Islamophobia, Antisemitism, the Holocaust, and a “New” Jewish Cause

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August 20, 2010

The debate over the “Ground Zero” mosque–more accurately called The Park 51 Islamic Cultural Center–has thrust 9/11 back onto the national scene in a way we have not seen since the debate over the construction of the memorial a few years after the atrocity. What’s different this time around is the light the “mosque” debate has shed on what has been a festering yet mostly unremarkable phenomenon of Islamophobia in America. After a few violent incidents following 9/11, this country’s growing Islamophobia has largely gone unnoticed. Now, protests against Park 51, in conjunction with protests against the construction of mosques in at least five states, one pipe-bombing of a mosque in Florida, and comments by Republican pundits Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, have brought this growing problem to national attention.

Jews are largely split on the particular issue of Park 51. The Huffington Post published an article “Top American Rabbis Rally Around the ‘Ground Zero’ Mosque” reflecting the fact that many clergy have been supportive of Park 51, yet it is clear that Jews in the pews, beaches, and playgrounds across American are far less convinced. I’d like to suggest that what is at issue for many American Jews is not the constitutionality of Park 51 or even the Islamophobia the 9/11 attacks may have engendered. It is, rather, that the Islamophobia resulting from 9/11 (an event that was not an attack on the Jews) fills a vacuum for a Jewish community that has defined itself through the meme of persecution, a vacuum left by the diminution of the Holocaust as the key to Jewish identity.

In the 1980s, numerous Jewish academics and rabbis weighed in on what they considered the over-emphasis on the Holocaust in American Jewish life. The late Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf’s quip, “The Holocaust isn’t being taught, its being sold,” captured a sentiment that others such as Jacob Neusner, Ismar Schorch, and Robert Alter expressed in essays and articles in the period where Post-Holocaust theology was in its hey-day, university courses on the Holocaust were on the rise, Eli Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize (1986) and the construction of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum was well underway. For an analysis of some of these positions, see Berenbaum’s book, from Tragedy to Triumph.

Robert Alter published “Deformations of the Holocaust” in Commentary, February, 1981. In this essay, Alter advances a number of complaints focused on one central question: How much “Holocaust” is healthy for American Jews? His worry was that overemphasis on the Holocaust would overshadow other important dimensions of Jewish education, history, thought, culture, and literature. By “overshadow” I do not mean totally erase. Rather, Alter was questioning whether using the Holocaust as a lens through which Judaism writ large is ritualized, absorbed, and taught would be healthy for the future of Judaism. Ismar Schorsch sums up Alter’s sentiments quite nicely in his essay, “The Holocaust and Jewish Survival,” published in Midstream the same year (1981). “By saturating our young and old with the nightmare of the Holocaust, we will, at best, only generate an ephemeral, secular, Trotzjudenthum (a Judaism of defiance), without substance.”

Whether without substance or not, it is the case even today that in many American synagogues the service commemorating the Holocaust on “Holocaust Remembrance Day” (Yom ha-Shoah) is the most well-attended service of the year apart from Yom Kippur. By comparison, on Tisha b’Av, the day commemorating the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples and subsequent Jewish tragedies from the Crusades to the many pogroms throughout history (included in the liturgical Kinot recited on that day), American synagogues are fairly empty. However, despite the Holocaust memorials in synagogue foyers, despite the Warsaw ghetto seders during passover, despite the numerous academic chairs and university courses in Holocaust Studies, the Holocaust is no longer the central focus of Jewish identity it was then.

The Holocaust will remain an important part of any future Judaism. It will just likely not be its center. In this sense, Jewish Studies and American Jewry have, in effect, moved on. But have we? The Holocaust served to define a Judaism threatened, a Judaism that required vigilant protection from an Other. That looming threat has not disappeared with the slow ebb of the Holocaust from everyday Jewish life. Instead, it has been replaced.

What we are seeing in universities today is the rise of Centers, Institutes, and Initiatives in the study of “contemporary” “global” antisemitism. Largely this means antisemitism in the Muslim world (including Europe). Let’s face it: the threat and subsequent fear of Islam in America, that is, Islamophobia, has been good for those Jews for whom the Holocaust was a central tenet of their identity. This is mainly because it puts a new focus on antisemitism, now not Nazi antisemitism but the antisemitism in the Muslim world. In addition, it serves to affirm a right-leaning political ideology regarding Israel, viewing Israel as the front-line against a global attack on America.

Money has poured into Institutes, Centers, and Initiatives for the study of antisemitism, most focusing on the rise of antisemitism in the Islamic world. Many of these centers are tied to Jewish Studies programs or led by scholars trained in Jewish Studies. On August 23rd The Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism in conjunction with “The International Association for the Study of Antisemitism” (IASA) along with five other centers for the study of antisemitism (including one from Indiana University where I teach) will have a conference at Yale entitled Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity. At first blush there is nothing wrong with this; conferences are a part of the academic landscape. But conferences like these all too easily amplify, even justify, the Islamophobia pervading the American landscape, even if that is not their intention. And they also link Jews to America, viewing them both as targets of the same (Muslim) enemy.

While the title of the Yale conference “Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity” implies a broad spectrum, when one peruses the paper titles, antisemitism in the Muslim world predominates. The first plenary session has papers entitled, “Arab and Islamic Antisemitism Today,” “Conspiracy Theories, Antisemitism, an Jews in Turkey Today,” “The Jihad Flotilla to Gaza: Provocative – Antisemitic – Not Humanitarian,” “ and “Nazi Propaganda to the Arab World and its After Effects in Postwar Militant Islam.” While all worthy topics, one gets the idea. Of approximately 91 papers (I exclude keynote addresses), at least 23 are explicitly about Arab or Muslim Antisemitism, 3 are explicitly about Christian Antisemitism, 6 are about the Holocaust, and 3 are about self-hating Jews (all included in a panel called “Self-Hatred and Contemporary Antisemitism” - the title of the panel is itself worthy of a panel). The others are about antisemitism in other parts of the world, are more theoretically oriented, or have titles that are too non-descript to define.

My question is not whether, in fact, this conference will be a purely academic meeting or even whether this is a viable topic for scholarly inquiry. I think it surely is. My question is what this represents in American Jewry; whether our obsession with the Holocaust is being transferred to our obsession with Arab/Muslim antisemitism?

Obsessions are different from illusions. The Holocaust happened. Yet Neusner, Alter, and Schorsch argue we can be still be obsessed by it to our detriment (on this see the essay by Leon Wieseltier, “Hitler is Dead” in The New Republic, 2002). Antisemitism in the Arab/Muslim world surely exists and is a problem, not only for Jews but also for Muslims. But using that as a new way to construct what I would call a “negative Judaism” is hardly a sign of health for American Jewry.

My point is not to denigrate or delegitimize the study of Arab Antisemitism, in America or abroad. This is a phenomenon that merits our attention. However, I think we should also be studying Islamophobia in America as a “replacement” for antisemitism. And we should be examining why American Jews may be using Islamophobia to push a different agenda. There are no papers dealing with the issue of Islamophobia at the Yale conference nor are there any papers that I could tell from the title critical of the focus on the subject. Global antisemitism as a modern crisis is a given. This itself may speak to a lack of perspective underlying the organizing principle of the conference. Although I acknowledge it is difficult to determine ethnicity or religious affiliation by names alone, of more than 90 speakers there is only one speaker that I could surmise was an Arab Muslim. Strange, since the subject is predominantly antisemitism in the Muslim world.

Jews are used to being the object of hatred and abuse. Long ago, Spinoza wrote that to some degree it is this feeling of marginalization that defines the Jew. In the twentieth century Jean-Paul Sartre argued along similar, albeit not identical, lines in his Anti-Semite and Jew and more recently Gil Anidjar’s The Jew, the Jews: A History of the Enemy (2003) argues that, in fact, Antisemitism and Islamophobia (he does not use that term) are really two sides of Christian hatred of the (Jewish/Muslim) Other.

It is not without irony that a secular Jewish mayor of New York City is the most uncompromising force behind The Park 51 Islamic Cultural center driven by his own experience of (Christian) antisemitism as a child in Malden, Massachusetts. He refuses to allow Islamophobia and Muslim antisemitism (as real as it may be) to undermine his commitment not only to the United States Constitution but to his Jewish sensibilities.

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