Semites and Anti-Semites

Posted on: December 9th, 2011 by
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by Bernard Lewis

One might think that a 1999 book about the Middle East would be hopelessly overtaken by events. Truly surprising is that a book originally written in 1987 would be so up-to-date. Even then, he noted things that journalists are only now beginning to cite: the growing menace of religious radicalism, replacing nationalism and Marxism, its extensive Saudi support, and the Arab penchant for saying one thing in Englishand another in Arabic. Reading Semites and Anti-Semites now, one understands why Mr. Lewis has gone from being ignored by Middle Eastern Studies departments to being the Dean of that discipline.

“Semitic” was originally a linguistic term, describing Middle Eastern languages. One hears that Arabs cannot be anti-Semitic, they themselves being Semites. Leaving aside the questionable psychology, it’s clear there are Arabs, many writing newspaper articles and conducting diplomacy, who are Anti-Jewish. anti-Semitic has become a synonym for Anti-Jewish. Thus are semantic evasions demolished.

The one, indisputable fact is that Arab anti-Semitism traces back to the European strain. European anti-Semitism itself evolved from a religious resentment of alleged deicide into an ineradicable racial hatred. The turning point was the aftermath of the Spanish Inquisition, when Jewish ancestry itself first became reason for suspicion. By the time Europe developed a theory of race, the ground had been prepared.

It is at this point, in 1840 that the Passover blood libel makes its first appearance in Damascus, Syria. Even if the Muslims had no reason to pick up on the story, for the first time, the ideas became current and available in the Ottoman Empire.

While there was a kernel of anti-Jewishness within Islam itself, the elements were weak and unimpressive. The Jews of Palestine were supposed to have tried to crucify Jesus, but were thwarted by God, a superior schemer. The Jews of Medina were duplicitous, but ultimately ineffective and unimportant in their opposition to Muhammad. Neither episode is dwelled upon at length. Both the Jews and the Christians were tolerated, but with a diminished status, that of dhimmi, recipients of previously valid but eventually corrupted monotheistic revelation.

This changed with the Zionist movement. In the past, dhimmi communities that overstepped their bounds were quickly disciplined. But with Palestine in British hands, Muslims were powerless this time. The loss of Muslim land was troubling in any event, but its loss to a people caricatured as cowardly was intolerably humiliating. Much of the Arab intelligentsia and religious elite seized on European Jewish-conspiracy theories as the explanation. Fed by the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and nursed by Der Sturmer, the notion of Jewish Evil implanted itself in the Arab consciousness.

Lewis carefully distinguishes between legitimate political differences and outright anti-Semitism. He defines “legitimate grievances” as broadly as possible. Almost any political dispute qualifies. But amid the rhetoric of national struggle and countries at war, he discerns tell-tale signs of an emerging anti-Semitism. The Arab use of and attempts to influence Christian theology stand out sharply. (Both Muslim and Christian Arabs opposed the Vatican II declaration absolving Jews of responsibility for the death of Jesus.) The role of the Jews as enemies of Muhammad has greatly expanded. Jewish conspiracies have gone from worldly and mundane to cosmic and Satanic.

Lewis also notes, this 15 years ago, the growing double-standard among the academic Left, one that reserves its only passion for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in a world awash in such conflicts. It also uniformly blames the more civilized, Westernized side for that conflict, and objects only to its offenses. That trend has overflowed its banks to swallow much of European politics and American journalism.

We have seen the fruits of this pernicious hatred again in our lifetimes. While most of us were caught by surprise, Mr. Lewis was onto the game early, but was long ignored in the name of “peace.” Fortunately, we now have to chance to start paying attention.


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