Tuesday, January 16, 2007
Are all Jew-haters anti-Semites?
The row about the SWP providing a platform for the Jew hating, Gilad Atzmon runs and runs. In last week’s Socialist Worker, Lindsay German, makes an important contribution to the debate. (letters, 13th January). Lindsay argues that: “We also have to recognise that in Europe today the main form of racism, taken up and propagated by governments and media, is against Muslims. This scapegoating has direct parallels with the situation of the Jews in the 1930s.”
This is in response to Michael Rosen, writing the week before: “I’m mightily dismayed that you have saxophonist Gilad Atzmon on board [for the Cultures of Resistance musical programme] . He is someone who has frequently expressed racist ideas and surely we have always said that you can’t fight racism with racism? I fear that the racism he expresses is seen by some in the liberation movements as a racism that doesn’t matter as much.”
The conflicting claims of different oppressed groups have always created a potential problem for the left: in the 1970s, for example, there was a lot of controversy over Rastafarian acts appearing on Rock Against Racism (RAR) platforms. At that time the key task was to create a cultural consensus against the fascism of the NF, and bring black and white young people together (which was not usually the case back then). Those socialist feminists opposing the participation of, for example, Aswad, were making a mistake. Although the sexism and homophobia of various reggae acts was oppressive, it was a reflection of the views of the audience (particularly the young black youth) we were seeking to build bridges with. What is more, the overall context of RAR gigs always included political challenges to homophobia and sexism.
So Lindsay’s argument about concentrating on the main from of racism is not necessarily wrong. But we must judge it in the concrete circumstances. It is her thesis that anti-Moslem feeling is the main form of popular racism. (Actually this may not be entirely true, and a more generalised racism against asylum seekers and migrant workers (often white) is also widely prevalent.) therefore, according to her narrative, Atzmon, as a Jewish opponent of Zionism is a progressive, who challenges the dominant racism.
There are a number of problems with this. Not least of which is that hatred of Jews is still with us in the West, the huge success of Mel Gibson’s Passion of Christ shows that the dark beast of pre-enlightenment Jew-hating still has a resonance among Christians (a hatred that pre-dates anti-semitism). But there is a greater problem, which is the very widespread hatred of Jews in the Middle East. The Zionist state has wrapped itself around the Jewish identity, and the opposition to Zionism within the Middle East often spills in ghastly symmetry into anti-Jewish hatred. What is more, European anti-Semitism has been widely accepted in Arab society - whereas historically the Islamic world provided a haven for Jews fleeing anti-Jewish pogroms on Europe.
To understand both th roots of Islamophobia, and anti-semitism, we need to understand the ideology of anti-semitism. The term "Semite" was invented by European linguists in the 18th century to distinguish languages from one another by grouping them into "families" descended from one "mother" tongue to which they are all related. In this context, languages came to be organised into "Aryan" and "Semitic", etc. The philologists claimed that Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Amharic, etc., were "Semitic" languages, even though philologists could never find a parent Semitic language from which they all derived.
In the 19th century and with the rise of European biological racism, those who hated Jews could no longer rely on religious difference to mark out post- Enlightenment Jews as objects of their hatred. A new basis for the hatred of Jews had to be found. Post- Enlightenment haters of Jews began to identify Jews as "Semites" on account of their alleged ancestors having spoken Hebrew
Modern anti-semitism therefore derives its caricature of the Jew, only partly from the Mediaeval money lenders of Europe, (whose faith allowed them to escape Christian proscription of unsury), or Mel Gibson’s Christ killers, but mainly from the alleged orientalism of the Jews. The caricature conflates historical religious prejudices with modern and ancient images of the Middle East. The hatred of Jews as orientals, glides easily into hatred of Arabs and Muslims. Edward Said pointed out that after the oil crisis of 1973, Arabs came to be represented in the West as having "clearly 'Semitic' features: sharply hooked noses, and evil moustachioed leers on their faces. Nowaays, they even have an international conspiracy all of their own!
The whole category of Jews as a “semitic” category, was therefore the invention of the European Christian surpremacists seeking a scientific rationale for hating the adherents of another religion. In a further horrific symmetry the Zionists accepted this racist definition and argued a flawed strategy of separatism as an escape from anti-Semitism. Zionists accepted and popularised the European Jew-hating identification of them as a separate race.
Modern Islamophobia, builds strongly upon 19th and 20th century traditions of anti-semitism. Not only using the same issues of complaining about failure to assimilate, etc. But even using the same images, and fear of orientalist culture.
Lindsay German may be correct that in Britain today, the most significant form of racism is Islalmophobia. But Jew hating (not always in the form of anti-semitism) is still a growing force. What is more in the wider context of the world today, and particularly in the Middle East, anti-Semitism has strong currency. Any progressive outcome to the Palestinian crisis must robustly oppose anti-Semitism, as a secular Palestine must also provide a safe home for the Jews.
On a technical, legalistic basis perhaps Gilad Aztmon may not be an anti-semite, as his Jew-Hating opposes the idea of the Jews having any specific identity, whether defined by language or otherwise. His defence against racism is simply to deny that Jews are a race. Obvioulsy the following views are deeply offensive, and I quote them from his web-site only to demonstrate the depths of Atzmon’s Jew-hating: “The ‘J’ people aren’t a race. Not only are they not a race, they aren’t a class, they aren’t a nation, they aren’t a tribe, they aren’t an ethnic group, they aren’t victims, they aren’t even the oppressors. They are none of these but they can easily become any of them whenever it is convenient. The J’s are the ultimate chameleons, they can be whatever they like as long as it serves as some expedient."”
It is a scandal that any left wing organisation gives a platform to Jew-baiters.