Progressive antisemitism, and the lessons of history

17 May 2011 by CST

I have written before on this blog about the failure of too many people in the West to recognise antisemitism when it occurs, or to accept it as a relevant factor when analysing the actions of people or organisations who are hostile to Jews or to Israel. This is why I do not expect any mainstream media analyses of the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, or the prospects for Middle East peace, to include consideration of this speech by Hamas MP Yunis Al-Astal, broadcast on the Hamas-run Al-Aqsa TV station last week:

The [Jews] are brought in droves to Palestine so that the Palestinians – and the Islamic nation behind them – will have the honor of annihilating the evil of this gang. […]

All the predators, all the birds of prey, all the dangerous reptiles and insects, and all the lethal bacteria are far less dangerous than the Jews. […]

In just a few years, all the Zionists and the settlers will realize that their arrival in Palestine was for the purpose of the great massacre, by means of which Allah wants to relieve humanity of their evil. […]

When Palestine is liberated and its people return to it, and the entire region, with the grace of Allah, will have turned into the United States of Islam, the land of Palestine will become the capital of the Islamic Caliphate, and all these countries will turn into states within the Caliphate. When this happens, any Palestinian will be able to live anywhere, because the land of Islam is the property of all Muslims.

Until this happens, we must reject all the resettlement plans, naturalization, or even reparations prior to the return of the refugees. […]

This is classic genocidal language: not just the overt threat of annihilation, but the Nazi-like comparison of Jews to bacteria or vermin. Moreover, it is not exceptional to hear this kind of talk from Hamas or from other Islamist groups; MEMRI's website is replete with examples. It is not CST's place to address questions of internal Palestinian politics or the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but I have one observation to make about this speech: Al-Astal, as a Member of Parliament, is one of the very people who are said to give Hamas its legitimacy and justify international engagement with the group.

Europeans, more than anybody else, should understand the destructive power of antisemitism when it mobilises political movements that achieve power. Hamas-run Gaza is not Nazi Germany, and Israeli Jews are not in the same position that European Jews were in the 1930s; but still, Europeans should be the last people to turn a blind eye to this kind of speech, or to brush it under the carpet.

There is plenty of evidence that antisemitism is commonplace in parts of the Arab world. One friend of mine, when browsing in Dubai's largest bookshop during a recent holiday, found a copy of Henry Ford's International Jew sandwiched between books by Norman Finklestein and Martin Gilbert. Another friend, passing through Bahrain airport, saw an Arabic edition of Mein Kampf for sale. If anecdotal evidence of that nature is unsatisfactory, how about polling data: the Pew Global Survey (pdf) in 2008 found that over 90% of the populations of Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon had unfavourable opinions of Jews. It is hard to think of any other question that would elicit that level of unanimity.

This is a serious problem, yet it gets very little attention in Western debate about Islamist movements and politics, and is a particular blind spot for much of the Western left. Relevant here is Alan Johnson's explanation of how what he calls the "pro-tyrant left" developed its current way of thinking:

After 1989, and especially after 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the old idea that Stalinism (its crimes notwithstanding) was objectively progressive against the West, morphed after 1989 into the idea that all opposition to “US imperialism” or “Empire” was a “resistance” or “multitude” that must be (its crimes notwithstanding) supported, or at least not opposed energetically.

This pro-tyrant left thinks it holds the key to the entire world in the palm of its hand. If America is opposed to a tyrant, then—there is some dubious logic here, but this really is the crucial move—the tyrant must be opposing America. And—this is the last stretch, stay with me—therefore the tyrant is an “anti-imperialist” and, objectively, “progressive.”

There are some other conclusions that can follow from this: if the tyrant is antisemitic - as many are - then by this way of thinking, antisemitism must also be anti-imperialist and progressive. Alternatively, if you are the sort of person who only recognises antisemitism as a part of European far right politics, then if you consider a tyrant to be progressive you are likely to find it hard to accept that he (it is usually a he) is also antisemitic. Furthermore, if people on the global left see Hamas as part of their movement, then when Hamas MPs call for Jews to be annihilated this allows this kind of language to enter the debate on the left, or at least makes it less likely that people on the left would recognise and reject it as they should.

Johnson concludes with a description of the more diluted version of this way of thinking which is found in the liberal-left parts of Britain's politics, media and NGO sector:

And these ideas have been adopted in softer forms throughout the culture—we see it in the refusal of emotional commitment to the West in its battles against dictators and terrorists, the refusal to credit the West with anything but malign intent, the tendency to blame ourselves when we are attacked, the demonization of Israel, and the pathological refusal to see plain the nature of forces such as Hamas and Hezbollah, who were defined by the leading American academic Judith Butler as “part of the global Left.”

I would add: we see it in the way that antisemitic language and imagery is increasingly common in pro-Palestinian campaigning in Britain; and is rarely challenged from within those ranks.

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