The point I was intending to bring out in the quoted passage [by Bernard Lewis] was, in sum, that if any country in the world behaves – as a matter of policy – towards a captive people in a way that persistently defies international human rights norms and denies it freedom, and that a visible international constituency appears consistently to defend that behaviour, that constituency is likely increasingly to attract the animosity of a broad coalition. This is only to be expected . The animosity may have nothing to do with the ethnic, religious or other affiliation of the constituency (thus in this case it need not have an ‘antisemitic’ motivation) but it might have everything to do with the posture the constituency publicly adopts and with the unpopular cause it vigorously promotes. To pose the question in direct terms: are Jewish communities around the world entirely blameless bystanders or hapless victims or is there anything they could have done or still could do to reduce the animosity?
By way of illustration, consider the following hypothetical case. Imagine that, in the context of a fierce, long-standing dispute, the state of Armenia captured and occupied a chunk of neighbouring Turkish territory, built Armenian-only settlements and highways, allowed militant settlers to intimidate local inhabitants, imposed curfews and closures, erected myriad checkpoints, roadblocks and forbidding barriers, demolished Turkish homes, imprisoned a large segment of Turkish youth and periodically bombarded Turkish-inhabited towns. [Something like this is exactly what Armenia has done in Nagorno-karabakh, part of the sovereign territory of neighboring Azerbaijan – ed.]
Instead of dissociating themselves from such conduct, imagine that organized diaspora Armenian communities in countries around the world - still haunted by memories of past massacres of their kinfolk - elected to defend and justify it in a show of solidarity (while displaying little tolerance for the growing band of so-called dissenters – or ‘self-hating Armenians’ - within their ranks). [This is unfair: the attackers don’t ask their victims if they are “Zionists” or if they might be dovish dissenters; that they are Jews is “guilt” enough – ed.]
In these circumstances, would it be surprising if a certain anti-Armenian sentiment developed in a spread of countries, not only among those who felt a natural affinity with people of Turkish or Muslim origin but also among others committed to democratic principles, human rights and international law? Yet Armenian communities, feeling besieged, isolated and misunderstood, might well put the animosity down to a historical Muslim antipathy towards Christians and a latent anti-Armenianism on the part of not just the Turkish people but much of the rest of the world too (which is not to say there might not be some validity to this in this or a comparable case).
On their part, the Turks and their supporters may investigate their own or Armenian scriptures to see if they could uncover historical explanations for what may seem to them like the cruel and treacherous nature of their oppressors. In this - hypothetical case – the search would possibly lead nowhere. However, an equivalent investigation targeted at Jews in the case of the very non-hypothetical Arab-Israeli conflict would be certain to produce the sought-after results, if only because of the ancestral battles that once took place between the Jewish tribes of Medina and the contemporaneous followers of the Muslim prophet, Muhammad. And indeed, following the principle of ‘seek and ye shall find’, the Muslim and Arab researchers have been able in practice frequently to dig out some of what they were looking for. In the late 1970s, this writer explored the political and psychological processes at work:
That the Jews nevertheless persisted in denying the legitimate claim of the Palestinians required an explanation. How was it that an entire population-set came to support an `unjust` cause? Often, this question seemed to invite the conclusion that the people in question were characteristically malevolent - a fact that was bound to be revealed by an investigation into their history and their religious beliefs. This, then, frequently became the purpose behind such investigations, as the Arab and Muslim worlds devoted ever-larger resources to the task of re-interpreting and often re-writing the history of the Jewish people and the religious tenets of Judaism ...
Ancient sources, including the Koran, were cited to 'prove' many of the contentions of the Muslim religious leaders. Yet, the highlighting of such 'evidence' - plainly having 'been in existence' for centuries - was a recent phenomenon, stemming from the onset of the contemporary conflict. Clearly, it was this that inspired the selective search for such passages that spoke ill of the Jews.
That the search was indeed selective is attested to by other parts of the Koran that preach making friends with the Jews, commonly referred to as the ‘people of the book’. Indeed, in a footnote to the above passage, it was observed that it was precisely these more genial portions that spiritual leaders in Egypt were urged by the authorities to stress to their congregants during the two weeks of the Cairo conference following President Sadat`s peace-seeking visit to Jerusalem in November 1977. This goes to show how need is often the mother of selectivity.
In general, Muslim scriptures are not bountiful source material for Jewish perfidy. It is not just that the messages they give out are not consistent but also that Jews are not an especial preoccupation of Muslim literature or culture. This is where bona fide antisemitic ideas and literature eagerly step in. Imported into the Muslim and Arab worlds where once it was alien, the antisemitic ‘explanation’ is now increasingly embraced by disaffected people with mind-sets primed to be receptive to a simple, it’s-all-the-Jews-fault, answer to many problems. In short, what profoundly distinguishes - and renders especially perilous - the Jewish predicament from the hypothetical Armenian one is that, in the Jewish case, a potent, ready-made, fully formed, deleterious ideology is lurking in the wings, ready to pounce and fill the gaps. Thus, what starts out as a political ‘anti-Jewish sentiment’ may, in given circumstances, metamorphose into a full-blooded antisemitism (of the classical type). The longer the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues, the more such toxic slippage is likely to be in evidence.
While helping to explain the cause of the phenomenon, none of this of course justifies the rise of antisemitism in the Arab and Muslim worlds, or anywhere else. As with all dogma based on supposedly innate traits, it is obnoxious in and of itself. It also poisons the conflict and is intensely dysfunctional to a solution. As an explanation, it is a dangerous impostor: by masquerading as an analysis, it obscures the need for a proper analysis. As a strategy, it is counterproductive: indeed it was the spread of antisemitism that played the decisive role in winning so many Jews to the Zionist cause in the first place. And as a tactic, it is highly divisive: confusing and alienating Jewish sympathizers of the Palestinian cause as well as many others who despise racism of all types. Moreover, stereotyping one party is liable to prompt equally pernicious and ignorant counter-stereotyping of other parties.
The charge of antisemitism against Palestinians and others who champion their cause is often made too readily and too flippantly. It lumps together real antisemites - who are still around aplenty in and out of the woodwork and having an increasingly good time - with genuine defenders of universal human rights and other groups, not least the authentic victims of oppressive Israeli policies and those who feel a natural affinity with them.
Equally, many Arabs, Muslims and their supporters too easily dismiss the accusation of antisemitism as just a device for defending shameful Israeli policies. While this is sometimes true, the accusation is sometimes true too. There is a vital need for both sides to shriek a little less loudly and reflect deeply on their respective roles in enabling the destructive ideology of antisemitism to permeate, aggravate and complicate the conflict. Some leading Palestinian figures have not only acknowledged the infiltration of antisemitism into Arab society but have been outspoken in their rejection of it.
To be continued...