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Rage Against Islam: the New Anti-Semitism

Recent attacks on Islam in the United States echo old slurs against Jews.
 
 
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After Abraham Foxman waded into the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy, opposing plans to construct an Islamic community center a few blocks from the World Trade Center site, the Anti-Defamation League chief was assailed by critics who charged that the ADL was giving license to bigotry and betraying its historic mission “to secure justice and fair treatment to all citizens alike.” A week after initially coming out against the mosque, Foxman announced that the ADL was bowing out of the controversy, but the damage to the group’s reputation had been done.

The problem for the ADL is that there simply isn’t much anti-Semitism of consequence in the United States these days. While anti-Semitism continues to thrive elsewhere in the world and to molder on the fringes of American society, Jews have by now been fully assimilated into the American ruling class and into the mainstream of American life. A mundane event like the recent wedding of Protestant Chelsea Clinton and Jewish Marc Mezvinsky drove this point home. What was notable was not the question “will she convert?” but how little importance anyone attached to the answer; the former first daughter’s choice between Judaism and Christianity seemed as inconsequential as the choice between Episcopalianism and Presbyterianism would have a few decades ago.

At the same time, many of the tropes of classic anti-Semitism have been revived and given new force on the American right. Once again jingoistic politicians and commentators posit a religious conspiracy breeding within Western society, pledging allegiance to an alien power, conspiring with allies at the highest levels of government to overturn the existing order. Because the propagators of these conspiracy theories are not anti-Semitic but militantly pro-Israel, and because their targets are not Jews but Muslims, the ADL and other Jewish groups have had little to say about them. But since the election of President Barack Obama, this Islamophobic discourse has rapidly intensified.

While the political operatives behind the anti-mosque campaign speak the language of nativism and American exceptionalism, their ideology is itself something of a European import. Most of the tropes of the American “anti-jihadists,” as they call themselves, are taken from European models: a “creeping” imposition of sharia, Muslim allegiance to the  ummah rather than to the nation-state, the coming demographic crisis as Muslims outbreed their Judeo-Christian counterparts. In recent years the call-to-arms about the impending Islamicization of Europe has become a well-worn  genre, ranging from more sophisticated treatments like Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe to cruder polemics like Mark Steyn’s America Alone and Bat Ye’or’s Eurabia.

It would be a mistake to seek too precise a correspondence between the new Islamophobia and the old anti-Semitism, which differ in some key respects. Jews have never threatened to become a numerical majority, or even a sizable minority, in any European country, so anxiety about Jewish power naturally gravitated toward the myth of the shadowy elite manipulating the majority from behind the scenes. By contrast, anti-Muslim anxiety has focused on the supposed demographic threat posed by Muslims, in which the dusky hordes overwhelm the West by sheer weight of numbers. (“The sons of Allah breed like rats,” as the late Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci put it.) It may be that in many ways this Islamophobia shares more of the tropes of traditional anti-Catholicism than classic anti-Semitism.

But if the tropes do not always line up, there is some notable continuity in the players involved. One of the most striking stories of recent years has been the realignment of segments of the European far right behind a form of militant support for Israel. Much of the traditional neofascist right remains both anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic, but savvier far-right leaders have realized that by dropping the anti-Semitic elements of their platforms and doubling down on Islamophobia, they can tap into a new base of support from pro-Israel hawks across the Atlantic. Both the British National Party and the Vlaams Belang in Belgium have gone this route, although it remains questionable whether the move away from anti-Semitism is more than skin-deep. (The Vlaams Belang’s predecessor party, for instance, was disbanded after a  controversy concerning Holocaust-denying statements made by one of its top officials.) Equally striking has been the rise of Geert Wilders, the controversial Dutch politician whose Islamophobia, virulent enough to draw the condemnation of even the ADL, has made him a darling of “anti-jihadists” in the United States.

 
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