Semites and anti-Semites that is the question
Today the real victims of Western anti-Semitism are Arabs and Muslims, argues Joseph Massad*
There is much misunderstanding about the term “anti-Semitism” among Jews, Arabs, and European Christians. The term is bandied about as a description of attitudes deemed anti-Jewish, and on occasion anti-Arab, but much of its use is anachronistic and ahistorical. While Zionists and their supporters have been using the charge of anti-Semitism against any and all who oppose Israel and its policies, especially, although not exclusively, in the Arab World, Arabs have taken offense countering that they are “Semites” and therefore by definition cannot be “anti-Semitic”. What are the merits of such arguments?
Perhaps some history will help: The term “Semite” was invented by European philologists in the 18th century to distinguish languages from one another by grouping them into “families” descended from one “mother” tongue to which they are all related. In this context, languages came to be organized into “Indo-European” and “Semitic”, etc. The philologists claimed that Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Amharic, etc., were “Semitic” languages, even though philologists could never find a parent Semitic language from which they all derived.
In the 19th century and with the rise of European biological racism, those who hated Jews could no longer rely on religious difference to mark out post- Enlightenment Jews as objects of their hatred. As religion was no longer part of the argumentation that could be used in a “rational and scientific” Europe, a new basis for the hatred of Jews had to be found. This did not mean however that certain religious ideas could not be rationalized. They often were. In keeping with the Protestant Reformation’s abduction of the Hebrew bible into its new religion and its positing of modern European Jews as direct descendants of the ancient Hebrews, post- Enlightenment haters of Jews began to identify Jews as “Semites” on account of their alleged ancestors having spoken Hebrew. In fact the ancient Hebrews spoke Aramaic, the language in which the Talmud was written, as well as parts of the bible. Based on this new philological taxonomy and its correlate racial classifications in the biological sciences, Jews were endowed with this linguistic category that was soon transformed into a racial category. Accordingly, haters of Jews began to identify themselves as “anti-Semites”. Thus the object of hatred of European anti-Semitism has always been European Jews.
The claims made by many nowadays that any manifestation of hatred against Jews in any geographic location on Earth and in any historical period is “anti-Semitism” smacks of a gross misunderstanding of the European history of anti- Semitism. While oppression of, discrimination against, and hatred of communities of Jews qua Jews are found in many periods of European history, the basis for this hatred is different from modern anti-Semitism, as its inspirational sources are not rational science and biology or Enlightenment philology, but religious and other political and economic considerations that scapegoated Jews. This may not be important for those who want only to produce a lachrymose history of European Jews, but it is crucial to the understanding of how the identities produced since the European Enlightenment are different from preceding periods, and that they function as new bases for nationalism, racism, oppression, discrimination, and liberation, and for the modern mechanisms put in place to institutionalize such identities and categories of humans.
The defensive claim made by some that Arabs cannot be “anti-Semitic” because they are “Semites” is equally erroneous and facile. First, I should state that I do not believe that anyone is a “Semite” any more than I believe anyone is an “Aryan”, and I do not believe that Arabs or Jews should proudly declare that they are “Semites” because European racists classified them as such. But if the history of European Christian anti-Semitism is mostly a history targeting Jews as objects of discrimination and exclusion, the history of European Orientalism and colonialism is the one that targeted Arabs and Muslims, among many others. This does not mean that Arabs are not considered Semites by European racialist and philological classifications; they indeed are. Nor does this mean that much of the hatred of Arabs today is not derived from a prior anti- Semitism that targeted Jews. Indeed it is. The history of European Orientalism is one that is fully complicit with anti-Semitism from which it derives many of its representations of ancient and modern Arabs and of ancient Hebrews and modern Jews. As Edward Said demonstrated a quarter of a century ago in his classic Orientalism, “what has not been sufficiently stressed in histories of modern anti-Semitism has been the legitimation of such atavistic designations by Orientalism, and… the way this academic and intellectual legitimation has persisted right through the modern age in discussions of Islam, the Arabs, or the Near Orient.” Said added: “The transference of popular anti-Semitic animus from a Jewish to an Arab target was made smoothly, since the figure was essentially the same.” In the context of the 1973 War, Said commented that Arabs came to be represented in the West as having “clearly ‘Semitic’ features: sharply hooked noses, the evil moustachioed leer on their faces, were obvious reminders (to a largely non- Semitic population) that ‘Semites’ were at the bottom of all ‘our’ troubles.”
This is important, as many people in the Arab world and outside it think that European Jews are the ones who called themselves “Semites”, rather than European Christian racists who invented the term. Of course this misunderstanding is understandable given the fact that Zionism, which adopted wholesale anti-Semitic ideologies, would also call Jews “Semites” and would begin to consider Jews as Semites racially from the late 19th century to the present. In this sense not only do many Arabs think that “Semites” is a Jewish-invented category but so do many European Jews who were (and in some contexts remain) victims of this anti-Jewish designation.
But this is different from the spurious claim that “Arabs cannot be anti-Semitic because they are Semites.” There are Arabs today who are anti- Jewish, and they borrow their anti-Jewish rhetoric not from the Palestine experience but from European rhetoric’s of anti-Semitism. The point is that Arab Christians and Muslims can be anti-Jewish just as Jews can be, and American and Israeli Jews often are, anti-Arab racists, even though many among these Jews and Arabs use the category “Semite” for self-classification. Indeed a large and disproportionate number of the purveyors of anti- Arab racism in today’s United States and Israel as well as in Western Europe are Jews. But there is also a disproportionate number of Jews among those who defend Arabs and Muslims against Euro- American and Israeli racism and anti-Semitism. The majority, however, of those who hate Arabs and Muslims in the West remain European and American Christians.
It is often pointed out by Zionists and their supporters that holocaust denial in the Arab world is the major evidence for “Arab anti-Semitism”. I have written elsewhere how any Arab or Palestinian who denies the Jewish holocaust falls into the Zionist logic.
While holocaust denial in the West is indeed one of the strongest manifestations of anti-Semitism, most Arabs who deny the holocaust deny it for political not racist reasons. This point is even conceded by the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim Orientalist Bernard Lewis. Their denial is based on the false Zionist claim that the holocaust justifies Zionist colonialism. The Zionist claim is as follows: Since Jews were the victims of the holocaust, then they have the right to colonise Palestine and establish a Jewish colonial-settler state there. Those Arabs who deny the holocaust accept the Zionist logic as correct. Since these deniers reject the right of Zionists to colonise Palestine, the only argument left to them is to deny that the holocaust ever took place, which, to their thinking, robs Zionism of its allegedly “moral” argument. But the fact that Jews were massacred does not give Zionists the right to steal someone else’s homeland and to massacre the Palestinian people. The oppression of a people does not endow it with rights to oppress others. If those Arab deniers refuse to accept the criminal Zionist logic that justifies the murder and oppression of the Palestinians by appealing to the holocaust, then these deniers would no longer need to make such spurious arguments. All those in the Arab world who deny the Jewish holocaust are in my opinion Zionists.
Anyone who believes in social justice and opposes racist oppression must be in solidarity with all holocaust victims, especially European Jews, 90 per cent of whom were exterminated by a criminal and genocidal regime. Such a person must equally be against the Zionist abduction of the holocaust to justify Israel’s colonial and racist policies. The attempt by holocaust deniers to play down the number of holocaust victims is obscene, as whether one million or 10 million Jews were killed, the result is still genocide and this would never justify Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. Such obscene number games on the part of holocaust deniers are hardly different from Zionist Jewish denial of the Palestinian Nakba and are also similar to the continued Zionist attempts to play down the number of Palestinian refugees. While the Nakba and the holocaust are not equivalent in any sense, the logic of denying them is indeed the same. I should stress here that the Palestine Liberation Organization and most Palestinian intellectuals have spoken and written since the 1960s of their solidarity with Jewish holocaust victims and have attacked those who deny it took place. Unlike the official and unofficial Israeli denial of the expulsion of the Palestinians and the numbers of the refugees, those who deny the holocaust among Palestinians have no position whatsoever inside the PLO nor any legitimacy among the Palestinian intelligentsia.
Today we live in a world where anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hatred, derived from anti-Semitism, is everywhere in evidence. It is not Jews, who are being murdered by the thousands by Arab anti- Semitism, but rather Arabs and Muslims who are being murdered by the tens of thousands by Euro- American Christian anti-Semitism and by Israeli Jewish anti-Semitism. If anti-Semites posited Jews as the purveyors of corruption, as financier bankers who control the world, as violent communist subversives, and as poisoners of Christian wells, the Arab and the Muslim today are seen as in control of the oil market and therefore of the global financial market, the purveyors of hatred and corruption of civilized Christian and Jewish societies, as violent terrorists, and as possible mass murderers, not with some Semitic Jewish poison but with Semitic Arab nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons (which are nowhere to be found). Thus Michael Moore feels vindicated in telling us in his recent film, Fahrenheit 9/11, about the portion of the American economy controlled by Saudi money while neglecting to mention the much, much larger American share of the Saudi economy. Anti- Semitism is alive and well today worldwide and its major victims are Arabs and Muslims and no longer Jews. The fight should indeed be against all anti-Semitism no matter who the object of its oppression is Arab or Jew.
* Joseph Massad teaches modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University in New York.