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Anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim racisms, and the question of Palestine/Israel

Both anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish racisms have played their part in legitimising global clashes. And the Palestine/Israel question has helped to encourage these conflations and racialisations.

Nira Yuval-Davis Jamie Hakim
28 September 2015
mirror racisms

Orthodox Jews protest in support of Palestinians in New York City. Demotix/Angel Zayas. All rights reserved.

Orthodox Jews protest in support of Palestinians in New York City. Demotix/Angel Zayas. All rights reserved.Having introduced you to the origins of this “Anti-Jewish and anti–Muslim racisms and Palestine/Israel” guest week on openDemocracy, and the broad principles which underpin it, we want to flesh out the intellectual positions that we have taken in order to frame what we set out to do, and include some of the points raised at our conferences that have not made it into the articles we are publishing.

From the outset, we wanted this project to explore the multiple, complex and inter-related ways in which anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim racisms are constructed in relation to the question of Palestine/Israel. In particular, we wanted to explore how the histories of Zionist settlement, anti-colonial and nation-building struggles and twentieth-century warfare in the Middle East region were being transformed in the current historical conjuncture – especially in Britain and Europe, but also globally – and how these related to racialised discourses against Jews and Muslims.

In bringing together specialists from a variety of backgrounds, the conferences we organised were intended to serve as a first step towards building an anti-racist political vision across borders and boundaries (a vision which some of us call "transversal"). The aim was to destabilise some of the oppositional dichotomies which are currently hegemonic in discourses around Jews, Muslims and Middle East politics.

It would be impossible to sum up the rich tapestry of presentations and discussions from both conferences (which were recorded and are available on the CMRB website). Instead, in this introduction, we will reflect on a couple of the major issues that arose in them in order to give an overview of some of the concerns that informed what we plan to publish in this themed week, and in our ongoing online paper series. We are very conscious that in doing so we are not reflecting any common perspective of the organisers and participants of the conferences and the contributors to this series. No such common perspective exists, at least for now, beyond that of broad anti-racism.

Racisms and anti-racism

Anti-Zionist protest, Mea Sharim, Israel. Demotix/NSI agency. All rights reserved.

Anti-Zionist protest, Mea Sharim, Israel. Demotix/NSI agency. All rights reserved.Before discussing some of the major issues that arose, we need to clarify, in a brief and generic way, what we mean when we describe the perspective of the conferences as anti-racist. Racism and constructions of ‘race’ are not the same. When we discuss racism we focus on people’s experiences of perceptions and practices which construct immutable boundaries between groupings of people, that naturalise fixed hierarchical power relations between them.

It is not just physical appearance which can make people the target of racism. Any signifier of boundaries can be used to construct these boundaries – from the colour of the skin to the shape of the nose, to accent, mode of dress, ethnic origin or religious affiliation. Racism has two generic logics: that of exclusion, the ultimate form of which is genocide, and that of exploitation, the ultimate logic of which is slavery. However, in most concrete historical situations, these two logics are practised in a complementary way.

Racisms against Jews and Muslims, therefore, are based on ideological, economic, violent and other kinds of social constructions of inferiorisation and subjugation, which facilitate the exclusion and/or the exploitation of Jews and Muslims. However, not being racist towards Jews or Muslims does not mean an automatic acceptance and agreement of any religious beliefs or particular political and normative values and projects, which consider or introduce themselves as representing the ‘true’ Jew or Judaism, or the ‘true’ Muslim or Islam.

It is important to remember that both Jews and Muslims can occupy different places in the continuum between being very religious to fully secular and, even when religious, can believe in many different versions of the religion. Also, being a target of racist ideologies and practices does not necessarily mean that people are not racist themselves. It is for this reason that we prefer to label our subject topic ‘anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim racisms’ rather than the more popular labels (used, alas, by several of our contributors) of ‘antisemitism’, a label used historically also towards non-Jews (as we elaborate further in this introduction) and Islamophobia, which does not differentiate between attitudes towards different types of Muslim and Islam.

Racism and constructions of ‘race’ are not the same

However, one of the useful insights that has emerged out of this project is that we need to differentiate not only between the people and the religion, but also between aversion or intolerance towards the religion as such (for example, the Swiss law forbidding the building of Muslim minarets for ‘aesthetic’ reasons, or objections to Muslim women wearing a headscarf) and critiques of racist and sexist ideologies and practices which are presented as the ‘only true way’ to be a Muslim or a Jew.

All religions and all sacred texts constitute rich cultural resources, which include internal contradictions and selective interpretations of the religion. Every ideological and political religious movement uses a particular interpretation of the religion as its legitimation. Criticising them – whether one is born to that religious community or not, whether one is religious or not – has nothing to do with racism. On the contrary, conflating the two by seeing any critique of a particular interpretation as automatically aimed against all Jews or Muslims, homogenises both the people and the religion and can only legitimise racism on the one hand and religious fundamentalism on the other.

Although at the conferences – let alone outside them – there have been attempts to ‘quantify’ whether there is more racism contemporarily, especially in the UK and Europe, against Jews or Muslims, against Judaism or Islam and, conversely, in the name of which religion more atrocities are being practised these days, we resist this tendency, prevalent in identity politics, that some of us call ‘the Oppression Olympics’.

There is no doubt that given the differential size of Jewish and Muslim populations globally (and in Britain) we cannot compare the two. However, there have been murderous racist activities in recent years towards members of both religious and ethnic communities, as well as murderous racist activities carried out by fundamentalists in the name of both religions. This does not mean that we equate or homogenise the two. Indeed, one of the particularities of recent Islamic fundamentalisms is that their violence is disproportionately directed towards other people of Muslim origins rather than just against the ‘kofers’.

The Palestine/Israel question

"Real Jews". Flickr/Hammontree. Some rights reserved.

"Real Jews". Flickr/Hammontree. Some rights reserved.Another central discussion at the conferences related to the Palestine/Israel question, both historically and in relation to a desired solution to the conflict. We would argue (and many, but not all, of the participants in the conferences would agree with this) that Zionism needs to be understood as a nationalist movement which originally sought to ‘normalise’ the Jewish people and thus solve the racialisation of the Jews in European modern history.

To do this, however, the Zionist movement used the strategy of a settler colonial project in Palestine as the main instrument for achieving for the Jews a state that claimed to represent the Jews all over the world. The Zionist settler colonial project has continued during the last 100 years, before and after the establishment of the state in 1948, before and after the 1967 Occupation. While doing so, in order to confront and overcome the Arab and especially the Palestinian resistance to this project, Israel has become a permanent warfare society.

Settler society projects differ from other colonial projects in that their basic mechanism of governability has been via the racialised exclusion of the local population from the new nation building project, rather than incorporating them as the new national working class, as was the case of immigrant workers from a less ‘desirable’ ethnic origin than the hegemonic settler communities. (This does not mean, of course, that where possible the indigenous population were not exploited as cheap labour).

Zionism, like all settler society projects has its own specificities, the two main ones being that, firstly, unlike other western settler societies, the Zionist movement did not have one clear ‘mother country’ but rather sought alliance with whatever imperial power controlled Palestine at the time and, secondly, that unlike other settler projects dominated by religious aspirations to build ‘new Jerusalems’, the Zionist movement sought legitimation in claiming the ‘new Jerusalem’ territory in Palestine as the homeland of their ‘Old Jerusalem’.

Israel has become a permanent warfare society

This proved to be a forceful motivational power for mobilising Jews to immigrate to their ‘Altneuland’ (old-new country – to use Herzl’s name for the utopian society he dreamed of building in Palestine). It also acted, in its common sense link to Christian evangelism, as another source of legitimation of Zionism in the western world, in addition to the naturalisation of European colonialism and, later on, the aftermath of the Nazi Holocaust. One common assumption to some versions of Zionism and anti-Jewish racism (as expressed so eloquently by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu recently, post-Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent events in Copenhagen) is that Jews do not belong and should not live in the same societies as non-Jews.

One of the questions debated in the conferences was the extent to which Israel should be a Jewish state or a state of all its citizens (more than 20 percent of all Israeli citizens, even if we do not count the post-1967 Occupied Territories under the control of the Israeli government, are not Jews). Although all of the participants in the conferences (at least, those who spoke) objected to the proposed Israeli law which would define Israel as a Jewish state, rather than a Jewish and democratic state, some argued that Jews, like all nations, have the right to self-determination. On the other hand, those who view Israel as a settler society state rather than a ‘normal’ nation-state, pointed out that in all settler societies that have come to terms with their history, the construction of ‘the nation’ has not been that of a particular national, religious or racial group but that of all its citizens.

Hasidic Jews boycott Israel. Flickr/Jonny White. Some rights reserved.

Hasidic Jews boycott Israel. Flickr/Jonny White. Some rights reserved.For many years, before and after the establishment of the Israeli state, the dispossession and expulsion of the Palestinians, as individuals and as a national collectivity, were almost completely invisible to the west and, to a large extent, are still in the process of gaining primacy. Originally, the Palestinian national movement – like other Arab national movements – was aimed against both the Ottoman Empire and British colonial power, before focusing on Zionism and Israel, which gradually became a regional and then global symbol of western colonial oppression and an invasion of the post-colonial south.

The notion of so-called ‘Judeo-Christian civilisation’ has played a central role here – a very late invention, which ignores the fact that Jewish and Muslim religious practices have much more in common than Judaism and Christianity and that anti-Jewish racism has been much more prevalent in Christian than Muslim history.

Another issue that arose at the conferences was the rise of a subaltern, anti-western ‘common sense’, in which the critique of the local, regional and global role of Israel has been transformed into racialised attitudes to Jews, wherever they are and whatever their engagement was with the Zionist project, globally but especially in the south. One of the symptoms of this, but most probably also one of its causes, is the popularity in many southern locations, such as the Indian sub-continent, of Nazi and other antisemitic publications (from Mein Kampf to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion). Since World War II these publications have been forbidden in the west (although the copyrights are due to expire next year, which might have some significant consequences), but not outside Europe and north America.

The unwavering support of western powers for Israel has contributed to the conflation of Israel and the west

The unwavering support of western powers for Israel and its policies has contributed to the conflation of Israel and the west. The conflation between Israel and the Jews has been helped by the notion of the ‘new antisemitism’, according to which any critique of Israel and its policy of occupation is antisemitic. This has had, we would argue, the effect of constructing a ‘common sense’ predicated on the self-defeating logic that if any critique of Israeli policy is ‘antisemitic’, then maybe antisemitism is not such a bad thing.

Another factor in this equation, which was highlighted at the conferences, is the way the extreme right in the west has used a pro-Israeli stance to ‘prove’ that they are respectable and ‘not racist’, whatever their stance against ‘the Muslims’ who are ‘taking over’ Europe (although, under this veneer, old antisemitic positions often emerge). This has also been the case with pro-Israeli positions of the Christian Right. It was also pointed out that pro-Israeli lobbies and organisations are engaged, together with pro-Hindutva organisations, in a global campaign against Muslims.

However, as was discussed by Chetan Bhatt during the LSE conference, where Salafism is concerned, pro-Israeli lobbies often single out the antisemitic elements in Salafist and other Islamist discourses, when these appear in much wider hate discourses in which Israel and Jews are but one element. Absurdly, when the Shia are the main target of Sunni Salafi antagonism, for example, Israel and the USA are mentioned as part of the global Shia axis starting from Iran.

In other words, both anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish racisms have become part of legitimising discourses of global clashes, between the west and the south, Islamist and other religious political projects and even clashes within Islamist political projects, as well as part of daily ‘common sense’ constructions everywhere in a time of global crisis, expressing insecurity against ‘the Other’, ‘the terrorist’, ‘the usurper’. And the Palestine/Israel question has helped to encourage these conflations and racialisations.

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