We have a host of words to describe abusive inter-communal attitudes: bigotry, prejudice, stereotyping, racism, xenophobia, etc. These words apply universally. To suggest that Jews need a special word that cover these meanings only when the target is Jewish is to dehistoricize and essentialize Jews. Bigotry against Jews is just bigotry. Racism against Jews is just racism. Jews don't need a special word for it. What is good for everyone else should be good enough for everyone.
Antisemitism is a unique, self-described and self-labeled modern tendency with a shady beginning, a horrible climax and an ignoble zombie afterlife. Other political tendencies have borrowed themes made popular by antisemitism. Zionists adopted the image of the "wandering Jew" as it was fashioned by antisemites. Some Arab nationalists repackaged the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" as propaganda in the struggle against Israel. These borrowings reflect badly on their authors, but they do not make them into "antisemites." When Bush spoke of a "crusade" to bring democracy to Iraq, he did not become Pope Urban II, and the U.S. military did not become a column of horse-riding knights in dull armor. He was just borrowing and adapting a lousy historical theme. When John Edwards speaks of the two Americas, he is not being a communist, even if he briefly activates the communist imagery of class struggle.
If there is one true claimant to the title of antisemitism's heir today, it is "islamophobia". Islamohobia recycles images, visual themes, fears and fantasies that are recognizably drawn from the antisemitic repertoire: threatening immigration, contamination, secret bid for domination, even the crooked nose. But this is just the icing on the cake. Let's look at the more substantial similarities. Like antisemitism, islamophobia reconfigures religious bigotry in secular terms (but with "cultural" replacing biological determination.) Like antisemitism, it fuses together xenophobia against immigrants with resentments towards a small and rich comprador class--Arab oil Sheikhs replacing Jewish bankers. Like antisemitism, islamophobia is both mildly disreputable and highly serviceable to the dominant power in its capacity to fuse a marginal social group and a political threat (communism, islamism). Most importantly, islamophobia offers a comprehensive thesis about how to diagnose the body politic and how to cure it--"the clash of civilizations."
But also like antisemitism, islamophobia as a term essentializes and dehistoricizes its victims. Both antisemitism and islamophobia are coined words with a political agenda. Their very morphology puts the spotlight on the victims by center-staging the victim's identity rather than the politics of the perpetrators in the name itself. How we use words to divide the word into meaningful slices is not innocent of politics.
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Jews sans frontieres on anti-Semitism
At Jews sans frontieres, Gabriel Ash has written a fantastic piece on anti-Semitism--what it is, what it isn't, the history and politics thereof, etc. It's a long post, but necessary reading. Here's a sample: