Daily Archives: 2018-10-30 22:25:00 UTC

How anti-Muslim hostility has replaced the old anti-Semitism

Trying to think through the question of modern antisemitism before writing my previous post I pulled off a shelf my old copy of Edward Said’s Orientalism. I was surprised to see how much I had forgotten, and to discover where some of my views on modern Islamophobia and racist attitudes towards Middle Easterners may have been born. Some extracts:

For whereas it is no longer possible to write learned (or even popular) disquisitions on either “the Negro mind” or “the Jewish personality,” it is perfectly possible to engage in such research as “the Islamic mind,” or “the Arab character” . . . (262)

Further on….

Yet after the 1973 war the Arab appeared everywhere as something more menacing. Cartoons depicting an Arab sheik standing behind a gasoline pump turned up consistently. These Arabs, however, were clearly “Semitic”: their sharply hooked noses, the evil mustachioed leer on their faces, were obvious reminders (to a largely non-Semitic population) that “Semites” were at the bottom of all “our” troubles, which in this case was principally a gasoline shortage. The transference of a popular anti-Semitic animus from a Jewish to an Arab target was made smoothly, since the figure was essentially the same.

Thus if the Arab occupies space enough for attention, it is as a negative value. He is seen as the disrupter of Israel’s and the West’s existence, or in another view of the same thing, as a surmountable obstacle to Israel’s creation in 1948. Insofar as this Arab has any history, it is part of the history given him (or taken from him: the difference is slight) by the Orientalist tradition, and later, the Zionist tradition. Palestine was seen—by Lamartine and the early Zionists —as an empty desert waiting to burst into bloom; such inhabitants as it had were supposed to be inconsequential nomads possessing no real claim on the land and therefore no cultural or national reality. Thus the Arab is conceived of now as a shadow that dogs the Jew. In that shadow—because Arabs and Jews are Oriental Semites—can be placed whatever traditional, latent mistrust a Westerner feels towards the Oriental. For the Jew of pre-Nazi Europe has bifurcated: what we have now is a Jewish hero, constructed out of a reconstructed cult of the adventurer-pioneer-Orientalist (Burton, Lane, Renan), and his creeping, mysteriously fearsome shadow, the Arab Oriental. (285-86)

The Arab mind . . .

There are good Arabs (the ones who do as they are told) and bad Arabs (who do not, and are therefore terrorists). Most of all there are all those Arabs who, once defeated, can be expected to sit obediently behind an infallibly fortified line, manned by the smallest possible number of men, on the theory that Arabs have had to accept the myth of Israeli superiority and will never dare attack. One need only glance through the pages of General Yehoshafat Harkabi’s Arab Attitudes to Israel to see how — as Robert Alter put it in admiring language in Commentary — the Arab mind, depraved, anti-Semitic to the core, violent, unbalanced, could produce only rhetoric and little more. (307)

The fact about Islam . . .

Lewis’s polemical, not scholarly, purpose is to show, here and elsewhere, that Islam is an anti-Semitic ideology, not merely a religion. He has a little logical difficulty in trying to assert that Islam is a fearful mass phenomenon and at the same time “not genuinely popular,” but this problem does not detain him long. As the second version of his tendentious anecdote shows, he goes on to proclaim that Islam is an irrational herd or mass phenomenon, ruling Muslims by passions, instincts, and unreflecting hatreds. The whole point of his exposition is to frighten his audience, to make it never yield an inch to Islam. According to Lewis, Islam does not develop, and neither do Muslims; they merely are, and they are to be watched, on account of that pure essence of theirs (according to Lewis), which happens to include a long-standing hatred of Christians and Jews. Lewis everywhere restrains himself from making such inflammatory statements flat out; he always takes care to say that of course the Muslims are not anti-Semitic the way the Nazis were, but their religion can too easily accommodate itself to anti-Semitism and has done so. Similarly with regard to Islam and racism, slavery, and other more or less “Western” evils. The core of Lewis’s ideology about Islam is that it never changes, and his whole mission is now to inform conservative segments of the Jewish reading public, and anyone else who cares to listen, that any political, historical, and scholarly account of Muslims must begin and end with the fact that Muslims are Muslims. (317-18)


Said, Edward W. 1979. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.


Trying to understand today’s antisemitism

An article in Salon.com caught my eye and initially repulsed me enough to make me deliberately ignore it at first: Ever blamed “the Jews”? You have blood on your hands too.

My first thought was, Hang on, I blame “Australia” and “Australians”, too, for inhumane treatment of refugees and war-loving “all the way with the USA” enthusiasm whenever the US finds another excuse to invade someone. I blame the white British peoples and white Americans for a history of imperialist and even genocidal adventures. And if I speak critically of Israel I am similarly speaking of the nation as a whole for their treatment of black (even though religiously Jewish) races in their midst and of Palestinians generally. Far from my mind is that there is any racial essence in every single Australian, British, American or Jewish person that predisposes them to racist and genocidal (as defined by the United Nations) attitudes and actions. I know I have many like-minded opponents of all these evils among Australians, and I know they exist in the US, UK and Israel, too.

I later did have cause to return and read the Salon article by Matthew Rozsa and learned I had reacted too quickly and ignorantly of what he had written. I should have paid more attention to “the Jews” in the title. No, I have never blamed “the Jews” for the atrocities of Zionism. We have two different terms when it comes to Jews or Jewish people, and I have just used them now, as does Matthew Rozsa. I find it hard to imagine an antisemitic bunch of neo-nazis denigrating “the Jewish people” but I can imagine them spitting out the word “Jew”. I haven’t quite put my finger on the best way to spell out the difference clearly in words but I no doubt will as I think it through some more.

I have been very fortunate to have grown up in a family and in social circles where antisemitism was deplored so I have never been able to personally understand the thinking of antisemites (though I can understand it “intellectually” of course). But recent events I have read and seen in the news have added to my incomprehension.

Trump (sorry to bring him in to the discussion) clearly lent moral support to the antisemitic demonstrators at Charlottesville when he said there were fine people on both sides. I have read and am led to understand that when certain circles speak of “globalists” they are implicitly referring to Jews, to George Soros as a prominent representative, with shades of “world conspiracy” thinking. Recall Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

But here’s the complicating part that I am not quite sure I completely understand. Trump also boasted of his enthusiastic support for the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and moved the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Stuff the Palestinians. How could one demonstrate any more clearly some sort of philosemitism?

How does that move sit with his respect for the “fine people” of Charlottesville and sinister warning of Soros’s role in “financing” the “thousands of invaders”, a mixed band of criminals and “middle-easterners”, marching to the United States?

I turned back to Edward Said’s Orientalism in a search for some help. I recall he spoke of the bifurcation of anti-semitism since the Second World War: the despised Arab had taken the place of the “ghetto-bred Jew” while the “Jewish people” had become “dehumanized” in reverse — they were now effectively angels who could do no wrong and any faults were merely the side-effects of over-zealous good intentions.

But that was too simplistic. We see here someone who both backs Israel to the hilt and sends derogatory dog-whistles to antisemites at the same time.

It’s the same with that other branch of “semitic peoples”, too, isn’t it. The Arabs. We hear dire warnings of “unknown middle easterners” (hear “terrorists”) joining the invasion caravan on its way to the US. But at the same time we have a devotion that reaches over into subservience to the rulers of Saudi Arabia.

I guess if there is a common point here, it is that Jews and Arabs are on “our side” (or rather we are on “their side”) when they are contained in their state borders and demonstrate an ability to use decisive power to crush the Muslim cum Middle Easterner threat and give us oil. But most of all, the Saudi Arabian elites “do as they are told” by the West — give us oil, support Israel, and keep certain terrorists under check. (We set aside the actual facts for the moment — Israel’s responsibility for launching Hamas and Saudi Arabia’s financing of world-wide extremist Islamism — and confine ourselves to public impressions. Iran also crushes radical dissent and could give us oil but there is a need for vengeance there going back to the humiliating events surrounding the overthrow of the Shah, I think.) When certain Jewish people (“Jews”) and Arabs are “like us” — violent and keeping “Arabs” under the thumb of occupation and imprisonment, and wealth-generating in our interests — they are “good”.

So I returned to read Matthew Rozsa’s article and found some degree of confirmation:

Both sides, of course, will frequently target the state of Israel, which certainly deserves criticism for its treatment of the Palestinian people but has also attracted a certain breed of anti-Semite who embraces Israeli atrocities as a cover for their own bilious views. Here’s an easy tell that distinguishes bigots from legitimate critics: The former will come up with arguments that hold every Jew accountable for the actions of Israeli officials, and are likely to lump Israeli misdeeds into larger diatribes against “the Jews.”

And Edward Said covered that point, too, when he wrote

The common denominator between Weizmann and the European anti-Semite is the Orientalist perspective, seeing Semites (or sub-divisions thereof) as by nature lacking the desirable qualities of Occidentals. (Orientalism, p. 306)

Like us, good. Not like us, bad.

Another example of that bookend structure in ancient literature

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but here’s another instance of that bookend/concentric/ring/chiastic structure that once upon a time a long time ago I thought was evidence of divine inspiration when I saw it in the Bible. I posted an example from Suetonius recently. This one is from Josephus and his book Antiquities of the Jews. It is set out and discussed by Steve Mason in his commentary on Josephus’s Life. Life has a structure that mirrors the Antiquities, Mason shows. So without the details that he mentions to fill in much that is generalized here, here is the structure of Antiquities.

Prologue (1.1-26)

PART I: First Temple {Ant. 1-10)

A. The Lawgiver’s Establishment of the Constitution (1-4)

Antecedents: Creation to the deaths of Isaac and Rebecca; Abraham the first convert (vol. 1)—in Mesopotamia

Antecedents: Jacob and Esau to the Exodus (vol. 2)

The Judean constitution: summary of priestly laws (vol. 3)

Forty years in desert, rebellion to the death of Moses; summary of the law as constitution (vol. 4)

B. First Phase: senate, kings, and high priests of Eli’s descent (5-8)

Conquest of Canaan under Joshua (vol. 5)

Conflicts with Philistines under Samuel and Saul (vol. 6)

Zenith of the first monarchy: the reign of David (vol. 7)

The reign of Solomon and division of the kingdom (vol. 8)

C. Second Phase: decline through corruption of the constitution (9-10)

Problems with neighbors to the fall of the Northern Kingdom (vol. 9)

CENTRAL PANEL: Fall of the first Temple; the priest-prophet Jeremiah and prophet Daniel assert the Judean God’s control of affairs and predict the Roman era. Decisive proof of the Judean code’s effectiveness.

PART II: Second Temple {Ant. 11-20)

A. Re-establishment of the aristocracy through the glorious Hasmonean house; its decline (11-13)

Return of Jews under Cyrus to Alexander the Great (vol. 11)

Successful interaction with the Ptolemaic world from the death of Alexander; translation of the LXX; Tobiad story; the Hasmonean revolt (vol. 12)

Zenith of the Hasmonean dynasty with John Hyrcanus; monarchy and decline to the death of Alexandra (vol. 13)

B. Monarchy writ large: Herod (14-17)

The end of the Hasmoneans; Roman intervention in Judea; Herod’s rise to power; benefits to the Judeans (vol. 14)

Herod’s conquest of Jerusalem; building projects and dedication of Temple (vol. 15)

Herod at the peak of his power; his domestic conflicts (vol. 16)

The end of Herod’s life; his son Archelaus (vol. 17)

C. World-wide effectiveness of the Judean constitution (18-20)

Judea becomes a province; Judeans in Rome; Roman rule to Agrippa I; Herod’s descendants; Gaius’ plan fails and he is punished; Asinaeus and Anilaeus in Babylonia (vol. 18);

Detailed description of Gaius’ punishment; promotion of Claudius; career of Agrippa I; the Roman constitutional crisis; Judeans in Alexandria (vol. 19)

From the death of Agrippa I to the eve of the revolt; the conversion of Adiabene’s royal house in Mesopotamia; causes of the revolt; concluding remarks (vol. 20)

Epilogue (20.259-68)


Mason, Steve. 2001. Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary, Volume 9: Life of Josephus. Leiden: Brill. p. xxiv