Islamophobia as the New Antisemitism

By Jerry Haber   19 August 2010

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. 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.

Jeremiah (Jerry) Haber is the nom de plume of an orthodox Jewish studies and philosophy professor, who divides his time between Israel and the US.


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