Anti-Semitism is still the greatest threat to the Jewish people, but the threat comes from within the Jewish state.
I was dismayed to read the news last week about the new Egyptian government’s cancellation of a screening of a documentary film called “Jews of Egypt.” The film, produced by Haytham El-Khamissy, highlights the life of what was until the 1950s a sizeable and vibrant Jewish community in Egypt. When the screening was cancelled by Egyptian security authorities the day before it was due to take place, El-Khamissy reported on Facebook that no reason for the cancellation was given.
In the aftermath of what seems to be a refusal by Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government to recognize the Jews of Egypt’s past, the immediate reaction of many Jews and non-Jews with whom I spoke was to cry anti-Semitism. By refusing to recognize this part of its history, in which the millennia-old chapter of Jewish life in Egypt came to an abrupt close, the government of Mohammed Morsi seems to be continuing Nasser’s project of ethnically cleansing Egypt of its Jewish heritage.
In light of this event and the absence of information surrounding it, it is worth re-exploring the various meanings of anti-Semitism in order to determine what this act of censorship can teach us about anti-Semitism in the modern world.
Anti-Semitism in its various forms
Anti-Semitism sometimes takes a religious form. Perpetrators of this kind of anti-Semitism have historically been Christians who either still hold the Jewish people as guilty of deicide or resent the Jews’ rejection of their God, or both. Religious anti-Semitism has also been perpetrated by Muslims, the birth of whose religion Jews also witnessed and rejected. Perhaps the unwillingness of the Egyptian government to celebrate the existence of what was once an active and civically engaged Jewish community of Egypt stems from the religious proclivities of Islamist elements within the new Egyptian government. In the 2011 parliamentary elections, Islamist parties and their allies, including the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) – the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood – and the Salafist al-Nour party, took over 60% of the contested seats. Before his presidential victory, Muhammad Mursi was a spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood and a member of parliament for the FJP. Although he has since resigned from the FJP, Mursi has aligned himself with the Islamist-dominated Shura Council in an ongoing power struggle with Egypt’s more secular Supreme Constitutional Court. Suspicions that Mursi remains under the influnce of Islamist power brokers in Egypt are compounded by his encouragement of Islamist militant groups to take control of law enforcement in major Egyptian cities during the current police strike, and by recently surfaced recordings of interviews in which Mursi expressed support for Hamas and refers to Zionists as “bloodsuckers” and “descendents of apes and pigs.”
However, anti-Semitism does not only emanate from the theological insecurities of non-Jews. As much as Jews are known for their Judaism, Jews are also associated with the traditions of skepticism, reason, and argument, which originate in the exercise of Talmud study. This tradition has played perhaps as much a role in casting Jews as the perpetual “other” as has Judaism-the-religion. Always among the most eager groups to adopt Enlightenment values and liberal social theories that threatened to alter backward status quos, Jews have been seen as a destabilizing force in any regime. They are often perceived to wield power disproportionate to the size of their population, culminating in the myth of a secret world government run by Jews and operated through the instruments of global finance. While this form of anti-Semitism has largely fallen out of fashion since the Holocaust, anti-Jewish conspiracy theories are not extinct. Earlier this year, in a meeting with seven United States Senators, Egyptian President Mursi intimated that Jews control American media, and last November, a member of Hungary’s parliament demanded that a list of Hungary’s Jews be compiled for security purposes.
This second form of anti-Semitism, barring its uniquely anti-Jewish character, can be reformulated to explain any xenophobia, but particularly xenophobia that emerges as a response to a moral challenge. Jews posed such a moral challenge to their gentile hosts throughout centuries of exile, and today, such a moral challenge has been posed to the Jewish people for over 60 years by Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and even within Israel itself. The effects of that moral agitation can be seen in the profluence of recent headlines describing random violence perpetrated by Israelis against anyone resembling a Palestinian.
Racist violence in Israel – A reaction to Palestinian Jew-hatred and terror?
Here are just a few recent examples: In late February, a woman wearing a hijab at a Jerusalem light rail station was assaulted by a group of Orthodox ultra-nationalist girls. They kicked the woman and tried to tear off her hijab while a security guard looked on without intervening. Last week, there were two more incidents in which ultra-nationalist Israeli youths attacked Arab women, both of whom were citizens of Israel. Furthermore, it has become commonplace to hear “Death to Arabs” chanted (not only offensively but erroneously) at the two newest members of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team (who are in fact Chechen Muslims) by the ultra-nationalist La Familia faction of the team’s fan base. Finally, in the case of the Molotov cocktail that was thrown at a car with a Palestinian license plate and severely burned seven members of the same family near the settlement of Bat Ayin, no one has been brought to justice.
When such instances of racist violence committed by Israelis occur, Israel’s international public relations corps is quick to report that the perpetrators will face prosecution in Israeli courts, and the perpetrators are portrayed as rare exceptions within a generally tolerant Israeli society. Indeed, after a group of Israeli teenagers nearly lynched East Jerusalemite Jamal Julani last summer, an hour was set aside in every Israeli school to discuss the incident and the effects of intolerance and racism on Israeli society. However, while this may have taken place in some schools, teachers and administrators at Jerusalem’s most elite high school reported that they received no such instruction from the Ministry of Education, as have parents of children in other schools throughout the country. Furthermore, the Israeli youths who nearly beat Julani to death are being convicted only of “incitement to violence” in a plea bargain after the Israeli court “lost” hours of recorded testimony.
While many hold the perpetrators of these attacks and the subtly discriminatory eye of the Israeli legal system responsible for this surge in anti-Arab violence, there are others in Israel and in the US who see the situation differently. Israel’s unconditional supporters are wont to see this violence as the logical response to Palestinian Jew-hatred and terror-mongering, and they tout instances of Palestinian terrorism and the racist content of Palestinian textbooks as evidence that the balance of hate remains firmly on the Palestinian side. Of course, innocent Israelis have lost their lives to Palestinian-perpetrated terror; hundreds of Israelis perished in a campaign of suicide bombing attacks that plagued Israel between 1989 and 2008. However, the number of attacks has dropped precipitously since the construction of Israel’s separation barrier in 2003. Today, thanks to both the Israeli security apparatus and shifting methodologies of the Palestinian resistance movement, the fear of violence emanating from the West Bank is negligible. It is therefore interesting to note that while the only Palestinians still committing acts of organized violence against Israel are Hamas and its affiliates in Gaza, all targets of Israeli anti-Arab violence have either been from the West Bank or from Israel proper.
Somewhat ironically, both Palestinians and Israelis who retain some hope for a two-state solution point to the relative calm within Israel as having effected a lack of urgency to reach a final status agreement. While the absence of sustained violence should be attributed in large part to Israel’s highly effective security apparatus, it is worthwhile to note the drastic shift in the tactics employed by the Palestinian resistance movement over the last decade. Today, thanks in large part to films such as the Academy Award-nominated “5 Broken Cameras,” any mention of Palestinian resistance to occupation is less likely to conjure images of masked militants and increasingly likely to conjure images of (generally) peaceful protesters seeking to halt the destruction of their ancestral farmlands by interfering with land-grabs perpetrated by the IDF in favor of Israeli settlements, much like other political resistance movements around the world do. Furthermore, in response to the claim that Palestinians systematically incite hatred of Jews, a study financed by the US State Department has published its findings which indicate that while neither Israeli nor Palestinian textbooks present the narrative of the other very accurately or favorably, neither set of textbooks incites hatred of or violence against the other.
However, this entire discussion of whether Palestinian attitudes and actions toward Israelis are the cause of this new wave of Israeli civilians assaulting random Palestinians is moot. The question at hand is how to understand anti-Semitism and its contemporary forms. Violence perpetrated against a political enemy — in this case by Palestinians against the IDF and Israeli civilians who are seen as contributing directly to Palestinian dispossession — is not anti-Semitism. It may be illegal or unjust, but it bears no significant similarity to the history of global anti-Semitism, and conflating anti-Semitism with Palestinian resistance to an Israeli-perpetrated political inequity only strips the term “anti-Semitism” of all meaning. Banning the screening of a film because it is about Jews — that can be called anti-Semitism because it targets Jews qua Jews. Palestinian hatred of those whom they perceive to have dispossessed them of their ancestral lands — that would have happened whether the perpetrators had been Jewish or not.
Anti-Semitism against non-Jewish Semites
If anti-Semitism is at all relevant to this discussion of wanton Israeli violence against innocent Palestinians, it is only as it can be applied to the Israelis themselves.
Any scholar of geopolitics or nationalism would easily identify the ubiquity of Israeli flags in seemingly every aailable public space as serving a nationalistic purpose — an assertion of national entitlement in response to the constant questioning of that entitlement by Israel’s critics. In other words, as much as Israeli flags stake Israel’s claim to whatever they adorn, they also indicate that the ownership of all that the flag touches is in question, and that the flag is Israel’s answer. However, challenging that answer, and the numerous other answers that Israel uses to pacify its critics (just as Jews embodied moral agitation against pre-Enlightenment injustice), are the millions of Palestinians over whom Israel rules, either as a flawed yet legitimate democratic government or as an occupying force.
The presence of Palestinians in Israeli society and in the Israeli consciousness is a constant moral challenge — one that no flag is large enough to conceal. Out of desperation at having to contend with an inconvenient, yet difficult moral challenge, just as European Christians and Muslim fundamentalists have grown desperately frustrated at the moral prodding of their Jews, Israelis are now taking out their frustration and insecurity on innocent Palestinians with violence and hatred. This is simply anti-Semitism directed at non-Jewish Semites.
In his 2010 Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture at UCLA, Christopher Hitchens spoke of the protean character of anti-Semitism — its tendency to adapt to any environment and historical period. As the Passover season ebbs away, it is worth reflecting on the Haggadah’s assertion that Jew-hatred and Judeocide threaten Jewish existence in every generation. What does this mean today, when the possibility of Judeocide is rendered impotent by the power and influence of the Jewish State?
It seems that the only real threat to Jewish security today is not physical but ethical. The Jewish nation finds itself today in a position all too similar to that of its diasporic hosts — increasingly xenophobic and dismissive of Jewish and liberal values when they complicate a new, paranoid worldview. Anti-Semitism is still the greatest threat to the Jewish people today, but it comes not from an oppressive environment but from within. Rather than threatening Jewish bodies, it threatens the Jews’ role as the tiny yet immutable guiding light in history that strives to infuse the status quo with intellectual freshness and ethical thinking — that which we might call “the Jewish soul.”