Monday, March 06, 2006

antisemitism and islamophobia: are there common threads?

As I mention somewhere in my personal description, I am currently writing a book about the Italian Race Laws (1938-45), which were a sort of Italian version of the Nuremberg Laws and were enforced more severely than people realize, even before the German occupation of Italy and the subsequent deportations which killed 7,000-8,000 Italian Jews. If you've seen "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis," you have some idea what happened here, although not always an accurate one ("E' tutto falso," said one person I asked in Ferrara, "it's all made up.")

One thing that happens when you write a book like this is that you realize how much the various forms of discrimination--antisemitism, apartheid, the Jim Crow laws--have with each other, although also the differences between them. Almost all racial statutes share a common "core" of provisions against mixed marriages and other physical contacts (in school, at hotels or resorts, etc.) that might lead to miscegenation, which tend to be enforced with the greatest enthusiasm, sometimes including death for violators (especially violators from the disadvantaged group). The laws vary somewhat more in the "periphery" of rules that pertain to business, professions, and other less personal activities. They also vary rather considerably in their definitions: for example if the American "one drop" rule had been applied in Germany, a huge proportion of the population including many Nazi leaders would probably have been considered Jewish, while the German rule of "one Jewish grandparent" might, by analogy, have left some African-American leaders considered white. One additional common feature pertains to enforcement: unless they are terminated altogether, race laws tend to become harsher rather than more lenient with the passage of time, as the bureaucracy seeks new applications and the inevitable degradation of the disadvantaged group becomes a rationale for further discrimination.

Given these various parallels, one would think there would be a lot of comparative work done in this area, and yet (at least where law professors are concerned), there doesn't seem to be a whole lot. (There is a very sophisticated sociological literature on the nature of prejudice, but it tends to be rather abstract.) I think this relates partly to the usual reasons for the lack of comparative work--too hard, too demanding, too many different sources--but also to a sort of competitive victimization at work in the area. Put simply, nobody wants to believe anyone else has suffered as much as they have, the very thing comparative work might suggest. When I talk to Jews or Blacks about my work, I find that the conversation turns quickly to the fact that the other group doesn't understand how much we have suffered, which sort of makes my point.

One area I have become especially fascinated with lately is the parallel between antisemitism, in the 1930s and today, and Islamophobia or anti-Islamic prejudice. While there are obviously many differences here, the two groups are accused of some remarkably similar things:

1. They have large families that are made easier for them because they don't respect the rights of women (said historically of traditional or Orthodox Jews; said of Muslims today).

2. They pray to a God who emphasizes justice or vengeance as opposed to the Christian God of mercy and love.

3. They are hypocrites, because they want to see their rights as a minority protected, but are cruel and intolerant to minorities in their own countries (Arabs in Israel, Jews, Christians, or secular Muslims in the Islamic nations).

4. When push comes to shove, they are ultimately loyal either to a foreign movement (Zionism, international Jewry, global Islamic radicalism) rather than to their home country.

5. They cannot be analogized to other minorities, because a combination of items 1-4 above makes them for all intents and purposes unassimilable.

Of course, there are also many differences between the two situations, among the obvious ones being different sizes (there are a lot more Muslims than Jews), different levels of assimilation and economic achievement (Jews tend to be better integrated although the difference can be exaggerated at times), and most of all different historical circumstances (antisemitism held a central place in Western culture while the contact with Islam has been more intermittent). These in turn result in a rather different set of legal challenges, Jews having historically faced laws designed to restrict their allegedly "disproportionate" success while Muslims, at least in a European context, have faced a generalized indifference coupled with rising efforts to compel their conformity to wider cultural norms (e.g., the French law against headscarves in school). Yet the similarities remain striking, even beyond those that would apply to race, gender, or alternate kinds of prejudice.

One problem for an academic--and one reason for the relative dearth of comparative work--is exactly what to do with an observation of this sort. Merely pointing out the similarities tends toward the banal and may result in the not especially exciting conclusion that (i) there are a lot of prejudices that have lots of things in common, and (ii) it would be better if there were fewer of them. (My publisher calls these comparisons "ahistorical" which I think is a polite way of saying "wrong.") For now, I am thinking of a more focused study that looks at the progress of these twin prejudices in one country or one period of time, and also at the effect of various different legal norms (free speech vs. protection from group insult, affirmative action vs. individual rights, etc.) on the ultimate outcome. I would appreciate hearing from anyone who has considered these issues, or knows somebody else who has.


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