Friday, December 26, 2008

antisemitism and "islamophobia": the next round

I can't buy Ha'aretz, the more sophisticated Israeli daily, because the local kosher bakery decided it was either too sophisticated or too left-wing (or both) for its increasingly narrow clientele. I do follow it online, though, including an interesting piece today by one Benjamin Weinthal, whom the article says is an independent journalist in Berlin. The piece laments that the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism, also in Berlin, recently held a conference titled "Concepts of the Muslim Enemy - Concepts of the Jewish Enemy," which (according to the author) conflated antisemitism with Islamophobia in a dangerous way. Several scholars of antisemitism, Daniel Goldhagen among them, have suggested that such an equation may trivialize antisemitism, which they argue is uniquely venomous (especially in Germany), and may further lead to ignoring current anti-Jewish propaganda, notably that emanating from Iran with which Germany does a good bit of business. That the Iranians apparently helped to coin the term "Islamophobia" doesn't help things either.

It's hard to deny antisemitism has been uniquely vicious in Germany, and it is surely hypocritical to complain about prejudice without challenging Ahmadi-Nejad. But I am not sure that it is necessarily wrong to compare antisemitism with anti-Islamic hatred. As I have written here, there are numerous parallels between the two, including a tendency to see Jews or Muslims as primitive in their behavior (specifically regarding women); as believing in a God of vengeance rather than love; and as posing a demographic threat because of their higher reproduction rate (we are talking about Jews in the 1930s) and immigration patterns. Nor will it do to distinguish the two because of the association of radical Islam with terrorism or the Iranian nuclear threat. Jews were likewise identified with communism in the 1930s, or at the very least with a sort of secular humanism that--as absurd as it may seem to us--appeared a mortal threat to many in prewar Europe.

There is also a question of effectiveness. Weinthal quotes Theodore Adorno as stating that the post-Holocaust world is obliged to "structure its thinking and actions in such a way that Auschwitz would never be repeated, that nothing similar would happen [again]." But what if the potential Auschwitz involves not Jews but Africans, Asians, . . . or Muslims, in a deteriorating world environment which sees currently fringe thinking become gradually more mainstream? Will a conversation that simply reiterates the perseverance of antisemitism, denying the possibility of parallel experiences by any other group, really prove that persuasive, and (as time goes on) how many people will even want to participate in it? It is understandable that Jews would insist upon the uniqueness of the Holocaust, and indeed any serious discussion is likely to recognize that uniqueness. But a phenomenon can be unique in its essence while retaining specific characteristics that invite, even demand, comparison with other phenomena: refusing to discuss these comparisons risks a conversation that is in the end no conversation at all.


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