Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or racism? Anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim racisms and the question of Palestine/Israel

Both anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish racisms have become part of daily ‘common sense’ constructions everywhere in time of global crisis, expressing insecurity and hostility against ‘the Other’, ‘the terrorist’, ‘the usurper’. The Palestine/Israel question has helped to encourage these conflations and racialisations. Conference report.

Nira Yuval-Davis
24 December 2013

On December 17, a small conference dedicated to the above question gathered at L ondon School of Economics. It brought together people with related interests and expertise to try and understand in what ways anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim racisms are related and in what ways the Palestine/Israel question affects and is affected by them

The first panel in the conference examined the issue historically (focusing on Europe, the Global South, Palestine and the Middle East). The second examined the issues from philosophical, legal, race relations and sociological perspectives and the third focused on specific contemporary political issues such as ‘New Antisemitism’, the ‘New Right’, Salafism and ‘the Global war on Terrorism’ Inevitably, part of the discussion focused on definitions. The notions of ‘Anti-Jewish’ and ‘Anti-Muslim’ racisms was deliberately chosen over those of ‘Antisemitism’ and ‘Islamophobia’ in an attempt to emphasise that the focus of the day was on racism against people rather than an uncritical acceptance of any political, religious or cultural ideologies and practices that certain people and groupings happen to believe in. For example, whether critique of some aspects of Jewish  or Islamic ideologies and practices amounts or not to racism against Jews or Muslims and to what extent critique of the state of Israel or the Palestinian leadership can be reduced to issues of anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim racisms.

Inevitably, some of the participants differed in the ways they defined racism. These ranged from the position of Rumy Hasan who denied the possibility of racism against Muslims as they are not a race (he was prepared to consider Jews as such), to Nasar Meer who insisted that processes of racialisation need to be seen as operating beyond phenotypical appearances,to Chetan Bhat who rejected the notion of racism against Jews and Muslims altogether and talked instead about xenologies, because attitudes towards Jews and Muslims echo with a variety of racialised, cultural, religious and other discourses and it would be too simplistic to label those as racisms.

Floya Anthias and Nira Yuval-Davis, however, insisted that names and definitions are not important as long as we focus on people’s experiences of discourses and practices related to a particular social category of people which construct immutable boundaries between collectivities. These are used to naturalize fixed hierarchical power relations between them.

Any signifier of boundaries can be used to construct these boundaries from the colour of the skin to the shape of the elbow to accent, mode of dress or religious affiliation. Racism has ultimately two 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 practiced in a complementary way.

Racisms against Jews and Muslims, therefore, would be based on ideological, cultural, religious, economic, violent and other kinds of social constructions of inferiorization and subjugation which would facilitate the exclusion and/or the exploitation of Jews and Muslims. There was much discussion at the conference, especially around David Feldman’s, Brian Klug’s and Maleiha Malik’s presentations on the subject of to what extent anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim racisms share similar traits. There was common agreement, however, that when  defining  racisms against Jews and Muslims, this does not include 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, the ‘true’ Muslim or Islam.

Part of the discussion during the day, therefore focused on the ambivalences and contested meanings of the notion of the ‘new antisemitism’ which often conflates racism against Jews and critiques of Israeli occupation or the Zionist project. There was also a discussion on the ambivalences and contested meanings of the notion of ‘Islamophobia’ which often conflates racism against Muslims and critique of racist and sexist positions and practices promoted by Islamists. Tony Lerman and Sami Zubaida led the discussion on those topics.

In relation to the Palestine/Israel question, there was more or less a common agreement in the conference that Zionism needs to be understood as a nationalist movement which sought to so called ‘normalize’ the Jewish people, and thus solve the racialization 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.

Settler society projects differ from other colonial projects in that their basic racialized mechanism of governability is via the racialised exclusion of the local population from the new nation-building project rather than incorporating them as exploitable labour power into the new society and state. As was discussed by Avishai Ehrlich and Dina Matar, Zionism, like all settler society projects has had its own specificities, the two main ones being firstly, that unlike other western settler societies, the Zionist movement didn’t have one clear ‘mother country’ but rather sought alliance with whatever imperial powers 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 ‘new Jerusalem’ territory by claiming Palestine as the homeland of their ‘Old Jerusalem’.

This proved to be a forceful motivational power for mobilizing 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 naturalization of European colonialism and later the Holocaust. The dispossession and expulsion of the Palestinians, let alone their deprivation of an independent  nation state, were almost completely invisible at the time in the west and to a large extent are still in the process of gaining recognition. The Palestinian national movement was aimed, as were other Arab national movements, against both the Ottoman empire and the British colonial power before focusing on Zionism and Israel which gradually became a symbol of both western colonial and Judeo-Christian oppression and invasion to the post-colonial South.

One of the questions that needed to be explored was the extent to which the critique of the local, regional and global role of Israel has been transformed to racialized attitudes towards Jews, wherever they are and whatever their engagement was with the Zionist project, globally but especially in the glocal South. Another question was the extent to which a similar emotional and perceptual reductionist chain of collapsing Palestinians to Arabs to Muslims has played a role in the construction of Muslims-as-terrorists long before 9/11.

During the day of the conference, several important points on the relationships between anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim racisms and the Palestine/Israel question emerged that need to be explored further. One such point was the way new extreme right organizations in Europe gain political capital and legitimation by supporting Israel, extracting themselves from possible accusation of Antisemitism, a major characteristic of the ‘Old’ Right, while focusing on Anti-Muslim racism. It was pointed out, however, that often, under such a veneer, old anti-Semitic positions also emerge. Moreover, the supposedly pro-Israeli positions of the Christian Right, often cover up explicit antisemitic attitudes. While part of their belief is that a condition for the second coming of Jesus is the gathering of all the Jews in the ‘Holy Land’, it is also part of their belief that once this happens, some Jews will convert to Christianity and the rest should perish.

Another such point of interrelationship has been the international cooperation between pro-Israeli lobbies and organizations with pro-Hindutva [Hindu extreme right] organizations in a global diplomatic and social campaign against Muslims and Muslim states. It was pointed out that the USA and other western countries have been playing an ambivalent role in this as they have been both cooperating closely with Islamist states (like Saudi Arabia) and organizations (like the Taliban during the Soviet invasion to Afghanistan) as well as with the anti-Muslim ‘global war on terrorism’. Israel, in this respect, is seen both as a close ally and as an embarrassment (something which was recently expressed in relation to the anti-Iranian campaign).  

At the same time a counter antisemitic discourse which conflates Israel and Zionism with Jews wherever they are and whatever their politics is, is affecting anti-western common sense in the Global South and among racialised Muslim minorities in the west. Nazi literature and other classical Antisemitic texts like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion have been circulated in the Muslim world since the end of WW2 when they were forbidden elsewhere and have become more important since the 1967 occupation. This was not helped by the construction by pro-Israeli lobbies of the notion of ‘new Antisemitism’ in which critiques of Israel as an occupying state are considered to be antisemitic. Such an attitude has only helped to legitimize anti-Semitism, as common sense could assume that if objecting to violations of human rights against Palestinians is antisemitic then maybe antisemitism is not such a bad thing.

However, this also needs to be seen in context. As was pointed out by Chetan Bhatt in relation to Salafism, pro-Israeli lobbies often single out only the antisemitic elements in Salafist propaganda when these appear in much wider hate discourses in which Israel and Jews are but one element in their tirade. Absurdly, when the main target of antagonism is of the Sunni Salafis against the Shia, Israel and the USA are mentioned as part of the global Shia axis of geopolitical power bases, starting from Iran.

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

The conference, was organized by the University of East London’s Centre for research on Migration, Refugees and Belonging, the Runnymede Trust, the LSE Centre for the Study of Human Rights and the Open University Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change. The conference programme and the recording of the conference will be available on the website of CMRB from mid January. 


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