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Islamophobia: Israel’s Blessing; Israel’s Curse

By Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.

Islamophobia and anti-Semitism have a great deal in common.

Except that one targets Jews and the other Muslims, the two seem almost the same, even allowing for differences in the affected populations. To produce an Islamophobic diatribe, take a typical anti-Semitic rant, substitute “Muslim” for “Jew,” and voilà.

Both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism call on deeply entrenched cultural stereotypes, and both have roots in Christianity’s longstanding, theologically driven, animosity-ridden opposition to rival “Abrahamic” faiths.

But neither Islamophobia nor anti-Semitism is about religion per se; they are forms of racism.

As such, they are modern phenomena.

And they are both creatures of Western civilization.

Yet, despite their similarities, the two follow very different trajectories.

For one, they emerged at different historical moments. Anti-Semitism is nearly two centuries old; the Islamophobia that is rampant in the West today hardly existed a decade or two before the turn of the present century.

For another, Islamophobia is currently on the rise; anti-Semitism is in decline; indeed, it is barely hanging on.

The difference is reflected in conventional understandings of the relations between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Long before Islamophobia became a factor in the political culture of Western countries, there were scholars and religious leaders who spoke of a “Judeo-Christian tradition.”

Sometimes, the idea was to make a philosophical point. For example, the political theorist Leo Strauss claimed that the Western philosophical tradition had roots in both Athens and Jerusalem — in Greek philosophy, and Judeo-Christian theology.

There is some merit in this contention, though it is not a particularly useful or insightful claim.

Strauss, who died in 1973, enjoyed his fifteen minutes of fame a decade ago, when some leading neoconservatives who had studied under him at the University of Chicago claimed him as an intellectual inspiration.

Their intent in linking his name with theirs was not malicious, but this was nevertheless a cruel trick to play on an old teacher, who, flawed as his views may be, deserved better.

Outside academic circles, the aim of those who spoke of a Judeo-Christian tradition was mainly to promote good relations between Christians and Jews.

Islam was excluded because, until recently, hardly anyone in Western countries knew or cared much about it.

From time to time, intellectual historians would point out that it makes more sense to speak of an Abrahamic tradition – comprised of Islam as well as Judaism and Christianity – than of a Judeo-Christian tradition that excludes the last of these sister faiths. Their suggestions hardly registered in the public’s awareness.

It is different now that Islamophobia is rife, the Western public these days does care about Islam. Therefore, when it is read out of an imagined Judeo-Christian tradition, the exclusion is usually deliberate.

Amity has largely replaced enmity in Jewish-Christian relations, partly because religious fervor has declined, but also because anti-Semitism is everywhere on the wane. For enhancing good relations, it also helps to have Islam as a common enemy; in-group solidarity works that way.

And so, throughout the Western world, Judaism and Christianity are “us,” while Islam is the faith of the other, of “them.” Islamophobia has become the new anti-Semitism.

Nevertheless, the old anti-Semitism is not yet just an historical memory. It still plays a role in world affairs and in the domestic politics of many countries, including the United States.

The role is plays, however, is not the role that it used to play; these days, Islamophobia fills that space.

Anti-Semitism’s role – or rather its purported role — today is to help Israel’s leaders and its supporters abroad maintain a status quo from which the self-described “nation state of the Jewish people” benefits unjustly and egregiously. Zionists are now the ones keeping the specter of anti-Semitism alive.

At the same time and for much the same reasons and in many of the same ways, they are also helping to foster and shape the Islamophobia that is rampant in the world today.

This puts them in an odd spot — demonstrating, yet again, how important it is to be careful what one wishes for.

* * *

For Christianity to emerge as a religion in its own right, it had to break away from the religion of the Jews of ancient Israel.

Around the time of Jesus, Palestine was home to a number of Jewish sects, joined together by a Temple cult. The religion practiced there was governed by a complex structure of commandments and laws, administered by a priestly caste.

When the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in the year 70 CE, the religion – or religions – it sustained had to be transformed to survive. The dominant Jewish sect, the Pharisees, led the way.

Within their ranks, a series of teachers, rabbis, building on strains of thought in formation for centuries, developed the belief systems and practices upon which Judaism, as we now know it, stands.

Christianity emerged out of this caldron too.

Its defining contention, almost from the beginning, was that Jesus Christ was not just the promised Messiah, but also a divine being, whose death and resurrection inaugurated a new epoch in human and sacred history – one in which, among other things, Jewish law was finally and definitively superseded.

Jewish-Christians proselytized actively throughout the Roman world. Other Jewish sects did too, but, despite persecution, the Jewish-Christians were especially successful.

Meanwhile, their conflicts with mainstream Judaism intensified. They were expressed on many levels: theologically, ritualistically, legalistically and, when it became expedient for the Roman Empire to make Christianity an official religion, politically as well.

Long before that, however, it had become clear that Christianity was on track for breaking away from Judaism altogether, and that Christianity’s legitimacy depended on Judaism’s illegitimacy. It has been this way ever since.

Ever since too, Jews and Christians have been at odds. The difference was that the Christians had all the power. As heirs to a declining but still potent Roman Empire, they turned their erstwhile co-religionists into a despised and persecuted subaltern population.

This did not change, even as Rome fell.

Neither did it change much as faith subsided in the modern era, diminishing the relevance of theologically grounded anti-Judaism.

Modernity never quite ended Christian anti-Judaism, though it did diminish or eliminate its appeal to wide sectors of the population. However, the attitudes anti-Judaism generated survived throughout the Western world, creating a space for modern, secular anti-Semitism to emerge.

From the beginning, anti-Semites hardly cared about the Jewish religion or its relation to Christianity.

They reviled Jews for their purported racial or ethnic characteristics or for no discernible reason at all.

In a word, Jews were despised for being what Muslims now are – “the other.”

*  *  *

Christian opposition to Islam has always been more political than theological — though, of course, in pre-modern times, politics, or rather geo-politics, took on theological overtones.

For the Christians of Byzantium and, to a lesser extent, of the Catholic West, the peoples who would become Muslims as Islam took shape were the enemy at the gate.

By Mohammed’s time, Christians had learned how to deal with, and absorb, adherents of the pre-Christian religions of the Roman world. They no longer felt threatened by religions whose gods were dead or dying.

Their intolerance therefore focused more on heretics and schismatics within the Christian fold than on residual manifestations of defunct pagan faiths.

Muslims were another story. Not only were they monotheists – more straightforwardly than Christians were – but also adherents, like Christians and Jews, of a Scripture based religion.

They accorded their own Scriptural writings pride of place, of course; but they also accepted the Scriptures of the other Abrahamic religions.

In these and other respects, Muslims, like Jews, challenged Christianity’s legitimacy merely by being there.

For them, Jesus was a prophet, not a Messiah and certainly not a God. He was not the final prophet, either; that was Mohammad’s role.

In the Muslim view, Islam superseded Christianity because it is based upon a later, more authoritative revelation.

And so, even before the time of the Crusades — when opposition to Islam became a religious mission for Christians everywhere – anti-Islamic animosities ran high throughout the Christian world.

* * *

Needless to say, there was also enmity running in the opposite direction; Jews and Muslims hated Christians too.

And while Jewish-Muslim relations have generally been friendlier than Jewish-Christian relations, they have seldom been harmonious.

It would be fair to say that all three Abrahamic religions have been at each other’s throats for all the time that they have coexisted.   Intolerance is in their nature.

But, for understanding anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, Christianity’s animosities are crucial. These forms of racism are creatures of the Western world, of a form of civilization that Christianity shaped.

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), a classic of modern social theory, Max Weber argued that capitalism flourished more in Protestant than in Catholic regions of Europe thanks to what he called a “Protestant ethic,” a this-worldly asceticism, incorporating aspects of traditional Christian (Catholic) monasticism, but applying them to ordinary, workaday, market-driven economic pursuits.

Weber attributed the rise of this historically distinctive and psychologically improbable way of being and acting to elements of Protestant theology.

And he went on to argue that the Protestant ethic affected the culture of Protestant regions of Europe so profoundly that centuries after the Reformation and the wars of religion that ensued, and notwithstanding a profound diminution of faith, the Protestant ethic survived well into his own day.

Some of its most ardent exponents, Weber pointed out, were no longer even Protestants – but deists or agnostics or outright atheists.

It is much the same with Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Islam. The original reasons for these ways of thinking have lapsed, but the animosities remain.

In taking on a secular form, they may even have intensified.

* * *

With the defeat of Nazism and other expressly anti-Semitic movements during and after the Second World War, anti-Semitism very nearly became a dead letter.

For Zionists, this is an intolerable state of affairs, an “existential threat.”

Anti-Semitism, after all, was Zionism’s raison d’être. Its guiding idea, from Day One, was that only a Jewish state could protect European Jewry from the gentiles among whom they had been living since the dawn of the Christian age.

In short order, Zionism became a national movement; not long after that, its goal came to be the colonization of Palestine, “a land,” Zionists claimed, “without a people.”

But, even as the movement took on its present form, the driving force behind the Zionist idea was still its founding concern: a Jewish state is necessary because, in the end, only a Jewish state can protect Jews.

Therefore, for Zionists, if anti-Semitism would no longer exist, it would have to be invented.

In recent decades, Zionists have been working overtime to that end.

Their strategy is simple: identify anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism — or even, whenever possible, with all but the mildest opposition to actions undertaken by Israeli governments.

Then, since there is plenty to oppose, there is all the anti-Semitism anyone could want.

Needless to say, the premise upon which this strategy rests, that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are one and the same, is illogical and wrong-headed. But, as with other Great Lies, if it is repeated often enough, it comes to be widely believed.

Ultimately, though, the conflict with reality is too obvious for the lie to be sustained. However, events are not there yet.

On the assumption that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are one and the same, organizations, like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), have plenty of “anti-Semitic” incidents to crow over. They mostly involve actions undertaken out of frustration by Muslim youth living in desperate straits on the outskirts of European cities with large immigrant populations.

But there is remarkably little genuine anti-Semitism for them to report on.

For one thing, while anti-Zionist sentiments run high in Muslim quarters, genuine anti-Semitism is foreign to Muslim culture. Anti-Semitic tropes therefore don’t easily catch on.

A more important reason is that, for the most part, the European Right refuses to take the bait.

It is not just that the hard Right in Europe hates Muslims more than Jews. It is also that it loves Israel. How could it not? Israelis know what to do with the Islamist threat.

And, to the extent that fascisant Europeans still hate Jews while loving “the nation state of the Jewish people,” they realize that anti-Semites and Zionists share a common goal: they both seek to resolve “the Jewish Question” by ridding Europe of its Jews.

In the United States and other Western countries where anti-immigrant sentiment is less focused on Muslims than on other oppressed populations, genuine anti-Semitism’s decline is even more complete.

To cite just one particularly flagrant example: Sheldon Adelson, the plutocrat casino boss, is a character out of central casting for The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And yet, when he summons them, every Republican political aspirant with national ambitions harkens to his call.

Even in America, where money talks more loudly than anywhere else in the developed world, genuine anti-Semites, were there any, would pounce on the Adelson phenomenon. There is hardly a peep.

Could there be any more graphic proof that an ADL that was true to its mission, rather than to the Zionist cause, would no longer have much of anything to do?

* *  *

Oddly, though, in the United States, a remnant of traditional anti-Judaism survives in rear-guard Anglo-Protestant enclaves.

The first Zionists would have been appalled, but, since the late seventies, when Menachem Begin was Israel’s Prime Minister, Israeli governments have taken full advantage of this anachronism.

The Republican Party has as well. Christian Zionists now comprise an important segment of its base.

Indeed, in many retrograde circles, love for Israel runs deep. So too does hatred of Jews – not for reasons of ethnicity, as in classical anti-Semitism, but for reasons of faith, as in the anti-Judaism of old.

But the new anti-Judaism is different from the old. Facts on the ground in the Promised Land are the reason why.

The new wrinkle is that, for Christian Zionists, the realization of the Zionist project – the establishment of a Jewish state throughout all of Mandate Palestine, is part of God’s plan for the End Times.

The theology behind their position predates the Zionist movement. It emerged in Low Church Protestant circles in nineteenth century Britain, winning the sympathy of some of the leading political figures who helped get the Zionist movement going after the First World War – Lord Balfour and Lloyd George are prominent examples.

These Zionist-friendly leaders were, above all, promoters of Britain’s imperial interests. This was their main reason for welcoming Jewish immigration to Palestine and for permitting the development of proto-state institutions within the Jewish community there. Their aim was to establish a European beachhead in the heart of the Middle East.

But some of them also had religious reasons; they thought that the God they believed in wanted Jews to be gathered together in the Promised Land.

This is what Christian Zionists believe today – with a fervor that equals or exceeds that of most Jewish Zionists in Israel and abroad.

Their support for Israel follows from their belief that before they and others among the elect of all nations can be whisked off to Heaven, Jews who refuse to accept Christ’s divinity must be brought to the Promised Land, in accordance with Biblical prophesy, where, at the end of time, the loving God will condemn them to an eternity of torment in Hell.

The Good Book tells them so; or so they believe.

* * *

Meanwhile, with Islamophobia, anti-Semitism for Muslims, on the rise, Christendom’s longstanding opposition to Islam is emerging out of the protracted latency period that began once the de facto boundaries of the Muslim world were effectively settled.

This happened in Eastern and Southern Europe long before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In Western Europe, ground zero for Islamophobia today, fear of Islamic encroachment has not been an issue outside the Mediterranean region since before the fall of Muslim Spain.

But, from the time of Napoleon, France began to colonize Northern Africa; not long afterwards, France’s main colonial rival, Great Britain, joined the assault on the Muslim world. Other European powers followed suit.

Then, in short order, peoples that were formerly considered exotics, when thought of at all, came to be despised in the ways that masters despise underlings. As neo-colonial forms of domination replaced direct colonial rule, the contempt continued unabated.

At first, it was different in the United States, where there was no colonial history with Muslim lands, and where the comparatively few Muslims who arrived as immigrants kept to themselves, worked hard, caused no trouble, and, for the most part, remained outside public view.

Hispanics were America’s Muslims – at first, in those parts of the United States that were stolen from Mexico and where there was therefore a large indigenous, Spanish-speaking population, but, by now, nearly everywhere, as neoliberal trade policies and the violence spawned by the so-called war on drugs has made life increasingly intolerable in many parts of Central and South America.

But world events sometimes catalyze abrupt and unexpected transformations in relations between dominant and subaltern national and ethnic groups.

Wars have this effect; especially wars prompted by attacks on the United States.

When there are no longstanding cultural biases, the racist eruptions that result are usually short-lived.   Attitudes towards the Japanese, and towards Japanese-Americans, are a case in point.

The first Japanese immigrants to the United States were no more despised than, say, the Chinese who came around the same time. But shortly before and during World War II, the level of racism was staggering. It was so extreme that when Japanese-Americans, many of whom were native born, were gathered into concentration camps, there was little or no public outcry.

The animosity subsided quickly when the war ended; it was already a distant memory by the 1950s.

The Bush-Obama war on terror has already lasted three times longer than World War II. But this is not the only reason why Islamophobia is bound to linger in a way that anti-Japanese racism did not. Its roots in Christian opposition to Islam are a more important factor.

But, like the anti-Japanese racism of the 1940s, Islamophobia too took catalytic events to ignite.

There was, first of all, the mounting blowback against American domination of the Middle East, culminating in the attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in 2001.

And now there is the mounting animosity, reaching into many sectors of formerly placid Muslim communities, caused by the American reaction to the Pentagon and World Trade Center attacks. This causes Muslims, younger ones especially, to want to fight back – no matter how.

In this way, resistance itself exacerbates that fear of the other which, in the final analysis, is what Islamophobia is all about.

* * *

It is a vicious circle. The war on terror, the West’s war on the Muslim world, breeds resistance, which sometimes takes the form of more terror. This reinforces Islamophobia, which, in turn, increases support for the war on terror. It is an endless feedback loop.

For Zionists in search of eternal enemies, this might seem a godsend.

But it is not an unmixed blessing for a country situated in the heart of the Muslim world.

Israel needs enemies close at hand; the weaker they are, the better. But it does not need 2.1 billion enemies from Africa across Eurasia to the Pacific Ocean and now, with Muslim immigration ratcheted up thanks to inequality and war, in all the leading centers of the Western world.

Within that vast array of peoples and landscapes, Israel needs allies too.

And so, the generic, undiscriminating Islamophobia that has emerged in recent years in Western countries is, from Israel’s point of view, too much of a good thing.

It was easier for Zionists when, in a Cold War context, Arab nationalism was the enemy. Then Arabs could be the vilified group, not Muslims generally.

And while the Arabs at Israel’s throat were lodged mainly in frontline states, not within Israel’s borders, the Israeli juggernaut could do as it pleased without damaging its reputation in the West as “the sole democracy” in the Middle East.

Back then, in Western public opinion, Arabs in Israel were more of a notional threat than an actual one.

If anything, they were a boon to the tourist trade, adding local color – in much the way that native peoples in the United States do in the eyes of state and regional tourist bureaus.

In those days, in the larger scheme of things, the villains were Arabs, not Muslims as such.

Indeed, from Day One, Israel befriended non-Arab Muslim nations — Iran, above all, but also Turkey and, whenever the opportunity would arise, countries in East Africa with large Muslim populations.

The Iranian case was exemplary. Zionists had contempt for Arabs, but deep respect for Iran and its people. It was part of the Zionist narrative. Connections between Persia and the peoples of ancient Israel extended back to Biblical times, and Persian culture had always been an essential point of reference throughout the ancient world.

Israel’s relations with the Shah’s government were excellent; and even after the Iranian Revolution, as the Ayatollahs unleashed a torrent of anti-Zionist rhetoric in their efforts to gain regional support, the changes were more cosmetic than substantive. Israel and Iraq shared common enemies in the Arab world – Iraq, above all.

Iran did not become the “existential threat” Israel now says it is until the first President Bush’s Iraq War neutralized the Iraqi military, leaving Israel with less need for allies on the Arab world’s peripheries.

Now Israel has lost Iran; and, thanks to the Netanyahu government’s bumbling incompetence, it is losing Turkey too. With the Bush-Obama war on terror, east Africa is a lost cause as well. Israel’s policy of encircling the Arab periphery with comparatively friendly Muslim states, once a mainstay of its diplomacy, is finished.

Nevertheless, Israel is not quite on its own in the region.

Unlikely as it would have seemed only a few years ago, Saudi Arabia, the main financial and spiritual backer of every reactionary tendency within Sunni Islam, has, along with other barely less retrograde Gulf states, become Israel’s de facto ally.

They are united in their determination to enfeeble and humiliate Iran, and in their eagerness to be useful to their American protectors.

From a geopolitical point of view, the emerging Salafi-Zionist alliance makes sense. But for propagandists intent on promoting Islamophobia in order to maintain the idea that Jewish survival depends on keeping the status quo in Israel-Palestine in place, it poses a problem.

The most vile Zionist-inspired Islamophobes in the United States, people like Pam Geller and others of her ilk, either haven’t gotten the word, or else they don’t care.

They respond to Israel’s needs of the moment as best they can, but generalized Islamophobia has become, for them, what genuine anti-Semitism used to be for the true anti-Semites of the not distant past – a freestanding obsession.

* * *

Undiscriminating Islamophobia is emphatically not what defenders of the Zionist project need; it is not even what leaders of the Jewish state want.   But it is what they have brought upon themselves, thanks to their own machinations.

By diminishing the standing of the Zionist project in the eyes of Western public opinion, those misguided machinations are likely, in the long run, to help the Palestinian struggle for justice.

For now, though, all they do is fan the flames of Islamophobia.

The arc of the moral universe that Martin Luther King spoke of so movingly surely does bend towards justice. But, as King remarked, it can take seemingly forever to arrive at its destination. Then, suddenly, everything changes. The demise of anti-Semitism is a case in point.

Someday, justice will come too to the Palestinian people and to the larger Muslim world. Someday, Islamophobia will collapse back into itself, crumbling under the weight of its exponents’ overreaching.

When it does, what began with Christian opposition to rival Abrahamic faiths and what was then made over on secular bases in the modern age will finally be a spent force, never to be revived again.

But before that blessed day arrives, who knows what atrocities lie ahead.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


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