The Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) conference on anti-Semitism completed its first meeting without addressing the problem in its totality.
There are, in fact, two anti-Semitisms. One has historically found expression in the hatred and vilification of the Jewish people; the other has manifested itself in the equally odious hatred and vilification of Arabs and Muslims.
A decade ago I was asked to speak on this subject at a special conference organized by Hebrew University. In light of the just completed conference, I offer a summary of my remarks.
Historically, the animus of anti-Semitism directed against both Arabs and Jews has been the same. It has been a largely Western Christian struggle against two Semitic civilizations-one that it found living within its midst and that it saw as an internal threat; the other that it confronted as an external challenge but that it similarly defined as a threat to its survival.
Both Jews and Arab Muslims were perceived as threats-their organizations, their wealth, and even their corporate identities were seen as damaging to the West. And the results have been devastating to both peoples. Both groups have suffered a history of vilification and both have endured campaigns of systematic violence.
Several years ago I did a study of political cartoons and other forms of popular culture, comparing the depiction of Jews in Czarist Russia and pre-Nazi Germany with that of the Arabs in the United States in the 1970s and ’80s. In both content and form the treatments given to each were identical. The two most prevalent German and Russian depictions of Jews paralleled the two most common images of the Arabs projected in U.S. cartoons. The fat grotesque Jewish banker or merchant found its contemporary counterpart in the obese oil sheik, and the images of the Arab and Jewish terrorists differed only in their attire.
Both groups were uniformly treated as alien and hostile. They were accused of not sharing Western values and were both viewed as prone to conspiracy. They were both seen as usurpers of Western wealth and were defined as threats to Western civilization. Jews were associated with capitalist greed and anarchist violence and communism. Arab avarice was held responsible for runaway inflation, and they were seen as the main agents responsible for international terrorism.
In the wake of the horrors of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism against Jews is now recognized for what it is-hateful prejudice. We have yet to learn this lesson when it comes to Arabs and Islam.
Although some may argue that these misrepresentations of Arabs and Islam stems from ignorance, the problem is not just ignorance, but what passes for knowledge. The so-called media "experts" who define Islam for Western audiences include virtually no Arabs or Muslims, and many of these self-proclaimed experts are actually ideologues engaged in a hostile campaign to portray Islam as a "green scare" replacing communism as the new national threat. They depict Islam as something foreign, un-American, and diametrically opposed to "our" values. American Muslims are thus reduced to followers of a foreign and potentially dangerous faith and not the bright-eyed girl next door who chooses to wear a hijab to her soccer games.
Popular culture only reinforces these negative images. In films, books, and television, the portrayal of Arabs and Muslims are almost uniformly hostile.
In the absence of any positive portrayals of American Muslims in the mainstream media, Western audiences don’t see the community as multifaceted with many positive characteristics. They only see one-dimensional stereotypical images; and because of the media’s obsession with isolated violent acts without any discussion of context or history, the image of Islam has come to be defined by the terrorist. The terrorist is not seen as the exception to the religion of Islam, but the rule.
To counter this "other anti-Semitism" requires both vigilance and hard work.
When non-Arabs and non-Muslims react to anti-Arab and anti-Muslim stereotypes with the same outrage they display toward anti-Jewish bigotry, then we will be on the path to burying the "other anti-Semitism."
What I wrote a decade ago remains relevant, but there are a number of new and troubling facts to this problem that must also be considered in this discussion.
Firstly, though inevitable, it is nevertheless profoundly tragic that the two historic victims of this anti-Semitic bigotry have fallen prey to embracing and utilizing it in their respective political discourses.
When an Israeli Rabbi refers to Arabs as "vermin" or "poisonous snakes" that is anti-Semitism. So too, when a Saudi preacher speaks of Jews as "descendants of monkeys", that is anti-Semitism.
When either side speaks of the "other" as a guilty collective or identifies the other side as possessing innate negative traits – as in "Jews are untrustworthy" or "Arabs are prone to violence" -that is anti-Semitism. It is wrong for Americans and Europeans to speak this way and it is just as disturbing when Arabs and Jews use such language as well.
Secondly, there are some in the West who want to stretch the definition of anti-Semitism in an effort to silence legitimate political criticism of the policies in the State of Israel. They insist that any singling out of Israel is motivated by an anti-Jewish animus. Recent charges of anti-Semitism against UN Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and Mary Robinson (the Nobel Prize winner) both of whom recently criticized Israeli occupation are examples of this terrible abuse of the anti-Semitism charge for political purposes.
In this context, Secretary of State Colin Powell was correct to note that "it is not anti-Semitic to criticize the policies of the state of Israel, but the line is crossed when Israel’s leaders are demonized and vilified by the use of Nazi symbols or racist caricatures." True enough – but the same yardstick should also be applied to the "other anti-Semitism" as well. All too often the language used to demonize Yassir Arafat is nothing more than vile, hate-filled bigotry. In other words, anti-Semitism.
Racism is a pollutant. It must be confronted because it distorts human interaction, destroys reasoned political discourse and presents a confused portrait of reality. The root of the Arab-Israeli conflict is not the supposed evil "nature" of Arabs or Jews. It is a conflict borne of the denial of rights, occupation and violence.
For all sides to continue to portray the conflict in racist terms, or to generalize its nature using language, which implies collective guilt, prolongs the conflict, adds news victims and makes a political resolution more difficult.
As an effort to detoxify the discussion, the OSCE conference was one-half right. There is anti-Jewish bigotry in Europe. But is there not also growing anti-Muslim sentiment as well? Next year’s meeting must focus on both anti-semitisms, not as a finger-pointing exercise in mutual recrimination, but as a real effort to address a real problem that has, for at least a millennium, taken too many victims, Arabs and Jews alike.