25 March 2015

Is Anti-Semitism the worst form of bigotry?

David Brooks isn't the first writer to note an increase in anti-semitism around the world. Another writer got some attention recently by asking rhetorically whether Jewish people should leave Europe in the face of rising anti-semitism there. Muslims are to blame for much of this, predictably enough, but for Brooks the Jews are playing their usual scapegoat role and have given Muslims no special reason to hate them or, worse, want them dead. Brooks sees anti-semitism as almost entirely a matter of projection, the result of a widespread human need to blame an other for their troubles, be those personal or global. For anti-semites, he writes, "The Jew is not a person but an idea, a unique carrier of transcendent evil: a pollution, a stain, a dark force responsible for the failures of others, the unconscious shame and primeval urges they feel in themselves, and everything that needs explaining."

The only real problem I have with this formulation is Brooks's belief that it applies only to Jews. He contends that anti-semitism isn't merely the most virulent or vicious form of bigotry, but is on an entirely other level from other forms of ethnic or religious hatred. "Most bigotry is an assertion of inferiority and speaks the language of oppression," he explains, "Anti-Semitism is an assertion of impurity and speaks the language of extermination." This is both ahistorical and inaccurate at the present time. Can't we presume that any people targeted for genocide has been subject to "the language of extermination?" The Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, perhaps? The Tutsis in Rwanda more recently -- a people equated with cockroaches by their Hutu persecutors? What they suffered could not be mere bigotry by Brooks's standard. Why, then, does Brooks seem to imply that only Jews have been subject to another level of super-bigotry? Probably because he still sees the Shoah of World War II as a unique event, even though it is more quantitatively than qualitatively distinct from other sustained mass atrocities. It's more likely, I suspect, that Brooks wants to draw as stark a distinction as possible between the indisputably bloody record of anti-semitism and the alarms raised over Islamophobia around the world. He finds it necessary to argue that the Jews are still the most hated and most endangered people on earth, if not necessarily the most oppressed. On some level I think this is an answer to an inferred Muslim argument that the umma is the most oppressed people -- an argument Brooks would probably ascribe to self-pity or explain by noting Muslims' self-oppression. But let's try to keep a more careful score. Isn't it possible that despite all the attention Jew-hatred gets, more people around the world hate Muslims than hate Jews? After all, nearly every other major religion has a concentration of Islamophobes somewhere: the Jews in Israel; Christians in the U.S. and Europe; Hindus in India; Buddhists (!) in Myanmar. And given an undisputed history of Muslim violence whose relevance to the present seems more obvious to most observers than the more ancient (and more disputed) history of Hebrew violence, isn't it more likely that people around the world will see Muslims as the unique carriers of transcendent evil, moral pollution, etc? Brooks makes a big deal out of admittedly abhorrent expressions of Jew hatred by Muslim leaders, but you could probably top them by scrolling down any comment thread on any popular American news site for a story about Islam. Even on sites where comments are moderated and censored, pretty virulent opinions make it through, and it's hard to tell the difference between assertions of inferiority and assertions of impurity after a while. It may still be objectively true that anti-semitism is growing in volume and virulence, but to observe this with outrage while Islamophobia is arguably growing faster in both categories, without the same outrage from David Brooks, is suspiciously selective. It really seems like just another way to tell Muslims to shut up -- among so many these days. I'm sure Brooks himself never dreams of exterminating Muslims, but if he goes on to assume that no one has such dreams, while Jews somehow are the only people anyone dreams of exterminating, then he's kidding himself, or else he's lying to us.


Anonymous said...

Considering that the very base tenet of Jewry is the notion that their "race", their particular genetic strain that marks them as "jews" also makes them god's one-an-only chosen people. So shouldn't a similar charge be leveled against the Jews that they are "anti-gentile"?

Anonymous said...

Not to mention the FACT that Arabs are Semitic. (Some) Jews hate Arabs. Doesn't that make those particular Jews "anti-Semitic"?

Samuel Wilson said...

"Anti-semitism" has become so synonymous with "Jew-hatred" that the oxymoronism of the "Arab anti-semitism" label never sinks in. Part of that probably can be blamed on enduring disregard for Arab rights or interests by Jews, Europeans, Americans, etc. They'd have to acknowledge that Arabs are human before they'd consider acknowledging them as Semites.

All three Abrahamic faiths are inherently "anti" each other, not to mention anti-"pagan" and so on. The "anti" label gets applied depending on how much people act on that inherent "anti-ness." Muslims seem to many folks to be anti-everything because of these recent generations of violence. Since relatively few Jews apart from some ultra-Orthodox are actively "anti-gentile," using that label to describe them will only look anti-semitic to most people. The problem is that writers like Brooks neglect a history of non-violent anti-semitism, whose adherents find Jews obnoxious yet don't want them dead, for which it should be easy to find counterparts in Jewish communities.

Anonymous said...

"All three Abrahamic faiths are inherently "anti" each other,"

Yes, but whereas the bigotry on the part of Muslims or Christians are based entirely on religion - that is to say, a christian might become muslim or vice versa, the Jewish idea of their religion is based on their particular genetic strain as much, if not more so, than their religious belief and, therefor, is a form of racism.

Samuel Wilson said...

It depends on which denomination or sect of Jews you're dealing with. While none really proselytize like Christians and Muslims do, some have accepted high profile converts to the faith e.g Elizabeth Taylor and Sammy Davis Jr.