jihadists” in the United States.

Although there was a predictable upsurge in anti-Muslim sentiments in the United States following the Sept. 11 attacks, much of the most virulent Islamophobic discourse remained marginal on this side of the Atlantic in the early years of the war on terror. There are several possible reasons for this, but one of the most important is simply that George W. Bush, as president, was committed to a rhetoric about Islam as a “religion of peace” divided into a moderate majority and an extremist minority. The justification for the Iraq war came to depend heavily on this distinction, and right-wing hawks, with some grumbling, generally fell into line. The election of Obama, however, freed the hawks from any obligation to temper their rhetoric and simultaneously provided ample material for conspiracy theories about Muslims and fellow travelers in the White House. The result has been an intensification both in the amount of Islamophobia and in its political prominence, as ideas that were once marginal have moved to the center of political debate.


The two years since Obama’s election have seen a sudden flood of books describing an alleged Muslim conspiracy against the United States. Examples include Robert Spencer’s Stealth Jihad: How Radical Islam Is Subverting America Without Guns Or Bombs, Spencer and Pamela Geller’s new The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War On America, Paul Sperry’s Infiltration: How Muslim Spies and Subversives Have Penetrated Washington, and Sperry and P. David Gaubatz’s Muslim Mafia: Inside the Secret Underworld That’s Conspiring to Islamize America.

The works share a set of common themes. Radical Muslims who engage in violence are only the tip of the iceberg, goes the argument; the more insidious threat comes from the far larger group of religious Muslims (most, perhaps all) who aim to subjugate the United States under sharia law through ostensibly peaceful and legal means. In this they are aided and abetted by the leftist elites controlling the government, media, and academy—above all, the ambiguously Muslim Obama himself—and a cast of villains that includes some mix of the Muslim Brotherhood, Jeremiah Wright, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Obama adviser Dalia Mogahed, ACORN, and George Soros. Some of the authors of these works have ties to the European far right themselves; Geller and Spencer, for instance, have alienated former political allies by championing Geert Wilders and the Vlaams Belang.

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