I was dismayed to read two days ago about the new Egyptian government’s cancellation of a screening of a documentary film called “Jews of Egypt.” The film, produced by Haytham El-Khamissy, highlights the life of Egypt’s sizeable Jewish community before its coerced departure in the 1950s. When the screening was cancelled by the Egyptian security agency the day before it was due to take place, El-Khamissy reported on Facebook that no reason for the cancellation was given.
In the aftermath of what seems to be a refusal by Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government to recognize the Jews of Egypt’s past, the immediate reaction of many Jews and non-Jews with whom I spoke was to cry anti-Semitism. By refusing to recognize a community that was unjustly pressured and sometimes forced to abandon its homeland, the government of Muhammad Mursi seems to be continuing Nasser’s project of ethnically cleansing Egypt of its Jewish heritage.
In light of this event and the absence of information surrounding it, it is worth re-exploring the various meanings of anti-Semitism in order to determine what this act of censorship can teach us about anti-Semitism in the modern world. Of course, there is a religious form of anti-Semitism. Perpetrators of this anti-Semitism have historically been Christians who either still hold the Jewish people as guilty of deicide or resent the Jews’ rejection of their God, or both. Religious anti-Semitism has also been perpetrated by Muslims, the birth of whose religion Jews also witnessed and rejected. And perhaps the unwillingness of the Egyptian government to celebrate the existence of what was once a proud and relatively well-integrated Jewish community of Egypt stems from the religious concerns of the Muslim Brotherhood, of which current Egyptian president and alleged anti-Semite Muhammad Morsi is a member.But anti-Semitism does not only emanate from the theological insecurities of non-Jews. As much as we are known for our Judaism, Jews as also renowned for our traditions of skepticism, reason, and argument, which originate in the exercise of Talmud study. This tradition has played perhaps as much a role in casting Jews as the perpetual “other” as has Judaism-the-religion. Always among the most eager groups to adopt Enlightenment values and liberal social theories that threatened to alter backward status quos, Jews have been seen as a destabilizing force in any regime, often perceived to wield power disproportionate to the size of its population, culminating in the myth of a secret world government run by Jews and operated through instruments of global finance.
This second form of anti-Semitism, barring its uniquely Jewish character, can be reformulated to explain any xenophobia, but particularly xenophobia that emerges as a response to a moral challenge. Jews posed such a moral challenge to their gentile hosts throughout centuries of exile, and today, such a moral challenge has been posed to the Jewish people for over 60 years by Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and even within Israel itself. The effects of that moral stimulation can be seen in the profluence of headlines describing random violence perpetrated by Israelis against anyone resembling a Palestinian, whether in looks, religious affiliation, or national identity.
Here are just a few recent examples: In late Feb., a woman wearing a hijab at a Jerusalem light rail station was assaulted by a group of Orthodox ultra-nationalist girls. They kicked the woman and tried to tear off her hijab while a security guard looked on without intervening. Last week, there were two more incidents in which ultra-nationalist Israeli youths attacked Arab women, both of whom were citizens of Israel. Furthermore, it has become commonplace to hear “Death to Arabs” chanted (not only offensively but erroneously) at the two newest members of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team (who are in fact Chechen Muslims) by the ultra-nationalist La Familia faction of the team’s fan base. Finally, in the case of the Molotov cocktail that was thrown at a car with a Palestinian license plate and severely burned seven members of the same family near the settlement of Bat Ayin, no one has been brought to justice.
Of course, it is always reported that when incidents like this occur, legal action is taken by the perpetrators, who are cast as exceptions to Israel’s generally tolerant society. Indeed, after the group of Israeli teenagers nearly lynched East Jerusalemite Jamal Julani last summer, an hour was set aside in every Israeli school to discuss the incident and the effects of intolerance and racism on Israeli society. However, while this may have taken place in some schools, teachers and administrators at Jerusalem’s most elite high school reported that they received no such instruction from the Ministry of Education, as have parents of children in other schools throughout the country. Furthermore, the Israeli youths who nearly beat Julani to death are being convicted only of “incitement to violence” in a plea bargain after the Israeli court “lost” hours of recorded testimony.
While I hold the perpetrators of these attacks and the subtly discriminatory eye of the Israeli legal system responsible for this surge in anti-Arab, anti-Muslim violence, there are many people in Israel and in this country who see the situation differently. Israel’s unconditional supporters are wont to see this violence as the logical response to Palestinian Jew-hatred and terror-mongering, and they tout instances of Palestinian terrorism and the racist content of Palestinian textbooks as their evidence that the balance of hate remains firmly on the Palestinian side. Of course, innocent Israelis have lost their lives to Palestinian-perpetrated terror. Indeed, 804 Israelis perished in a campaign of suicide bombing attacks that plagued Israel between 1989 and 2008. However, the number of attacks has dropped precipitously since the construction of Israel’s separation barrier in 2003. Today, thanks to both the Israeli security apparatus and shifting methodologies of the Palestinian resistance movement, the fear of violence emanating from the West Bank is negligible, so it is interesting to note that while the only Palestinians still committing acts of organized violence against Israel are Hamas and its affiliates in Gaza, all targets of Israeli anti-Arab violence have either been from the West Bank of from Israel itself.
Today, both Palestinians and Israelis who retain some hope for a two-state solution point to the relative calm within Israel as causing a lack of urgency to reach a final status agreement. While this period of calm should be attributed in large part to Israel’s highly effective security apparatus, it is worthwhile to note the drastic shift in the tactics employed by the Palestinian resistance movement over the last decade. Today, thanks in large part to films such as the Academy Award-nominated “5 Broken Cameras,” any mention of Palestinian resistance to occupation is less likely to conjure images of masked militants and increasingly likely to conjure images of [generally] peaceful protesters seeking to halt the destruction of their ancestral farmlands by interfering with land-grabs perpetrated by the IDF in favor of Israeli settlements, much like any political resistance movement would do. Furthermore, in response to the claim that Palestinians systematically incite hatred of Jews, the U.S. State Department published the findings of a study last year that indicated that while neither Israeli nor Palestinian textbooks presents the narrative of the other very accurately or favorably, neither set of textbooks incites hatred of or violence against the other.
But this entire discussion of whether Palestinian attitudes and actions toward Israelis are the cause of this new wave of Israeli civilians assaulting random Palestinians is moot. The topic of this article is anti-Semitism and its contemporary forms. Violence perpetrated against a political enemy — in this case by Palestinians against the IDF and Israeli civilians who are seen as contributing directly to Palestinian dispossession — is not anti-Semitism. It may be illegal or unjust, but it bears no significant similarity to the history of global anti-Semitism, and conflating anti-Semitism with Palestinian resistance to an Israeli-perpetrated political inequity only strips the term “anti-Semitism” of all meaning. Banning the screening of a film because it is about Jews — that can be called anti-Semitic because it targets Jews qua Jews. Palestinian hatred of those whom they perceive to have dispossessed them of their ancestral lands — that would have happened whether the perpetrators had been Jewish or not.
If anti-Semitism is at all relevant to this discussion of Israeli violence against random, innocent Palestinians, it is only as it can be applied to the Israelis themselves.
Any scholar of geopolitics or nationalism would easily identify the ubiquity of Israeli flags in seemingly every available public space in Israel as an assertion of national entitlement in response to the constant questioning of that entitlement by Israel’s many critics. In other words, as much as Israeli flags stake Israel’s claim to whatever they adorn, they also indicate that the ownership of all that the flag touches is in question, and that the flag is Israel’s answer. However, challenging that answer, and the numerous other answers that Israel uses to pacify its critics (just as Jews embodied the intellectual challenge to pre-Enlightenment injustice), are the millions of Palestinians over whom Israel rules, either as a flawed yet legitimate democratic government or as an occupying force.
The presence of Palestinians in Israeli society and in the Israeli consciousness is a constant moral challenge — one that no flag is large enough to conceal. And out of desperation at having to contend with an inconvenient yet difficult moral challenge, just as European Christians and fundamentalist Muslims have grown desperately frustrated at the moral prodding of their Jews, Israelis are now taking out their frustration and insecurity on innocent Palestinians with violence and hatred. This is simply anti-Semitism directed at non-Jewish Semites.
In his 2010 Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture at UCLA, Christopher Hitchens spoke of the protean character of anti-Semitism — its tendency to adapt to any environment and historical period. As Passover approaches, we can reflect on the Haggadah’s assertion that Jew-hatred and Judeocide threaten Jewish existence in every generation. What does this mean today, when the possibility of Judeocide is rendered utterly impotent by the existence, strength and cultural vitality of the Jewish State? It seems that the only real threat to Jewish security today is not physical but ethical. The Jewish nation finds itself today in a position all too similar to that of our diasporic hosts — increasingly xenophobic and dismissive of Jewish and liberal values when they complicate our new paranoid worldview. Anti-Semitism is still the greatest threat to the Jewish people today, but it comes not from an oppressive environment but from within. Rather than threatening our bodies, it threatens our place as the tiny yet immutable guiding light in history that has always striven to infuse the status quo with intellectual freshness and ethical thinking — that which we might call “the Jewish soul.”