Jews and Israelis Can Start to Turn the Tide of Hatred

Rabbi Michael Paley is scholar-in-residence at UJA-Federation of New York. Jonathan Jacoby is director of an institute for policy and communication being established by the Israel Policy Forum.

Despite an enormous investment over the last few years by Jewish and Israeli institutions to fight the “new anti-Semitism,” it is still gaining strength in Europe and the Islamic world.

The Jewish establishment here and in Israel has correctly been skeptical of the romantic but tired belief that anti-Semitism will just wither away when true justice for the Palestinians is achieved. At the same time, though, it has been too quick to accept the view that all anti-Israel and anti-Jewish attitudes stem from the same intrinsic hatred that has plagued Jews for centuries.

This unwillingness to fully examine the latest round of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiment has led to neutral and ineffective policies to combat it. As David A. Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, acknowledged in a recent New York magazine article: “The old bag of tricks may work for your donors and for your own self-image as tough guys fighting back. But if the bottom line is, are you changing attitudes? ... then it’s very hard to say any of the organizations have been particularly effective.”


A different approach is needed in responding to the new anti-Semitism. This perspective must distinguish carefully among the different strains of prejudice and hostility that are faced by Jews and Israel. Though it would be wrong to blame resurgent anti-Semitism on Israel’s policies, it would be equally foolish to ignore the potential impact that changing those policies could have on feelings about Jews in the Islamic world and in Europe.

Many people, not surprisingly, hear something familiar in Islamic anti-Israel and anti-Jewish statements, something reminiscent of the kind of rhetoric that preceded the Holocaust. But Islamic Judeophobia differs in significant ways from European Christian anti-Semitism.

As scholars from Paul M. van Buren to Jules Isaac have pointed out, Christian anti-Semitism can be found in the central Christian narrative, in which Jews represent the old, worn-out and parochial relationship with God that was at odds with the Christian mission of liberating the human community.

Islam does not have the same anti-Semitic thrust. While there are chapters in the Koran that paint Jews in an unfavorable light, the basic Islamic narrative does not set itself against Jews. On the contrary, by the 7th century Jews in the Middle East, under the caliph Omar Khattab, had begun to prosper, with their status rising to levels unprecedented in the Christian Byzantine Empire Khattab ousted from Jerusalem.

The Jewish and Muslim communities understood their religious traditions to be quite similar -- both committed to radical monotheism. Although the Koran tells of the prophet Muhammad’s deadly encounters with the three Jewish tribes of Medina, it also features Moses prominently. And the story of Abraham unites the two peoples as older and younger cousins.

So when, then, did things go so wrong? The establishment of Israel was certainly the most significant modern development to shape the Islamic world’s attitude toward the Jewish people. But that alone did not give birth to the current rage. In fact, Israel’s relations with Arab and Islamic states -- despite ups and downs along the way -- had essentially been improving until 2000.

In order to understand today’s Islamic hatred and fear of Jews, one has to look somewhere other than to traditional anti-Semitism. First, we must appreciate the growing sense in the Islamic world that Islam is failing to fulfill its utopian global vision of Dar al Islam, or a world gathered under Islam. In fact, rather than a world united under the banner of Allah, the Islamic world is in crisis economically and, even more important, religiously.

It was against this backdrop, in September 2000, that Ariel Sharon, then head of the opposition Likud Party, paid his provocative visit to the Temple Mount. Sharon was well known in the Arab world as the Israeli defense minister forced to resign after the Israeli military in 1982 allowed Lebanese Christian Falange forces into the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, where they subsequently massacred hundreds of Palestinians. Although the killings were not sanctioned by Israel, Sharon became identified with Jewish oppression of Muslims.

It would be hard to overestimate the symbolic significance of his visit to the Temple Mount, a place also revered by Muslims, who know it as Haram al Sharif and believe it to be the spot from which Muhammad ascended to heaven. Arabs saw Sharon’s action, in part, as signifying Israel’s assertion of sovereignty over the Jerusalem holy site, which is currently administered by Palestinians. But they also saw it as symbolic of past Western subjugation of the Arab world -- and as a reminder that the Islamic world was in no position to defend itself.

This symbolic assault was a lot to accomplish with such a short walk, but Israel’s failure to quiet the intifada that followed was a sign that something major had shifted. Since Sharon’s visit in September 2000, the Jews have increasingly become both the unwitting symbol of an Islamic sense of deficiency and the target of its antagonism.

None of this is to suggest, however, that the current state of Islamic Judeophobia can be explained by a politician’s stroll through Jerusalem. It must also be understood religiously.

Islam today is being pulled in two distinct directions. In 2003, Mahathir Mohamad, then prime minister of Malaysia, gave a speech in which he suggested that “Jews rule the world by proxy.” This was such an outrageous statement that it overshadowed the larger context of Mahathir’s remarks, which were primarily a rebuke of the Islamic world for its retreat from modernity. His central point was that the successful and powerful Islamic societies of the Middle Ages were great because they integrated all the world’s available wisdom and philosophy. He suggested a similar embrace of learning for the Islamic world today.

Mahathir should certainly be censured for his negative stereotype of Jews, but we must not misunderstand the important strand of Islam he represents. His Islam is a successful, monotheistic tradition that integrates modern discoveries and sensibilities. It is not endemically Judeophobic and may ultimately help promote better Jewish-Muslim relations.

The countertrend in Islam, which feeds on the argument that modernity and progress are themselves the problem, is the a more dangerous perspective. It is based on the reactionary idea that the only antidote to Islamic decline is a return to a kind of traditional Islam not seen since the times of the prophet Muhammad himself. This view -- which has wide currency but by no means a majority status in the Islamic world -- was promoted by the father of modern Islamist fundamentalism, the late Egyptian cleric Sayyid Qutb, and later embraced by his disciple Osama bin Laden.

It is a cruel trick of history that the beacon of progress that Israel seeks to shine on the Middle East has been clouded by the surge of anti-Western anger. But it is also a lesson that must be learned. Few actions are perceived as neutral in the Middle East, and the consequences of each action taken by Israel and the United States, and supported by the Jewish community, need careful scrutiny.

Indeed, the image of progress embodied in Israel, which itself seeks to integrate tradition and modernity, could actually strengthen the hand of Muslim progressives who are the front line in challenging the backward program of Bin Laden.

Israel’s security needs require it to take certain measures that will always arouse anger. So it’s unreasonable to assume that, if the Palestinians were simply granted a viable and free state, antipathy toward Israel would evaporate. But opportunities exist for creating different perceptions of Israel and different relationships with the Islamic world.

That is why increasing numbers of American Jews and Israelis, including leading members of the security establishment, are calling for a more stringent cost-benefit analysis of Israel’s actions, given their impact on anti-Israel and anti-Jewish behavior. More and more Jews worldwide are advocating the evacuation of Israeli settlements built on territory held by the Palestinians until the 1967 war, which have been a serious point of conflict between Palestinians and Israel, and which have become a focal point for anti-Israel activity and Judeophobia.

We cannot, of course, ignore the poisonous proliferation of anti-Jewish behavior by Muslims and the ease with which the Islamic world has embraced the historical patterns and methods of hatred against Jews and against Israel. Nor should Israel be asked to reduce its capacity for self-defense. But we must also begin to consider the effect that Israel’s actions have on how the world views the Jewish state and its supporters, including the United States. And we must understand that a change in policies on the part of Israel might go a long way, not only toward promoting peace but also toward battling the new anti-Semitism.