A history of symbolic violence
It does not appear coincidental that a recent rise in rhetoric leveled against Jews across the world has coincided with a devaluation of the term anti-Semitism. Jews often use the term not only to describe violent action motivated by extreme prejudice against Jews, but also symbolically damaging actions for which negative feelings toward the Jews is more tenuous a motivation.
One may suggest that we use a different term for the lighter actions, and reserve the term anti-Semitism for the more serious threats. However, our strenuous exile has taught us Jews to be skeptical of making such neat distinctions. We have a two-thousand year history of being demonized and scapegoated for no substantiated reason other than our heritage, and these attitudes are quick to manifest themselves in bloodshed. We are rightfully sensitive about any negative portrayals of our people.
This attitude is not only a consequence of our past, but is also bolstered by recent developments throughout the world. In France, negative attitudes toward Israel set the stage for the acceptance of negative attitudes toward Jews. Now all it takes is one wacko with a gun to hear the rhetoric and turn it into a responsibility to murder Jews in their schools and supermarkets. Today, it is the misunderstanding of Israel’s actions which serves as justification for Jew-hatred, just as in the past it was a misunderstanding of how we bake our matzos. Both conspiracies evoke the most basic abhorrence by labeling us “child-killers.”
Unfortunately, non-Jews do not carry the same sensibilities as us. It is as rare for non-Jews to label something anti-Semitic as it is to witness someone who is accused of being anti-Semitic admit his or her prejudices. To an anti-Semite, an anti-Semitic perception of Jews is not negative, it is merely “true.” I have had a few encounters which demonstrate this phenomenon. Since people are usually too afraid to talk openly about Jews, these encounters always involved a slightly intoxicated individual.
My most jarring experience was over this past winter break. In the course of my conversation with a student, I heard every conspiracy I knew about the Jews, and then some. Hitler was a Jew, the Jews are the sons of Satan, the present-day Jews are frauds and are really the descendents of the Khazars, the Jews control everything and are in cahoots with the Vatican, etc. After each accusation I attempted to prove that these are erroneous conspiracies, but the student claimed that my information was no more credible than his. At some point, I called him an anti-Semite, but he had a whole list of “rationalizations” for why the term is a canard.
The political status quo on campus
While anti-Semitism has become a term which is not taken seriously, a similar term has gained ascendance: Islamophobia. While Islamophobia undoubtedly exists, I believe the phenomenon of Islamophobia is fundamentally different from anti-Semitism. The term Islamophobia is a relatively new term and does not carry the same historical weight of anti-Semitism. The differences are reflected most vividly in the terms themselves. Islamophobia is a combination of the words “Islam” and “phobia,” meaning an irrational fear of the religion of Islam, and thus targets the tenants of Islam. On the other hand, anti-Semitism represents negative perceptions or actions against the Jewish people, irrespective of religious doctrines. Additionally, the former projects a psychological malady onto the culprit, while the latter does not necessarily do so.
However, the two terms share a common feature: they are both used to describe perceived negative actions towards a given community. Nevertheless, the usage of these terms does not seem to prevent these negative attitudes and actions from persisting, and instead has the effect of furthering divisions. The root of both of these phenomena is a lack of understanding of a community which is different from one’s own. Rather than labeling something as unjustifiably negative, we must double our efforts at educating one another.
The ironic twist is that despite our communities being most similar to one another, on our campus it is quite often the Muslim students labeling Jews Islamophobic and the Jewish students labeling Muslims anti-Semitic. I believe that this is a result of political tensions and certain false perceptions, such as that of Jews being “whites” rather than an ethnic identity of their own.
Our communities interact with one another almost exclusively through a political lens, in which we tend to disagree with one another, and thus only further the divide. Politics is inherently divisive, and there is either an unwillingness, antipathy, or lack of initiative to talk to those with differing political beliefs. I don’t care much for politics, but for the past year it has been impossible to ignore.
Since I do not have strong political affiliations, I have attended events hosted by clubs across the spectrum in an attempt to further my knowledge. While I try to set aside my emotions, it becomes impossible to do so when you feel someone is attacking your community. I used to feel threatened by the “other side,” but now I am endlessly frustrated — we are simply discussing different realities.
I don’t suggest that we stop the political discourse. However, I believe that such conversation is largely futile and damaging at our level, and instead we should focus our efforts on conducting other forms of discussions between our communities.
A service to remember
During my freshman year here at UCLA, I enrolled in a History of Religion course. We were assigned to attend the service of a religion other than the one we grew up in, and write a field research report about it. At the time, I abided by Jewish law more stringently and so was prohibited from attending the services of any religion deemed idolatrous. As a strictly monotheistic religion, Islam was my best option.
My understanding of Islam was limited at the time. I knew the basics of its history and its relation to Judaism, and was aware that there were certain people killing in its name today. But other than tenuous contact while I was in Israel, I had never encountered Muslims firsthand in a comfortable setting. I had an abstract notion of who Muslims were and was curious to color the picture in, but did not know how to go about doing it.
I was sitting in my math class waiting for lecture to start when the boy sitting next to me asked if I’m Jewish. It must have been the large yarmulke on my head that tipped him off. I said yes, to which he replied, somewhat giddily, that he is Muslim. I think we both felt a certain satisfaction in talking to one another, despite the feeling that we were “supposed to” hate each other. I told him that I needed to attend a Muslim prayer service for a class. He gladly offered to take me to the service held in the John Wooden Center on a Friday afternoon and handed me some pamphlets about Islam.
The service was a transformative experience to my understanding of Islam. Before the service, the room was being used for a yoga class. The lightly dressed girls walked out of the room with yoga mats in their arms, as the Muslims entered the room with prayer mats in theirs. It is difficult to imagine this scene playing out in most places outside the West, so this image in my head serves as a testament to the adaptability of religion. As an Orthodox Jew in the modern world, I am constantly faced with the struggle of applying an ancient tradition and worldview to our novel lifestyle. I believe that Muslims are undergoing a similar struggle and it is those who attend our university who are on the forefront of this battle; they do not have the luxury of those living in predominantly Muslim countries who are able to sidestep the reality of modernity through ideological wrangling.
A significant portion of the service was taken up by a lecture given by one of the students. I was shocked because many of the stories told were exact replicas of stories that I had heard before, simply with different names. The message of the speech was that if you believe in G-d and follow his dictums, then He will “have your back.” While this is a message that I have qualms with, it is one which is prevalent in many Jewish circles, including the one that I grew up in. While I knew that there were commonalities among our religions, I did not realize how commonplace they may be.
Towards a different type of dialogue
Rather than focusing on our political differences, or ignoring our differences entirely and focusing on our social commonalities as young college students, I believe that we — Muslim and Jewish students — must begin to focus on the commonalities within our faith-communities as a basis with which to communicate our differences. We can, and perhaps must, remain divided over Israeli politics, but we must learn to come together and discuss other issues as well.
The way tensions are today, I do not imagine simply placing Jews and Muslims in a room with some Middle Eastern food and music. I do not think that we must become friends with one another. (In fact, this may be an obstacle to reconciliation.) Instead we must simply learn to respect one another —not despite our differences, but for our differences.
If we can respect one another then we can begin to communicate with one another. The issues we discuss do not have to blind our differences, but have to be matters in which there is at least ample room for discourse. An obvious start would be our faith systems. Anyone who self-identifies as Muslim or Jewish has an attachment to an interconnected faith system, whether he or she identifies as “religious” or not.
I suggest that we organize talks on various issues of contention among our religions. The talks could be given by rabbis and imams, but as we are on a college campus, perhaps it would be more fitting to focus on academic talks by professors. For example, Carol Bakhos, the Director for the Center of the Study of Religion, may be an invaluable resource as is evidenced by her most recently published book titled The Family of Abraham: Jewish, Christian and Muslim Interpretations. There is plenty of faith-oriented work being done on our campus already, but those few who are interested in learning more tend to stay where they are comfortable, and in the current tense environment, comfort is synonymous with separation.
History is replete with instances of positive and negative relations between Jews and Muslims. While our campus today points to the latter, we must begin to transform it to the former. The city of Seville may be seen as a symbol of the possibility and benefits of doing so. Under the Umayyad rule in the eighth century, Seville was marked by both a thriving economy and positive relations between its Jewish and Muslim inhabitants.
The economy which we students participate in does not deal with the exchange of goods but rather with the exchange of ideas. Our marketplace has become overrun with competing monopolies, and it is up to us to change this, for the betterment of all. In communicating what we take for granted to those who are different from us, we may come to learn not only about one another but also about our own faiths. We will grow as individuals and as communities, and replace the idolatrous caricatures we hold of one another with fleshed-out realities. Doing so will not only benefit our communities, but will provide a glimmer of hope for more positive relations between all of our various campus communities. Given the shape the world is in today, this is not only important, but necessary.